Review: The Death of Captain America: The Man Who Bought America hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

[This guest review comes from Scott Cederlund of Pop Syndicate and The Secret of Wednesday's Haul]

In Daredevil: Born Again, Frank Miller wrote one of the most succinct and concise descriptions of Captain America:

"A soldier with a voice that could command a god ... and does."

A soldier that can and does command a god. The Captain America that Miller described was Steve Rogers and he's dead. Bucky Barnes now has the shield and wears the familiar stars and stripes but, as we saw in The Death of Captain America Volume 2, when he needed to inspire the American people and rally them in times of political and financial trouble, he wasn't able to. He failed where Steve Rogers most likely would have succeeded. Fighting the Red Skull's terrorists and soldiers, Bucky had all the moves and fighting skills but when it came to getting the people behind him as Captain America, he failed. He was learning how to be Captain America but he still had a long way to go.

In the third and final volume of the trilogy, The Death of Captain America: The Man Who Bought America, Bucky Barnes has two loose ends after the murder of Steve Rogers. Sharon Carter, Steve Rogers' lover, is still under the Red Skulls' control and the Skull is still poised to attack America on a financial, political and terrorist level. And then there's the little issue of someone else running around in a Captain America costume, saving Presidential candidates getting the American public excited about the return of a hero. And what can it mean when the second Captain America endorses a candidate who's a pawn of the Red Skull?

While this story is called "The Death of Captain America," maybe calling it "The Birth of a new Captain America" would have been much more appropriate. Over the course of three books (and more if you count the entire Brubaker/Epting run on Captain America,) Bucky Barnes is learning how to live up to the dreams and aspirations of Steve Rogers. By this book, he's finally figured out that they way to do that is instinctively to fight for what is important. Ever since Steve Rogers was shot down, Bucky has thought through and questioned every act. He's spent a lot of time inside of his own head, asking himself "what would Steve do?" Trying to be Steve Rogers and Captain America got in Bucky's way. There's still that questioning and probing in this final book but when it comes time to act, Bucky fights like he always has, even like he did when he was the kid charging into battle with Captain America -- act first and think later. Actions are what makes the hero and Bucky has finally learned and accepted that by this last book.

It's an oversimplification to say that Brubaker and artist Steve Epting have created a Captain America for the twenty-first century but that's exactly what they've done. For the past eight years, Captain America has tried to be relevant and topical and failed. All you need to look at is the Marvel Knights relaunch post-September 11th that tried to address the attacks on America and the heroes reactions to them. The character floundered around after that, trying to comment on current society while getting sucked into typical superhero shenanigans with Avengers Disassembled. Let's be honest for a moment; it's been a long time since the character really mattered. And that's a harsh statement for someone who may be the top American icon behind Uncle Sam and maybe even Superman.

Somehow with this new Captain America, Brubaker and Epting have finally made him a reflection of society without being jingoistic or patronizing. Brubaker's Captain America isn't the relic from the 1940s that Steve Rogers could easily become even though Bucky also is a relic from the 1940s. Steve Rogers was just too much "your father's Captain America," a soldier and an American cut out of an old and outdated cloth. Considering that he was revamped in the early 1960s and still espoused a very 50s/60s viewpoint of America, it was hard to take him seriously after everything that's happened in the last 50 years or even in the last 10 years. Bucky allows a younger view of America and gives the writer a chance to explore and rediscover what makes Captain America a hero and what makes him an American hero.

In all three volumes of The Death of Captain America, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and a few other artists redefine Captain America. Spider-Man, Green Lantern and even Superman have all had new or different characters step into the costumes and we know that never lasts. In the back of our minds, we know someday Steve Rogers will be back wearing the blue chain-mail costume and slinging the shield but Brubaker and Epting have been pulling off miracles since they began on Captain America. They killed the Red Skull, brought Bucky back, killed Steve Rogers and now have Bucky stepping into the costume and role of Captain America.

In any lesser creator's hands, none of this would have worked. It would all have felt like cheap stunts to increase sales. Brubaker and Epting have created an instant classic with The Death of Captain America, redefining the character in a time of political, financial and international uncertainty and war. Bucky Barnes may not have the voice to command gods yet but he's on his way to being a hero and an icon. Maybe a new Captain America can be a symbol for a new America.

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