Brubaker’s opening salvo is a meta message to any lapsed fans that he recognized what had come before him, while acknowledging that it wasn’t what they wanted to see yet again. In this way, the series captures the tone that has consistently worked best for the character, without its actual plots retreading over well-worn territory. The book’s cast, a combination of original characters and new spins on old favorites, offers something for everyone. After a number of false starts in the early 2000s, Captain America was firing on all cylinders once more as a massive success both creatively and commercially. Not bad for a character on the brink of obsolescence only two years prior.
One of the most significant developments for Captain America during this time occurs outside of Brubaker’s solo series, in Marvel’s 2006 summer event, Civil War. Written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven, Civil War is premised on a split within the ranks of Marvel’s superhero community: those for a law requiring registration with the United States government of all super-powered individuals, and those against. Leading the charge in support of the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA) is Tony Stark. Steve Rogers, believing it is a violation of civil liberties and an intrusion into the private lives of American civilians, is opposed. This is pitched as something of a surprising role-reversal, but given Cap’s turbulent history with government policy, falls well within his established character. Reasonably, the two old friends, having fought side-by-side for years, should be able to sit down and carve out an acceptable middle ground. But this being the Marvel Universe, the obligatory fisticuffs ensue. As “big event” storytelling goes, this one was off to a decent start.
Sadly, the strong initial characterization unravels as Civil War progresses. Captain America is beaten, not because he falls in battle, and not because he is swayed by the cause of the pro-registration forces. Both would have been logical outcomes. No, Cap loses because he throws in the towel, feeling he has lost the faith of the American people. It botches the execution by positing that service to the government and service to the public are mutually exclusive courses. However, one’s behavior can be in accordance or in defiance of the prevailing opinion on either side without losing credibility.
Captain America already knew that his was not the popular position before the first punch was thrown. Holding their ground and surviving the battles was the easy part for the anti-registration forces. Winning the war of ideologies was always going to be an uphill battle. Pulling back as soon as they managed to do more than merely defend their position flies in the face of what they were trying to accomplish, and calls into question how committed Cap was to the cause in the first place. This comes across like a misreading of the character. Inexplicably claiming that his side has lost sight of what they are fighting for and caving to public pressure (especially given the notoriously flaky general populace of the Marvel U) makes Captain America’s defeat a frustratingly unearned moment.
There are worse ways to construct a story than the event-driven nature of Civil War. It’s high concept as an analogue for contemporary government policy — with the SRA functioning as the Patriot Act on steroids — certainly made for an interesting premise. Unfortunately, the characters took a backseat to the plot to such an extent that it felt as though they were being awkwardly hammered into place in order to hit preordained storytelling beats. Few are the scenes more outrageous, for example, than reporter Sally Floyd’s accusation that Cap is out of touch with what’s important because he doesn’t know what MySpace is–to which he offers no defense. When all was said and done, the whole affair left a bad taste in the mouth.
Leading up to these events, Brubaker portrays Captain America as a man no longer able be demoralized and laid low by the reality of a corrupt American bureaucracy. At the same time, the notion of an uncompromising, self-assured Steve Rogers falling out of favor with the American people is not entirely without precedent, as Brubaker does toy with the idea of what Captain America stands for in the 21st century. Working alongside the likes of Sharon Carter and Nick Fury in S.H.I.E.L.D., the super soldier frequently finds himself pulled in the direction of the super spy. Aided by veteran penciler Steve Epting, whose reinvented style echoes the surreal, otherworldly quality of the immortal 1960s illustrator Jim Steranko, the series takes on a heavy espionage vibe. The Captain is no stranger to these types of covert missions. Still, he must ask himself whether what he is good at is how the people are best-served — if he should be effecting change from behind-the-scenes, or on the front lines, like his status as America’s colorful “mascot” implies.
The matter is put to rest in dramatic fashion in The Death of the Captain America. Coming on the heels of his surrender at the conclusion of Civil War, Cap is gunned down whilst being taken into federal custody. The fallout of Steve’s apparent assassination (as orchestrated by a decidedly-not-dead Red Skull) allows Brubaker to explore the possibility that Captain America has more value as a martyr than as a living (as in, breathing) legend. Later, the Skull sowing economic discord–as part of a conspiracy to “buy” the presidency through a puppet Senator–is eerily prescient of the 2008 economic collapse.
Later, social inequality provides a topical issue for Brubaker to mine in 2010’s The Two Americas. A keen parallel is drawn between the nation’s increasing civil unrest and Captain America’s own complicated history. Steve Rogers imitator William Burnside is a good man warped by a failed experiment to recreate Captain America during the 1950s. His world view born of chemical and mental manipulations mixed with Cold War paranoia, Burnside is not without his supporters. He finds common ground with Gruenwald-era domestic terrorist group the Watchdogs and exploits grassroots movements stirring in the wake of the Great Recession. Through Burnside, Brubaker presents a hypothetical study in what Captain America could have been had Steve Rogers’ story ended in World War II — and how this may not be so far removed from a society that feels like the authentic Cap has deserted them.
Once his eight-year run wrapped in 2012, Ed Brubaker’s legacy on Captain America is the perfect blend of thematics and theatrics. It’s one of comics’ rare, uninterpreted achievements in serialized storytelling that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and then exits the stage. Moreover, it answers the question of whether Captain America has a place in the modern age (MySpace be damned). Controversial at times in its social commentary, but nothing if not contemporary. The era remains powerfully relevant well after the specific points in history have passed.
Next time: A coda.