Ed Brubaker's "Winter Soldier" series has been a long time coming.
When Brubaker took over the writing chores of "Captain America" towards the end of 2004, he did something longtime Marvel fans thought would ever happen: he brought James "Bucky" Barnes back from the dead, revealing that after his "death," Barnes was abducted by the Soviets, reprogrammed and christened the Winter Soldier, an assassin they would put into cryogenic suspension between missions. Instead of angering fans, the "reborn" Bucky quickly became a fan favorite, first as the Winter Soldier, free of his programming, and then as Steve Rogers' successor as Captain America after Rogers apparently died in the aftermath of "Civil War." Now, dead to the world at large after his own death was faked in "Fear Itself," Barnes has resumed the identity of the Winter Soldier, setting about, with the Black Widow at his side, cleaning up any nasty secrets from his past.
The hook of this series flows naturally out of the last stories featuring Barnes wearing Captain America's mask. Put on trial for his activities as the Winter Soldier and extradited to Russia, he learned that he can't escape his past. That he committed atrocities while under Russian control is irrelevant - Barnes still takes on the responsibility for his actions, especially with other Soviet programs possibly still in play that he has knowledge of. In this debut issue, Barnes and Natasha try to track down other "Winter Soldiers" he trained, who have been lying dormant until activated. As an opening chapter, the comic makes for a nice mix of character-driven plot and noirish espionage that suits the characters perfectly.
Brubaker doesn't miss a step in transitioning Bucky and Natasha from "Captain America" to "Winter Soldier." If this had simply been labeled a new arc of "Captain America," I don't think anyone would have blinked. The way the pair play off one another is entertaining. They're two professionals, in love and trying to make the world a better place -- what's not to like?
Joining Brubaker on the series is the "Captain America" art team of Butch Guice and Bettie Breitweiser. Over the course of their work together in recent years, both showed considerable growth, which is fully on display in this debut issue. Toned down are the pop art sensibilities Guice brought to "Captain America." Instead, there's a larger focus on shadows and complex layouts that challenge the reader a little. This is a darker book, and the art reflects that. Breitweiser imbues every page with a sickly, pale-blue color that places it in perpetual night. The only bright colors are garish lights or explosions.
One striking aspect of the art is how some panels strive for an almost painted look, similar to something like the work of Jon J. Muth. It's an interesting artistic decision, and isn't entirely successful. Characters sometimes appear glossy and fake as a result, while the panels that look great don't necessarily fit into the rest of the page. Were the technique used more consistently, it might not stand out so much. Hopefully, Guice and Breitweiser will refine it over the next few issues.
In many ways, "Winter Soldier" #1 picks up right where the previous volume of "Captain America" left off. Brubaker and his artistic collaborators know these characters so well, they don't miss a beat. There's a noticable shift from the bright and shiny blockbuster action of superhero comics to the shadowy world of espionage, but fans of the Brubaker-invigorated Bucky Barnes will no doubt love this. Finally, the Winter Soldier has his own series, and it's everything you'd hope for.