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Ed Brubaker

Captain America #603

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cap603Captain America’s a rather curious blend these days, mixing provocative, big statements with a distinctly old-school tone and feel. Granted, the recent controversy over the use of Republican slogans in the racist Watchdog movement’s demonstration was an unintentional way of bringing one of the book’s lower-key arcs back into the spotlight, but there’s a general canniness to the way the old and new are combined here, which doesn’t always play out in the way that would be expected. The resolution to the ‘Death of Captain America’ scenario had the retrograde step for the book being the headline attraction, with Steve Rogers’ return all over the news-stands, while the unexpected element of allowing Bucky to retain the title and shield was relegated to a footnote. The outcry over the first part of Two Americas has shown the delicate balance that Brubaker is striking, injecting modern relevance into an apparently traditional tale of Captain America battling a separatist movement.

This second instalment continues to present an outwardly conventional face, with Bucky’s plan to infiltrate the Watchdogs going awry and the insane 1950s duplicate of Steve Rogers receiving an unexpected addition to his arsenal, but there a degree of subversiveness under the surface. Much of the conventional feeling comes from the artistic partnership of Luke Ross and Butch Guice. It’s hard to pinpoint whether the pencils or Guice’s heavy, near-noir inks imbue the book with it’s old-school vibe, but there’s an interesting feeling of the middle of the twentieth century in the Falcon’s attempted flight trough the fire escape of a run-down hotel. The narrative has given the fifties Cap the upper hand, and the art reflects this by adding an element of his lost era to the action.

What sets the book above its pulp inspirations is the occasional moments of sophistication, such as the 50s Cap’s fleeting recognition that the world he desires is long gone or continued re-writing of Bucky’s origin to increase the character’s plausibility. The stand-alone components of Brubaker’s Captain America may sometimes slip of the radar, devoid of reference to the broader Marvel Universe, but there’s a steady vein of richness running through the apparently inconsistent book.

Julian Hazeldine | 22nd February, 2010

Captain America: Who Will Wield The Shield? #1

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captainamericawhowillwieldWith the return of Steve Rogers announced, most people assumed that the question posed in the title of this book was a bit of a foregone conclusion. However, anyone who felt a bit smug about that gets to eat their own words now, because as it turns out, the answer wasn’t what everyone expected. And since this does take place after an issue that isn’t actually out yet, I’ll extend a spoiler warning: stop reading now if you’re waiting for Reborn #6.

The rest of you, though, can keep reading.

So. The news that Rogers won’t immediately re-assume the role of Captain America was, for what it’s worth, something of a twist. Whether this is a genuine act of deference or merely killing time to allow for a more public return during Siege is less clear – but for now, we’re free to enjoy the potential stories it opens up. Will Steve take on a new identity? Will Bucky give it up before the classic Avengers team reassembles? It isn’t immediately clear, and that, in itself, is an impressive quality in a comic, because it means that Brubaker’s plotting and characters are well-formed enough to throw doubt on company character politics – even when there’s a Captain America movie in the works.

The issue itself, while posed as an epilogue to Reborn, is actually more of a segue back into the regular series, with Brubaker writing and Guice on art. The content, though, marks it out as something particularly special, with a fantastic grasp on the role of Captain America and how it applies to both Bucky and Rogers. Brubaker infuses Rogers in particular with an unusual sense of melancholy about being Captain America – and not just because of what he thinks is in store for Bucky if he re-assumes the role. There’s one fantastic scene where Steve watches Bucky in action, and when he steps in himself, it’s shown as not so much as a natural response, more as an entirely mechanical one. Would that all superhero comics were capable of such nuance.

Although Reborn ultimately came over as a bit underwhelming, this issue reminds us exactly how Brubaker managed to make Captain America into such a high-selling title in the first place. Yes, it’s been out a couple of weeks now, but despite the title of this one-shot, it’s worth picking up for plenty of reasons far beyond the mere plot it contains. It’s really the kind of character piece that can be enjoyed over and over.

