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Mom. Apple pie. Baseball. Fireworks. What’s more American than these? “Lots of things, dummy; fireworks are Chinese,” you might say. And you’d be right. But what’s more American than appropriating things from other cultures and claiming they’re your own? Only one thing I can think of… and that’s Captain America.
Cap’s been punching Hitler in the face and standing up for the little guy since the 1940s. But you’re not here for a history lesson; at least not one from that far back. No, you’ve read more than your share of Captain America, spending a goodly portion of your childhood following the adventures of super-soldier Steve Rogers and his sidekick Bucky Barnes, as well as tracking his exploits with the Avengers. Sadly, thwarting the Red Skull and Baron Zemo eventually took a backseat, first to keg parties and finals, and later to wives and 50-hour work weeks. You were lost, and might have been forever, had Marvel not jogged your memory with the production of Captain America: The First Avenger.
Now you’re jittery with barely contained excitement for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But while you were likely very familiar with the fairly stock elements of the origin story the first movie provided, who is this Winter Soldier guy? Why is he after Cap? What’s with that cool metal arm? Ignore those side-eyes from your significant other! Who cares if your co-workers look at you funny? Let’s head to the comic shop!
Brubaker and the Captain
Let me introduce you, my new friends, to one of my very favorite writers… Mr. Ed Brubaker. Winner of 3 Eisner awards and 2 Harvey awards for Best Writer, he is responsible for the creation of the character of the Winter Soldier, a character who fundamentally redefines Cap’s history in ways only massive spoilers can say. Brubaker guided Captain America through the latter half of the 2000s, pitting him against Iron Man in Marvel’s Civil War, then both killing and resurrecting him in the Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America and Reborn story lines, respectively. His contributions to Cap canon are widely regarded as some of the finest story arcs in the character’s history.
The earmark of Brubaker’s work is a gritty film noir realism which he uses to cut to the core of his characters, baring their hearts by the light of their flaws and weaknesses. His work on Captain America often centers on Cap’s growing unease with the way his once beloved government now conducts itself. The resulting mental toll leaves a once steadfast and stoic symbol often unsure of what he now stands for. This is brought to the fore in Marvel’s Civil War crossover event, when Cap finds himself on the opposite side of the fence, fighting against his government for American superheroes’ right to privacy.
Brubaker and Daredevil
Brubaker’s awards weren’t solely based on his Captain America work, though. In addition to a long stint on Catwoman, and several shorter Batman stories, he has a very well-regarded run on Daredevil to his credit. He took over after a multiple award-winning run by the terribly talented Brian Michael Bendis, and the jury’s still out as to who did the better job. Brubaker takes over with Matt Murdock in prison, and the setup plays right into his hands, with Matt in close quarters with the lowest lowlifes to ever walk the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When further tragedy befalls a close friend, does the Man Without Fear finally go over the edge?
While Brubaker’s mainstream work has rightfully been award-winning, it is when he is freed from the shackles of canon that his talent truly shines. It also helps when he brings artist Sean Phillips along for the ride. Phillips possesses a raw drawing style that complements Brubaker’s writing perfectly. These two may be the single-most consistently brilliant duo working in comics today.
There is certainly no one better at producing down and dirty crime capers, as evidenced by their amazing Criminal series, published under Marvel’s “adult readers” Icon imprint. Volume one, entitled Coward, follows Leo, a top-notch heist man with a knack for keeping himself both alive and out of jail. When a crooked cop presents a job that seems too-good-to-be-true, it puts Leo’s vaunted survival skills to the test. Brubaker is in rare form here, deep-diving into his characters, ensuring you see the corruption in every hero, and the heart in every villain. He deftly builds a web of conflicting motivations and then unravels it in a hail of bullets. It’s a grade A crime story, and if you liked that, there are 5 more volumes, each centering on different characters, only loosely connected by the background of the same city. Criminal just begs for a film adaptation. It would be brilliant as a sort of crime fiction Twilight Zone-like series on a risk-taking network like HBO or AMC, though I feel it might require the BBC’s Sherlock hour-and-a-half format to be done justice.
Sleeper and Incognito
Straight crime noir not enough for you? Need some superpowers to liven it up a bit? Ed and Sean have not one, but two titles to whet your appetite.
Sleeper is built off of Alan Moore’s run on WildC.A.T.S., for DC’s Wildstorm imprint. It places superpowered secret agent Holden Carver deep undercover in a villanous organization. A very heavy book, Sleeper deals with the conflict that arises in Carver having to perform heinous deeds in the name of keeping his cover intact. As his relationships with the other villains become more real to him than the life he left behind, and the lines between good and evil blur, will Carver be changed forever?
In an almost perfect 180 from Sleeper, Incognito tells the tale of Zack Overkill, a career supervillain who, in the midst of a double-cross by his employers, winds up defecting to a witness protection program. As a requirement of the program, he is forced to take drugs that negate his superpowers and is introduced into a sedate, boring existence in a cubicle farm. When the boredom wears thin, Zack starts experimenting with drugs, soon realizing that they interfere with the government drugs, giving him his power back. He begins to secretly perform acts of vigilantism, which eventually come to the attention of his previous employer, and then the fun starts. 20th Century Fox has optioned the movie rights for this title, and I cannot wait to see what gets done with it.
You like your pulp crime with a dash of horror, you say? (Well, I do.) In what should be no surprise at this point, the inimitable duo of Brubaker and Phillips have something for you there, as well. Fatale relates the woes of the beautiful Josephine, a classic pulp novel femme fatale who has been given the gift/curse of immortality, coupled with an almost complete control over any man she wishes. The sprawling story bounces all over history, with the initial plot lines occurring in, alternately, the 1950s and 1970s, while later stories venture to places as disparate as the American Wild West and 13th century France. The story deals with Josephine and the men she encounters and exploits in the course of both pursuing and being pursued by an ancient pseudo-Lovecraftian cult, which has to date an unrevealed connection to why she has these powers in the first place. One of my five favorite titles currently being produced, it is brilliant in its portrayal of both the melancholy and manipulative Josephine, and the ranks of despairing men who are driven to protect and serve her by maddening forces that they cannot comprehend.
On the Horizon
As if he could feel me typing out this article, Brubaker recently announced the October release of his next project. Velvet, a Cold War spy thriller sans superhumans, is a collaboration with his longtime Captain America artist, Steve Epting. Taking his enjoyment of writing stories for Black Widow during his time on Captain America to the next level, Brubaker purports to put a spin on the classic super spy tale by introducing a Moneypenny-like character who, though seemingly only a “girl Friday”, is actually a highly talented operative in her own right.
You won’t have to convince me to purchase this title; or anything else this man takes the time to put on paper, for that matter. Nor should you. Simply no one current writer is as adept at dragging you into the heart of darkness and out the other side as Ed Brubaker. If you’re willing to take that journey, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Need to scratch that itch? Here’s where you can start:
- Captain America: Winter Soldier
- Daredevil – by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark: Book 1
- Criminal: Coward
- Sleeper: Season 1
- Fatale: Death Chases Me