This article contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It was the story that shouldn’t have worked. There were certain sacred cows in mainstream comics, certain stories a writer just didn’t undo. Uncle Ben couldn’t be brought back to life in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, there should be no danger of seeing the Thomas and Martha stroll through the doors of Wayne Manor in Batman…and Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s loyal sidekick, had to stay dead. Or so everyone thought. Everyone except writer Ed Brubaker, who dared to ask “Why?”
Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s original “Winter Soldier” story in the pages of Captain America not only gave Marvel a critical and sales success, it also provided the House of Ideas with a new potential franchise character with the newly-revived Bucky/Winter Soldier. Now, many of those the story beats inform Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the movies. Not bad for a story that no one thought should ever be told.
When Captain America was first created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, he was a Nazi-stomping exemplar of American pride and strength. Cap was defined by his conflict with the Axis Powers and little else. By his side was Bucky, a character created to provide a point of view character to young readers of the day, a younger brother figure to Cap who provided a degree of wish fulfillment for young boys reading Captain America Comics whose own older brothers and cousins were off fighting the war. What could be cooler to a young boy whose brother was fighting overseas than the idea of fighting side by side with an unstoppable engine of American pride? Bucky was emblematic of every kid in America who wanted to fight shoulder to shoulder with their absentee role models. In Cap’s earliest adventures, Bucky served a dual purpose. Firstly, he gave Cap someone to talk to and secondly, he provided young fans with a stand in, a cipher to imprint themselves on, through Bucky, the youth of America could sock a Nazi in the jaw.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby resurrected Captain America in 1964’s Avengers #4, World War II was long over and the modern day heroes like Spider-Man, Hulk, the X-Men, and Iron Man all had layers of tragedy that serviced their origins and motivations. For the returning Captain America, the death of Bucky Barnes was that tragedy. Bucky became Cap’s Thomas and Martha Wayne, his Uncle Ben, the failure that haunted him and kept him fighting no matter what. In his 2012 Captain America exit interview with Comics Alliance, Brubaker discussed how Marvel crafted Steve Rogers in the Silver Age. “That’s just how I saw him, or that’s the early Stan Lee kind of Shakespearean take on him from when he and Kirby brought him back. Marvel heroes were always tragic in some ways, and Steve was a tragic guy… lost in time, haunted by his dead friend, weighed down by going from being soldier to superhero, not sure of his place in the modern world. And yet, always knowing what the right thing to do was.”
The death of Bucky was one event that fueled Cap’s character. In truth, it’s likely that no one felt there was a place for Bucky in the Silver Age. Marvel’s newer, more sophisticated fans, could have viewed Bucky as a Robin rip off. Originally, Cap’s mission was inspired by, as the first film so succinctly put it, his hatred of tyranny and bullies, but the Cap of the Silver Age seemingly needed that dramatic spark, that one failure to make him more akin to his modern peers. Most people thought, that if Bucky were to come back, there would be the loss of the fundamental moment of tragedy that defined the revived Cap as a hero. Bucky was an anachronism, a one-note character who was way more interesting dead than alive. Until, of course, he wasn’t.
When Brubaker and artist Steve Epting relaunched Captain America in 2005, the series was at a creative crossroads. Creative teams had come and gone in the previous few years, none able to leave an indelible mark on Cap. Sales, which never exactly set the charts on fire in the first place, ebbed. But when Brubaker and Epting arrived, they brought a new, very modern villain…Russian operative, the Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier certainly looked like an older Bucky, with his domino mask and boyish good looks, but it couldn’t be, could it? Marvel had teased Bucky’s return in stories for decades, but it was just that…a tease. Rick Jones had taken up the mantle of Bucky briefly but that didn’t stick, as did Jack Monroe who eventually shed the Bucky identity to take up the mantle of Nomad. There even was a Bucky android for a time. The Winter Soldier struck an imposing and dramatic figure, with his mechanical arms and flowing hair, the character was tied into the Cold War and was inserted into Marvel history as a shadowy assassin for the Soviet Union. Like Steve, but in a more dramatic and bloody way, the Soldier was a man out of time trying to find his purpose in the modern world.
When it was revealed that the Winter Soldier was not an android, not a Skrull, but Bucky, fans did not storm the Marvel offices with pitchforks and torches. Most fans seemed to be in awe of Brubaker’s gall in not only telling the story that could never be told, but absolutely nailing it. “It’s the worst possible story idea, executed so brilliantly it doesn’t matter that it’s the worst possible story idea,” one commentor on the Comic Book Resources message boards said in reaction to the shocking return. That seemed to be the most common fan reaction, those that didn’t bother to read the book cried gimmick and foul, but the actual readers were hooked.
