Drew: In a time when serialized storytelling is very much in vogue, it’s easy to forget that some characters are designed for a specific narrative. That is, the situations that they endure during the story so define them that they can’t really exist outside of it. Would we even recognize Hamlet if he wasn’t having an existential crisis? The only way to reuse a character like that is to put them in essentially the same situation again, which obviously yields diminishing returns, and might just undermine the power of the original. Unfortunately, as Winter Soldier: The Bitter March ramps up to its conclusion, it’s clear that Bucky Barnes may only have one important story to tell.
So, heads up: Bucky has a crisis of conscience as he manages to throw off his programming in this issue. He’s basically the reverse-Hulk, wreaking all sorts of havoc until some emotional trauma turns him back into mild-mannered Bucky Barnes. That’s not to say this issue isn’t thrilling — indeed, it brings us right up to what seems like the series’ climax — just to say that Bucky’s emotional journey may feel a bit stale. Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America or Winter Soldier, so I can’t comment on specific similarities to the source material, but even just knowing the gist of the story (and having just seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier), this is pretty familiar territory.
Ran and Doctor Hitzig manage to escape the train crash, and hole up in the nearby town. Meanwhile, the Winter Soldier and Drain battle, and drain uses his powers to make Bucky remember and almost kill himself. He flees, allowing Drain to catch up with (and capture) Doctor Hitzig. Ran and a newly-himself Bucky form an alliance and track Drain to the side of a cliff, where he’s able to convince Hitzig to leap off in order to keep her out of US and USSR hands. The issue ends with Bucky leaping to her rescue, and Ran punching Drain to death.
It’s solid spy-thriller action — exactly what makes this series so great — but relies a little too heavily on Bucky’s specific emotional instability. It seems his programming wearing off halfway through a mission is a fairly common occurrence, making him hilariously less intimidating as a threat. Bucky never quite explains himself to Ran, preemptively explaining away why Winter Soldier = Bucky wouldn’t be common knowledge, but he never explains why the USSR would continue to employ such an unreliable asset. Sure, maybe it’s just this time and the one other that he bucked his programming, but I think that’s enough to call to question the effectiveness of that programming — we’ve only ever seen it fail. Okay, maybe Hydra psychics are a special case, but the point of the story, the emotional thrust of Bucky eventually finding himself underneath all of that programming, is identical. It seems he’s destined to be extracted and re-re-programmed, but otherwise, this could be the story of how the Winter Soldier became an Avenger.
To this issue’s credit, it actually tells that story very well.
Rick Remender’s writing, and particularly Roland Boschi’s art, communicate the particular brand of inspiring support that one learns from Captain America — the only problem is, again, this story has already been told.
But is that a problem? The episodic nature of comics basically dictates some level of repetitiveness — at least with staple characters of the Big Two. That repetitiveness becomes even more apparent when you look at the emotional state of many characters — Batman needs to be grieving, the X-Men need to feel persecuted — but this feels like a combination of both plot and emotional repetitiveness, like seeing Superman discover his powers over and over. But again, is that a problem? Libraries (and Netflix queues) are filled with stories that rely on largely similar plotlines and emotional states (guy gets girl, guy looses girl, guy gets girl back, etc). I hate to over-emphasize novelty when so much art has been created on these well-worn paths, but I just can’t get over how predictable this all feels.
What about you, Taylor? Does Bucky’s turn here carry any more weight for you, or does it feel like more of the same? Could you set aside your reservations to enjoy the action? I really wanted to, but it was tough not to feel like we’d already plumbed these depths. Did you get anything new out of this?
Taylor: I think a big problem with the Winter soldier, regardless of who’s writing him or what situation he finds himself in, is that he is constantly defined not by who he is, but by who he isn’t. Bucky is no Captain American no matter how many metal arms you graft onto his body and this relationship is one that defines the character. In the panels you posted above Drew, we see Bucky channeling his inner Captain. This comes after he’s remembered both who he is and why it’s worth living. His sense of self-worth, however, comes from having worked with the Captain and not much else, as is seen in his flashbacks.
His predictable turn from baddy to goody is fueled by this relationship and one has to wonder if the Winter Soldier couldn’t be made a more effective character if he had more of his own agency. Instead of relying on Captain America as his sole reason for existence, why not give him something else he cares, fights, and lives for? This all seems like the prototypical idea that a sidekick is only defined by the hero he’s working with. The problem is, comics have long ago moved beyond the mode of thinking. Sidekicks have gone on to become heroes with their own successful series in their own right. So why hasn’t this happened with Bucky? That being said, I do find the idea of a comic based on a characterless protagonist somewhat interesting, sort of in the way Flaubert was interested in writing a novel where absolutely nothing happens. In any case Bucky’s character, and turn, also fall short for me.
I wish I could enjoy the ludicrous amounts of action in this issue because it’s theoretically a blast. Train crashes, jetpacks, suicides, multiple heroes dangling from cables – it has the trappings of a good time. Again, things just fall kind of flat. They’re not terrible in any noticeable way but I found myself reading the action the way I would watch an action movie I’ve already seen 50 times. It’s good, but nothing I haven’t seen before.
A major cause of this ennui is due in no small part to our primary antagonist. The Drain is your typical Hydra henchman. He’s evil, does mean things, and dies with a talk about so many heads. As you mentioned Drew, overlaps such as these are inevitably going to happen in comics. I don’t begrudge writer Rick Remender that. It’s more that the Drain’s powers are mostly terrifying because they work wonders on me, the reader. The dude basically insults his way through the entire issue and it’s just such a one sided slog with him.
His burning truths are banal and it’s difficult to believe that they would make anyone feel all that bad, much less kill themselves. I understand he’s supposed to have special powers that make his words especially cutting, but nothing he says has any bite to it. Had he been more eviscerating with his speech I think this issue, and his demise, would have been much more enjoyable.
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