Every once in a while a run comes along that is so good, it’s character-defining. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s run on Captain America is one of those runs, providing pivotal character moments and story beats for the Captain America lore. In many ways, it influenced the entire trajectory of the series for years to come, turning a superhero novel into one about political intrigue and espionage. To have your hands on Captain America: The Winter Soldier Complete Collection is to be in possession of a vital piece of Captain America history.
While Brubaker’s entire run is excellent, the trade does only consist of the first arc, The Winter Soldier’s introduction. It’s no surprise one of the MCU’s most praised films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was so good — it’s nearly a carbon copy of this iconic run. It’s Captain America at one of its darkest points — but also one of its finest points, telling a story about redemption and legacy.
Out of Time: Part 1
As the first arc in Brubaker’s legendary run, the collection starts at issue #1. The opening shots paint an eerie picture, portraying the evil deeds both Red Skull and Aleksander Lukin are capable of. The plan Skull lays out is vague, but Epting’s visuals and Brubaker’s narration boxes paint a menacing picture. As soon as Steve shows up, he’s joined by Sharon Carter, his ex-girlfriend. In many ways, this book feels like the follow-up arc to Mark Waid and Dan Jurgens’ work on Captain America Vol. 3, picking up right where we left off with Steve and Sharon’s undeniable chemistry. He wanted to get back together, she wanted to focus on getting her life back on track. As the two interact, it’s clear that chemistry never wavered and they prove just how well they know each other. The role of Sharon as Steve’s S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison is perfect and will become a huge plot driver particularly during the Civil War arc.
Sharon’s reintroduction into Steve’s life is completely out of love — he’s been reckless and that doesn’t just worry her, it worries S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s here that Brubaker begins to paint a different picture of Steve Rogers, this time as a man driven to recklessness out of his dedication to his duty. It feels like the natural progression for Steve in a post-9/11 world (and remember, this comic came out in 2005). Gone is the blue-eyed boy scout; now is the time for the war-weathered soldier. As the Red Skull paints his terrifying picture for Steve’s future, holding the cosmic cube in his hands, Brubaker does something unconventional: he kills him.
Out of Time: Part 2
In the opening pages, Steve has a nightmare about Bucky dying, proving that he’s still deeply haunted over the death of his sidekick. His guilt over Bucky’s death manifests in interesting ways as Steve imagines new ways that Bucky dies, waking up in a cold sweat in the dead of night. As Fury, Steve, and Sharon go to the crime scene where Red Skull died, it’s clear something fishy is going on –and Steve doesn’t trust it. Brubaker plays up the tension between Steve and Sharon, showing just how well she knows and believes in the Star-Spangled Avenger. It’s a treat to see the two together in action, bantering and keeping up with another beat for beat. Crossbones gets introduced in this issue, subtly setting up a core conflict of Brubaker’s run.
Out of Time: Part 3
The work Brubaker does with Sharon in these early issues with Steve is truly great stuff. While she can be prickly and no-nonsense, he’s able to perfectly portray her softer nature in how she worries for Steve, who is clearly going through a lot of personal strife. Some of that personal strife includes more dreams about Bucky, some of which make Steve doubt the authenticity of his own memories. After the team dissects more of the Red Skull murder/mystery plot, Steve and Sharon take a night out, noting that the two are often too entrenched in work to have any time for themselves. Through these scenes, a picture is thoroughly painted of two people who still know and care for each other, though they haven’t quite taken that leap to be together yet. It’s a mature and realistic look at relationships that comics rarely have. That’s the thing about Brubaker’s run — everything seems grounded in some sense of reality and the characters feel so genuinely human. In the final pages, Jack Monroe, one of the people to hold the mantle of Bucky, is murdered.
Out of Time: Part 4
In the opening segments, Lukin is brought back into the fold. In the meantime, Fury lies to both Steve and Sharon, coming up with excuses to get them in different places. He tells Sharon he found the weapon that killed Red Skull, and the fingerprints match Jack Monroe. Meanwhile, Steve visits the graves of the other Captain Americas, with Brubaker once again portraying the immense guilt Steve keeps on his shoulders. After the segments of Steve at the other Captain Americas’ graves, he has his first confrontation with Crossbones. In the meantime, Sharon’s investigation gets her into a world of trouble when a mysterious assailant takes her down. Four parts in and already Brubaker’s mystery is weaved expertly, dropping enough hints to keep the reader on their toes without giving it all away — and it’s masterfully paced to boot.
