It’s funny how everyone has a guilty pleasure - a band, movie or book that we love but was hardly a critical or commercial success. Comic book fans are no different. They always have at least a couple of characters that they hold dear to their heart.
I know that I’ve got a few. There’s one name that’s always at top of mind for me though: Booster Gold.
Never heard of him? That’s cool, most people haven’t. Indeed, it’s a running joke on an episode of Justice League Unlimited that everyone thinks that he’s Green Lantern and they’re disappointed when they find out that it’s Booster Gold.
Booster Gold is Michael Jon Carter, a collegiate football star from the far-flung future of the 25th century. He started placing bets on his own games and then threw them for profit. Disgraced, he became a night watchman at a museum that housed artefacts from the so-called Age of Heroes – our modern heroes like Superman and Batman.
With the help of a floating security robot named Skeets, Booster stole equipment and weapons from the displays, and used Rip Hunter’s time machine to travel to the 20th century. When he arrived in the 1980s he used his limited knowledge of historical events to position himself in the right place at the right time and become a superhero brand that would save lives as well as turn a healthy profit.
With Skeets acting as a roving encyclopedia, Booster blunders from heroic episode to heroic episode, often doing more harm than good while trying to create a public image that he can gain from financially. Recently (and somewhat improbably) he's become the guardian of the time stream, trying to maintain order and balance in the universe.
There are two things that appeal to me about Booster: his origin and how well he reflects the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
I think that the best fictional characters, superheroes and otherwise, have origins that explain their motivation for the rest of their existence. Sticking to comic books, some Batman, Spider-Man and the Punisher are popular because they are driven by a combination of guilt and anger over the death of their beloved family members.
All three of those creation stories make sense. To an extent, the reader can understand why these guys are dressing in spandex and putting their lives in danger. Their behaviour is clearly motivated by the tragedy in their origins.
Booster Gold’s driving force is simple: he’s greedy. He covers his uniform with corporate logos, puts money on the stock exchange before big bumps and is generally a glory hog. Or that time he married a sexagenarian for her money. It's not an altruistic reason for becoming a superhero, but it has an inherent logic. You can get what he’s about.
Just as Captain America was ideally suited to the surge of patriotism in the lead up to World War 2 or Marvel heroes like Iron Man and Nick Fury fit the Cold War era, Booster Gold’s 1986 debut was perfectly timed. He was just right for the greed is good, egotistical 80s. He developed as a character into the 1990s, just as corporate monopolies disguised as “synergy” and mass sponsorship became the norm in North America.
Booster Gold is often under-utilized but instantly appealing to anyone who grew up in the 1980s. He’s greedy, funny, a little bit cynical and surprisingly heroic. More than just about any other big name comic book character he fits into our contemporary worldview and, most importantly, he’s believable. The reader can understand why he does the things he does. He’s as real as a man from the future can be, and although he’s a guilty pleasure of mine, I rarely regret it.
Three years ago, as a lark, I challenged my friends, family and co-workers to try and read as many books as they could in a calendar year. The idea was to encourage reading more and better books and broaden literary horizons.
As a group we laid out some general guidelines:
- Reading for work or for school doesn’t count. Books shouldn’t be assigned, but chosen for fun.
- Any book counts, as long as it’s for ages 9-12 or up. This designation was to allow for the Harry Potter books which fall into that age category.
- If you’re learning a new language books written for younger children count too.
- Graphic novels, plays, and poetry all count.
The Book Challenge, as it came to be called, was all about setting reading goals. Most people settled on 50 books per year (a book per week with two weeks of vacation). Smaller goals were also encouraged like “10 of my 50 books will be poetry,” or something to that affect. My personal caveat is that I only count 10 graphic novels per year. Otherwise I'd only read comics.
It’s been a pretty big success, with monthly reads discussed on our Facebook group. (Please, feel free to join!) Most people take it on as a New Year’s Resolution, but we have people coming and going all the time.
In part, the Book Challenge is popular because, unlike a book club, the reading isn’t assigned and you can move at your own pace. Also, it’s reassuring to see other avid readers apologize for not being able to read books for months at a time.
Last year I completed just 29 books, a disappointment since I’d planned on doing a full 50. But now that I’m done school I feel that I can definitely reach that golden mark.
