“Original Sin” is over. Bucky, having lost his place in “Captain America,” “Winter Soldier” and “Secret Avengers,” is a hero without a home. What’s a guy to do when he’s got the most important job in the galaxy?
Star in a new book with the most subversive team in comics, obviously. Would you expect anything less?
Written by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Marco Rudy
Following the tragedy of Original Sin, what becomes of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier? Find out in this new ongoing series.
As we begin, Bucky is no longer the man we thought we know. He’s no longer a child soldier, nor is he a brainwashed assassin; he’s not a legacy hero and he is not a clandestine operative for good. No, Bucky is now the “Man on the Wall,” the most important secret agent of all time, going to the deepest depths and farthest reaches of the galaxy to protect us from dangers we never need know existed — ones too big for even the Avengers, and almost always representing a larger moral quandary. Bucky’s life has been so wrapped up in violence, in pulling triggers and allowing that to be a defining aspect for his life, that traveling to other world’s and assassinating potential invaders shouldn’t be that big of a moral quandary… right?
If you can’t tell, “Winter Soldier” is a dark book. At its onset, it asks a dangerous question: who is Bucky Barnes? It may seem simple, but with a multi-faceted character who returned to comics in a tumultuous state after near permanent death, Bucky is anything but. I often see Bucky as an eternally tragic figure, someone whose life is completely out of his control, and the book seems to match that; after all, the first thing we see of Bucky is him on his knees and in chains. Bucky is one of those characters that, even though its made for some great stories, you almost wish he’d been allowed to stay dead — we brought him back to be propped up and knocked down again, the eternal object of our schadenfreude, but one of the mission statements of this book seems to want Bucky to take charge of his life, to be the arbiter of his own destiny. It just so happens that the way we find him doing this is with guns and bullets.
As such, his actions are entirely questionable. We’ve been conditioned to accept Bucky as a hero through all the ups and downs of his life, but the amoral position of Man on the Wall finds Bucky walking an all too dangerous line. In a different hero you might be able to lean on a certain amount of character to keep things at bay, but here it’s shown that Bucky specifically needs someone with him to help stay in check — which is done in both a humorous way and a rather poignant moment of an ostensibly broken man reaching out for help. It’s interesting to see that a character who has consistently been defined by the roles others heap upon him finding himself unsure if he can go at it alone; it’s a telling moment, but it paints Bucky as no less tragic.
In this way, it’s easy to see how this book fits into Ales Kot’s oeuvre in discussing what he refers to as the “war meme.” Kot has written books focused on characters locked in some form of eternal combat for some time now, whether overtly or not; there’s “ZERO” that feels like the most relatable series to this proximally, and of course “Secret Avengers” where the war is hidden in the shadows (and which once featured Bucky). Writing a conflicted Bucky seems natural for Kot, and while the big action set pieces of this book are captivating it’s more the quiet moments between Bucky and former partner/current not-sidekick Daisy Johnson that sing; casual discussions over the fate of the universe are the most revealing, and witty banter come off as more of a defense or coping mechanism that helps Bucky retain his humanity, even when lost among the stars.
Which isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom. It’s actually quite funny, and very Kot-ian in the use of references to help paint a more broad picture. The Sacred Reznor? Planets Syro and Mer-Z-Bow? It’s not exactly subtle; Kot wears his heart and influences pinned to his sleeve, and while I’d still say the book is decidedly dark and that Bucky is the epitome of the anti-hero, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still aspects of Steranko-esque grooves or 60’s Steed and Peel spy antics present within as well — it’s just that here Steed and Peel fire sniper rifles at world leaders from a few moons away.Continued below
It also helps that Kot is the kind of imaginative writer that can give this series the audacity that it needs, thanks of course in part to the unholy talents of Marco Rudy. I say unholy because, really, Rudy must’ve sold his soul for the skills which are on display in this book. The book is entirely surreal; entirely painted, the brush strokes give the book an other-worldly quality to it that matches the setting of the book quite well. Visually the book calls out to us that we’re off on an adventure, and following Rudy down the many rabbit holes he’s created is incredibly enticing; we’re seeing new planets, new species, new things lost in the dreams we forget upon waking — all placed on the page here for us as the Marvel Universe expands ever outward, and it’s certainly intriguing to see what could be Marvel’s most cosmic book yet.
