Spencer: Considering its Cold War setting, it’s no surprise that Rick Remender and Roland Boschi’s Winter Soldier: The Bitter March has been a story filled with pawns and masterminds, a story populated almost entirely by people who are being used and the people who are doing the using. What’s interesting about issue 3 is the way the players begin to transcend those labels. What happens when pawns tire of being pawns? And what role does Ran Shen play in all of this?
Aboard a train heading for West Berlin, a battle rages between Hydra, the Soviets, and S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Ran Shen over possession of the inventors of the Alchemy Formula, Peter and Mila Hitzig. Shen defeats Hydra Goon Shocky Dan only to be shot in the chest by the Winter Soldier; the haughty Peter mouths off to another Hydra Officer, the Drain, and pays the ultimate price for his ego. Winter Soldier intervenes before the Drain can abscond with Mila, but the Drain simply attempts to undo his brainwashing and force him to kill himself. Meanwhile, Shen — who healed up rather nicely thanks to some concoction Fury keeps in a Lance Armstrong-sized needle — and Maria attempt to stop a bomb from detonating on the train…and fail miserably.
For all its superhero trappings, this series is solidly a spy thriller, and a Cold War spy thriller at that, so of course it’s filled with deception and manipulation. For the most part, the cast divides pretty cleanly between the users — such as the Drain and Winter Soldier’s Soviet handlers — and those being used — such as Mila Hitzig, the Hydra grunts, and the Winter Soldier; what really defines this issue is how the latter set of characters each reacts to their status as a pawn.
Peter, of course, makes a fatal mistake, and that can largely be chalked up to not knowing his place. Peter liked to fancy himself a user, and in some ways that was true — he certainly took advantage of his wife in seemingly every possible way — but the rush of power he got from this blinded him to the fact that he had absolutely no leverage over the Drain. In every way possible he was nothing but a pawn to the Drain — utterly disposable.
Mila, however, gets to show a little agency. She’s been put down and manipulated by her husband for years, and has spent this entire series hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Soviets, which culminates in this issue with the Winter Soldier and the Drain literally fighting over her.
She’s had enough of that; in one glorious moment, Mila stands up for herself and regains control of her own destiny, even (seemingly) siding with S.H.I.E.L.D. Mila’s story seems to provide hope that the Winter Soldier — this series’ biggest and most unfortunate pawn — can too escape his role, but that’s an awfully cruel bit of false hope there, as we all know that poor ol’ Bucky’ll be stuck in assassin mode for another forty years or so.
Considering how badly he’s brainwashed, it makes sense that Bucky interacts with nearly all of the authority figures in this issue, and while his Soviet Superiors are appropriately scummy, it’s the Drain who comes across as particularly sociopathic; he seems to think of his underlings as disposable meat, using them as human shields, suicide bombers and even projectiles. His attack on the Winter Soldier, meanwhile, is ironic to the point of cruelty; he’s able to return Bucky’s memories, but then proceeds to brainwash someone who’s already brainwashed, turning his most cherished memories of his mentor against him. That’s messed up.
What about Ran Shen? Sure, he has orders and a mission, but he also has absolutely zero contact with any of his superiors in this issue, and his failed attempts to control Peter prove that he’s no mastermind, making him the only character who fits into neither camp here. That seems appropriate for the issue’s only S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent/American character; Shen’s maverick attitude and tenacity seem almost stereotypically American, and I have to wonder if Remender intended this as a way to promote Democracy over the other types of government featured in this series. Admittedly, I may be grasping at straws here, and I’m not nearly politically savvy enough to argue one way or another on this matter, but Shen’s role in this series is so different from all the other characters’ that it must mean something.
Despite featuring some more fantastical elements, this is ultimately a rather grounded story, and Roland Boschi’s particular brand of art fits this tone to a T. Boschi’s work can come across as “ugly”, but I mean that as a compliment; the writing is often “ugly” as well, in that it depicts violence in a very uncomfortable, realistic manner, and Boschi perfectly captures the ugliness of the violence without ever veering into gore.
Cartoons have me used to visualizing electrocution as a character with their skeleton showing through their skin, but this depiction is much more realistic, and the sheer force behind both characters’ hits is painfully clear. Boschi also manages to capture emotionally ugly moments — such as pretty much any time something bad happens to Mila — with the same amount of skill. Despite all this talk of “ugliness”, though, Boschi also crafts some images that are just absolute joys to look at.
The way Boschi uses unique camera angles and distorted perspectives to make Shen look faster and his blows look stronger is ingenious, not to mention an awesome way to keep the action from ever getting stale; nope, no chance of that here!
So Drew, do you think Remender is trying to make any sort of political statement with the characters in this story? Do you think knowing the Winter Soldier’s ultimate fate makes his role in this story less interesting, or more? What’s your opinion on Fury’s “magic healing serum”? It didn’t really faze me, but it’s one of those convenient, unexplained plot devices that I can imagine pissing off a lot of readers.
Drew: You know, I actually think the “ugliness” that you mentioned goes a long way to making Fury’s “exactly what was needed at this exact moment” gadgetry easier to swallow. Those gadgets are clearly part and parcel of the genre — Bond’s meetings with Q were invariably an outline for the implausible situations Bond would later find himself in — but Remender grounds those genre trappings with some notably graphic violence. It’s not necessarily a new equation — the most recent Bond films have pulled a similar feat with their own brand of bone-breaking verisimilitude — but it’s a thrilling one, and Remender and Boschi make it sing here.
In that light, this issue’s strengths might actually be its whole-hearted embrace of its genre trappings. Spencer, you noted that Shen seems to be the exception to the user/used dynamic that all of the rest of the characters seem to fit into, and I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, the fact that Shen is almost alone in expressing his own freedom feels like a genre trapping in and of itself. The henchmen of Hydra or Soviet Russia are cogs in a much bigger machine, but Shen is a fully autonomous agent, capable of ringing down even the biggest goons Hydra or the USSR can throw at him. I might even take it a step further to suggest that S.H.I.E.L.D. actually works for Shen, helping out with a magical healing serum here or an acid-squirting watch there to allow Shen to get the job done. That’s some potent propaganda right there, an element that I think is true of basically all Cold War-era spy thrillers.
You’re right to suggest that Mila has more agency than many of the male characters in this series (she seems downright American in that regard), but that doesn’t prevent Boschi from objectifying her basically every chance he gets. She appears in few panels where you can’t see either exactly how unbuttoned her blouse is or the full roundness of her butt (and often, perplexingly, both at the same time).That kind of sexualization is very much a part and parcel of the genre this series is paying tribute to, which actually gives me pause about criticizing it further. Is reproducing those tropes here perpetuating them or forcing us to confront what’s problematic about them? That smacks of “too convenient,” but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re talking about it here. Remender is obviously aware that we would recognize these ideas instantly, and frankly, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot he could do to subvert our expectations in this particular instance — the damsel in distress turning out to be perfectly capable on her own is as much a trope as anything else in this issue.
I’m still enjoying the heck out of this miniseries. It offers high-flying spy antics that are pretty rare at the Big Two these days. I mean, come on, a fight set next to the open door of a freight train car? It’s classic stuff. It’s only failing may be that at times feels a bit too much like a relic of the past. Indeed, the only thing that may be subversive about this issue at all is the fact that it isn’t actually from the ’60s.
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