Captain America is an icon to millions of people, the figurehead of an entire nation’s values and virtues, a bastion of hope, bravery, honesty and heroism; a character who has been around so long that he once, lest we forget, punched Hitler in the mouth. So, in what some might describe as a bold move, one day not so long ago, writer Ed Brubaker killed him.
To be specific, he had him shot on the steps of a courthouse, then replaced him with his long lost sidekick, James Bucky Barnes, who hadn’t been seen since he was blown into several hundred pieces over the Atlantic. However, Bucky survived, only to be captured (and thoroughly brainwashed) by the Russians. Subsequently, they made him work for many years under the guise of the mercenary Winter Soldier, until his rediscovery and rehabilitation courtesy of Steve Rogers. If you combine all these elements with a plot, years in the making, to overthrow the US government by the dastardly Red Skull, then you have one of the most talked about and exciting storylines in modern mainstream comics.
So what do you do next?
The Man With No Face was originally released as single issues in two distinct and yet firmly connected plot arcs, which properly introduce the new Captain America and more importantly, his first big adventure. Ill at ease with this new role, Bucky is thrown in at the deep end as villains from Steve Roger’s past begin to cause trouble, kicking off with an appearance from Batroc The Leaper. Previously seen as a rather ludicrous figure, Brubaker brings him back in these pages as a fully formed villain, who’s camp attire and moustache twirling belie darker motives.
Batroc has been tasked with stealing a top-secret item from the UN by a literally shadowy figure from Bucky’s past, the titular and terrifying, Man With No Face. Together, they wreak a trail of destruction, whist Bucky desperately hunts to discover exactly what is so important to these men and their mysterious puppet master, Professor Zhang-Chin. This hunt for the truth will lead Bucky to a reunion with old Invaders team-mate and underwater grump Namor, taking them from the US to a secret lab, deep within the Republic of China, where unspeakable acts are being committed on old comrades, all in the name of global decimation.
With the Death Of Captain America storyline now complete, one could be forgiven for thinking that Brubaker’s creative spark might disappear, or that, in a cynical move, Marvel might want to give readers a place-holder between major story arcs, until Steve Rogers’ return in the upcoming and much-hyped Reborn. Instead, The Man With No Face deepens our understanding of the conflicting emotions between Bucky Barnes’ dark past and the relationship with his predecessor, looking at what it truly takes to be a hero in the modern world. Brubaker crafts a story which unites espionage to action, past to present, Captain America to Winter Soldier, and uses Marvel’s 70-year history to illuminate the long shadows which forgotten deeds can cast.
As with the rest of the series, the art on show here is excellent. Luke Ross and Butch Guice take over the majority of pencilling duties in this arc, whilst regular artist Steve Epting takes a backseat, although when his work does appear it is never less than impressive, his disdainful Namor being particularly good. When read in one sitting, it seems quite incredible that all three artists’ styles merge into a near seamless whole. The shadowing, the subtle expressions, the flashbacks and fight sequences, all compliment the energy imbued in the script and create thrilling artwork which works hard to ensure that the story never looses momentum.
This is a superhero tale as it is meant to be told - exciting, thrilling and, above all, fun. It has great pace, characters that you care about, compelling dialogue and art, plus a plot that will leave both first time and established readers second-guessing the next twist. It was difficult to see which direction Brubaker might take Bucky, but here he creates a story which is multi-layered, bringing events from the past and the present together to create a greater depth to new characters and breathe fresh life into old.
So, after defining an epoch in modern comics, and killing an icon, what do you do next?
You create another one…