Before I start, a quick plug: I am currently accepting sign-ups for BASH WARS SIX, a tournament I run in which people on LiveJournal choose fictional ass-kickers to fight to the death. You may recall that last year my sovereign implored you to offer your support for unofficial MGK.com mascot Rex the Wonder Dog, which led to Rex’s BATTLE~! with unofficial MGK.com heartthrob Doctor Who. I’m sure you just read that sentence and said “That’s stupid! Jack Burton could kick both of their asses!” Well, don’t sing it, bring it.
Moving on…today I went to the comics shop to buy Fear Itself: Captain America #7.1, which is trying my patience just from the issue number alone. I was totally going to skip this because I was extrmely eager to put Fear Itself behind me (short review: “Meh”) and DC taught me a long time ago that these Giant Crossover Aftermath miniseries are completely skippable. What changed, then, is that this morning I saw a major spoiler for the comic, revealing information that actually made me want to read it. Without giving anything away, Marvel had recently solicited Untitled Brubaker Project #1, and basically Fear Itself #7.1 serves as a prologue to said project and reveals said title.
This got me to thinking. Full spoilers behind the cut…
Now that the kids are in bed, here’s the deal: Fear Itself #7.1 deals with characters reacting to the death of Bucky Barnes in Fear Itself #3…except that while Steve Rogers is working on Bucky’s eulogy, he learns that Bucky’s death was staged, and now Bucky is going underground to seek redemption in a Winter Soldier ongoing series.
First of all, this is great news for me, because I really like Scruffy Cyborg Bucky and I prefer him as a rogue, de-brainwashed Russian sleeper agent than as Captain America. So now I get Steve as Cap in Captain America and Bucky as just Bucky in Winter Soldier (with the WWII-era Captain America & Bucky as a bonus). Awesometastic. And it all makes sense–Bucky had just escaped from a Russian gulag and faking his death seems like the best way to keep the character in play without the US government extraditing him back to Moscow. But what I find troubling is how we got from point A to point B.
Death in superhero comics is a much-discussed issue, and I might revisit it in more detail sometime, but suffice it to say that there are two basic kinds of death scenes in comics. The first is the kind of death that is heavily marketed as a shocking turning point, that we know can’t last forever but could at least keep the character down for years at a time. We’re all familiar with these: Jean Grey in X-Men #137, Superman in Superman #75, Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four #587–even Wonder Man in Avengers #8 is presented in a way that makes it clear the finality and permanence of the death is what matters, not what happens next. Bucky’s death in Fear Itself #3 received the kind of attention usually reserved for this sort of event. (Not on the scale of Superman, but people still treated this like a “real” death.)
The other kind of death scene is so obvious that we often take it for granted–the apparent death that is marketed as a cliffhanger, that we all know is no big deal and will be resolved in short order. A really basic example of this is when Cyclops is pronounced dead at the end of X-Men #133 and his condition is immediately upgraded to alive at the beginning of #134 (which incidentally looks really stupid when you read the collected edition). A more memorable cliffhanger death is Ben Grimm taking a dirtnap in Fantastic Four #508–although he’s still dead in #509, Reed Richards is already working on a plan to ressurrect him and it’s obvious the way the story is told that the plan will succeed. Ben’s bout with death in 2004 is presented and received in a completely different manner than Johnny’s demise in 2011, even though both of them were just as dead and just as obviously going to return. That’s because Johnny’s death is about the impact of the loss to his loved ones whereas Ben’s death was about just giving the protagonists an unusually difficult problem to solve. I don’t think either of these stories is a “cheap” death, because they’re done for different reasons and given those reasons they are each done the right way.
Getting back to Bucky, the problem I have is that his “death” in Fear Itself ended up being a simple cliffhanger transition that was presented like some earth-shattering event. If this all had happened in two or three issues of Captain America, it’d be no big deal, and it would make sense. But instead Marvel shoehorned it into Fear Itself, and frankly now that the story is over I honestly don’t see why. Matt Fraction clearly wanted to link his theme of a war against despair with the death of one Captain America and the triumphant return of another, but he really didn’t do as much with it as you’d expect–there’s a scene or two where Sin gloats to Steve about killing Bucky, but it’s not worth the effort, and Steve’s return as Cap doesn’t do squat for the heroes’ morale. For that matter, Bucky’s non-death in Fear Itself #3 is both overshadowed by and trivializing of the death of Thor in #7. Bucky’s big sendoff means less because Thor’s topped it, and Thor’s exit-stage-left seems empty because Marvel was already teasing Bucky’s return before Fear Itself was even over.
Ultimately Bucky’s arc in Fear Itself is an Ed Brubaker plot grafted into a totally unrelated Matt Fraction story, and it shows. Bucky apparently went from being extradited to Russia and escaping in Captain America #615-619 to teaming with the Avengers against the Serpent like nothing had ever happened. And this is the other problem I’ve got with the whole shebang: by publishing both of these storylines somewhat concurrently, Marvel handcuffed itself as far as being able to rationally link them together. Fear Itself #3 couldn’t directly address the “Gulag” story in Cap because it came out three weeks before “Gulag” ended. Meanwhile Brubaker’s post-Fear Itself issues of Cap haven’t been able to even mention Bucky because they couldn’t (until now) give away the truth about the character’s non-death. To their credit, Marvel succeeded in keeping either series from spoiling or contradicting the other; but they failed at making the two series feel like they’re set in the same universe, which I thought was the point of these crossovers.
Given the content of this post I would imagine the comments will have a lot of heated opinions on the merits of comic book deaths and/or comic book resurrections. So to wrap up, let me reiterate that I don’t have a problem in principle with either of ’em. (Especially when I get a new Ed Brubaker/Butch Guice series out of the deal.) What counts is whether a death or resurrection is handled effectively to accomplish the goals of the story, and I think in this case Bucky’s 48-hour case of rigor mortis was a decent idea that fizzled in the execution. And unfortunately I think this will be an ongoing problem for Marvel, as they hype the death of Thor and ressurection of Cable at the same time and don’t expect either event to undermine the other.