Incognito #6

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incognito06It’s fair to say that Incognito hasn’t quite managed to live up to the promise shown by a thrilling first couple of issues – never really seeming quite sure what sort of story it was trying to tell, nor what its tone should be, nor how much of the wider backstory and world that Brubaker has clearly come up with should be thrown in together at once (a lesson it could perhaps learn from its Icon stablemate Powers, which eked out the major players in its superhero world in a careful manner for a good year or two). It’s led to a preceding couple of issues in which an almost bewildering array of characters have shown up and backstory been explained, but where very little of the “here and now” plot has actually felt like it’s progressed in a compelling manner.

This final issue makes clear that pacing, really, has been the problem all along – because this is probably the best issue since the first, but it also works its way through as much actual story as the previous four or five issues managed put together. It’s as if Brubaker spent so long dithering on where he was going with the book that he suddenly realised he only had an issue left to actually go there (indeed, his admission in the closing notes that the delay and extended page count were due to simply not being able to reach the end of the story quickly enough would seem to testify to this). As such, while being filled with twists and turns aplenty, the final chapter almost leaves a reader of the previous five issues feeling a little cheated – it turns out we weren’t really reading a noir drama filled with uncomfortable moral decisions. We weren’t even reading a complete character arc (I’d made the assumption that Zack Overkill’s tale would be relatively self-contained).

It turns out, in fact, that these six issues are an origin story. Brubaker’s introduced us to a creator-owned, open-plan ongoing setup involving a morally ambiguous but essentially root-for-able Punisher-esque anti-hero. And there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly not as it plays out here – it just doesn’t feel like the point (and I mean that in two senses of the word) we originally thought we were heading for. Incognito initially promised to do something new, but you can see the obvious influences seeping out from every page – and again, that doesn’t make it a bad comic (it’s so well-crafted, particularly visually, that it’s impossible to say that), just a little bit of a letdown. Although perhaps my expectations were unfair – Brubaker filled the series’ backmatter with essays on classic pulp for a reason, so perhaps he can’t be blamed for revealing that he was actually setting up a pulp hero of his own all along – but the book’s style in those early issues certainly didn’t suggest that in any obvious way. The mini as a whole is merely a flawed, rather than failed experiment – and a cautiously positive introduction to the future adventures of Overkill – but I can’t escape the feeling that it could have been rather more special.

Seb Patrick | 4th September, 2009

Daredevil #500

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daredevil500Marvel’s raft of high-numbered anniversary issues continues with this week’s Daredevil #500. It might be a fairly transparent renumbering stunt, but if I’m being honest, I prefer reverting to the original numbering over restarting from a new #1, so I’m going to let it slide without complaining.

The issue caps off Ed Brubaker’s run on the character, which followed Brian Bendis’ wildly popular turn. If I’m being honest, it’s my opinion that Brubaker’s run didn’t really live up to its predecessor, and only became interesting in the last year or so when things became a little more self-consciously superheroic. Still, Andy Diggle has already got some good Marvel comics under his belt, so I’m not sad to see the baton handed to him.

But before then – Brubaker gets to deliver his finale. It was fairly obvious from the start where this storyline was going in terms of a “shocking revelation”, but that makes the realisation of it no less brilliant. Brubaker spent a long time setting up his board, from the White Tiger and Black Tarantula, to Fisk, Foggy, Milla and Dakota. Seeing the culmination of that reminds you why Brubaker is one of Marvel’s most valued writers, and it’s just a pity it took so long to get to this point. The new status quo for Daredevil isn’t a million miles away from what Bendis did with the character, but it does feel like it’ll explore new territory, rather than simply continue the tone of the book – and if we’re being honest, that change in direction doesn’t come too soon.

As good as the writing is, it’s Lark who truly excels with some superb action scenes that display their sense of acrobatic movement exactly as a Daredevil book should. The issue is interspersed with flashback scenes, and one in particular, to Matt’s childhood, gave me a genuine jolt, when the art style switched to Romita Jr.-esque “Man Without Fear” look, apparently Klaus Janson’s inks over Lark’s pencils, although you’d be hard pressed to say it wasn’t Romita Jr. himself. It’s not unusual to concentrate more on the writing than the art when reading a comic, but that makes it a much nicer surprise when the art alone manages to shock you.