Out of Time: Part 5
The issue opens with Fury explaining that he believes Lukin was involved in Red Skull’s death. Steve has another flashback to his Invaders days, giving Brubaker more time to flesh out Steve’s long history. His run-in in 1940s Russia ties into Vasily Karpov’s involvement in their current caper, tying this story once again into the theme of Steve’s past coming back to haunt him. Steve also confides in Nick that he believes his memories are being messed with — and once Steve leaves, Fury begins to worry about why Sharon hasn’t called in. Probably the smartest thing Brubaker does in this issue is update Bucky’s origin, making him a talented assassin and soldier in his youth, setting him up to have the skills necessary for his time as the Winter Soldier.
Out of Time: Part 6
Sharon’s whereabouts are finally addressed as her metal-armed captor binds her in chains. Meanwhile, Fury and one of Sharon’s ex-boyfriends (who also happens to work at S.H.I.E.L.D.) express concern over her as they haven’t heard from her in 24 hours. As Steve attempts to fix the holes in his memory, he goes back to the place he and Bucky died. As he attempts to jog his own memory, he has visions of Sharon in danger and rushes to her aid. The framing on these panels is nothing short of masterwork; as Steve comes to Sharon’s aid, she announces that she knows who took her and it’s the same person they’ve been hunting: Bucky Barnes. Bucky himself lines up a shot, keeping Steve’s face square in his sights. Meanwhile, the contents of Fury’s file are revealed and he knows it was Bucky all along. As Fury berates himself, Bucky’s plan comes to a climax, setting off a bomb that kills thousands — including Sharon’s ex-boyfriend. As far as endings go, it’s one of the most climactic in comics, and Epting’s framing is a work of art here. It almost reads like a film scene, keeping the reader on their toes throughout.
The Lonesome Death of Jack Monroe
Right as Bucky is reintroduced into comics after 50 years of being dead, Brubaker pulls the rug out from under readers to tell an interlude story. Back in issue #3, Bucky killed Jack Monroe, a former Bucky. With the assailant’s identity now being known, the full story of Jack’s final days are revealed, adding some humanity to this now-fallen character. In the opening pages, it’s revealed that Jack’s super-soldier serum is deteriorating and as a result, he’s deathly ill. Jack’s life story is extremely sad, and it paints the picture of an incredibly lonely man. Jack is also haunted by James Buchanan Barnes, the first Bucky who he feels he could never live up to, creating an identity crisis for Monroe. With his life falling apart, Jack decides to put on the Nomad costume and do one last good thing: helping his daughter. As a result, his death seems extraordinarily tragic, ending his life before he could get back on his feet one last time.
The Winter Soldier: Part 1
Switching back to the star cast, Steve refuses to believe the assailant is Bucky, even as Fury and Sharon relay their proof. A flashback occurs, with Steve running through the ruins of the Philadelphia town trying to rescue civilians. Amongst the wreckage he finds Bucky, resulting in the famous “who the hell is Bucky?” exchange. It’s no wonder the Winter Soldier film tried to recreate this sequence as closely as possible, as it’s excellent — though the comic does it infinitely better by having Steve wade through the wreckage, showing the extent of Bucky’s crimes. Steve is adamant he didn’t see Bucky and after the meeting, Fury tells Sharon her ex-boyfriend was killed by Bucky’s bomb. Afterward, Bucky’s history is slowly revealed, showing how he was pulled from the harbor after Zemo’s plane exploded and came into the clutches of the Russians.
