Comic book fans, to paraphrase the old Bob Kane comic, are a superstitous lot.
Change — at least of the big, sweeping characterization variety — doesn’t come without vitriol, unless it is carefully built up and covered with in-universe logic. Legacy characters like Kyle Rayner and Connor Hawke — who burnt up the charts in the ’90s upon their release — have since been retconned, with the sterling sentinels of the Silver Age reassuming their heroic mantles.
So what happens if a death sticks, and readers are satisfied that a new hero has taken on the reins?
Because that may be what has happened with Ed Brubaker and Captain America.
Now, the return of Steve Rogers has been anticipated for a long time coming, but it still came off as surprising when Marvel, via the New York Daily News, announced today that he would return from the dead, after being shot just over two and a half years ago following the megaevent Civil War. Yet this resurrection, many fans on this site have noted, feels a bit rushed.
A bit “rushed”? This coming from the notoriously change-averse comic reading population? Say what?
Let’s compare this to other resurrections. Green Lantern Hal Jordan had an immensely vocal fan base known as Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team, or HEAT, who cried out against his sudden turn into villainy as Parallax. With Judd Winick’s take on Kyle Rayner slowly losing character to the vast reaches of space opera, Hal’s return revitalized the series with a character-centric view of the Green Lantern Corps. Even the return of Barry Allen in Flash: Rebirth — a character that most people under the age of 25 have only seen in cameos or flashbacks — had a distinct purpose: Wally West has been seen by some as a broken character, saddled with two superpowered kids whose very existence overpowered the series and changed Wally’s status quo from superspeed adventures to The Incredibles-style family problems.
But Ed Brubaker’s Captain America… it’s been different.
Many fans out there were vocal about the resurrection of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, lashing out that Bucky was right up there with Uncle Ben and Thomas and Martha Wayne as characters who needed to stay dead. But Brubaker kept on the course, revealing the hardened attitude that Bucky had always had, and letting that cynicism grow into the character of the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed Russian assassin who conducted acts of terror for decades around the world.
Yet while Steve Rogers began Bucky’s redemption by using the Cosmic Cube to allow him to “remember who you are,” that overall shift from assassin to champion of the greater good came after Steve was killed. The shield had been offered elsewhere, to Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, who quickly refused the burden. And Bucky, in the grips of rage that his mentor had been lost, went to terminate the one man he saw responsible: Tony Stark. But he was stopped by the revelation that Steve had forseen the event of his death, and planned for it — by having Bucky continue his fight. It was having Bucky assume the star-spangled uniform and fight the Red Skull that solidified him as a hero: Cap’s legacy was literally on his shoulders, and Bucky would do his best not to tarnish that symbol as long as he wore it. There would be times where Bucky would don his Winter Soldier uniform, when desperate times called for dirty measures, but arguably Steve’s absence had even more of an impact than Steve’s actions, upon making this assassin a force for good.
And that’s Captain America’s problem now.
Having this cynical black ops warrior struggle to live up to Steve Roger’s innate decency and optimism works. Having a character with different strengths — a bionic arm that can be operated by remote control, training as an infiltrator and killer — and weaknesses — a lack of Super Soldier serum, a susceptibility to brainwashing — also works. Having a different girlfriend — the Black Widow — and different relationships with Steve’s colleagues like the Falcon and the Avengers works, too. In short, Brubaker did his job too well: he successfully “sold” an untested character to a notoriously change-averse group, and had him replace an established brand. And I think because of that, to Marvel’s chagrin, there will be many vocal fans crying out for the fantastic stories that only Bucky Barnes — not Steve Rogers — as Captain America can tell.