Captain America: the Shield, the Heroic Age, the Future

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When Spiffy, Goki, and I did our critically acclaimed Favorite Comics of the Decade, there was no doubt that one of the biggest snubs was Ed Brubaker’s Captain America (though we had to draw the line somewhere, and there were so many worthy possibilities). Since Brubaker took over the title in late 2004, he has turned the book into a titan for Marvel, bringing back the un-resurrectable Bucky Barnes, killing Steve Rogers, making Bucky the new Cap, and most recently, writing Steve’s own return.

 Unfortunately, Marvel teamed Brubaker with Bryan Hitch for Captain America: Reborn. Hitch is considered a superstar, and while I think that’s an overstatement, he’s certainly very good. But his talent comes with a major catch: he can’t meet deadlines to save his life, and is nearly the Kevin Smith of artists. Moreover, even with the delays, his art wasn’t as sharp on that miniseries as usual. The result was that the story, which was already far from Brubaker’s best, seemed even weaker after being strung out so long.

But after pausing for more than seven months, the regular Captain America series is back, and Bru looks ready to shine again. Yet some questions were immediately raised by Steve’s return: who would be Captain America? If both, who gets the shield? Who will be on the Avengers, and who will be the bigger star in Cap? Some of those questions have already been answered, some have been hinted at. So here’s a look at the state of Captain America, and where we go from here.

To start with, let’s talk about Bucky. Spiff and I had some fairly epic arguments about Brubaker bringing Bucky back from the dead. I liked that there had been a dead character who had been considered “untouchable” for 40 years, especially in a comic book world where death, as we all know, is a revolving door. Have I changed my mind after reading the great stories that have come out of Bucky’s return? Not entirely. Actually, I feel about the same on it as I do Hal Jordan’s return. Frankly, it would still be my preference to have seen both stay dead, but I don’t mind either’s return after the excellent stories that have resulted. There’s no going back now, so might as well enjoy the potential for brilliance. But I still refer to him as Bucky moreso than James.

With Bucky, Brubaker can tell some Cap stories that wouldn’t work as well with Steve. Buck’s dark past as the Winter Soldier makes him a more complicated hero than Steve. And while I think there’s something to be said for a character like Steve who represents the purest altruism, new doors are opened with Bucky. I mean, he does still carry a gun. Buck’s shades of gray, I think, are a big part of why Bucky Barnes is remaining the main Captain America, even now that Steve has returned.

It all went down about as I expected, with Bucky feeling uncomfortable and wanting to give the title back to Steve, but Steve feeling proud of his former partner and insisting that Buck keep not only the moniker, but also the shield. It was a little predictable, but I still liked it. Steve will stay Cap for Siege, but Brubaker has implied he’ll completely step down from the role after that. We’ll see if he chooses to retire, or continue on with a new costume and name. Personally, I don’t want to see him do the whole “new codename” thing. Clint Barton changing to Ronin for a while was bad enough. There’s plenty of room for two Caps. Hell, maybe even give Steve the old photonic shield; I didn’t mind it nearly as much as most people.

It looks clear that Bucky will remain the focus of Brubaker’s Cap, though Steve will surely show up from time to time. It also appears Buck will be in the relaunched Avengers, alonside Thor, Iron Man, and others, written by Bendis. I think there’s a good chance Steve will be in the very secretive Secret Avengers — it’s unclear, for now, who the silhouettes are in the preview images, but it’s by Brubaker, and the team leader looks like it could be Steve.

So with the status quo established, Brubaker will get back to writing Cap stories, which he’s been doing a great job of for several years now. Right now, he’s in the middle of “Two Americas,” a story featuring Bucky against the 1950s Cap — essentially, it’s Brubaker wrapping up the last loose end from his many-part epic, “The Death of Captain America.” Expect more of a clean start in May with Captain America #606, where Brubaker makes a big move, bringing back …

Baron Zemo. If the Red Skull is Cap’s arch-nemesis, Zemo has usually been #2, even #1a. Baron Heinrich Zemo, of course, was responsible for Cap being frozen and Bucky seemingly dying, then fought Cap and the Avengers before dying himself. His son, Baron Helmut Zemo, is the more prolific villain, at one point destroying the Avengers Mansion in one of the most successful attacks ever on the team (Korvac being the most successful attack ever, of course). As far as we know, Helmut and Bucky have never met, though it’s possible, since Helmut helped his father some in WWII, or may have run into Winter Soldier at some point.

