By: Ed Brubaker (writer), Michael Lark (penciler), Stefano Gaudiano & Brian Thies (inkers), Bettie Breitweiser (colorist), and Joe Caramagna (letterer)

The Story: So….where the heck is that third sleeper agent?!

The Review: Between Michael Lark’s dark, moody artwork and Ed Brubaker’s tight narration, I was really struck by how much this issue felt like an issue of Brubaker’s Criminal.  Naturally, that’s a very good thing.  It makes for beaten down characters lost in existential crisis and a general whirlwind of desperation and things constantly going from bad to worse.  In other words, Criminal is noir and so this comic is superhero noir.

Much of this issue is spent establishing new villain, and third sleeper agent, Leo Novokov.  Once again, Winter Soldier succeeds where Brubaker’s Captain America has faltered as of late, as in one issue, we have a very well-established, compelling villain with an interesting backstory and a clear trajectory from sympathetic figure to cold-blooded killer.  Brubaker manages this through a sequence of street-level flashbacks narrated by Leo, a sort of Jason Bourne meets Criminal mash-up.  It’s fantastic watching Leo slowly struggling to figure out who he is, only to have events kick in to dictate to him the answer.  The end result is a character, and a plot, loaded with pathos and ice in the veins.

By the end of it, Brubaker makes Leo a villain that seems to be constantly lurking in the background and around the corners of the Marvel Universe.  He’s hiding in the crowd at Bucky’s funeral, or he’s watching Bucky from an apartment across the street.  He’s never right in the middle of the action and he rarely directly involves himself, but he’s always AROUND.  Not only does that serve to emphasize his obsession and abilities, but it also is exactly what you’d want out of a spy/covert-ops comic.

The art is also fantastic.  Michael Lark brings the perfect mood and atmosphere to this book, full of shadows that are a perfect reflection of the cloak-and-dagger nature of the plot.  Bettie Breitweiser’s work on colours is also nothing short of brilliant.  We’re used to Breitweiser giving us that pulpy feel and she does that here, but it’s really fascinating how she uses one single colour for each location almost to the point of being monochromatic: the flashback sequences, for instances, are heavy the blues, giving off a sense of loss and sadness.  Meanwhile, the ops room that Natasha, Bucky, and Sitwell work out of is completely illuminated by the oranges of the various screens and monitors, giving off ideas of surveillance ,conspiracy, and machinery.  Moments of violence, meanwhile, are punctuated by a flash of red.  It’s fantastic, well thought-out work by both Breitweiser and Lark with every panel and page aimed at being evocative of a particular emotion.

At the moment, this issue is really entirely a set-up issue, but it really gets the ball rolling.  The villain is established and his conflict with Bucky is ignited as Leo strikes the first blow at issue’s end in an especially cold-blooded way.  Really, as far as first issues go, it did what it had to do.

Conclusion: Great art and a great villain make for a great first issue of what will hopefully be a really strong arc.

Grade: B+

– Alex Evans