Falcon & Winter Soldier: the comic series (2020)

So with the apparent success of WandaVision, it seems Disney might be on to a winning formula, with a combination of streaming series coupled with movie releases…

…in theory. Soon, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will premiere, and I have to admit the odd couple vibe does look intriguing. I enjoyed the dynamic that Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie shared in Civil War, and it’ll be interesting to see if the pair can maintain it without it getting out of hand. Recently, we here at the Agony Booth naturally wondered if this pair had ever teamed up before (the characters, not the actors), and as it turns out they had, in their own five-issue limited series. Honestly, I have no memory whatsoever of this comic coming out, and I can’t help but wonder if it was digital-only or something. Then again, I haven’t bought Marvel in almost three years now, so I pretty much ignore that section of the wall when I visit my local comic store. Anyway, let’s take a look.

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The plot is as follows: James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, AKA “The Winter Soldier”, formerly Captain America, former assassin and wanted criminal, received a “conditional pardon” after his helping to bring down Hydra in the events of Secret Empire (you remember Secret Empire, don’t you? Where Captain America was turned into a Nazi and they created a brand new Captain America using a Cosmic Cube, so the original is in some prison somewhere, where Marvel editors hope people forget he exist? And now you know one of the reasons why I don’t buy Marvel anymore). Said condition is he’s now the American government’s go-to cleaner when it comes to taking down terrorist training camps in the United States. Only one day, someone comes to his home to take him out.

Things don’t go as planned, and after Bucky takes them out he hits the road with his cat, Alpine.

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Meanwhile, Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon and also formerly Captain America, spends his spare time working with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress… just like in the movie… and completely unlike Sam Wilson pre-movie. Yeah, I could spend an entire article about the sad state of Marvel Comics and how the editorial staff has opted to make their comics look more like the films, throwing away decades of history, but I’ve been told ten-thousand word articles that amount to little more than whiny old fanboy ranting aren’t popular. For some reason. But back to the story at hand. Sam has been looking for someone named McKenzie, who works at the Department of Federal Utilities, which is a front for the people Bucky answers to. Everyone at the New York office is dead—

—and now the Falcon and Winter Soldier have a reason for their wacky team-up, as the former needs to find McKenzie, and the latter needs to find out who tried to kill him before he takes the blame and loses his conditional pardon. Along the way, they discover that there’s a power struggle going on in Hydra between Baron Zemo Jr.—

—and a mysterious rival who turns out to be an employee at the DFU who used her resources there to recruit bad guys.

Along the way, the heroes have to contend with a young Captain America groupie known as “The Natural”.

And… that might be a joke only people in their forties are going to get. Look, just go ask your parents, okay? And the Natural is for some reason is more badass than two seasoned superheroes.

Can this unlikely duo set aside their differences long enough to take down this collection of heavies and prevent Hydra from re-growing some heads? What do you think?

So let’s start with the art. Federico Vincentini certainly has his own thing going on here, and it doesn’t suck. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s stylized and he has a flare for kinetic action. I’ve certainly seen worse art from Marvel:

Far, far worse:

Someone was paid to draw that. Let that sink in. And no, I am never reviewing a Squirrel Girl or America Chavez comic because I don’t hate myself that much.

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In regards to Falcon & Winter Soldier, the worst I can say about the art is: I don’t hate it. We’ve seen stylized art like this in the past, and sometimes it fails miserably, such as Mark Badger’s work (and if you’re a fan of Badger, that’s fine; you go ahead and be you), and sometimes it succeeds spectacularly, such as with Walt Simonson or Bill Sienkiewicz. Comic artists should be allowed some measure of freedom to find their own style and let the market decide if it works. I’m not going to criticize the fact that different artists worked on the covers, because guys like Brian Bolland and Alex Ross have been producing cover art for years and never touched most of the interiors of the comics their work was wrapped around. No, what I object to is when a cover implies something happens in the comic and it doesn’t.

The one on the left has what appear to be both the Silver Samurai and Deadpool in action; neither one shows up in the issue. The right cover has the pair appearing in their old Captain America costumes, jumping either Steve Rogers himself or a stand-in. Well, technically the Steve Rogers currently running around is the stand-in, but I digress. The point is, the confrontation you see on the cover? It never happens. As for them appearing in costume, well…

…they’re on loan from the Natural’s parents, who are Captain America enthusiasts and the whole thing is played for laughs.