What’s wonderful about the pages of the book is that, even as they are presented to us in a finished and printed comic they seem incomplete — like they’re waiting for something specific: the reader. That may sounds pretentious, but the active involvement of the reader in following Bucky around the galaxy and beyond seems required here. Rudy’s composition weaves different webs of understanding, colored with wonderfully unnatural blues and greens to disassociate us from a more typical four-color palette; and when the reds and whites and blacks come, they’re all the more striking. Rudy uses red particularly well, whether to highlight and isolate a particular element of violence or even to bring Bucky more into focus, all of which helps to emphasize the aspects of war and culturally accepted violence that dominate the narrative.
Of course, as you may have gleaned from the title, “Winter Soldier’s” biggest selling point to me is that it is the most ambitious title I’ve seen from Marvel (or DC) in some time. The reason for this is because it bunks and avoids all traditional known aspects of company-owned comics starring major, prominent characters; while the “indie-ization” of Big Two books has oft been mentioned as a predominant factor in comics while more and more independent creators come in to take alternative takes on traditional properties, “Winter Soldier” takes it one step further than most. What Kot and Rudy have done here is staggering in its bravado, in its sheer aspiration, and its something to behold, and it completely redefines what we typically expect from a comic that receives said indie-ization — i.e., a book like, say, “Secret Avengers.”
Because you see, “Winter Soldier” isn’t like any other comic from Marvel right now. It’s completely non-traditional, it looks the part and it wears that identity proudly. The painted art takes it a step beyond what we’re in any way used to, and the way this art drives the narrative is atypical even for books using “Marvel Style” creation (i.e., the process in which the writer provides a loose outline, the writer creates the book and the writer comes back to add dialogue). That more collaborative angle changes things decidedly; it’s almost easy to see what aspects of the book are Kot-driven and which ones are Rudy-driven, as each creator is leaving such a signature stamp within the book that you imagine them almost as one person, or operating with some form of telekinetic link. “Winter Soldier” looks and feels like two artists collaborating to create a challenging read, and the results speak for themselves.
However, as much as I look at the book in awe, “Winter Soldier’s” swagger is also its main detriment. While I would imagine the comic would be embraced more as an actual creator-owned, indie title, at a Big Two book it stands out as somewhat of an aberration, for better or for worse. It’s easy to see both the positives and negatives to what Kot and Rudy are attempting to do — on the one hand, the free-form narrative allows for a story that feels ginormous, something that matches the “Man on the Wall” narrative for a character fighting the biggest, baddest monsters before we even hear about them; Rudy’s beautiful and flowing artwork colors the book in such a way that everything always feels ethereal, completely otherworldly. Everything is Big Picture, sometimes literally, and it’s easy to get lost in the space. This same free-spirit also acts against the book, though, as we sacrifice story for character; while the narrative of the book is very clear, the people in it get muddled within. At times characters are otherwise unrecognizable, only slightly identifiable by dialogue, and at other times their actions become slightly difficult to follow, a flaw that comes into focus most clearly in the underwater sequence with Namor — Rudy does a wonderful iteration of what its like to be underwater and unable to see clearly, but it feels like that realism sacrifices other aspects of the book.Continued below
Interestingly enough, part of this seems specific to the absence of more actual, firm pen lines. Fans of Rudy’s who remember his phenomenal work in “Marvel Knights: Spider-Man” will remember that the book mixed paintings with collages and penciled sequences, and the brush strokes specifically replacing hard lines through most of “Winter Soldier” seem to be the clearest point of departure from that book. It creates something quite wonderful to look at, but again, it’s a double-edged sword for something you read; some sequences suffer in the characterization, though for the most part the painted aspect of the book creates a lush and engrossing environment. The book’s opening sequence is a particularly exciting sequence, one that plays to Rudy’s strengths, and the parallel between art and design are put to great use towards a very literal opening salvo.
I have nothing but faith in the future of Bucky’s adventures here in “Winter Soldier.” As a book about a deceptive character, we’re given a strong first entry point into what his world looks like now; add in the potentially unreliable narrator looming over it all and we’ve got a spy-in-space story that looks like it’ll turn into quite the travelogue. Rudy and Kot together make a strong team, one of clear symbiosis where each creator feeds off the other’s abilities, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any other ongoing series at Marvel or DC that will push the limit as much as this one assumedly can and will. That being said, though, the book may take a little while to comfortably that balance between its epic scale and readability; while it’s something that the book will improve upon as we all fall more into the routine of the series, at its onset the thing that sets the book apart the most may push it out of reach for some.
Still, I would challenge, perhaps even outright dare most comics to be half as brave as “Winter Soldier.”
Final Verdict: 7.5 – A strong debut, perhaps a polarizing one, but definitely something to return to