Soviet Guy: Natasha is not yours. She belongs to Red Guardian.
Winter Soldier: You think she belongs to anyone? Then you are as foolish as the others.
I never know how to begin these write-up posts, so let’s just roll the solicit text. “The final chapter in Cap and Bucky’s first arc is here, completing the retelling of Bucky’s early days with a heartbreaking tale of the Winter Soldier and Black Widow in the 1950s, and our secret narrator is finally revealed.” So, spoilers: that is actually what the issue is about.
I’ll get the summary-text out of the way too, now that we’re behind the spoilery-cut. To wit:
- Bucky is no longer Bucky, but amnesiac cyborg assassin Winter Soldier, because it’s always cold in Siberia and comics, everybody.
- While in the employ of glorious motherland, the anti-hero formerly known as Bucky encounters Black Widow. Gratuitous shirtlessness!!
- An assassination mission gone tragically wrong.
- Then they put him in a tube, fast-forward montage to present day, WHERE
- Anti-hero currently known as Bucky is narrating this whole story to his now-elderly sister in a hospital bed, rides off into sunset on motorcycle.
Each issue of this series has functioned more or less as a standalone, with the big-picture themes stringing up with each installment. This is one of the more confused episodes, since the epilogue clutters it up a bit. The brutal brainwashing-guilt years are mostly a love story. Obviously the sweet romance is supposed to turn bitter when the Soviet Union wrecks everything for everybody, but the bitter note doesn’t get much space to linger— you turn the page and they’re still together. And you realize Bucky’s just been narrating his long-ago sexytimes to his wrinkly little sister.
If anyone found out about us, we’d be sent to Siberia, or worse.
Which isn’t to say this is a bad issue, or that the epilogue is non-essential. Brubaker’s played the Alzheimer’s card before, in issue #49 with Peggy Carter, but that grace note probably works a bit better, here. The brick and mortar purpose of this arc has been showing how Bucky’s past has built him, so by showing his sister grown old and losing her past is the weighty counter-point. To a degree, all of Brubaker’s Captain America work is colored by that tortured relationship between past, memory, and self.
Like I said, though, this isn’t all that tortured. This Winter Soldier has a lot more of Bucky’s swagger, and this Black Widow is enthusiastic and a bit rebellious.
Winter Soldier: Idiots.
Natasha: Some of them are, agreed. But not all of us.
Winter Soldier: You think I can’t disarm you?
Natasha: You take the gun, I drop the grenade. You take the grenade, well, you know what happens…
Winter Soldier: This isn’t supposed to be a live ammunition exercise.
Natasha: Rules were meant to be broken, “капитан”.
And if you’re trying to sell a romance, you don’t want party A and party B to be mind-controlled automatons. That steers beyond the unromantic and straight into creepytown. Frankly, though, I’d like to see more of this Soviet-era Natasha: clever and vivacious, driven by something other than patriotic ambition, but some mix of overconfident and naïve. She knows she’s playing with fire, but doesn’t know yet what it feels to be burned. It’s a much more appealing take than the glass-eyed half brainwashed soldier girl that recent origin stuff has flashed back to; more than ever, all that false memories stuff seems unnecessary and trite.
But as much as I wish I could toss off the shackles of an overburdened continuity, I am still its no-prizing servant. The black cap and veil are a clear nod to Natasha’s earliest appearances in vintage Tales of Suspense— before Lee & co gave her a costume, she dressed like a real widow. The black catsuit Natasha wears later in the issue something she didn’t start wearing until after her defection. It’s only confusing because the fishnet costume still gets referenced in flashback. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.
This is really the first time we’ve seen the retroaffair play out from Bucky’s perspective, so it’s interesting that it’s also the first time we really see what Natasha fell for. The Winter Soldier in this issue is probably more like Bucky than we ever assumed, for all that he’s still playing for Team Reds, for all that he misses the irony of his own Captain America cosplay. The idea here, is that, trapped beneath death and concrete and protocol, there were two people, but only they were really looking at each other that way. Protocol can only see protocol.
Samnee’s lines and shadows are always evocative, and he’s done spy stuff before, in a stint with Greg Rucka on Queen & Country. His art is deceptively moody even in the light-hearted parts because he’s such a whiz with shadows; he’s pretty terrific at facial expressions, as well. His panel layouts are unremarkable but well-suited to his storytelling. There’s nothing obscure in his art. Except maybe the nipples in that one panel.
I shouldn’t have to say this but I will anyway: there were a few scoops of nakedness but none of it dehumanizing. No gratuitous zippers left undone, even though Natasha is being used for sexytiems. (Which, incidentally, sets off the sexytiems a lot better.)
Betty Breitweiser’s colors compliment with a sort of dull, jewel-toned palette evocative of faded photographs. I sort of regret the montages because they speed us through parts of the story I’d like to see, but she does neat things with a blue/red limited palette.
Brubaker and Andreyko are co-writing and I can’t really speculate who’s doing what. Except, wait, I totally can. I feel like Andreyko’s punched up the dialogue a bit more than the traditional Brubaker tale. The metaphors are richer, and there’s a lot less… ellipses… ellipses… everywhere. But it slots in, tonally, with the ever-growing expanse of Captain America issues Brubaker’s churned out, his fingers clenched around the franchise like a vice.
Soviet Guy: What would you have me do? Winter Soldier: Bring me metter men. Or women, like this one?
It’s not a perfect issue, and not even the strongest of the run, mostly because of an epilogue that rounds out the arc without rounding out the story. The bitter parts could have used a bit more panel time to beat out the sweet. But if my main complaint is that the comic’s not long enough, then that says more than I need to.