The Winter Soldier: Part 2
Epting takes a break from the series, with artist Michael Lark stepping in. While his pencils don’t quite make the splash Epting’s does, they’re perfectly serviceable and well-fitting in their own right. Steve expresses concern over Sharon’s involvement in the Bucky investigation, saying she’s “too close” to the mission by looking for payback. Sharon quickly calls out his hypocrisy, noting that he is closer to Bucky than anyone. The tension between these two is very real and very palpable, creating a bit of thoughtful interpersonal drama. Steve’s desperation and guilt over Bucky begins to manifest itself in reckless ways, having him fly off the handle on the job. It’s a great exploration of a man pushed to his limits, breaking apart at the seams.
The Winter Soldier: Part 3
Skipping over the House of M tie-in, the trade moves from Captain America #9 to #11, picking up the story where it left off. Epting also returns, providing his unforgettable pencil work. Steve finds a confidential set of documents at his feet in his apartment, the contents of which detail the story of how Bucky Barnes became the Winter Soldier. The story is heartbreaking, and after reading the files, it’s so easy to see why Brubaker’s reimagining of Bucky became such a smash-hit with fans. Distraught, Steve makes a call to Nick Fury, all the while having flashbacks of the sweet kid he once took under his wing as a sidekick. The emotional payback in this issue is huge, and it’s some of the heaviest writing Cap has ever gotten.
The Winter Soldier: Part 4
Steve’s emotional turmoil is on full display here, deeply troubled by the life his former sidekick has been forced to live. Sharon is quick to remind him that because of the brainwashing, this isn’t really Bucky, a factoid that does little to absolve Steve’s soul of guilt. In another flashback sequence, Steve is shown first meeting Bucky, an impressive young cadet capable of taking on anyone in his quarters. Steve and Sharon argue about what to do about Bucky, perfectly highlighting their contrasting nature of optimist/cynic. There are really great bits of Steve trying to come to terms with the fact that Bucky would want him to stop him by any means necessary, though Steve himself knows he can’t bring himself to ever kill his partner. The emotional struggles in these issues are truly masterful stuff. By the end of the issue, Falcon makes his debut when Steve calls in for help.
The Winter Soldier: Part 5
Sam and Steve discuss the Winter Soldier problem, with Sam agreeing with S.H.I.E.L.D. that Steve might have to let Bucky die yet again. When Steve says he wants to save him, Sam asks where he should start — a perfect display of the Sam/Steve friendship and the intense amount of trust they have for one another, even if they don’t inherently agree. Bucky reports to Lukin, though he questions his plans, infuriating Lukin. Meanwhile, Steve recruits Tony to help with his mission to save Bucky, though their partnership is short-lived due to some personal struggles on Tony’s side. As Sam and Steve make their move, Bucky fires a shot at them. This issue is all about friendships and the ties that bind, portraying the immense amount of trust people are willing to put in Steve. For a story that revolves around friendship and war buddies, it’s a welcome addition.
The Winter Soldier: Conclusion
The final issue in this trade is Captain America #14, which features the best cover work to date. While all of the covers have been good, this one takes the cake, featuring an old school 1940s cover with Steve and Bucky in the past, contrasted by Captain America and the Winter Soldier at odds today. There truly isn’t a more fitting bit of imagery than this. Steve and Bucky finally square off, with Steve swearing he won’t let Bucky hurt anyone else. Meanwhile, Sharon and the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. show up to help Sam take down some goons outside. Steve tries to reach the real Bucky, telling him that he knows who he is and what he’s capable of, a sentiment that Bucky vehemently denies. By the issue’s end, Steve retrieves the Cosmic Cube and uses it to restore Bucky’s memories, which overwhelms him. Bucky lambasts Steve, saying that he should have just killed him and using his metallic arm, he crushes the Cosmic Cube in his hand. Bucky is left living with his guilt over his actions as the Winter Soldier, self exiling and living in solitude. The final pages reveal the Red Skull lives on through Lukin’s mind, setting up another future plot for this fast-paced run.
The trade collects all pivotal stories from the Brubaker Winter Soldier arc, setting up Steve’s death and Bucky’s eventual retrieval of the shield. Every Captain America fan already knows this run is a must-own, and this trade is easily well worth the price for any Cap fan. For new fans, this run is a perfect introduction into the world of Captain America, proving just what makes these characters so special. Brubaker and Epting’s Captain America run isn’t just one of the best Cap stories of all time — it’s one of the best comic runs of all time.
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