The Trouble with Bucky

faked by Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Captain America #17. A typically fine issue of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America series: Cap has teamed up with Sharon Carter to investigate a small town in Iowa that is in fact an elaborate front for AIM. This is a delighfully Cold Warish spy set-up, the very sort of thing that Brubaker excels at, and he pulls it off with aplomb and with the assistance of artist Mike Perkins, who keeps the moody spynoir feel that Steve Epting and Michael Lark established previously.

And so, it’s no fault of this particular issue’s that I finally realized what’s been bothering me about Brubaker’s run on this series. And of course, it’s Bucky. But why is Bucky bothering me, you ask?

As most of you who bothered to keep reading after you saw that this post was filed under “Comixx” already know, Bucky was Captain America’s World War II-era sidekick—a plucky teen armed with nothing but gumption and a machine gun three-fourths of his own weight. His death near the end of the war, after an airplane explosion and a plunge into the arctic, is the primal trauma of Cap’s modern heroic career. When he reappeared in the 1960s, Cap’s anguish over letting his partner die was a major part of his personality, the angst that made him a character in the Mighty Marvel Mold. Over the years, as he’s partnered with other heroes, the sting of that loss has lessened a bit, and the memory of Bucky has tended to function more as a wistful marker of simpler times for Cap, who is after all a man from the 40s living in the allegedly more complicated modern world.

So, the big event in Captain America for the past year or so has been the resurrection of Bucky—Bucky, who was one of three deaths in the Marvel Universe, along with Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, traditionally considered sacrosanct because of how central they are to the MU mythos. (Uncle Ben is so far the only of the trio to escape some sort of exhumation; Gwen wasn’t resurrected, but it was revealed that she had had an affair with Norman Osborne and bore his children, which have now grown up at an accelerated rate and want to kill Spider-Man, in a story that was called something like “Don’t You Feel Nostalgic for the Clone Saga Now?”, or “The Storyline that Saved Professor Fury $3 a Month.”)

I’ve held off on my complaints about Bucky’s return, because I didn’t want to be one of those annoying fanboys who’s always whining about some storyline that has totally ruined the character, etc etc. Of course, that whining fanboy is something of a straw man. Most stories of this sort (like the Gwen Stacy story) are bad not necessarily because they muck with established continuity, but because they’re such bad stories—lazy, poorly written, cheap-shock potboilers that do in fact complicate a character’s backstory and history all out of proportion to what they add or even to how enjoyable they are to read.

But for the most part, Brubaker has done a pretty good job with this story. He’s got a great handle on Cap and his rogues gallery, and he offers logical (well, comic-logical) reasons why Bucky is still alive, why he hasn’t aged, and why he has a mad-on for Cap. So, though plagued by nagging doubts, I’ve held off on bashing Brubaker too much.

Until now. Because I’ve finally figured out what it is that really bothers me about the return of Bucky, and it’s this: this return adds nothing to the Marvel Universe or to the Captain America mythos.

Here’s what I mean: as the “Winter Soldier,” Bucky is a dark, brooding, morally ambiguous figure who has spent most of the past half-century in a state of suspended animation and who is tormented by the atrocities he committed in his former life while under the control of one of Cap’s enemies. All this is well and good, and it would be fine except Cap already had a supporting character just like that: Jack Monroe, aka Nomad, aka the Bucky of the 50s: Jack Monroe, who got bumped off early in the current storyline so that Bucky Number One could take center stage. Jack Monroe, whom, you recall, was the partner of the racist, commie-bashing, mentally-unstable replacement Captain America of the 1950s, who spent most of the past half-century in suspended animation until SHIELD could cure his mental troubles, who did another stint as a mind-controlled pawn as the new Scourge over in Thunderbolts, and who operates as a dark, morally ambigious vigilante trying to earn redemption for his past sins.

Seriously, consider these images:

WinterSoldier Nomad

So, what I’m saying is that, for all it many strengths, the “Winter Soldier” storyline is in one sense a big-event comic of the most frustrating variety. Promising cataclysmic change, it nevertheless returns us to a status quo with the merest of superficial alterations. As he’s currently constituted, I can’t see any story featuring the returned Bucky that mightn’t have worked just as well with Nomad. And so, it feels a bit lazy to me. I recognize that Nomad’s backstory is complicated and it might be hard to clear the ground sufficiently to tell a compelling story with him—but could it really be any harder than finding a good reason for Bucky to return from the dead?

I really do like Brubaker as a writer—I enjoyed Sleeper, his Daredevil is off to a strong start, and he’s a great fit for Cap. And perhaps the problem is not Bru’s but the market’s—bringing back Bucky makes a big splash, gets Cap, a perenially underachieving title, written up in the comics press, and earns all kinds of free publicity that simply writing a great comic book story doesn’t. But ultimately I think he whiffed on this one: given the chance to give us something huge, he gave us something we already had, all warmed over and wrapped up in a shiny new package (and with a bionic arm!), but really still the thing we already had, with only the illusion of change.

I shouldn’t gripe. It just a matter of time before someone resurrects Jack Monroe, and then he and the Winter Soldier go head to head in a battle that can only be called The Man Who Would Be Bucky, and then they team-up to form the Bucky Brigade with Battle Star and that she-Bucky from Counter-Earth. No, seriously, we will see that. I give it no more than 4 years.

Other Cap Posts:
“Complicity, History, and Captain America #292”
“A Tale of Two Caps”
“Cap v Cap”

11 Responses to “The Trouble with Bucky”

  1. gorjus says:

    I’ll go on record as saying I HATE the new Bucky storyline. I can’t read it, can’t stand it, won’t read it, won’t stand it. One of the reasons I despised Frank Miller’s “DK2” (grody!) was the “evil” Robin (see also: The Return of the Red Hood). I frickin’ loathe “yr greatest enemy is actually . . . yr oldest friend!” storylines, because they strain credibility.

