Capital Thoughts:

An Open Letter on The Winter Soldier

Dear Steve Englehart,

This past week, I took my Graphic Novels class to the cinema to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The class has both serious and not-so-serious comic book readers: A few are devoted to their favorite titles; more just enjoy the recent spate of box office eye-candy. I assume that most think of the course as the equivalent of “Basket Weaving 101” and, for the most part, I meet those modest expectations, but a film like The Winter Soldier also offers me a chance to explore some of the best back issues of the Cap mythos and you, sir, are at the center of it.

Yes, we probably both got our geek on when Batroc appeared early on; any fan of the Marvel Silver Age likely recalls Jack Kirby’s amazing choreography. More than 40 years, Cap’s epic fight with Batroc remains one my favorite sequences:

And then there is that other great moment when Cap is on his Harley– taken, no doubt from Cap #133, in which Steve and Bucky (turns out it’s a robot constructed by A.I.M. for Baron Von Strucker), take the bike out for a spin.

Captain America: Winter Soldier — marred by some long-winded exposition by “Nintendo Zola” — might, in title, follow Ed Brubaker’s remarkably good run, but in so many ways the film is a riff on your Secret Empire storyline in Captain America #169-75. I love that story-arc, in part because it played out against the fall of Nixon. The way you built the Empire and debunked authority was brilliant! Cap, believes (in his pure jingoist naiveté) that he’s fighting the enemy but then finds out that the leader of the Secret Empire is in fact a high-ranking politician. How high is unknown, since we never share in the reveal, and Cap refuses to share that secret, even with the Falcon. The unidentified leader blows off his/her head, literally a coup d-etat. But the look of disillusionment on Cap, his slumped body, and his refusal to answer questions, spoke volumes and perfectly explained his giving up the costume (if only to transition to the flagless hero Nomad). I can still recall that moment when Steve, having bought a ski mask to fight super villains, stumbles into a documentary of Captain America (revised in The Winter Soldier as Steve’s visit to the Smithsonian)– a meditation on the man and the mythos.

In the film, of course, the cynicism is less pronounced: Cap acknowledges that he’s thinking about retiring from hero-biz, but we never take the notion seriously. And when Cap states that HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. are so intertwined that they most both be destroyed, he acknowledges only that the rotten tooth must be pulled.

(Government, while inept, remains well-meaning, perhaps because, aside from S.H.I.E.L.D. there is so little of it. Just where are the cops in all of those drive-by shootings and road rage chases? Even the Dukes of Hazard has cops; Washington DC, it seems, does not. But I digress….)

The close of the film relies on another aspect from your Secret Empire run: As I recall, the Secret Empire’s WMD was a merry-go-round-like weapon powered by the minds of captured mutants. The close of Winter Soldier, in which Wanda and Pietro are imprisoned by Strucker, suggests a similar continuity. As for Bucky’s post-credits visit to the Smithsonian, we can, I think, assume that he will now be your Nomad, a complication not out of keeping with the comic book, in which the ersatz ’50s Bucky (Jack Monroe) adopted Cap’s abandoned persona (Cap # 281).

I didn’t check the credits too closely, so I am unaware as to whether Marvel credited you with some plot points; that seems to be, increasingly, the way DC is doing it in their movies (though poor Bill Finger remains very much a forgotten man), but in a film that has so much product placement ( I mean you Chevy Cruze and Apple iPod), I am hoping that Marvel has in some way acknowledged their debt to you and, in so doing, validated your cultural capital. I know I speak on behalf of many comic book fans when I say that your run on Cap was seminal and unforgettable.

With great thanks and good wishes,

Jeffrey Kahan.

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Jeffrey Kahan is a is a well-established Shakespeare scholar with about two dozen books and editions to his name. He is also the co-author of Caped Crusaders 101 (MacFarland, 2nd ed., 2010), and is a co-editor of The Dark Man, a journal dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard, and an associate editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review. He teaches a class on superhero comics and has twice appeared as a speaker at Comic-Con, as well as at New York’s Big Apple and other comic conventions. His newest book, Shakespeare and Superheroes, will be published in 2018 by ARC Press. He works in California but lives in his own world.

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