The rest of the issue is rounded out with a new story by Ann Nocenti and David Aja, a reprint of Daredevil #171, a pin-up gallery and a cover gallery of all 500 issues. Since it culminates a multi-year storyline, the lead story might not be particularly interesting to readers who turn up for the anniversary alone, but the rest of the issue should more than justify the price. Definitely worth a look.

James Hunt | 20th August, 2009

The Marvels Project #1

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marvels 1After drawing so much of the inspiration for his run on Captain America from the character’s golden age roots, it comes as little surprise to find Ed Brubaker venturing back in time to take a fuller look at Marvel’s take on the second world war. Using the street-level narration of the book’s namesake, it s beguiling blend of retelling and character drama, but some elements of unease about the concept make it too early to judge the venture.

Dr Thomas Holloway takes a look around the unusual age in which he lives, his eyes opened by a gift from a late patient. Meanwhile, a number of forces are unknowingly baiting each other to push further and further at the boundaries of humanity. There’s much to enjoy here, and it’s easy to overlook the way Holloway narrates events he doesn’t yet know off, due to the smoothness it gives the book. The tone is generally consistent, although my inner historian was somewhat disquieted over the scene where the UK’s decoders uncover information of interest to the US. (British sigint was in generally poor shape pre-Bletchley, with the triumphs of Room 40 a distant memory, and decrypts certainly wouldn’t have been handed over to a foreign power in such a fashion.) The writer skilfully manages to weave action into an issue of set-up without it looks gratuitous, and it’s a joy to see Steve Epting delivering such strong work. There’s enough of a difference in focus from Ultimate Origins to justify the existance of the piece, with a clear relish for period detail.

But for all the quality of writing and depth of characterisation on show here, it’s an essentially unreconstructed view of a forties propaganda device. The joy of Captain America is the way the narrative acknowledges the “man out of time” way in which such a figure is presented in contemporary storytelling, and for all the Nazi soldiers that popular culture products have blown away in recent years, the mention of Himmler suggests that Brubaker is hoping to create a resonance with real-world horrors. It’s a laudable goal, but the work hasn’t yet reached the level to back it up. Hopefully once the themes of the overall story become evident, some of these misgivings will subside- it’s a well written and superbly drawn book, but it hasn’t yet paid its entry fee for the terrain in which it walks.

Julian Hazeldine | 10th August, 2009

Captain America: Reborn #1

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captainamericareborn01[We don't normally say it, but since this is a big event: Beware. Spoilers are ahead.]

Okay. There’s this series, right. It’s intricately plotted, tightly dialogued and it isn’t afraid of playing the long game when it comes to handling its myriad secrets and mysteries, leaving its fans hanging for months, even years before revealing the whole picture. It’s truly unique in its field, with a multi-faceted cast and a brilliantly consistent level of quality. Just when you get a handle on where it’s going, it yanks the rug from under you. Somehow, against the odds, it’s managed to stretch beyond the genre-ghetto that spawned it and truly enter the public consciousness without ever compromising the singular vision of its creators. And we all know what that series is.

Yes, I like Lost as much as the next person. And the next person is apparently Ed Brubaker, because for reasons I can’t begin to comprehend, he’s managed to replicate one of Lost’s most memorable plot points wholesale. And we’re not just talking homage, here, we’re talking “oh, that’s a good idea, I can use it.” And we know this because the issue delights in using the same wording – that’s THE SAME, not SIMILAR – that Lost itself uses to distill its often complicated concepts into simple, comprehensible slices of dialogue. “Steve Rogers has come unstuck in time,” says Armin Zola. “[They] kept referring to me as The Constant,” says Sharon Carter. “We have to move the island,” says The Falcon. Well, maybe not that last one, things are already starting to blur a little.