But Zemo has changed much over the past decade +. After forming the Thunderbolts in his most ambitious gambit yet, he went through a gradual but very real metamorphosis. He always intended his schemes to lead back to personal power, yet his heroic impulses became increasingly sincere, perhaps culminating in the Avengers vs. Thunderbolts miniseries, where Zemo jumped in front of an energy blast to save Captain America’s life while nearly sacrificing his own. His motives would still be called into question again, but if nothing else, he was clearly no longer a pure villain.

However, the above link contains an interview with Brubaker on his plans for Zemo, and I must admit, he has me rather concerned. His whole idea is that within the context of the Heroic Age — a return to more black vs. white villains and heroes — Zemo will become “a really bad guy again.” That, I think, it an unfortunate goal, given the character development Zemo went through under Fabian Nicieza. If anything, this is a perfect situation for shades of gray. Bucky is a hero with a lot of darkness within him; Zemo, a former villain who’s done a lot of good. They might still fall on opposite sides of the good/bad division, but both are characters who have walked the line.

I have little doubt that a good story will result regardless, but I’m less confident that it will happen without any collateral damage to preceding Zemo stories. I like Brubaker, but I don’t think he’s one of those rare writers who is practically beyond second guessing.

Nevertheless, I’m excited about Captain America in the Heroic Age. Brubaker doesn’t seem to have any plans to leave the title anytime soon, and by the time his run does finish one day, he’ll probably be regarded as having the best run ever on the book. He seems to have many more stories in store for Bucky, who is still being fleshed out and developed as a character. He uses supporting characters like the Falcon and Black Widow very well. And he’ll have a new regular penciller starting with #606, though it’s someone who’s no stranger to the book: Butch Guice, who did several fill-in issues while Steve Epting was the regular penciller. Guice is a pretty strong artist, so him officially becoming the regular penciller is good for the future of the book: Brubaker has had strong art pairings throughout his time on the title, which has helped his run considerably.

Yet beyond the immediate future, I still can’t help but wonder how long before Steve does make his return to being the Captain America. If Green Lantern and Flash have taught us anything over at DC, it’s that the classic, most famous edition of a character almost always comes back eventually. Normally, I would guess Bucky has a decently long stint (at least five years) ahead of him as top Cap, but that would be ignoring outside forces: there’s a new Captain America movie in the works, and an Avengers film shortly after that, both of which will have Steve Rogers.

When the Cap movie comes out, Marvel is going to be looking to capitalize off its release by getting new readers, as it should. So I really can’t see Marvel not making Steve back into Captain America before the film comes out, which could mean Bucky only has a couple years before his role changes again. He won’t go away, but I could see him taking a new name then, or more likely, staying as a Cap but just not being top dog anymore. But what I can’t imagine is that Steve Rogers won’t be carrying his shield again when his film comes out; it’s just bad marketing, and this is an industry that can’t afford to not capitalize off opportunities like a highly anticipated film(s).

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5 Responses to “Captain America: the Shield, the Heroic Age, the Future”

  1. Gokitalo Says:

    Funny you should mention the photonic shield; I think I saw it in a preview to a New Avengers issue. Could be wrong, though…

    Personally, I don’t want to see him do the whole “new codename” thing. Clint Barton changing to Ronin for a while was bad enough. There’s plenty of room for two Caps.

    Indeed! Although Steve’s no stranger to new costumes and codenames (“Make way for… THE NOMAD!!”)

    You know, there was a Zemo mini-series by Fabian Nicieza called “Zemo: Born Better” that came out after his latest stint on Thunderbolts ended. Brubaker’s brought it up in an interview, so if he makes that mini his springing off point for Zemo, I have a feeling he’ll find a way to bring Zemo back to villainy in a natural way. Thankfully, Bru’s usually pretty thoughtful about these things.

    I agree that it’s very likely Steve will become Captain America again someday, even if it’s years from now. Marvel’s recent actions have shown that while it’s not afraid to take its characters in new and daring directions, it’s also doesn’t have a problem restoring certain “classic” status quos (e.g. the X-Men’s and Spider-Man’s). Like you said, though, there’s no reason we can’t have two Caps running around, since we’ve seen multiple Flashes and Earth Green Lanterns for years. Given James’ growing popularity after becoming Captain America, I wouldn’t be surprised if he reaches near-Wally West status over time.

