Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Burden of Dreams, or, Some Thoughts on Ed Brubaker's Captain America Run

I’ve re-read the entire Brubaker run from 1 to 36, and it truly is a novel, folks. You can see the whole story spinning out from that first issue’s offhand remark from Cap to the effect that “I don’t even know if I CAN die.” Everything that comes after that is just one long Miled Davis riff on death and resurrection, first with Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier, and then Cap himself.

(Two high points in the run for me: the Christmas special, starring Bucky, and (oddly enough) the House of M crossover, which takes its cue from another of Cap’s throwaway lines about missing the Moon Landing: “It’s what I was created for.” There's no better evidence than this issue of how a smart writer can use an imprint-wide crossover to create something touching, resonant and true with an iconic character like Steve Rogers.)

I’ve already gone into what I think Brubaker is doing plotwise. As of issue 36, elements of my prediction are starting to take shape. And yes, I’m a little nervous because Brubaker has vowed that there are no clones involved, so I may be heading for another Oscar Prediction Hell. But I still like my odds, and judging from the cover of issue 39 above, I won’t have long to wait to see how wrong right I was.

So what is Brubaker doing thematically? He’s facing head-on the question that’s been dogging the character since Steranko did his post-Kirby reboot: who is Captain America? The question got a pass while Kirby was in the driver's seat because, well, it was Kirby on Captain America, and who questions a Formula One winner like that? But once other creators and artists came into the mix (and as World War II became four, then five, then six decades distant), the questions started getting bigger and the character, paradoxically, smaller: is he a symbol of the country or the country’s values? Is he the flag or what the flag stands for? Is he (gulp) Marvel’s answer to Superman?

I’d say yes to the last question if the version of Superman we’re talking about is Grant Morrison’s All-Star version, which is (in my Batman-fan-forever opinion) the gold standard for Kal-El. The problem is, so far? With one exception (see below), the various pre-Brubaker versions of Steve Rogers haven’t come anywhere near gold, and that includes Steranko’s run (way too short) and the Marvel Knights volume (which I loved but seemingly nobody else bought or -- more importantly -- bought into).

I think Brubaker is aware of this, and he’s doing two things in order to define the character for the 21st century. He’s removed Cap from the Marvel playing field, which like Jimmy Stewart's nightmare descent into Potterville has become a horrifying vision of what Cap's friends, his allies, and his country are now, without their shield-carrying George Bailey saving them from Nazis like the Red Skull. And he’s defining the character by showing what happens when somebody tries to fill Cap’s flag-covered tunic, and how much more than just fisticuffs is required to, in a sense, bear the burden of the dream. You can see it in the current issue where Bucky tries to quell a riot and nobody believes he’s Cap. By showing you the dimensions of the hole, Brubaker is defining the size and characteristics of the missing monument. He's not crowding the field with four replacement versions; he's showing you what happens when the kid sidekick tries to take on the mantle of his adult mentor, and how impossibly hard it is to do. If there's a better way of making the statement "There is only one Captain America," I can't think of one. And what makes it work is character, specifically the character of resurrected Bucky. It sure adds a lot when the guy playing Robin to Cap’s Batman is the single most intriguing reboot to come out of either major comic company since Moore's Swamp Thing, Morrison's Doom Patrol and, well, the Stern/Byrne re-imagining of Cap from 1980 (and how in the world could I have forgotten that one? Prior to Brubaker, the best post-Kirby Cap run ever).

Part and parcel of all this: the debate about Bucky carrying a gun as Cap.2, which is really a debate about whether Captain America The Icon should be carrying and using a gun. The writer in me wants to think that Brubaker planned for this –- that he anticipated the terms of the debate and how the back and forth would in essence ask the question he’s been asking since issue #1: who is this guy? And even if it wasn't deliberate, it's evidence that Brubaker is asking the right things subconsciously, because the situations he's setting up have the deep resonance of the best drama, which is always more concerned with hard questions instead of easy answers.

If I had to guess (and you know I’m going to), the question at the heart of Cap’s identity as a man and as a symbol is going to get answered only (a) when Bucky tries to be Cap and fails, possibly at the expense of someone’s life (in a sense, we're going to watch this Cap suffer the loss of his own personal Bucky) and (b) when Cap comes back from being offstage for so long, and like a Shakespearean tragic hero shows us how his absence has changed him for the better. (Think Hamlet disappearing for all of Act IV, or post-storm Lear awakening to see his daughter. Bucky as Cordelia, anyone?)

I still think that Cap is going to come back under the direct mind control of the Red Skull. And Bucky is going to be the only one who sees it. Everyone else is going to see the monument, but Bucky will see the man. And there will definitely be a battle between them -- an all-or-nothing showdown which will mirror Cap’s fight with the Winter Soldier in issue #14, except that the roles will be reversed: Bucky will help Cap defeat the Skull's mind control and return to reality by echoing the words Cap used to him in that issue: "Remember who you are." Call that one my latest prediction.

One last question: will Bucky help Cap remember who he is by dying again, at the hands of the Red Skull? Or sacrificing himself and killing the Skull at the same time? That would make dramatic sense, wouldn’t it? (Bucky as Cordelia, anyone?) Because isn’t that who Cap is -- the one who survived when Bucky didn’t?