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Marvel Comics is a poorer place now that this issue has come out, because it is Ed Brubaker’s last. It isn’t just the end of his Winter Soldier run. This is his last assignment for Marvel as he now goes on to pursue more independent pursuits in comics and other media. It’s a sad thing for fans of his Marvel work, and this issue ends on an appropriately sad note.
This final story has pit Bucky Barnes against his Soviet protege Leo Novokov with a brainwashed Black Widow in the middle. Using Natasha like this has really elevated the threat of Novokov, who otherwise may not have seemed as dangerous to Bucky. The role of Bucky’s old student naturally gives the impression that Novokov is dangerous but less dangerous than Bucky himself. By giving him and headstart on Bucky and putting Natasha in his clutches, that more than makes up for the perceived deficit. Some may have a problem with Natasha playing somewhat of a damsel-in-distress role for this story, but given how often in Brubaker’s run that Natasha has been the one to save or protect Bucky, I think he’s earned this one.
One of the things I appreciate about this story is that it doesn’t take place in a bubble. Black Widow doesn’t belong to Bucky Barnes exclusively. Put her in danger, and there are other Marvel characters who would care. As such, Bucky isn’t alone in this story. The presences of Captain America, Hawkeye and Wolverine run the risk of overriding Bucky’s role, but Brubaker manages to actually use that to enhance Bucky as our lead character. Their natural inclination to take over the search for Black Widow just pushes Bucky to try harder on his own. Thankfully, this isn’t the purely self-centered behavior of someone who feels things are his own fault and has something to prove. There’s definitely a degree of that to it, but it’s made up for by the truth that Bucky also understands he knows Novokov better than the others. As compromised as he is by the whole situation, he’s still the person who stands the best chance of resolving it.
If there is a weakness in this story, it probably revolves around Leo Novokov. I said that endangering Black Widow made up for his deficiencies as a threat to Bucky, but there are also some deficiencies to just him as a villainous character. I like the premise of him, but the character himself is rather bland. Visually, he’s a bit generic with too many similarities to Bucky. I’m sure there are good reasons for his appearance to not be dramatically different from Bucky’s, but it really doesn’t work in his favor. There is nothing distinct about him, and if he were to show up again, readers wouldn’t likely recognize him. His personality is not very developed either. Yes, he wants to hurt his former mentor. But that’s a pretty stock goal for a villain. A good amount of time has been spent fleshing out Bucky and Natasha’s past in this series, but nothing of the kind was done for Novokov despite him entering the role of Winter Soldier’s main villain. Despite being trained by Bucky, we never got any flashbacks to that time or really any clarification of what kind of relationship they had. That absence dilutes the effectiveness of this kind of story. What fun is it having the student go after the teacher if we never really knew what they were like together as student and teacher?
We are left with the possibility that Novokov could be used again to conflict with Bucky, but I don’t see there being much reason for any future writers to use him. At least, not without some heavy alterations to make him more distinct.
Finally, there is the end, and even I will admit to it being heartbreaking. See, I’m quite manly. ...Seriously. Anyway, it’s a bittersweet ending that leans heavily on the bitter. The day is saved, but our hero loses big. As a horrible person, I tend to like when things turn out this way. It’s just more interesting. Bucky’s decision to leave it alone and accept it as the new reality is also the kind of heroism I really go for. It’s self-sacrificial and very understandable given both his and Natasha’s backgrounds. More objectively speaking, it also gives writers more freedom to take them in new directions now that Brubaker is done with them. This is a good ending and a good call.
I am also going to miss Butch Guice. I’m especially going to miss Buice’s Black Widow. He comes off as just such a natural with this character. He’s so great with her body language and her movements during the action scenes. I think it’s obvious who his favorite character is in this series.
I consider this the true end of Ed Brubaker’s historic Captain America run. After all, it did all begin with a story arc titled “the Winter Soldier” and any summary of Brubaker’s run would arguably talk more about Bucky Barnes than Steve Rogers. In fact, Winter Soldier has been a truer continuation of Brubaker’s first Captain America series than the Heroic Age relaunch. That relaunch was the weakest of Brubaker’s work, leaning more toward the superhero aspects of Captain America at the expense of what had been the stronger and more defining characteristics of what Brubaker had been doing. Those could be found instead in Winter Soldier, where there remained a heavy emphasis on politics, war and espionage inside of superhero universe. And this is where you can find the end of the story Brubaker has been telling from the start. In broad strokes, this run has been the Rise and Fall of Bucky Barnes. We saw him resurrected as a Soviet agent, rescued and redeemed from that fate, serve for a time as Captain America and ultimately be forced back alone into the cold as a new kind of Winter Soldier. This has been one of the best Captain America stories ever. There’s no doubt about it.