  2. davidry214 Says:

    Interesting. Until a couple months ago, I would have said that the photonic shield seems better suited for Bucky: it’s newer and more technological, not to mention more offensive capabilities. But for now, I’ll admit that there is something symbolic about carrying the shield that’s important to establishing him as top Cap. But Steve could just as easily go back to it now, maybe passing it to Buck if he does take back the main shield some day.

    I think Born Better might have been Zemo’s last appearance, unless he’s shown back up in Thunderbolts. But even that didn’t really make him a villain, just an opportunist. Bru did say he’d try to find a way to make Zemo into a bad guy “within the context of his history” (or something like that), but I still can’t help but feel like this is just a creator taking a character in a different direction, not because it’s a natural growth for the character, but because the creator feels more comfortable with the way things used to be. But like I said, Brubaker is a good writer, so the story will surely be enjoyable, regardless of my own preferences.

    Well like I said, the movie could (and likely will) mean it’s just a year and half to two years before Steve takes over. So yet another reason for Steve to not change name and costume right now. Get people used to the idea of two Caps now, and Bucky doesn’t have to get screwed over later by marketing pressures. And Buck’s costume is different enough that there shouldn’t be too much confusion, either.

  3. spiffyithaca Says:

    Good stuff AA. While I never really finished The Death of Captain America (some turtles live short lives than that storyline), the beginning and middle was some of the best comic writing I had ever seen, and paired with the incredible Epting and able replacement Guice (Luke Ross meh), it was a potent combination that lightened up even the darkest of trips to the toilet.

    Do I want to read the ending of it? Not really, based on AA’s reaction and the critical reaction to the Reborn mini series. It was seemingly inevitable for Steve Rogers to return, but clearly it was bungled. For me, I would’ve liked to see Bucky/James/New Cap/Winter Soldier/Black Widow Fucker as the only Captain America for a little longer, and then you could time Steve Rogers return CLOSER to the movie’s premiere. Of course, that could be confusing to new readers, but the magnitude of the event paired with the movie seems like a bonanza to me. And it would’ve let Bucky breathe easy a bit longer and develop further as Cap.

    Honestly, and this might be blasphemy, while I love Captain America, because Brubaker’s Captain America is almost ALL of the Captain America I’ve ever read, I find Bucky a far more compelling character and more interesting Cap (not the better one, obviously). But that said, I still cried when Steve died, and I’m sure would’ve been shaken up with his return, even if I’m mad that it happened so soon.

    But, in terms of what happens next, I think Marvel SHOULD and will go with two Captain America’s for awhile especially in time for the movie. Who gets what shield? I don’t give a shit. I just want to see Bucky and Steve work together like the old days. That would make me mucho happy.

  4. davidry214 Says:

    Actually, the end of “The Death of Captain America” is very worth reading. Really good stuff, albeit slightly predictable. Bru also followed it up with another dark trip to James’ past and a good story of Buck and Namor teaming up. But then they halted the book for Reborn, which was quite bungled.

    Like you said, it would have made a lot more sense to wait until closer to the movie to bring Steve back. They could have timed it so the return so it’d be done a few months before the movie came out, perhaps enough to re-establish a status quo that wouldn’t be too confusing to movie viewers.

    I understand your preference for Bucky over Steve, and I alluded to some of that as well in discussing how his shades of gray open up new areas for stories. He’s certainly a rounder character, on the whole, but I like Steve’s iconic nature.

    You’re a fool to not care about who gets what shield.

  5. gokitalo Says:

    While I never really finished The Death of Captain America (some turtles live short[er] lives than that storyline)

    Man, can you imagine how many short-lived turtles died while Ultimates 2 was coming out? Or Spider-Man/Black Cat? Just think of all the turtles who may never live to see the next issue of Daredevil/Bullseye: The Target. Actually, maybe that’ll get Kevin Smith to finish it. “Do it, Kevin. Do it for the turtles.”

    “I would’ve liked to see Bucky/James/New Cap/Winter Soldier/Black Widow Fucker”

    Now THERE’s a new codename!

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