Patrick: Enigmatic super-soldier spies are tough to characterize. How can you reveal someone’s true nature when they’ve been trained to be a tool of their government, forsaking all personal interests? Rick Remender’s new Winter Soldier mini-series attempts to paint a picture of a man by presenting his surroundings in as much detail as possible. Even when we get a flashback to Bucky’s more formative years, it’s his mentor’s perspective we see stated directly, and not Bucky’s. It’s addition by subtraction, and the sum is a tantalizing character sketch, made all the more compelling by a faithfully realized period thriller.
Having successfully escaped a free-gliding Winter Soldier and rescued the Nazi scientists, Agent Ran finds himself stranded in a small Alpine village with virtually no support from S.H.I.E.L.D. He’ll have to get the Drs. Hitzig to West Berlin for safe extraction, and that means the classiest method of international travel: train! And it’s a good thing they have a plan, because Winter Soldier ambushes them within seconds. Ran’s got a few tricks up his sleeves and the trio escapes to the train. Oh, but on the train, the real intrigue begins — y’know, because all the bad-assest shit always happens on the train… also the sexist. Ran spends a little time getting to know Mila, and her totally patriotic reasons for developing the alchemy formula, while Peter meets with his Hydra contact (who is already on the train). Just when it seems like there might be bigger problems on this train, Winter Solider bursts in and makes a play for Dr. Peter Hitzig.
Roland Boschi’s art in this issue is absolutely stellar, and while he’s saddled with an awful lot of talking-heads moments, he’s able to utilize that slower pace to pay attention to consistency of character details. Probably the best of which is his fixation on The Drain’s toothy/gummy smile. The dossier Ran has on him alludes to “odd” eating habits — I’m assuming cannibalism — but whatever your assumption, Boschi won’t let you stop thinking about what “odd” could mean.
Also excellent is the way Boschi takes special care to visually connect Winter Soldier with the flashback version of young, idealistic Bucky Barnes. The flashback itself is simple: Cap tells Bucky never to shoot a man in the back, retreat means surrender. The sequence is juxtaposed against Winter Solider with Dr. Hitzig in his sites, but the parallels in outfit and body language reveal how Bucky’s going to behave before he does.
Bucky wouldn’t have needed to be wearing a domino mask while in training, and there’s no reason Winter Soldier would have to be crawling on his belly here, but the commonalities between to the two highlight how little may have changed for Mr. Barnes — at least internally.
There’s also an interesting little communist rant in the back half of this issue. Mila claims to have envisioned her alchemy formula as a tool to achieve communist superiority. The problem, she says, is one of resources: there’s no problem redistributing wealth if there’s a lot of wealth to go around. Her husband doesn’t share this view — in fact, he wants to sell the formula to Hydra. Now, Hydra’s a super criminal organization with ties to the Nazis, so whatever: their purposes for the formula are evil, who cares, but this communism thing is something else all together. Mila’s values as expressed on the train are the implied values of the U.S.S.R., and by extension we get our first hint of what greater ideals motivate Winter Soldier.
Bucky himself is amazingly withholding when it comes to his own feelings. For having his name plastered across the cover, he doesn’t have much dialogue. In fact, he’s got three speech balloons and they’re “YERAGH–,” “UGHH!” and “GRHAH…” Plus, we’re never privy to his methods — he just shows up as though some kind of ultra-competent ghost-spy and starts raining down bullets or knives or whatever the situation calls for. He’s an impossibly intriguing character, and it looks like Remender’s got the self-control to keep away from endowing him with any character traits directly. It’s definitely a scenario where our imaginations are allowed to do most of the coloring.
Drew, I also kinda liked seeing what S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters was like in the 1960s. Looks like bubble/heavy petting parties, which is… well, I’m not even really sure what we’re looking at here.
There are S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists observing these people, so I don’t think it’s just a crazy 60s party. Maybe it’s a nod to the CIA’s experiments with LCD. Third option, and the one I like the most, is that this is a demonstration of American values, just as Mila talks her was through communist values. After seeing this activity back at his homebase, we automatically assume that maybe Ran’s going to try to get fresh with Mila later in the issue. It’s a neat way to have ideologies projected on to other characters without being so damned explicit about it.
Drew: Oh man that scene. Part of me thinks that it actually is just a crazy 60s party — albeit a clinical one — that S.H.I.E.L.D. is observing because they’re such hopeless squares. I could also see this as suggesting that S.H.I.E.L.D. is somehow responsible for hippyism — either in a misguided attempt to bring world peace, or in a much more cynical attempt to distract an ailing nation from the important issues at hand. My favorite explanation, though, might be that this is an early clinical test of a foam party, which S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently invented, but then subsequently tried to hide from the public because gross. The plans were later rediscovered and leaked.
Anyway, Patrick, I think your assessment of the Winter Soldier as negative space — a form implied by his surroundings, but never fully sketched-in — is right on the ruble. However, I think there’s more to that choice than that he’s an “enigmatic super-soldier spy.” Indeed, I think his lack of subjectivity reflects the fact that he’s essentially a brainwashed killing machine. Except he’s only mostly brainwashed. Somewhere inside the Winter Soldier is a man who learned morality from Captain America himself, and those aren’t lessons that are easily forgotten.
For me, the fact that we only get that one glimpse into Bucky’s past makes the struggle between Bucky and his programming seem all the more heroic. Bucky’s almost not there anymore — he’s almost entirely the Winter Soldier — but there’s still some beating heart within him that cannot bring himself to fire on an enemy in retreat. Keeping those glimmers of any lingering humanity few and far between is a brilliant move on Remender’s part, and has the added benefit of allowing us to focus on Ran and the Hitzigs
The sexual chemistry between Ran and Mila does feel a bit obligatory — he’s a secret agent, she’s a sexy (and not entirely unsympathetic) quasi-enemy — but that’s part and parcel with the genre, which I’m more than willing to excuse. It provides a reasonable enough distraction, both from the Winter Soldier’s inevitable attack AND from Peter’s illicit but totally unhidden meeting with Hydra. Shouldn’t Ran be trying to keep them together in case of attack? Or to avoid Peter reaching out to Hydra, which he still clearly has sympathies to (in spite of being imprisoned by them literally yesterday)? Of course he should, but look: Mila undid the next button on her blouse, and has this absurd booty.
Ridiculous butts notwithstanding, I want to echo Patrick’s praise of Boschi’s work here. It’s exactly the blend of clear and stylish this story needs. The paneling is downright conservative (only slightly breaking his strict grid system during fight scenes), which feels entirely period appropriate, and affords this issue a sleekness that suits it beautifully.
All in all, I’m loving this series. Sure, it features surprisingly little of its title character, but I think its his mythology — the way other characters react to him — that this series is really about. It’s a clever focus, and Remender and Boschi are more than capable of making it sing.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?