Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fearful Symmetry - Brubaker and Captain America

As I've mentioned before, I own the Captain America Omnibus and it is one of the most beloved items on my bookshelf. Brubaker's run on Captain America will probably be remembered as one of the most defining, memorable and important takes on the character. It is considered both a commercial and critical success and much of that critical success comes from Brubaker's long-term vision and planning. We are all familiar with his slow burning plots and noir/crime style, but I wanted to take a closer look at some of the important moments and themes from the first 50 issues and show how Brubaker has crafted a certain level of symmetry between them.


The death of Steve Rogers has been one of the central pillars in Brubaker's run and probably what will be most remembered years down the road. But another important development in the story, and what actually set forth the death of Steve Rogers, was the death of the Red Skull in the very first issue of the new series.

The Red Skull was shot by The Winter Soldier (later revealed to be Bucky), who used a sniper rifle under the orders of General Lukin. Steve Rogers was also shot by a sniper rifle, this time by Crossbones, but also under the orders of General Lukin (who, at this time, was sharing his mind with the Red Skull, more on that in a second).

As it was pointed out in the second issue, the Red Skull's body at the time of his death was actually a clone of Steve Rogers, making the death all the more similar (To be fair, it wasn't Brubaker that put the Red Skull inside a clone of Rogers, that was done before his tenure as a writer).

Of course, we all now know that it wasn't just the sniper that killed Steve Rogers, but a combination of that attack with the shots that Sharon Carter fired at him (under the control of Dr. Faustus's conditioning). It is pretty much agreed that Sharon Carter delivered the killing blows to Rogers, but she also was the one to kill General Lukin once she broke free of that same conditioning. Sharon, in the end, killed both her lover and one of his greatest enemies. In a "poetic hero" sort of way, Sharon's proximity (both physical and emotional) to Captain America was both the cause of her greatest failure (becoming an accessory to Steve's murder) and the cause of her redemption (finally stopping Lukin and avenging Steve).


As I mentioned before, the Red Skull was seemingly killed in the very first issue of the new series. In reality, he had used what little power there was in the Cosmic Cube he owned to transfer his mind into a different body, that of Alexander Lukin's. The process did not turn out as he intended, and he ended up sharing the mind with Lukin.

Later in the series, when Sharon Carter was found to be pregnant (still under the mental conditioning of Dr. Faustus), it was implied that the Red Skull wanted to transfer his mind once again, this time into the child of Sharon and Steve.

The process, once again, did not turn out as expected, with Sharon breaking free of the restraints and interrupting the process, which meant that the Red Skull (still inside the mind of Lukin) and their ally, Arnim Zola, had to improvise. The Red Skull's mind ended up in a situation he did not intend to, inside one of Arnim Zola's robot bodies. The Red Skull escaped Lukin's mind just in time, as Lukin was killed only moments after.

Conditioned Couples

There are three romantic couples that are featured heavily in this comic and every one of them has a very complex relationship - complicated even more so by the fact that one partner in every couple has been, at one point or another, been on the receiving end of a brainwashing.

Cap & Sharon

Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers had been an item in the past, but the relationship came back during Brubaker's tenure on the title. It was later revealed, however, that Dr. Faustus's and the Red Skull's machinations and mind conditioning were involved with Sharon's decision to revive the relationship with her old flame.

Sharon had been brainwashed, along with other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, as part of the Red Skull's plan to kill Steve. Even after the death of Steve, Sharon continued to suffer under the conditioning of Dr. Faustus and was captured by the Red Skull as a key part to further his plans of getting a new body.

Bucky & Black Widow

Bucky was also under the effects of conditioning, this time his Winter Soldier program created by the Soviets, when he killed the Red Skull. Eventually, he would also break free of this control thanks to Steve Rogers's use of the Cosmic Cube.

As we all know, he became the new Captain America after Steve died and, just like Steve, he also found comfort in the arms of an old flame: the Black Widow.

Bucky and Natalia (or Natasha) trained together during the early days of the Soviet Union and eventually became romantically involved. Their paths separated during the Cold War, but they are once more together and she acts as his emotional and professional super-hero support.

Crossbones and Sin

And, finally, there is the relationship between Sin, the daughter of Red Skull, and Crossbones. In this case, it was Sin who was brainwashed by S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of the Soviets or Nazi sympathizers of the previous two relationships, perhaps showing that, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is a lawful organization, it is willing to use the same means as its enemies, albeit to different ends.

Sin was brainwashed into believing she was just a normal teenager, but it was Crossbones who (literally) beat the conditioning out of her with psychological and physical torture.

Once Sin broke free of her conditioning, the two started a romantic relationship. Since then, however, both Sin and Crossbones have been captured by S.H.I.E.L.D at different times and it is unknown what has happened to either of them.


There are probably a lot more symmetrical events and occurrences littered throughout Brubaker's run on Captain America, as there's also plenty of recurring themes, such as the meaning of dreams, the burden of memories, the illusion of time, and the weight of carrying a legacy.

I happened to only focus in some of them, the ones that were most obvious, but feel free to tell me what other symmetries you've spotted as well. The fact that Brubaker (again, with the help of a wonderful ensemble of artists) has managed to implant so many little things in his run is a testament of how good his run has been, and I am certainly looking forward to see what else he has planned for Captain America.