In a way, the Winter Soldier’s existence was a greater tragedy to Cap than Bucky’s death. At least in Cap’s memory, Bucky died a hero bringing down a Baron Zemo super weapon, now Cap had to face the fact that his prodigy, his de facto little brother, was chopped up by an antagonistic foreign government and turned into a weapon of mass destruction. It was bad enough for Cap that the Winter Soldier had none of Barnes’ memories, but Cap’s former sidekick had also been profaned by being turned into an unrepentant political killer. In the Winter Soldier, Cap saw a dark road he could have gone down if he was not frozen at the end of World War II. If Bucky was frozen, Rogers could have just as easily been turned into a Winter Soldier. Bucky was now the Super Soldier idea gone horribly wrong.
Despite the worries of fans, “The Winter Soldier” arc wasn’t a gimmick, it was a thematic triumph, and moreover, it was one of the best Captain America stories ever told, combining aspects of the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the lost Cold War era into one cohesive and surprisingly personal story. It could be argued that this is one of the finest sustained periods of creativity in the character’s history. In a 2005 interview with Marvel, Ed Brubaker relates the initial reaction to the story. “Bucky seems to be the Little Engine That Could. Everyone who was completely resistant to the idea of Bucky coming back totally embraced him as a character after about a year. There’s probably one or two that didn’t, but most people were like, “Wow! They pulled it off. Unbelievable.”
Not only was Bucky back, he was a major new part of the Marvel Universe. Now, Marvel could tell flashback tales of Bucky meeting such characters as Wolverine and Nick Fury. Through flashbacks was no longer the archaic kid sidekick, but a dangerous American soldier who didn’t flinch at spilling enemy blood. He was a trained killer that, through use of propaganda and news reels, the public saw as the smiling hellion presented in the Golden Age. Just when fans got used to the Winter Soldier in an adversarial role, they switched gears and turned Bucky back into the hero he once was. When fighting the Winter Soldier, Cap grabbed hold of the reality altering Cosmic Cube and wished Bucky would remember everything. All at once, the Winter Soldier’s past came flooding back, forcing Bucky to remember all the torture, the violation, and the torment he had gone through and caused as a puppet of his Russian masters.
In a 2007 interview with Comic Book Resources, Mr. Brubaker spoke about what made the resurrected Bucky such a compelling character for the modern era, “The Winter Soldier, he’s this really tortured on edge character; a sort of modern twist on the classic Marvel character. That’s why I think the Winter Soldier works as a way to bring Bucky back. If he was to team up with Cap and immediately go fight crime and got over everything I think it would be wrong. He’s a conflicted, weird, modern Marvel character that fits right into the Marvel U.”
Ed Brubaker didn’t do it alone, though. Steve Epting created the visual look for the Winter Soldier, Epting’s reimagined creation bursting with a coiled danger and the promise of mayhem. Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one can see Epting’s drawings come to life. His flashback sequences captured the sense of the past, giving the Winter Soldier a connective tissue to the history of the Marvel Universe. Epting visually informed the character that would go on to inspire a new generation of Cap readers.
Still telling the impossible Captain America story, the team had Cap assassinated and replaced by…none other than Bucky Barnes. The former Winter Soldier barely had time to get his bearings before he replaced his mentor as Captain America. No one was ready for the fan love that poured forth after Bucky took up the mantle of Cap. Bucky was supposed to wield the shield for just a short period of time, but fan response forced Marvel to extend the story. Fortunately, the quality of Brubaker’s writing made this prolonged story seem organic and natural to the progression of the characters. In his exit interview with Comics Alliance Brubaker stated “It was partly a situation of the book being a huge success then, and Marvel saying, ‘hey, if you have more story here, play it out. Don’t rush bringing back Steve’ and partly that after the first few issues post-Cap Death, I realized how much fun writing the world without Cap would be. We don’t often spend enough time on ramifications in mainstream comics, so here was a place to build a whole storyline around them.”
And what a story it was. What started as a writer daring to question the fundamental rules of the Marvel Universe to a story that will inform a major film release, the saga of the Winter Soldier is a classic example of the rewards creators can reap if they dare defy convention. As The Winter Soldier becomes even more embedded into the cultural consciousness, it’s amazing to imagine that it was a character whose story was once impossible to tell.