Retcons, Reboots And Resurrections #39: A Bucky Barnes For A New Century
by Scott Redmond
In life, they say only three things are certain: birth, death, and change. Within comic books, the three things that are certain are that there will be retcons, reboots, and resurrections. Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
*This week we continue the whole month of Captain America-focused entries that look at various times the star-spangled Avenger has faced retcons, reboots, and resurrections!*
There once was a time when it was common for comic book readers to remark that no one stays dead in comics except Bucky Barnes, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben. While Uncle Ben has very much stayed six feet under (outside of alternate reality versions that pop up from time to time), the resurrection carousel of the 21st century has been far kinder to the other two. A few months ago we dove into the hard death and resurrection of Jason Todd, and the reality-altering Deus Ex Machina that facilitated the return, and now it’s Bucky’s time.
After spending decades as a reminder of the moment that Captain America was ripped from his familiar time, and one of many people that he lost along the way, the early 2000s gave the character his chance finally to be an actual part of the ongoing Marvel Universe. Let’s look into the how and why.
Bucky Barnes was one of the original comic book kid sidekicks, up there with Robin and others that debuted in those early decades of superhero comic books. In many cases, he was just seen as that eager kid who was there to stand beside Captain America through many missions as well as the Invaders and others. Their relationship was more like older brother and younger brother than the best friends that the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While the Atlas Comics adventures of the duo continued well after World War II and into the 50s and the Korean War (check out the last column for more details), the jump into the Marvel Comics Universe brought some changes. Chief among them was that the heroic duo met a disastrous untimely end before the war even ended. While trying to stop an experimental drone, it blew up on them and Bucky was instantly killed and Captain America was thrown into the ocean where he was frozen for decades to be awoken by the Avengers.
That’s how it would remain for decades, Bucky being held up as the cautionary tale of kid sidekicks to fit with Marvel Comics choosing to forego them compared to their distinguished competition. That was until Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting arrived to change it all.
The Nitty Gritty:
Following 2004’s Avengers Disassembled event, which left the team in tatters, most of the books in the line were relaunched including the solo books. Brubaker and Epting were the ones tapped to bring a new era of Captain America stories to life, and they decided to pull off something huge for that relaunch.
Later collected as Captain America: Winter Soldier, the first fourteen issues (minus the tenth issue which was a tie-in to the House of M event) covered the entrance of the Winter Soldier as well as the revelation that this Russian assassin was Bucky and the regaining of his memories. Part of this return also came with another retcon to the classic adventures of Steve and Bucky. As noted above Bucky was seen as just a kid sidekick in those old stories, but this storyline revealed that he was even more of a soldier than Captain America was.
With this retcon, it was revealed that Bucky was actually a highly trained cold-blooded assassin meant to be able to sneak behind enemy lines and do the things that Captain America could not and would not do. The gee willikers boy sidekick gig was all a lie to cover up who and what he really was. This was a necessary retcon for one major reason and that was it gave more weight to the revelation that Bucky was the mysterious Winter Soldier assassin that Captain America came up against in this story arc.
Instead of having it that the Russians corrupted Bucky and made him a killer, Brubaker and Epting made it so that it was a lucky happenstance that they didn’t have to do that because it was already the truth. As for how he survived the explosion, well turns out that Steve wasn’t the only lucky one in that regard.
Bucky’s arm was indeed trapped in the drone as had been seen before, and subsequently, it was the only thing that was lost when the drone exploded. Just like Steve, Bucky was thrown from the device and plunged into the ocean where he entered suspended animation just like his partner. While Steve floated around for decades before ending up in the Arctic Ocean, Bucky was found much sooner. A Soviet expedition searching for Captain America’s body came across Bucky instead and gained themselves a weapon.
Through their work, he was given a new robotic arm and neural implants that enhanced his natural abilities while also giving him a mind wipe. His youth was maintained because in between missions he was cryogenically frozen, pulled out when the need arose. So over sixty years, he had aged about ten overall.
Subsequent stories revealed his ties to the Red Room and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who was also one of the many human weapons that Russia had created and used for decades. They would share an off-and-on romance over the years through the rest of this volume of Captain America and into the Winter Soldier series that rolled out of it, with things becoming complicated from then on.
One of the last big things that Brubaker and Eptin pulled off with the story was to get the Bucky that Steve knew back. Since the Russians had erased all his memories, it would take a bit of that deus ex machina mojo to get them back.
During this story, a Rusian general turned businessman Aleksander Lukin was the one that brought the Winter Soldier back online with hopes to sell him and other things to the Red Skull. Long story short though some Cosmic Cube shenanigans, Red Skull was killed but thanks to his cube he was taking up space in Lukin’s brain. It was a whole thing. That same cube proved useful later because it’s what Steve used to get Bucky’s memories back, warping reality a bit to restore them all.
Bucky subsequently destroyed the cube and took off, getting all your memories back and reconciling who you are is a hard thing to do, but eventually returned. Subsequent stories had them reconciling, then Steve died (check that out here) and Bucky took up the shield before Steve returned, and a whole ton of other stuff has gone down in the almost two decades since that story.
In all that time Bucky went from an example of a character that would stay dead to a character that not only has become an integral part of the Marvel Universe in the comics but took on a whole big life on the big screen. To the point of being one of Marvel’s big recognized by the public level characters. Quite a journey for the former boy sidekick.
Truly the above says it all: this was a story that worked. It was unexpected and different and found a clever way to bring back a character that was nothing but a footnote for many years. At the same time, it brought new toys into the toybox that are still being played with today, both in comics and other media.
After all that time with no Bucky around, it’s hard to imagine a Marvel Universe without Bucky/Winter Soldier at this point. Especially now that he, Steve, and Sam are like the Three Musketeers of Captain Americaing (that’s totally a word now).
Next Week: A Super New Month Begins With A Bold New Girl Of Steel