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Sebastian said...

The prevailing aspect in Brubaker's run, for me anyway, is how Bucky and Steve represent post-war America and all of the changes stemming from that. The first issue has a flashback depicting different stages in American history. The first panel of this scene shows a man selling apples, framed by a poster for Hamlet. Presumably, this is Leslie Howard’s performance in 1936, placing the people in this frame in economic despondency. Even though the New Deal pushed the nation onto the right path, the real catalyst for economic stability was the States’ entry into WWII, which ultimately ended the Depression. The call to fight tyranny abroad demanded industry and enterprise like never before and mills and factories responded by dramatically increasing their output and demand for workers, reenergizing the nation’s industrial sectors. The second panel shows Cap and Bucky diving into battle, tying Captain America’s emergence with the country’s new financial durability, cementing Steve as a symbol of hope. Shortly after this, Cap was frozen and Bucky was re-employed as the Winter Solider. Here, Bucky’s new role was not as a stalwart of faith but as a weapon of deception and manipulation. His role here mostly takes place before Steve’s return, when America was in a heated, and secretive, battle of show and arms-building with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Before the Winter Soldier is decommissioned in the late 60’s or early 70’s, Cap is revived and takes his place with the Avengers (also show in this series of panels.) Steve taking back his role as Cap in the twilight of the Winter Soldier’s operative years demonstrates the changing nation (swinging to more open policy, civil reforms, etc) and the intrinsic relationship between the Captain America and Bucky concepts. In the Civil War, Cap is seen by the public as a living relic, unable to evolve or adapt to the changing political climate of the country he represents and is assassinated. Here, Bucky begrudgingly steps up as the new Captain America. His manner in dealing with opposition is drastically different, relying on harsher weapons and the tactics ingrained in him from his Soviet years. His ability to defy definition, existing beyond absolute, ready to tackle moral grays and blurring lines, connects him with the state of the nation today. The methods employed by the government, however graceless they seem, are done so to protect the way of life we’re accustomed to. Bucky sees the dream, the ideal, as very attainable and does his best to reach that end. For people like that, there is no other option. The U.S. continues to adapt and conform to it’s changing population and the developing ideas found therein while still adhering to the base principles set by the Framers of the Constitution. Bucky, living in Steve’s shadow, (much like us living in light of our past mistakes and successes) is tortured with doubt but knows that the continuance of Steve’s (and the nation’s) principles is worth doing anything he has to do.

Also, all of the Brubaker/Cap flashbacks are badass. Can't wait for the Marvels Project.

Great post, Matt. I didn't realize the Sin/Crossbones connection or any of the Conditioned Couples. Thanks!

I did like how you caught onto the Red Skull's methods. Attacking and manipulating the people around Cap would do the most damage to him, and in symbol and in proxy, to America. Skull putting his mind into either Sharon or the baby would be the ultimate bastardization/corruption for Cap and America. Really, great post. Hope to see more like this!

Matt Ampersand said...

Sebastian, I am glad you liked the post.

Of course, it is now eclipsed by the great comment you just made. You really put a lot of thought into it!

Sebastian said...

Never! Yours had pictures, remember? Haha, thanks.

brandon said...

while reading the issues after bucky takes up the shield I couldnt help but think that he isnt really living in Steve's shadow, but living in his own shadow.

To me, it's always seemed that he is unwilling (or unable) to let go of the Winter Soldier identity and he's really just trying to force himself into the role of Cap.

In particular in the last arc it comes across that he is more comfortable wearing the Winter Soldier garb than the Captain America uni.

I cant help but wonder if Brubaker has it in the works that Bucky will eventually fully reject being Captain America.

Good article and comment from Sebastian!

Matt Ampersand said...

Brandon: You could be right, but I hope you are not. I really hope that Bucky stays in the Cap costume for a really long time.

Sebastian said...

Live or die, Cap or not, I just hope Bucky's story gets some closure before Brubaker leaves. I think I'd be okay with Bucky dying (not anytime soon, though.) I'd hate to see him underused or misinterpreted by somebody else.

Matt Ampersand said...

Sebastian, I think I agree with you. If he dies in the middle of something really heroic (think Barry Allen here), I think that would be great for the character.

I hope it's not for a really long time though.

Joshua Nelson said...

Well, I'm not thrilled about the idea of Steve Rogers coming back AS Cap because I've come to identify more with the Bucky version of the character. I like how he shares the same "man out of time" mindset as Steve, but also displays the necessary disillusion with what American life has become. There was an earlier comment to the effect that Bucky is having trouble transitioning from being "The Winter Soldier" to being "Cap". I think his mindset is, "Well, it's cool that I'm not a Soviet Assassin anymore (and I feel really bad about that), but THIS* is what I'm fighting for *(the toxic sludge that is American life these days)!?!?!?!" I don't think he has any reservations about carrying on Steve's legacy, he just has a profound disdain for what America has become and in effect what his and Steve's iconography has been twisted into. Whatever happens, Ed is my favorite mainsteam comics writer and I trust him to spin a great yarn regardless of who's slinging that mighty shield in the end!

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