Review: 'The Winter Soldier' vol. 4 reminds that it's better to have loved and lost

A comic review article by: Taylor Lilley

Strange, to write with affection about a cancelled series. Most comic readers have been denied a few favourite ongoings by whatever bean-counting demiurge makes such decisions. Most of us have known the ensuing stages of grief.

“The readers will save it, like they did with Spider-Girl. Save Mayday!”

“This blows! How is that book still going, but my favourite gets the can? Aargh!”

“If more people would just try it, they’d love it, right? I’ll go write a rave review on my blog!”

“Pssh. Money talks. There’s no room for art anymore.”

“I’m re-reading the whole run, right now, and whatever those guys do next, I will buy the crap out of it!”

Something like that?

Last week saw the release of Winter Soldier Volume 4: The Electric Ghost, by Jason Latour and Nic Klein. Otherwise known as “the issues after Brubaker”. That may not mean so much today, when accelerated shipping means we’re 17 pre-NOW! years into Rick Remender’s Dimension Z extravaganza, and Ed’s making a creator-owned killing from dangerous women, again (because we all read Sleeper just as much for Miss Misery as for Holden, didn’t we?). But back in the heady days of February 2013, Brubaker’s departure from the Cap family of books was a big deal. The man who made the Captain America comic matter again, turned it into an 80,000 sales a month book, killed Cap and kept those sales, then brought him back and just carried on selling… was gone.

I was relieved. After collecting the entire Brubaker run, even into the middle of ill-fated volume 7 (when Dennis Dunphy’s fate broke me), I had felt the moment pass. Cap had returned, inevitably. Bucky had been killed again, and revived again, with none of the panache of The Winter Soldier arc. Lark and Epting had been replaced by McNiven and Zircher. When I opened an early issue of Winter Soldier and saw a Butch Guice Gorilla holding a huge machine gun, I knew we had to part.

Change was needed, fresh blood and the new creative team were favourites of mine. Jason Latour had made an impression on me first with Wolverine #309, and then in person when I lucked into an evening with him and Ivan Brandon, talking comics, toilets, and Batman. Nic Klein I remembered from a 2009 Brandon joint called Viking, where he’d made Norse crime drama beautiful, but he’d also raised eyebrows (and expectations) in the 2012 Image mini Dancer. This was that rare occasion where a creative team you like are announced for a character you care about.

Yes, care about. Brubaker earned his veneration at Marvel in many ways, but Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier, is perhaps the clearest example of Ed’s good work.

So, “Who the hell is Bucky?”

Oh Bucky?

Fair question. Before Brubaker, James “Bucky” Barnes was a good kid who grew up on army bases with little family to speak of, stumbled upon Captain America’s real identity (which just happened to be that of his friend, Steve Rogers), and embarked on the Golden Age teenage dream. So, in short, a standard mid-century sidekick, along for the ride. After Brubaker?

Plucked from the grave, Bucky was redrawn as a born soldier and a made killer. In Brubaker’s take, this sidekick’s worth lay not in being the light to Cap’s shadow, but the shadow to his light. Sure, he’d kept his nose clean, been Camp LeHigh’s “kid brother”, and given the isolated Super-Soldier what he needed most, a true friend. As Bucky said, “Sometimes I think if you didn’t have me, there wouldn’t be a single person in the world who truly understood you”.

And yet there was “a darker truth underneath”, one that Cap understood. Steve Rogers got to be the one in a million guy, the Hail Mary, the inspirational newsreel Nazi-puncher, always paying lip-service to the grunts who fought and died alongside him, but Bucky had a different weight on his shoulders.

                “Bucky did the things I couldn’t. I was the icon. I wore the flag… But while I gave speeches to the troops in the trenches… He was doing what he’d been trained to do… and he was highly trained.”

What he’d been trained to do, by the tender age of 16, no less, was kill with ruthless efficiency. As Army brass said to Steve shortly before introducing the pair, “if he gets his hands a little dirtier than most soldiers when no one’s looking… Well that’ll be our secret”. Bucky had nothing but the army, and the army gave him one good buddy and a bunch of bad people to end. Hold on to the terms of that deal, humanity for purpose, it’ll come up later. This was only the start of Brubaker’s revisions.

Much as his young friend’s dark path and violent end must have haunted the thawed out Steve Rogers, Winter Soldier had by that point been haunting S.H.I.E.L.D. for years.