I’m off to a good start as well, getting through four books in the month of January:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Captain America: Winter Soldier vol. 2 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
- Gretzky’s Tears by Stephen Brunt
- Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso
Personally, I’ve found that the Book Challenge keeps me focused on maintaining on an ongoing reading list and motivated to keep plowing through it. And as Run DMC said, “From the front to the back, as pages turn, reading is a very fresh way to learn.”
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more comic books and graphic novels. Hardly a self-improvement project, I know, but I want to get down with my nerd self.
My first graphic novel of 2010 is Captain America: Winter Soldier vol. 2, allowing me to complete the first story arc of Ed Brubaker’s popular run on one of Marvel Comics’ most recognizable characters.
I’ve never been much of a Captain America fan. I prefer grittier characters like Batman or the Punisher, so his squeaky clean image never appealed to me. And since I’m Canadian, all the patriotic beats were lost on me.
But Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline sucked me in. I’d heard that the new Captain America series was going to be bringing back Bucky, a character who had been dead since the end of World War II, and it hooked me.
This was a Big Deal to comic fans. Bucky had been Cap’s 16-year-old sidekick during the war, but was tragically killed when a missile he was trying to disarm exploded in mid-flight. The same incident dropped Cap into the frigid North Sea, freezing him until the 1960s.
The death of Bucky had always been cited as the reason why Marvel’s superheroes don’t have teenaged sidekicks - unlike their DC counterparts - and it added a sense of realism to the company’s mythos.
For Brubaker to be retconning a fundamental element of Marvel Comics seemed like heresy, albeit an intriguing act of rebellion.
Captain America: Winter Soldier Book One and Two brings together issues 1-14 of the fifth monthly series to star Steve Rogers. They revolve around a terrorist attack that was apparently perpetrated by a mythical Cold Warrior known as the Winter Soldier who may actually be Cap’s former partner Bucky.
Resurrection storylines have become commonplace in comics, a constant recycling of characters who had been killed for dramatic effect, only to return. It’s a trend that is holding back a medium that I love. But Brubaker handles the return of the long-dead hero with a deft hand that provides not just a plausible explanation for his survival, but an engrossing story.
Interspersed with action, character moments and plot developments, Winter Soldier begins with Captain America becoming angry and frustrated with the inability of the United States government to attack countries that sponsor terrorism. The detonation of a Weapon of Mass Destruction in Philadelphia leaves a trail that leads to former Soviet general Aleksander Lukin, and his shadowy operative the Winter Soldier.
Even the name Winter Soldier is clever work by Brubaker. It’s a reference to the loyal American revolutionaries who stuck with George Washington over the harrowing winter in Valley Forge, but also to the Winter Soldier Investigation, a Viet Nam era examination of atrocities and war crimes committed by the United States Armed Forces.
Brubaker seamlessly connects the Second World War, the Cold War, modern terrorism and Captain America’s complex continuity. It’s not just that he brings in plot points from every era of Cap’s 70 years of existence, but the pacing and style of the book draws heavily on these aspects of the character’s history.
To me, a classic Captain America story has him and a partner rushing off into danger to stop a catastrophe from befalling the United States or the world. Winter Soldier is no different, with Cap rushing to stop Kronas Corporation with the Falcon riding shotgun.
Steve Epting’s art work in this series is fantastic. I can’t think of a current comics creator who makes better use of inking and colouring techniques. His characters are expressive and natural in conversation, and dynamic and fun during action scenes.
In particular, the way he draws the acrobatic Captain America jumping, rolling and bouncing in fight scenes is thrilling.
Winter Soldier breaks an old comic fan saying: “No one stays dead, except Bucky and Uncle Ben.” The phrase refers to the fact that Peter Parker’s uncle and Captain America’s sidekick must stay dead because their loss is what, in part, forms the hero we know today.
I never thought I’d see the day where that axiom was successfully reversed, but the Winter Soldier saga does it.
The return of James “Bucky” Buchanan Barnes was enough to catch my interest and buy the first volume of Captain America: Winter Soldier, and the gripping story has lead me to the rest of the series. Brubaker’s writing isn’t some gimmick. It’s some of the best mainstream superhero comic work I’ve ever read.