The Ed Brubaker "Captain America" run inches towards finish with an issue that will be of interest only to the fans who have stuck with the writer for all this time. Cullen Bunn continues to co-write, as Scott Eaton provides the visuals for another tiring issue in the much maligned "New World Orders" arc. This installment begins at a heavy handed attempt at relevancy, linking the causes of social unrest to the media manipulation.
Beyond the obvious CNN substitute, the script repeatedly uses the term "couch potato" to refer to the average American affected by terrorist manipulation. The message is somewhat muddled by the genre requirement science fiction technology, but it carries through in a way that climaxes the ideological underpinnings of the relaunched title.
Brubaker's latest cycle of stories have tried to deal more directly with the always tenuous grasp at relevancy, and "New world orders" certainly delivers on the premise of Steve's one time allies challenging him where it hurts the most. The problem is that Bunn presents such a dry, super-serious script that it feels a slog to get through. Diamondback's moment of flirtation aside, the issue is weighted down by a ponderous dialogue, going over many of the points made over the previous issues.
When the heroes finally decide to confront the threat, the co-writers split them into three teams, with most of them only starting to begin their assault when the story comes to a halt. Despite the fact that the bulk of the fighting is set to take place next issue, there is a clear sense that the Sharon Carter sequence has progressed to a point where Cap and Falcon will have to quickly deal away with their share of the threats and help save Agent 13 from the clutches of the enemies.
At this point, it's clear that the inclusion of Baron Zemo II was largely unwarranted. He serves as a secondary villain in this issue, but even as such he takes the focus away from Codename Bravo and Queen Hydra, that have lingered in the shadows since the inaugural arc of the relaunched title. The latter has particularly been slighted by Brubaker's retreat from the title, as the writer is effectively leaving the title before giving her any kind of definition.
It will be interesting to see how Brubaker eventually wrap ups the loose ends in his remaining two issues, but the feeling remains that there is little left of the strength of the writer's initial stories. The Steve Epting illustrated issues were very ambitious and well executed, standing in stark contrast with the above average fare that is on display here. It's not to say that Scott Eaton is a lesser artist, but that he's in a position where he's contracted to illustrate the tail end of a well defined run, which has already been defined by a host of artists with complementary visual styles.
Forced to follow the established character redesigns and the visual style that is contrary to his own caricatural aesthetic, it's no wonder that even the artist is finding little inspiration in the storyline.
The first chapter of Ed Brubaker's last arc on the title begins by properly following up on the last issue's cliffhanger. The scene is protracted but expertly executed, in the writer's typical methodical manner. Butch Guice, the returning artist adds an experimental dimension to the proceedings, as his art looks like a cross between Jim ("Nick Fury") Steranko and Jim ("Modesty Blaise") Holdaway.
Bettie Breitweiser colors the pages in a washed out look, in keeping with the tense and somber mood pervading the issue. The layouts are ambitious but never confusing, with Guice rendering these larger than life super-spy characters in a way that is energetic, but completely in tune with the script. Most importantly, the artistic team manages to execute a flashback sequence in a very natural way, without resorting to some sort of unwieldy formal effect.
The series' accelerated schedule helps with the seeming lack of forward momentum, resulting in an issue that seems perfectly content to provide the reader with all of the necessary facts and exposition needed to follow the chase after Black Widow. Brubaker confirmed exit from the title adds gravitas to the death of a supporting cast member, even if the character wasn't anywhere as developed as the two leads.
Guice's subtly redesigns Leo, but the character is recognizable even with the addition of a longer hair. The innovative artist renders some of the Avengers in his own, bulky and energetic style, but the writer's thankfully chooses the characters with a degree of personal history with Natasha. It's hard to think that these late additions are going to seriously derail the departing writer in finishing his story on his own terms.
Despite a somewhat unwieldy start, "Winter Soldier" has proven to be a book that exemplifies Brubaker at his genre best, working with talented creators that are not afraid to push their boundaries. Most importantly, he has managed to craft a run that still makes sense despite his early exit from the series, with this last story shaping up to be as strong as any Brubaker has told with the character.