A “cold war myth”, a “twisted joke on the Americans”, Bucky was fished from the ocean an immaculately preserved corpse, and revived (thanks to the freshness of good old Arctic ice) as a lethal one-armed amnesiac. The Red Room boys did the rest, building a brainwashed bionic badass, a ghost who would spend the next several decades rotating in and out of cryo-stasis for high-stakes deployments as a Soviet assassin. Yet despite repeated reprogramming, Bucky seemed to retain a “deeply buried sense of who he was, or at least of what kind of person he was”. Hence the cycle of freezing and head-shrinking. Out in the field too long, Bucky became erratic, seeking out old haunts without knowing why.

So when Cap confronted Winter Soldier with the Cosmic Cube, and commanded him “Remember who you are”, there was enough of Bucky left to follow the order. Enough, too, to be sundered by the horror of what he had become.

Even before the relationship with Black Widow, the dirty work with Nick Fury in the 616’s tightest corners, and the big brass balls shown by donning the uniform and daring to wield the shield his way, even before all that was to come, this was a character I rooted and feared for. It was out of respect for all this good work that I tuned in despite myself for Winter Soldier #14, Brubaker’s savage farewell. A regrettably high-profile (for a man supposed to have died at the hands of Sin in Fear Itself) team-up with Cap, Fury, and Wolverine to save a brainwashed Black Widow from a Red Room mentor was successful, except that Black Widow was left with no memory of Bucky, or their relationship together. The dead man had lost his love.

It was a cruel move, but the right one, throwing Bucky back on himself without support or succor, stripping him down to his essence once more. Sensibly, Latour/Klein took the opportunity to open with some fresh scenery. Space. A glamorous (but not exactly sexy), floating woman dispatching S.H.I.E.L.D. Super-Seals with derision, to better focus on her target. The Winter Soldier. Who was, surely as a means of emotional displacement, embarked anew on the Croatian leg of his apology tour, where the crowd was tough but the bar was stocked. This was not a revolutionary beginning, but already intelligence and dedication were present. The Gamma-irradiated Super-Seals, for instance, are a nice touch, showing knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D. go-to soldier hacks, and yet without the suspension-of-disbelief-shattering consequence of, say, Nick Spencer’s weaponised healing factor in Secret Avengers. It makes sense that S.H.I.E.L.D. would use gamma tech on their men, they’ve been trying to perfect it for years. It does not make sense that they would weaponise a healing factor, because if they could weaponise it, they could surely repurpose it to help people rather than dramatically but harmlessly incapacitate them? Latour knew his audience, his players, and his limits.

Klein, similarly, retained the heavy espionage inks and classical outline of his players’ faces that regular artist Butch Guice had made mainstays of. But he was unafraid of expressive colouring, blasting the credits page with a 4 by 2 panel grid full of yellow and red action, action that made sense, by the way, not the familiar mid-air contortions and arching haymakers Guice had often opted for. This fighting was hard work and glamour-free, a brief and dirty interlude for Bucky between noble intentions and the drinks they necessitated. And it was on the credits page, so we understood as clear as day that the action was not the point. The point was the man in the action, and the hard work and guts it took for him to keep trudging toward what was right.

So, of course Nick Fury would be the person to set Bucky on a better path. Coming out of Brubaker’s run Bucky had much more in common with Fury than with Cap, and this particular issue (#15) marked the paradigm shift from Bucky as sidekick gone solo, to Winter Soldier as his own man. There is no equal relationship to be had with Captain America, especially for mere mortals. Whereas, master manipulator though he might be, Fury did what Cap never could, which was to point Bucky in the right direction and leave him to follow his gut, alone. Within that enabling process, Latour/Klein also gifted us a slick nod to Fury’s off-board status in the 616, replaced as he then was by Samuel L Jackson his younger incarnation, showing him on a bleak pier, fishing for sharks with a hook and reel while schooling Maria Hill on how the game is played. The underlying humour of these interactions was part of what Winter Soldier had been lacking, a welcome change from yet another gathering of frowny-faced hero-figures in high-tech surrounds, and just as the scenery felt lived in, the dialogue read like the hangman humour of those in nobility’s noose.

Inversions abounded, as Bucky acquired a sidekick of his own, a double agent even more grizzled than Fury, going by “Joebards” and packing a HYDRA knuckleduster. Amply fulfilling his sidekick’s duty of levity, Joebards’ humour also heightened the situation, impossible as it was to classify. He was effective comic relief, sure, but you could never be sure wasn’t working an antic disposition to throw Bucky off-guard. You see, Bucky had robbed this old sidekick of his one true love, assassinating her on the same mission that created this storyline’s villain, the glamorous floating woman, Tesla Tarasova. The Electric Ghost.

