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Dammit.

I was really looking forward to Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker with Butch Guice on art. This is the team that brought us the aftermath of the Death of Captain America arc back in 2008, which, gimmick death doomed to reboot or not, hooked me into Captain America for the first time since I was a kid. And it kept me hooked in because it was damn good comics: interesting characters with a darker turn than many superhero comics – almost a spy story set in the Marvel Universe, although with 72% fewer Howling Commandos than most Marvel spy stories (Seriously: if a kid hides a porno mag in a Marvel book, you can count on Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan skulking in his closet to pick up the dead drop).

So I was psyched about Winter Soldier, because it put the creative band back together, in a story about a couple of powered-up secret agents working on the fringes of the 616. But ultimately, I found this first issue disappointing. Not enough to give up on it, but for a book produced by A-List talent that promised to live in the shadows, it has two things terribly wrong with it:

  • Butch Guice’s storytelling, and:
  • Gorilla with a machine gun.

Let’s start out with the positive: the general plot of this book is interesting enough for me to stick around and see where it goes in future issues. Bucky Barnes is back in his Winter Soldier identity, because after faking his death coming out of Fear Itself he wanted to work behind the scenes, not to mention he doesn’t have a Joss Whedon movie coming out in May.

Bucky and and Black Widow are teamed up to gratuitously bone and to hunt down old Cold War threats from the 80s, in this case: other Winter Soldiers kept in stasis since before the Berlin Wall came down, who someone is selling to the highest bidder. The bad news is that these Winter Soldiers are as highly-trained and deadly as Bucky. The worse news is that they’ve apparently made it to America, where someone wants to release them to wreak havoc and, based on Bucky’s behavior, to sex up our redheaded super-spies.

I (hopefully) make this sound funny, but it’s actually a fairly well-executed action spy tale with everything you’d want from such a story: disguised infiltration into a black-tie event. Jason Bourne-level hand-to-hand combat. Intelligence briefings. Hot spy fucking. All it’s missing is a breathy “Oh, James!”… which is good because the phrase, “Oh, Bucky!” during sex is not only a boner-killer, it’s a giggle-crusher.

So regardless of my tone, this is a book that, story-wise, hits everything that you’d want it to…

…and then we get to the gorilla with a machine gun.

Oh, I wasn’t kidding: after finally chasing down one of the Winter Soldier stasis tubes in Minnesota, and following a well-paced and suspenseful stealth infiltration and firefight scene… we’re shown a gorilla. Firing a machine gun. While screaming “Death to America!” In Russian. So, y’know, he’s a commie gorilla. Because a capitalist gorilla would be screaming, “Of course you can shock my testicles to test consumer electronics!”

Now, this isn’t my first trip to the rodeo; I understand the long and distinguished role of killer, intelligent apes in comic books. But it’s one thing to see one trading punches with The Flash in the middle of a hidden, hyper-evolved hidden city… it’s quite another to turn the page on a fairly straight Cold War action story (Yeah, I know that Bucky has a bionic arm, but it’s not like he got it from Galactus or anything) and see a talking monkey. In Minnesota.

And it might be hypocritical to pound on this story beat in a book by the same team who showed me Bucky fighting a MODOK, but turning the page from a straight gunfight to a tool-using ape just yanked me right out of the story. It felt like I was witnessing the aftermath of Brubaker announcing, “Yes I will take the bet that I can write this script while dangerously high!” The only way it could have felt weirder and more out of place would be if the monkey was wearing a Cheesehead cap.

Now let’s talk about the art, which is painful to me because I’m a Butch Guice fan dating back to the first Flash reboot in the 80s. And the general look of Guice’s art is as good as it ever has been: there is excellent use of shadow, there are times where his facial expressions are so realistic that I could swear he used a lightbox, and (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) he draws a damn fine raging gorilla. However, there are times in this book where the storytelling is almost shockingly bad considering Guice is an old comics pro.

There’s a tiny panel of Bucky rubbing his bionic shoulder; so tiny that it takes a minute to decipher what he’s rubbing in the first place. Why? To show us he has a bionic arm is all I can figure… and God knows that showing a dude rubbing it in a confusing picture is much more effective than showing him, y’know, using it. There’s another tiny, armpit-focused panel right after that that I could have sworn was depicting Bucky saluting. Who was he saluting? Dunno; turns out it was depicting him putting on his mask… by not showing most of his face or almost any of the mask. There’s a tiny but wide panel of Bucky’s face and the back of some dude’s head, with the some dude screaming, “Ahh!” Why? who knows; it’s a fucking face and a head. Bucky could be stabbing him, might be giving him a handjob. It’s confusing, and it doesn’t need to be… and while it’s pretty, it’s too confusing to be effective or for me to overlook. I expect, and generally get, more from Guice… and as a one-off, I choose to believe it’s because he was following a script written by a man who was baked following a friendly wager.

This is a hard book to make a judgment on, because there is a lot that is very good and effective… broken up by weird moments and storytelling decisions that make you go, “Wha fuck?” If I were you, I’d buy this book and hold onto it until issue two and read them back to back and see how it goes. Brubaker is a good enough writer and Guice a good enough artist that I can see this turning out excellent.

That said? Gorilla with a fucking machine gun. Yeah.

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