Now, let’s be fair – Lost didn’t invent the “unstuck in time” concept. Slaughterhouse Five did it way earlier, for one. But it didn’t have a “Constant” like Lost did and Cap does, nor was Slaughterhouse Five the basis of a massively prominent TV series watched by millions over the last 5 years. Let me be clear: I am in no way questioning Brubaker’s credibility as a writer – everyone gets their ideas from somewhere, after all. I am, however, questioning his timing and judgement. Was now the right time to do an  “unstuck in time” plot? And was there really no better way to refer to these concepts than the same way Lost does? The story itself isn’t bad, but it undoubtedly suffers when considered against the wider cultural context of its release.

And what of the story? Well, it’s… okay. Hitch’s pencils are as good as ever, though the scenes of WW2-era Cap make Reborn look far too similar to the Millar/Hitch Ultimates for comfort. In a book where the originality of the writing already feels compromised, it doesn’t help to have large swathes of the artwork looking like re-purposed Ultimates offcuts. The prominent use of both Mighty and Dark Avengers cast members takes the book outside Captain America’s usual insular world, justifying the story’s spinning-out into a miniseries, but the additional grounding in the Marvel Universe means that it lacks the timeless quality of Brubaker’s run to date. It’s all a bit, well, underwhelming.

One thing you can’t fault it for, however, is delivering what it was supposed to. If you want to know what happened to Steve Rogers, well good news: there’s no dodging it here. And the question of how they’ll get him from where he is to where he should be does sound like a story I want to read. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the rest of the series can give me something to worry about that takes precedence over how similar its plot points are to Lost. It’s not impossible, but really, that shouldn’t have been this big of a distraction in the first place.

James Hunt | 2nd July, 2009

Captain America #50

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It’s hard to know what to make of Captain America at the moment. Ed Brubaker’s long term planning for the book has been exemplary, with the audacious move of restoring Bucky to life being followed with an even more attention-grabbing move. The playoff for killing Steve Rogers was enormous, both in media profile for the title and the storytelling momentum that swung to book through two years’ worth of stories without the need to pause for breath.

And then the pace began to slacken. Bucky Barnes’ adventures seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, endlessly dwelling on his past. Almost as if the book was waiting for a certain issue number.

It’s impossible to write about ‘Captain America #599′ without considering the wider implications for the character of various hints from Marvel as to the content of next month’s spectacular. It may sound rather shallow to hold Brubaker’s run in less esteem if he has indeed always intended to raise Rogers from the dead, but the writer’s work will be viewed differently if his radicalism does prove to be a front.

The appeal of Brubaker’s run, and the reason why the writer has had so much success in drawing in readers with no particular attachment to Cap, was that he treated the property as a living, breathing entity. Of all Marvel’s properties, Rogers most resembled the Fantastic Four, who for decades have held little appeal for readers due to their static status quo. Over time, this has become a self-perpetuating view, with any actual change to their set-up being dismissed by readers as a temporary gimmick, and abandoned by the publisher when it fails to fuel sales.

This issue itself gives grounds for optimism, with last month’s return of energy to the writing maintained, as Barnes considers over half a century of birthdays. Given the tendency to melancholy the book has shown in recent months, it’s refreshing to see Cap’s musings being interspersed with comparatively light-hearted action, as he fights off an assassination attempt in modern-day New York. Another novel development is the inclusion of the Avengers in the book. While Brubaker has obviously enjoyed his work’s isolation from the Marvel Universe, a story about how his character has grow into his place in the world wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by his team, and the writer sensibly breaks his unwritten rule. At the risk of sounding rude, this issue is a very well crafted brick. It just remains to see what the finished house looks like…

Julian Hazeldine | 25th May, 2009

Daredevil #117

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Daredevil’s current arc – Return of the King – sees Brubaker really hitting his stride on Daredevil, though it’s interesting how this happens just as he loses steam on Captain America, and now that his departure from Daredevil is confirmed.

It’s something of a concern to me that all any writer seems to be able to do with Daredevil is shuffle around the same combination of characters – it always comes back to Bullseye, Elektra and The Kingpin – but to Brubaker’s credit, he’s approaching things with a slightly new angle – a genuinely repentant Kingpin enlisting Daredevil’s help to enact his final revenge on the criminal underworld that betrayed him.