As for the plot, I don’t think it’s a bad concept. In the aftermath of Secret Empire, Hydra is in disarray and there are those who would attempt to seize power. And I don’t mind someone coming along and attempting to create new bad guys. I’ll be the first to complain about them bringing back Norman Osborn, or the Red Skull never dying. I was annoyed that DC made Lex Luthor a full-on bad guy again when they probably could have kept him a ‘tweener for another decade and produced a lot of interesting stories. Writers should be producing new characters or trying new things with the old ones; they should be finding the next Deadpool or Joker or Green Goblin. I remember years ago, when Alan Grant was writing Detective Comics and he generated a lot of new bad guys like Kadaver and Rat Catcher, and among his creations he hit one out of the park with the Ventriloquist. So a writer/artist creating a new heavy? I’m down with it. But man, these characters…

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So you already saw Veronica Eden, Baron Zemo’s [snort] rival for leadership of Hydra. They explain how her being a mole in the DFU gave her access to potential recruits, but other than that, why the hell would you follow her? Then again, why would you follow Zemo? How many times has this guy gotten his ass handed to him? Heck, the Punisher shot off his hand before this series started; he just seems so weak and ineffectual. And while I’m at it, why would anyone join Hydra after they were soundly defeated in Secret Empire? You’d think even members of Hydra would be looking in the dark web want-ads to see if AIM was hiring. It makes you wonder what the point of this whole series was in the first place.

Oh, that’s right. The live action series was originally set to premiere in the fall of 2020, a couple of months after this story wrapped up. Well, if they were hoping this comic was going to generate interest in the live action series, I think maybe somebody was attempting a bizarre form of reverse psychology.

Getting back to the bad guys, the other new one is the previously mentioned “The Natural”.

He’s a Captain America groupie who’s fallen in with Hydra for… reasons. He’s also some super-duper combat monster, though the how of it is never explained. Mutant? Exposed to radiation? Another living shard of Cosmic Cube? Steve Rogers clone? You don’t know, they never tell us, and I think his origin simply wasn’t all that important to anyone working on this comic. He comes across as boring, his motivations are murky, and if we’re all lucky, he never shows up again.

So that’s two bad guys I really don’t care about: Millennial Hydra Head Wannabe and Goofy Master Assassin with a Lame Name. But hey, maybe I was wrong about Zemo, and there’s something redeeming about him. I mean, you would have to work pretty hard to get Zemo wrong.

Ah, maybe it’s not that hard after all. Initially, I thought the letterer messed up the word balloons somehow, and some of this dialogue was supposed to come out of Millenial Hydra Head’s mouth, but no, that’s Zemo talking. Zemo pretty much wins by default, flying away, and this is after all the Hydra agents are dead by each other’s hand or by the Natural’s. After so many casualties and arrests, I have to wonder if there’s anyone left for Zemo to lead.

Is there anything redeeming about the comic outside of some of the art? Well, I do like the dynamic between Sam and Bucky. Sam is an old school hero who doesn’t believe in killing, while Bucky’s stance is more than a little shaky in that regard. What’s nice is that there’s a valid reason for this; Bucky’s work for the Feds as their go-to hitman has eroded his sense of right and wrong, and it takes Sam to talk him back from the edge. In the end, Bucky finds some support.

Oh, and Millenial Hydra Head gets shot by former DFU employee McKenzie.

McKenzie’s reason for joining Hydra, a fascist organization with past ties to Nazism? They offered her “a home”. Why would this woman join a group that just a few short months ago took over the United States and then lost? Why believe anything they might say? I get the idea that this woman is desperate and she’s damaged, but damn, this just makes zero sense.

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The series was written by Derek Landy, a British novelist who’s penned a successful series of novels I’ve never heard of. Hiring authors to write comics is nothing new, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you get a Neil Gaiman or a Ta-Nehisi Coates, and sometimes you get a Gabby Riviera or a Chelsea Cain. In Derek’s case, I’ve read worse; but at the same time, he just feels like he’s out of his depth, writing cringeworthy original characters, and in Zemo’s case having no idea what makes the character tick. I read his Wikipedia entry and it says he’s a Joss Whedon fan (something that he’s probably regrets admitting to now) and it shows in his work, what with the inconsistent tone, and swinging sharply back and forth between grimdark to slapstick. I don’t know how much of this is his fault, and how much of is his editors. Mariko Tamaki wrote some pretty terrible stuff at Marvel, but apparently she’s absolutely killing it over at DC on Wonder Woman. The same goes for Tom Taylor, whose X-Men Red was dreck, but his DC projects are pretty good. If I would hazard a guess, Derek was handed the project and given carte blanche, with a minimum of guidance, and he just went nuts.

I can’t recommend this series, even if you’re just curious about it. I mean, yeah, sure, go ahead and read it for free if you get a chance and see for yourself, but for me I’m hoping the Disney+ series borrows zero beats from this mess.

Next time: Since I took a look at a Marvel property associated with a live action project coming out, it’s only fair that I do the same to the competition. In anticipation of Zack Snyder’s Justice League appearing on HBO Max, I’ll be taking a look back a few years at DC’s New 52 Justice League.

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