Watching the whole arc of revived-cyborg-Bucky from the early days of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run to now has been nothing short of amazing. The whole spy intrigue, steeped in the leftover Cold War paranoia still tugging at the back of America’s mind, that filtered Bucky’s quest for redemption had been so fully realized that what at first seemed like comic sacrilege became second nature to readers when Winter Soldier decided to step in as Captain America following the assassination of Steve Rogers. Rogers has since come back, and Bucky has gone on the run again in his own title, but I think that’s good, as it allows Brubaker the chance to keep writing this character without having to stick him into a crossover like Avengers Vs. X-Men.
(Written by Ed Brubaker, Drawn by Michael Lark, Published by Marvel)
If there’s one drawback to this prologue to the Broken Arrow arc (cue John Travolta joke), it’s the art of Michael Lark. When reading the flashback scenes of Soviet sleeper agent Leo Novokov as he awakens during a San Francisco earthquake (something that seems to be fascinating Brubaker of late, see his work in Fatale), particularly a three-page sequence showing his time as a vagabond wandering an America he doesn’t recognize (“He was sure the president was supposed to be an actor.”) and fighting for survival, it occured to me that the page layouts really needed a different touch. Something more along the lines of Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. artwork, dealing with optical illusions, Warhol-style pop art, and collage, which would make the deep blacks, blues, and reds colorist Bettie Breitweiser provides in these pages pop. Brubaker’s Fatale partner Sean Phillips or Daredevil‘s Paolo Rivera could do that — Frank Quitely certainly can if you’re not particular about a title coming out monthly — and Steve Epting’s covers have a nice, iconic look to them, but Lark is too simplistic. His style is to be aggressively grim-dark within the panels but not do anything structurally interesting with panels themselves, which was okay when he and Brubaker were doing the Devil in Cell Block D story for Daredevil, but Winter Soldier is a different sort of beast: a spy comic about a guy with a robot arm that occasionally fights gorillas and supervillains and dudes who walk around in beekeeper outfits (A.I.M.). Yeah, there’s a redemption arc, and Novokov is trying to get revenge on Bucky (his mentor) for never rescuing him when freed from his own brainwashing, so there’s a lot of grittiness to the proceedings, but that shouldn’t mean the art has to be all scowls and shadows.
Yeah, I’m nitpicking a bit when I say that the art is not as good as it should be, but it would be nice to see the monotony of Marvel’s “grittier” comics broken up with something like this (from Strange Tales #167):
Steranko made the Cold War a chaotic, psychedelic, and sometimes oddly sexy trip, and Brubaker’s plotting — which is about the shadow cast by USA v. USSR to this day — just begs to affect that style. Notable in the Novokov sequences is how Breitweiser plays with her color scheme. On page thirteen, detailing the Soviet sleeper’s reading of classified ads to find a coded message, each panel alternates the prominence of the colors red and blue, suggesting turmoil. His homeless state in the years between awakening and the present reflects the economic situation of post-Wall Russia, extending to the renewed hostility he feels towards Bucky upon ‘awakening.’ This includes a proxy battle between him and Bucky stand-in Fred Davis that may as well represent the 2008 war between Russia and U.S. ally Georgia.
Even if Lark was the wrong artist for this project, there was plenty to admire in the pages of Winter Soldier #6, including two (brief) scenes of the characters doing something normal: Bucky and Black Widow showering and getting dressed, and another character chugging juice from a carton. A lot of the Big Two’s current output consists of nothing but characters posturing and posing between stints of face breaking, and removes all attempts at showing the boring or the everyday (Geoff Johns or Jonathan Hickman first come to mind), making the industry’s “world outside your window” spiel laughable. Thankfully, Brubaker knows how to mix that stuff into the plot, which helps dramatize how the post-Cold War era still lives in the shadow of the Wall and shows that it touches even the guy getting a late night snack. Bucky’s redemption is going to be a messy one, which makes the art (and the amount of experimentation in it) all the more important to realize that theme. Lark can hold the line, but not much more than that.