Thursday, November 24, 2011

Captain America and Bucky #622

As it currently stands, Marvel is in a very strange place when it comes to publishing Captain America. With the advent of Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger" movie, the main title has effectively been renumbered to appeal to potential new readers, and hew closer to the film's continuity, albeit still written by Ed ("Criminal", "Gotham Central") Brubaker, who has helmed the title since 2004. Meanwhile, the original numbering was carried over to make a new ongoing title, co-written by Brubaker, and titled "Captain America & Bucky". Seemingly little more then a spin-off book set in the past and somewhat similar in concept to "Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty", it was to be co-written by Mark ("Torso", "Manhunter") Andreyko and drawn by Chris ("Thor - The Mighty Avenger") Samnee, spotlighting the role Bucky has played in the Marvel universe - from the point of view of Brubaker's somewhat edgier and more grounded interpretation. There was a brief period of confusion pertaining to Bucky's status when it comes to the role he played in the "Fear itself" crossover, but now that Marvel have seen their summer event to its conclusion, it became clear that "Captain America" will be spinning off another new title, that of the long in development "Winter soldier", focused on Bucky's current adventures.

Taking all this into account, and seeing that with the end of the original five part arc of "Captain America and Bucky" Andreyko and Samnee are already replaced with new talent, it seems unlikely that Marvel will be keeping the book around for too long. Yet, for all of the original arc's focus in providing some continuity to the many retcons that make up Bucky's current continuity, it can be said that Andreyko's narration is the chief link that connects the five stories, all set at different points in Bucky's career as Captain America's sidekick. It can be hard to infer to what extent Brubaker has worked on the title (and will continue to work with the new co-writer), it can safely be said that his role must have been in extending the context of his earliest issues of the title, and probably co-plotting the books with Andreyko, who seems to be in charge with the actual dialogue and breaking the script down to panel descriptions.

In any event, ever since the original Joe Simon and Jack Kirby original issues of the title, Bucky's role has been retconned. First it was Stan Lee that dismissed with the character in order to provide the reintroduced Captain America with a somewhat more poignant origin, and paving the way for Brubaker's eventual return of James Barnes as a much more jaded and realistic character (in the context of the Marvel universe). This is not to say that Bucky was entirely missing from since the early days of Silver Age, as Lee's Marvel successor, editor and writer Roy Thomas featured the character in his "Invaders" ongoing series, which #622 of "Captain America and Bucky" draws back on, highlighting the role of a non-superpowered combatant in a World War 2 allied commando unit.

And while flashback scenes featuring teenage Bucky ruthlessly paving the way threw German forces featured quite heavily in Brubaker's early issues, they were still in service of setting up the wider story including Red Skull and his allies, that is nowhere to be seen in this stand alone issue. As a rule, today's Marvel is very conscious of providing new readers with accessible stories wherever possible, making "Captain America and Bucky" completely accessible to a reader that has a basic understanding of the Captain America concept, therefore eventually making an ideal trade paperback to go with the purchase of the DVD, if historically the launch of a new ongoing title to coincide with the film mostly works on carrying over the existing audience that has likewise been hyped with the attention the character has enjoyed this year.

In addition to a full page recap recapping the previous two issues, Andreyko goes on to spend three of the story's twenty pages summing up the Invaders by using a familiar new reel presentation further elaborated by Bucky's narration. This kind of heavy exposition somewhat slows down the story, as it's naive to believe that many of the readers will find it useful, yet it fulfills the aforementioned role of introducing the central players in the story that could hardly be considered one without it. Samnee struggles a bit to integrate the different designs into functional layouts, as each of the characters feels pasted in from a different image, with the prologue's gray tones actually sapping some of the energy and flow of the drawings.

 Thankfully, once Bettie Breitweiser comes to support Samnee's inks with a carefully chosen palette, most of the clarity problems disappear. Yet, Brubaker and Andreyko's decision to cut the provide a lengthy flashback just two pages into the actual story contributes to the jumpy feeling of the narrative, as the reader comes to doubt that Bucky's telling a story within a story won't entirely add up to a fulfilling reading experience. Thankfully, any doubt is quickly assailed as the flashback to three weeks earlier proves integral to the theme of the story despite consisting mainly of a well coreographed fight scene. By the time the conflict between Bucky and Namor is established, the reader has already seen these heroes launching twice into battle, yet the real suspense is saved for the story's third act.