Incestuously, Latour wove his players together into a thick rope of revolt. Joebards kicked against years of dutiful brinkmanship, Bucky against his legacy of murder, and Tesla against… well. Tesla, orphaned by the Winter Soldier, had been taken to “The Orphanage” with many other Cold War unfortunates, raised to be a weapon, and used by her superiors over and over until she deviated from their orders out of something like love, and was abandoned. Left with nothing. Nothing save her assassinated Father’s cosmic ray research, which she advanced considerably. She presented here as a near-cosmic being, but was in fact only a couple of rays beyond Bucky, a by-product of grander plans grown proficient at the dirtiest of work, and hateful of her commanders. With the power of the Tarasova Tesseract, she would end S.H.I.E.L.D., and A.I.M. and HYDRA too, end all the acronyms whose conflicts had been both ruin and upbringing. Tesla was a woman without love, whose power all but eliminated the need to touch, seeking the destruction of war.

If all these features of the Latour/Klein run sound familiar, it’s because they were rooted in the canon of the Winter Soldier. The dangerous woman who fights to make others safe. The veteran rendered only partially trustworthy by sheer longevity. The hero tasked with foiling a plot whose reasons mirror his creation, pursuing his humanity by opposing those opposed to inhumanity. These guys picked the motifs from Brubaker’s legacy and updated them with humour and bite. Klein made flashbacks exercises in expressionistic storytelling, rather than cues for sepia. Latour spun poetry without cluttering the page, dismissing “every wannabe within HYDRA” as “Countless mouths, all looking to feed on the same tail”. Klein created colour palettes for each of the story’s primary settings, in preparation for a final issue quantum-coaster through them all, Bucky and Tesla careening between bodies and faces as they fought for their strengths to be recognised.

                “You can’t fix the past, Tesla. You can only search for the strength to change the future.

But only a little over 17,000 readers paid for a copy of this finale. And that bugs me.

Their first issue lost fewer readers than the last two Brubaker issues did, but it was obvious that their names were not enough to pull people in, especially coming onto a title after it’s (to all intents and purposes) creator. With the dreadful predictability of the comics-buying population, completists who’d kept Winter Soldier on their pull list despite a total lack of enjoyment took this as a jumping-off point, their Brubaker runs awaiting future CGCs. One could even speculate that Brubaker’s waning passion for the book rubbed off on the audience, but that verges of reading the minds of creators, and there are no crystal balls here.

I put the book in people’s hands, joked when they told me they were dropping it, warned them they were missing out, and everyone I talked into trying the comic loved it. Silky sales skills aside, perhaps the problem was that the series needed to be reframed? As long as Brubaker and Guice were running the show, you knew that every issue you would get a couple of Kirby lifts, some sexy Black Widow moments, and BIG. SCREEN. ACTION. With explosions and such. Latour and Klein were too busy telling a story, working up layers, and having fun with the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. to worry about homage, Black Widow booty, and flying kicks. They were too invested in Bucky, perhaps, had too much faith in his ability to stand alone without Cap to guide his hand? Or maybe they were too old school, too willing to show grey hairs and wrinkles on the page, to admit the power of previous generations in this world at the expense of younger heads? Maybe they had too much fun?

Yeah, fun. This book wanted to have it all. HYDRA knucks and military-industrial metaphor. Tough guys calling each other “Nancy” and last kisses stolen from time. Islands full of killer kids and … well actually that was both funny and serious. The point stands. Brubaker rarely tried to make us laugh. He didn’t strive for giggles. He was writing spy books with wingheaded super-soldiers and adamantium shields that bounce back. If you had too much of a sense of humour about that, you’d never pull it off, but more importantly, readers wouldn’t know whether you’d made the joke, or were the joke. Maybe Latour/Klein failed to let the readers know that it was okay to giggle and think deeply in the same 15 minute reading experience.

What’s done is done, but Winter Soldier: The Electric Ghost is the perfect example of the perils of a Marvel mid-list book. Sales-based expectations are low enough to allow for some experimentation, a little monkeying around. Often the readership on these books is die-hard, devoted to the title character and wanting to like what gets made. The circumstances for magic are there, awaiting the rabbit and hat. But looming above, much like that shitty Galactus from that even shittier Fantastic Four movie, is that demiurge we started with, who at any minute may spy a higher circulation opportunity for your lead, formulate a more profitable redistribution of corporate resources, or just flat out can you.

Latour and Klein fell in love with this book, and got their hearts broken. If you’ve the strength within you, I urge you to follow their lead. Truly, it’s better to have loved and lost.

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