Ryan: I love when comic books try new things. Whether the point is to advance the relatively young medium or simply to offer some variety to a landscape that sometimes feels dominated by the same handful of big names and tried-and-true styles, it excites me to read a daring, non-linear narrative or to see adventurous use of graphic design in a title. I spent the entire summer haranguing a friend to read the copy of Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News which I graciously let him borrow. Hickman, responsible for both the writing and art, confessed in the afterword of the trade paperback that he intentionally made the comic difficult for the reader’s eye to follow by cluttering the pages with infographics and non-sequential art. Luckily, this calculated risk works perfectly in the total package. Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier showcases a fun, new direction for the former covert operative/Captain America and art that looks unlike anything I have read lately, but do these strong choices translate into a great read?
Our story starts hot on the heels of Marvel’s most recent crossover mini-series: Original Sin. Bucky Barnes now bears the mantle of “Man on the Wall” once held secretly by Nick Fury, serving as Earth’s first, last, and most ruthless defense from a galaxy full of nasty gods, subterranean monsters, and corrupt alien empires. The first issue quickly establishes the diverse range of situations which Bucky’s new job entails: assassinating dictators on a different planet, busting drug runners fathoms down in the Pacific Ocean, and eating Thai food on a space station orbiting Mars. Credit goes to the writer, Ales Kot, for creating a breathing, expansive universe in which our protagonist can play.
Kot, whose recent projects demonstrate his proclivity for both the brutal lone-wolf (Zero) and the dark, quirky hero team (Suicide Squad/Secret Avengers), writes Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier with equal measures of both. Though fatal violence is status quo in this comic, so is glib humor in the face of the darkness. For those hoping for a title featuring Bucky on his own in the vein of Brubaker’s Winter Soldier, Barnes has backup in the form of partner-not sidekick Daisy “Quake” Johnson, formerly of S.H.I.E.L.D. We also get a great, campy team-up with Namor which tips its cap to the history between the two heroes.
Potentially surprising considering the character of the Winter Soldier, here we see the kind of dialogue upon which most of the dialogue is based, using banter instead of brooding. This new direction for Bucky should lend itself to a fun romp featuring interesting villains and new worlds…as long as the art does not stop the reader from following along.
I appreciate the idea behind Marco Rudy’s art direction more than the actual execution. You may notice the striking colors and bold brush lines, and we see later Rudy utilize heavy blacks and silhouettes off-setting sweeping panoramas. This lack of the conventional gutter and panel combination fascinates me. Pages structured like honeycombs show chronological events in a string of facets which lead from the scale of a black hole down to a smash close-up of a speaker’s mouth. This style is often beautiful and always interesting; however, I cannot help but think that this day-dreamy style better suits his work on Swamp Thing than such an action-filled title as this. In the final moments of this first issue, the reader receives a reveal about who may be filling the role of antagonist for the arc while Bucky commits an act which solidifies his characterization for the audience. (Spoiler Alert)
At least, I think that is what happens. I have scrutinized this page on its own, as well as in the context of the adjacent pages, and still am unsure as to what we actually see. I condone pushing the boundaries of page setup and visual flow, but not when it hinders me from grasping the basic action of a scene.
Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier strives to be something other than a traditional superhero comic, but I am wondering what Drew thinks about whether or not Kot and Rudy succeeded in this mission. I welcome an alternative to the crossover-heavy Marvel comic-scape and formulas, but Drew: do you believe this title rises above “sidekick” status?
Drew: Oh, I definitely think this issue establishes a very unique voice — it’s decidedly not a Captain America sidekick story — but the question for me is whether that voice actually fits the story. I’ll admit, I haven’t read enough Bucky stories to know if cutesy banter is his thing, so while I can’t comment on his behavior, I think I can react to the art. For me, sequential art is best when it takes its cues from the mood of the story (which I realize is informed by the art in a collaborative back-and-forth) — a zoom in for dramatic reveals, a sudden change in color to emphasize emotions, etc — so what’s informing Rudy’s artistic decisions here?
I suppose we first have to back up to that last page you posted, Ryan — my read on it is quite a bit different from yours. In the foreground (in green), we have Bucky pumping his perp for information about his hookup; in the middle-ground (in pink), we see Namor ingesting one of the pills they just confiscated; and in the background (in black and white) we see a mysterious figure (previously established as standing on the moon) aim and fire one of those inter-planetary sniper rifles, apparently striking Bucky in the back. On the next page, we get to see the shooter’s face, and I’m pretty sure it’s Nick Fury. I won’t deny that the art isn’t totally clear — I’m especially guessing on that final reveal, but I’m wondering if that confusion is an intentional reflection of all of the secrecy orbiting these missions.
Part of me wants to suggest that the confusion actually reflects Bucky’s subjective experience of the world, his brain left a little soft after years of programming and reprogramming at the hands of the Soviets. He’s able to perfectly recite Lao Tzu’s “simplicity, patience, compassion” quote from the Tao Te Ching, but is unsure who said it. More glaringly, the cold open ends with Bucky assuring the citizens of Syro that “change is an illusion”, followed immediately by a voiceover that asserts that “everything will change.” This could reflect some residual cognitive differences from Bucky’s brainwashing, but I’m actually not sure Bucky is the narrator here.
Towards the end of the issue, the voiceover comes back, but seems to accompany the shooter, as though they’re the source of the narration. And actually, much of the issue makes a bit more sense if we’re reading it from the perspective of a distant sniper. Take the exchange in the Mars space station:
As a layout, a series of circular panels can seem like a bold, if a bit arbitrary, choice, but as a representation of somebody viewing the action through a rifle scope, it works beautifully. It’s the kind of connection you can only make in retrospect, so I think mileage will vary quite a bit, but it’s certainly interesting to reflect on now that we know how the issue ends.
Indeed, I think assuming that the shooter is Fury makes that whole middle section on Mer-z-bow (an apparent nod to noise musician Merzbow, which is itself a nod to Kurt Schwitters’ installation, “Merzbau“) make a bit more sense — the time traveler the princess dismisses might just explain how Nick Fury could be running around shooting Bucky in the back. Ultimately, though, that section offers Kot the opportunity to get a little philosophical about governmental systems and reacting to chaos. It’s fascinating stuff, but it’s not yet clear how or why it fits our story of “intergalactic assassin not-for-hire”.
And that may be my reaction to this series in general. Both Kot and Rudy are doing great work here, but I’m not sure their contributions are melding into a coherent whole.Perhaps Kot and Rudy simply wanted to establish the tone right up front, which meant sacrificing some narrative clarity? I enjoy Kot’s political ruminations and Rudy’s painterly abstractions enough to pick up this title into perpetuity, even if it never quite solidifies into a comprehensible narrative, but I could see that as being a sticking point for someone who came to this series expecting some kind of space adventure serial. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what issue 2 looks like.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?