It makes for some great material for the character, and over the last two issues, the comic could more accurately be called “The Kingpin” rather than “Daredevil” – but that suits me just fine. Arcs from the Brubaker run’s latter-day stories weave in and out of this title, from Lady Bullseye, to Milla, to Dakota North, and it really rewards readers who stuck with the book during Brubaker’s initial warming-up period. From the Kingpin to Master Izo to Milla’s parents, not a single character in the book is treated badly, and the supporting cast of the series is as strong as it’s been in years.

As ever, lark’s artwork is fantastic, and he does particularly well with some snow-storm fights, which give the arc a unique feel, distinguishing it from the usual grey, rainy scenes we’ve become used to reading in Daredevil. On every level, the series is at its best since Bendis’ heyday, and that promises to leave incoming writer Andy Diggle with some positively huge shoes to fill. Following not one, but two critically lauded long-term runs on the series? The anticipation of that alone is enough to keep me on-board. For now, though, it’s time to simply enjoy Brubaker’s run all beginning to culminate masterfully, before he moves on.

James Hunt | 31st March, 2009

The Sunday Pages #52

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This week, we serve up more capsule reviews for Captain America #48, Dark Reign: Elektra #1, Thunderbolts #130 and X-Men: Sword of the Braddocks #1.

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Incognito #1

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Sometimes a comic just exudes an air of class in your hands, before you’ve even opened to the first page. Despite the fact that the pairing of Brubaker and Phillips didn’t immediately excite me as much as some – I’ve read neither Criminal nor Sleeper, while the writer’s work-for-hire hasn’t tended to overlap with my own reading habits – the combination of almost universal exhortation to buy it from creators on Twitter (yeah, I’m cool, I Twit with the comicscenti), and a high-concept hook to die for (the story of what happens to a former supervillain on witness protection when he suddenly gets his powers back), this screamed “must-read” as soon I heard about it. And feeling that this was a book to pay attention to was only helped by picking up a decent-sized package ($3.50 isn’t cheap, but that’s for twenty-three pages of story plus some nice backup material – and, this being Icon, no house ads) with a lovely, classy cover.

And thankfully, Incognito does come pretty close to living up to those lofty expectations. It’s confidently constructed, with a gradual peeling away of its premise that leaves the reader eager to learn more (aside from a first major plot beat, there’s not a huge amount of story that unfolds here, mind – it’s more about establishing mood and setting), and natural if unshowy dialogue with a strong sense of narrator’s voice. If there’s one thing that it wants for, though, it’s an array of characters with whom to identify. There’s no supporting cast to speak of – only Zack’s former and incumbent “handlers” stand out, and then by virtue of being the stereotypical “grizzled nice guy” and “young asshole” types respectively – and Zack himself, while clearly intended to engage our sympathies at some point, struggles to do in this first issue by virtue of being a former super-villain and… well, a bit of a jerk himself (not to mention one who, while you could call it a grey area if you were feeling charitable, essentially rapes a woman in the opening pages).

That’s not to say his story isn’t intriguing, merely that he’s far from the “hero” – and since there’s nobody else in the book to act as our way in, the reader is far more a detached observer than an engaged participant. That doesn’t make it a difficult read, though, and key to that is an absolutely superb turn on art from Sean Phillips. I should probably know his stuff a bit better than I do – the odd issue of Hellblazer is about all I really recall – but this is terrific, highly atmospheric stuff, helped by some great colouring from Val Staples. I’m not sure it really captures the “pulp” feel that Brubaker explains initially inspired the book – save for when Zack puts on his mask – but it’s a moody noirish look, all thick black inks, that suits it well anyway.

While lacking the “instant classic” feel of other contemporary hits like Casanova or Phonogram, there’s a definite sense that Brubaker and Phillips are on to something here – and as the opening issue of a series that looks set to put a grown-up sort of twist on superhero storytelling tropes, it feels a bit like being in on the ground floor on something like Powers or Ex Machina

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. It’ll have to work hard to steer clear of too much cliché (the “mysterious” Doctor Lester already has a rather heavy whiff of Gargunza about him), but on this evidence, Incognito is one of the first essential comics of 2009.

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Seb Patrick | 5th January, 2009

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