[DASH’S TOP FIVE] 4 – The Death of Captain America

A long time ago, in a universe far removed from the laws of reality and fair artistic indulgence, a young man with an impressionable mind was quick to tell all his comic book neophyte friends how awful several of the major mainstream superheroes really were. Whilst some of these unfounded accusations turned out to be quite true – although they mostly related to Superman – there was one that he made which, years later, he immensely regretted: being that Captain America was a shallow, two-dimensional and overly-jingoistic war hero who badly deserved the eventual death he received in 2007 on the steps of an American courthouse.
Many years on from this stupid, stupid statement I’ve come to realise that Cap is one of my favourite superheroes of all time. All I’ve really explored of him solo is the Brubaker run, and while the entire story has been good so far I do think it reached its zenith with The Death of Captain America and its subsequent omnibus follow-up Captain America Lives! as two very good studies of what happens when a nation loses its greatest hero, and how the superhero community really reacts to the death of one of their big players.
You’d probably be hard-pressed to find someone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard about Cap’s death, reader or no; the event was widely publicized in American and abroad as a shocking, pivotal moment in the history of comic books, and this is not far from the truth. Cap is one of the few big players at Marvel who hasn’t died once a year or even at all since his original inception, so his unceremonious execution on the way to answer for his so-called crimes during the Civil War would definitely have been a massive shock to readers at the time. But, as always, the death of any major superhero – especially one as marketable as El Capitano – is only ever temporary, so while we keep in mind that Steve Rogers will inevitable be resurrected/cloned/retconned back into existence let’s see what happens in a world where he’s not around to help.

The main focus is actually on three characters; Bucky Barnes, Cap’s erstwhile Soviet-brainwashed sidekick; Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon, Cap’s former partner in law-dispensing; and Sharon Carter, Cap’s lover and SPOILER WARNING also the cause – somewhat – of his death. That last one’s kinda complicated.

As it presumed from the outset, Bucky will eventually take on the Captain’s mantle and wield the shield, but a large chunk of the intrigue for the story is not only the dissection of the labyrinthine plot behind Steve’s assassination but also in the personal journey Bucky undertakes to get there. This isn’t a Battle for the Cowl situation where the obvious successor immediately takes the reins; this is a slow, yet still engrossing, odyssey where a man must come to terms with his own faults and the only way to save himself from them.

For a story that sounds like something out of The OC, there’s actually surprisingly little angst going on. Bucky does deal with some internal turmoil but in a very mature, adult kind of way, and on the whole his personal struggles are actually involving and interesting and relatable. He puts me in mind very much of a son following in his father’s footsteps, and even when he does wear the Stars and Stripes it takes a while before he’s comfortable in those shoes and at the same time accepted by the public in a way that doesn’t involve airborne tomatoes.

The villains in this tale are fairly cartoonishly evil, but since they are a robotic Nazi scientist, a Nazi psychologist and a Nazi commander respectively it’s kinda understandable. That’s not to say the villains are entirely two-dimensional – really, only esteemed Dr Arnim Zola fits that bill – but they do kinda lean one-sided towards having no real understandable struggles or reasons for conquest besides “FOR THE EVULZ LOL”. That is, until the end sequence when one of the power trio does something that is both incomprehensible towards their character and at the same time a great boon towards the good guys. I won’t spoil who or what, but as villainous twists go it was unexpected and yet subtly foreshadowed upon closer reflection. That said, there are certainly more interesting villains in the Marvel universe to be had, and I can’t help but wonder what might’ve happened if someone a little more rounded had been involved. Like the Skrull Queen. Or the Serpent. Y’know, someone with depth.

The artwork is handled by a small team working with scribe Ed Brubaker, and I find a quite subversive quality inherent to the colouring that really enthused me. From the very start, as Steve walks the steps of the courthouse towards his ill-fated trial, the usually-bright tones of red, white and blue are a bit duller and watered down than one would expect for a Cap story, especially coming off the heels of Steve McNiven’s visually-engrossing work in Civil War. The down-toning, however, is one of the most evocative bits of art I’ve ever seen in a comic; the dark, foreboding nature of the piece is represented throughout as if the colour only has half its potency, with everything looking darker and more shadowed than normal and there being no really distinct, eye-punching colours. This is something that Brubaker’s earlier Cap installments – particularly Winter Solder – started to touch on, but is brought to the forefront in this narrative. It fits the tone of the piece beautifully, and only really regains a little of its flavour during the final sequence on the Helicarrier at the end.

To fit with the darker mood, the dialogue follows suit; as stated above, there is very little angst present in a story where, considering who the central narrative focus is on, you would expect it to be plentiful. Bucky acts as a normal, matured adult when dealing with Steve’s death – apart from a brief altercation in a bar with several naysayers that ends in a few broken noses – and only really gets uppity during his brief vendetta against Tony Stark. Once he puts on the iconic colours in a more stylish, 21st-century-sexy way, he starts letting off a few witty ripostes here and there that I found quite endearing and not the least bit cheesy.

Additionally, something that gets explored really well in this and subsequent tales is his relationship with Black Widow. This has been one of two comic book relationships that I want to see last through until the end of time – the other being Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris – because their dynamic is both heartwarming and incredibly well-written. They’re two former enemies of the state, both pulled out of time, and both in a way sticking to each other in a believable and really lovely way. I can’t speak enough about how much I love James and Natalia together; it’s one of the main draw cards for me for both this and Captain America Lives! because it symbolises the ability to have a realistic relationship within the pages of a comic book dominated by space aliens, superpowered midgets and personifications of ancient Norse mythological figures.

If it starts going the way of Colossus and Kitty Pryde, I may have to strangle whichever author is responsible.

While I do highly recommend checking out The Death of Captain America for its high-octane action and quietly dramatic scenes with equal intensity between the two, I would first advise reading Winter Solder as a quick prelude before the main event. If you get the chance to read the two interquels as well – being Red Menace and Civil War: Captain America respectively – then go ahead, but you’re not missing a huge amount. All I can finish with is saying that a dream like Captain America, and everything he stands for, truly cannot die with one man. Ed Brubaker reminds us of this deftly and effortlessly, crafting a story that is both timeless and relative to almost every rung of contemporary Western society and the indomitable will of the human spirit.


BEST QUOTE: “Steve would find a way. I know that. And he wouldn’t stop to question it. He’d just do it somehow. Whatever it took. He’d do the impossible.” – Bucky Barnes

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