For part two of Broken Arrow, Michael Lark finally managed to break from his usual grim-darkness for precisely one panel.  It’s set during a montage where Bucky recalls his shared past with Black Widow being trained and brainwashed by the KGB, where he narrates that they were subject to “Hallucinogens, microchips, [and] sensory deprivation,” and the panel shows a guy (that’s not actually Bucky) in a wavy, distorted chamber.  It doesn’t reach Steranko levels of brilliance, but I did appreciate the touch for a series that really is as neo-retro as this.

"Hello, Professor..."Lark also gets to show some flourish for a car chase where Bucky and Black Widow face off against an RV containing sleeper agent Leo Novokov, his goons, and a bomb.  He keeps each of the principal figures moving–especially Black Widow, leaping from motorcycle to RV and back again (I also very much appreciate this version of the character, pragmatic but empathetic, compared to the heartless twit from Fear Itself and Ends of the Earth)–but the reader never loses sight of where everybody is during the entire scene, which is something of a lost art in the age of checklist-style montages taking the place of proper fight sequences that dominate the event-driven culture of the Big Two.  Where most modern cape comics are about showing a string of ‘awesome’ scenes without bothering to put any thought into the connecting tissue of story, theme, or characterization, Winter Soldier is one of those rare beasts in the Big Two where some effort is made to keep those elements in play.

ShootoutCertainly helps that the more middlebrow Lark is working with a craftsman like Ed Brubaker (I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say the wonderful Bettie Breitweiser, whose colors are the true visual highlight of the title), which almost balances out the samey gritty look of the title.  Then again, of all the Marvel “architects”–a condescending marketing term akin to calling grocery clerks “associates”–Brubaker seems to be the only one who remembers how to write a superhero comic without resorting to snark, quips, and forced water-cooler moments.  When Bucky drives the rigged RV off a cliff before it explodes on a busy highway, it’s not a moment for readers to sit in awe at how great the godlike superman is, it’s proper heroics, saving lives because it’s a just thing to do, which is surprising to find in a book that is essentially a black ops action series.  That basic moral imperative’s been lost by Brian Michael Bendis or Jason Aaron, and stylish nihilists like Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction never really demonstrated it to begin with.

A good example of how Brubaker demonstrates moral and social awareness exists in Novokov’s use of an RV, a class symbol of leisurely travel, which he ditches for a Humvee another of his henchmen drives in the midst of the fight.  Connecting upper-middle class, bourgeois comfort to militarism and terrorism is a striking (and, frankly, honest) assessment of post-9/11, War on Terror culture that has favored cutthroat, “I’m getting mine” thinking and left empathy lying in a gutter with an open knife wound.  I mentioned in my review of the previous issue how Novokov reflects post-Wall Russia’s fall-then-shady-rise and renewed hostility towards America, and his use of the symbols of the system he was trained to battle against his nemesis Bucky seems very fitting.  Lark’s workmanlike style, as insufferable as the grim look has been getting of late, at least manages to get the message across.

"We're getting closer."