What animates these typical genre scenes then is Samnee's art, depicting actual human beings with believable and even understated emotion. Invaders are by the definition garish characters, as they were grouped together years after their debut, having been designed by different artists to star in a variety of different Golden Age comic books, thus their grouping always seems random and visually contradictory. That Samnee manages to depict them as something resembling the team, aided by Breitweiser's blues, reds and greens, and actually have them seem just fantastic enough to provoke Bucky's response, and yet still somewhat fit in with the actual soldiers in Poland, speaks of his talent and the level of profession applied to what is little more then an origin mini-series.

And if the new reader picks up on Brubaker and Andreyko's "Captain America and Bucky" arc before getting to read the Simon/Kirby originals, or any of the related material, it can hardly be said that they are getting a workmanlike effort, slap dashed to fulfill a small niche in the bloated market. Seeing Namor's sneer and Captain America acting almost completely with his steel chin, makes clear the intelligence and subtlety behind the project. More importantly, Bucky comes over as a completely realized character, one moment seeming like a hurt child, and the other jumping into fray with the overjoyed boy's face, while all the while maintaining the unease and genuine surprise that comes with his lack of experience, and the plain unreality of coming of age in a grisly conflict, further complicated by the addition of superpowered soldiers.

Again, it's the attention paid to the details, such as Toro flying Bucky into action (with the Human Torch's sidekick's arms being the only part of his body that is not on fire), or the great care taken to ensure that Captain America's shield is highlighted just enough making the reader both surprised and delighted when it acts a turning point in the climatic battle. Bucky's bravery and respect for his mentor turn out as adequate substitution for his lack of super powers, but getting to such a common sense morale ending could easily have inspired a lesser story.

Where Andreyko and Samnee actually make the set piece worth reading is in their craft and commitment to the assignment. After all of the exposition and set up, actually reading the final eleven pages of the story feels flawless in execution and pacing. Gone are the expositions and character development expressed in nuanced dialogue, at the face replaced by a typical "Hellboy"-like Nazi castle with a customary mad scientist. Seeing the movie-inspired dr. Arnim Zola redesign could tip off readers that they are potentially reading a restrained, designed for children episode that merely clashes the notable characters into a familiar cliche, but Andreyko and Samnee are poised to prove more ambitious than that.

For a start, Zola's plan perfectly dovetails into Bucky's insecurities based around his place on the team, while at the same time providing him for a clear goal by which to prove himself. And while the Ubermensch he sets off against seems once again purposefully generic, designed to instantly recall Steve Rogers and proceed to establish himself as a physical threat for Bucky, the clever use of his powers, countered by Bucky's smart thinking leads to a very satisfying action sequence, that makes the only possible ending feel both earned and poignant.

Fitting for a story focused on James, even Captain America's contribution to Zola's defeat doesn't steal the scene, and merely continues their relationship in a believable way. Rogers is a stronger and more experienced fighter, and in this way he helps Bucky's plan, but doesn't work to undermine the closure Bucky's dialogue with Namor brings to the story.

Simply put, in Andreyko and Samnee's hands (and no doubt under close supervision and collaboration with Ed Brubaker) "Captain America and Bucky" was a very adequate read that justified the reader's trust in the quality behind Marvel's longstanding direction of Captain America. #622 serves as a prime example of this, as it recalls the impact of Mike Mignola's "BPRD" and assorted art centered Hellboy spin-off titles, that provide very fulfilling genre reads cognizant of the importance that pacing and careful attention paid to details can lend to a short story that substitutes shocking reversals of the status quo for commendable style, endearing the reader with classical comics entertainment.

Bucky's adventure with the Invaders leads to him coming to terms with the worst horrors of war in the very next issue, yet #622 shouldn't be looked down for it's lack of focus on Holocaust and the unspeakable cruelties committed by the Axis. In a weird way, "Captain America" had a genuine impression on the mind of American boys during the war, making for recalibration of real world events into this issue's pulpy fantastic completely justified, especially when produced with as much professionalism as displayed by Brubaker, Andreyko and Samnee.

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