Rick Remender is a sly kinda guy because it is so easy to forget what he is writing these days when he seems to make the headlines for unfortunately clumsy dialogue. These hysteria inducing errors aside, the majority of what he writes is exceptionally good, and The Bitter March is no exception. Before we get bogged down in a silly #FireRickRemender debate, I would to attest to his brilliance on this title. Not only is Winter Soldier not a traditional book where we continue some banal adventure with Bucky, but it was not even told from his perspective or even in the current era. We take the viewpoint of a S.H.E.I.L.D. agent, Ran Shen in the year 1966, as he is tasked with the mission to retrieve the Alchemy formula from former Nazi scientists, before Hydra or the Winter Soldier catch them. The premise is a classic Cold War espionage story and works exceptionally well because it develops characters that are real and emotionally recognisable. It was always brave to feature a comic about Bucky but have the story revolve around an alternate central character, but that gutsy approach pays off in dividends. I welcome you to The Bitter March.
The book is confined to a certain set of scenarios, namely a Hydra castle, a locomotive and a snow-laden forest, with a small cast of characters to engage with. Shen is intoxicated by the innocence and heart of the Nazi scientist Mila, whilst her shameless husband sells her secrets to the evil Hydra villain, the Drain. The Winter Soldier role switches throughout the story arc as his involvement varies as memories of Captain America haunt his mission. Initially he is on a similar mission to Shen but on the side of the Russians, then his programming breaks and he swerves to the side of the Americans. Remender takes you on a journey into the Cold War as he serves up a succinct exposition on the warring factions, with a side order of Hydra. As expected he does not delve into any real details (because he would probably get himself into trouble somehow) but he captures the betrayal and defection themes expertly. As Mila debates on the failures of communism and capitalism, we see Shen fall for her deeply and declare that he will free her from the chains that bind her. This slowly becomes the core theme of the book as we begin to understand his motivations and hidden indiscretions of the past. She becomes his chance for redemption and he is unable to let that opportunity go.
The comic is far from a theoretical essay on the Cold War because it features an incredible amount of action in all the above terrain. Roland Boschi’s art is frenetic and captures the intensity of the fight, especially the train scenes and the snowy woodlands. He is not only gifted with the variety of the landscape but also the use of weapons as we move from guns on skies, hand gliding athletics, electric pugilism and the unique art of free fall. Boschi’s panels can appear a little busy at times but this is forgivable given the tone of the book. But his action pages are more effective with the splash panels as opposed to sequential fighting. He produces a glorious mid action still with a propensity for the dramatic pose. He also demonstrates a flair for the damaged victim as Shen is almost left for dead on more than one occasion.
Boschi creates a feel of suspense and dissention into chaos at any moment, as the tense standoffs leaves sweat dripping from all involved. There is a glorious moment where Drain has a close up set of panels as he recites his sermon on success, much like a James Bond villain. His visage is a drab white making him standout from the rest of Hydra, with an unnerving devious power set which is finally unleashed in issue 4. Incidentally he looks a lot like David Bowie. Bucky’s tormented images of Rogers are delicately shaded and poignant to the lesson he was once taught. It’s a lovely touch because there are moments where the story could easily finish but the Winter Soldier fails to pull the trigger, leaving an angst-ridden expression. His memories and changes in direction contrast well with the transitioning thoughts of Shen and the lovely Mila, who is depicted, far too often, as the beautiful damsel in distress.
Remender has successfully blurred the lines between good and bad, poignant to the world of reconnaissance and intelligence where there is little room for morality. Both U.S. and Russian mission statements feature the terms capture or kill, with respect to the scientists. Bucky dedicates himself to saving Mila because as his programming falls apart, the words of his best friend save him from further needless murder. Shen becomes attached to the lovely scientist because he sees his chance to do something good that will alleviate the burden of his past sins. There is a very subtle and sweet reference to Remender’s Captain America comic .as the Winter Solider recites to Ran the mantra Steve Rogers once lived by, “I need you to stand up”. Ultimately saving the girl becomes the single most important part of the mission as both men seek forgiveness, and she will be their path to salvation. In the heat of the Cold War, with the ruthlessness of rival nations, is there room for two men to escape their shadowy pasts and run free from their overseers? The final few pages provide the reader with enthralling moments of suspense and emotion as sacrifices are made, lives are lost and the heartstrings are plucked at with no restraint. Once you close the back cover, you will be left wondering if there was ever any other outcome possible, because Remender tricked you into thinking that there was. That was his design.