    Bucky was great dead. I even liked the way they had begun to rowdy up the character—here’s this seventeen year old with no powers, hanging out with Namor and Cap! With a machine gun!

    But now . . . ? “Here is a post-Cold War semi-android who . . . ” Oh, come on. Just saying it gicks me out.

    And dude: cut the hair, already. It’s the ‘06. There’s no surer way to date yr character, other than giving them a goatee.

  2. gbs says:

    I read this, Prof, hoping I would eventually come to some kind of amazing story about a former moody roommate of mine or someone with whom you once wrote a paper, both of whom I met on my birthday in 2001. Come to think of it, that’s the same day we met! It was a shocking and moving day for me—Bucky, Fury, and Bucky—that should be a comic book.

  3. Polly says:

    jesus. what’s wrong with this site? i’ve posted 5x and none have appeared.

  4. gorjus says:

    We’re having some problems with comment spam. I dunno why; keep trying.

  5. Toptomcat says:

    While the Winter Soldier character is at least superficially similar to Nomad, the thing that separates him from Nomad is his personal connection to Captain America. While Nomad was the Bucky of the ‘50s, he had no interaction with the current Cap until his revival. As you said, the central pathos of the Captain America character is Bucky’s death, and the tie to this pathos is what makes the Winter Soldier unique: the story would not have had the same emotional component for the Captain if Nomad had somehow gone rogue.
    While there may be certain similarities to the Nomad character admittedly symptomatic of lazy writing, the Winter Soldier does indeed fill a role that could not be filled by Nomad.

  6. Thanks for stopping by! You’re probably right that a rogue Nomad story wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact on Cap. My qualms are less with the story itself, which I’m reading and mostly enjoying, than with what it does for the Cap mythos: that is, though the arc itself is compelling, it doesn’t ultimately give us anything in the Marvel Universe or the Cap Saga that we didn’t already have before. Even if this is a better version of what we had before—arguable, I think—does it really justify undoing Bucky’s death in order to give us a souped-up version of a buncha Nomad stories we’ve already read in one form or another?

  7. Grizz says:

    Actually, there is an aspect of the Winter Soldier storyline that I find rather interesting. In the scenes that mention Bucky’s training, as well as some of the WWII scenes, we see a whole new aspect of Bucky, namely that he was Cap’s scout (due to his smaller size) and that he was Cap’s “cover”. By that, I mean that Bucky was trained to kill, so that Cap could keep his hands and his reputation clean, in order to serve as the role model that the Army wanted.

    That’s part of what I see in the Soldier’s mixed feelings about Cap. Sure, Cap was his friend, but Bucky was always the one that had to do the “dirty work” (and suffering the effects of it) while Cap did get almost all the glory. From his perspective, he did all the hard and dirty work, but got little credit outside of being the sidekick.

    The way I see it, if Bucky and Cap hadn’t been divided by that fateful mission, Bucky might well have split from Cap or even gone rogue. There’s probably a lot of unexpressed anger there.

  8. Cap says:

    I read your essay with an open mind. However, it appears to me that while you admit to enjoying the storyline Brubaker has turned out (on “Winter Soldier” ) you basically diss it because it feels “lazy,” that
    the same storyline could have fit with Nomad.

    Toptomcat’s reply answers your criticism perfectly.
    Additionally, however you perceive it, I (respectfully) feel you are really splitting hairs here. Your objection does not seem to carry
    the weight of your criticism. You admit to enjoying the storyline,
    yet you object to it because it feels “lazy”.... I need a better
    objection than that to take your critique seriously.

    I’ve been reading Cap (my fave Marvel character) since as a kid,
    back in 1964. Yes, the Bucky death storyline added drama & pathos
    to Lee & other’s storylines. However, what Brubaker has done is nothing short of miraculous, not to mention historic. While other writers have flirted with the “Bucky is alive” plotline before; Bru
    has actually done it, 42 years later! Granted, it is not the great
    joyous reunion we all hoped for, but, damnit, he brought Buck back..
    No small feat….

    I am not a fan of sidekicks per se; however, having read the
    legendary Kirby-Simon stories of the ‘40’s (via Fantasy Masterpieces’
    reprints in the ‘60’s) kids identified with Bucky, Marvel’s version
    of Robin. Cap didn’t have to watch out for Buck; he was in the thick of the action as much as Cap. Having Bucky back is reason for longtime Cap fans to rejoice.

    My only question is the irony about Jason Todd’s character being resurrected about the same time as Bucky. Granted, he’s not the
    real deal (only Robin II, & a reckless one at that…) but his death
    ‘stuck’ for almost 20 years… & the storyline strongly resembles
    “Winter Soldier” in it’s basic plotline (long-thought dead sidekick
    comes back grown & now an adversary of his former mentor.
    Which came first? Who’s zoomin’ who?

    Anyway, bottom line, I need a more concrete resaon to diss the Bucky storyline. I feel it’s entertaining, credible, poignant, & best of
    all: Bru’s brought back Buck! (say that five times quickly)...
    SOmething no one at Marvel (including Stan) has dared for 42 years.

  9. luagha says:

    While I agree completely, I do advise reading issue 1 of Winter Solder – Winter Kills. The meeting and discussion between Namor and Bucky is truly brilliant. It might even make you think that bringing him back was worthwhile.

  10. Anthony Thomas says:

    I cant even pick up marvel anything anymore and I dodge anything Cap related any more so.

    When they killed Jack Monroe (that suspended animation crap is exactly that) I stopped going to comic book stores.
    When they changed U.S. Agent and made him a pacifist with a frigin laser shield, I canceled all my subscriptions.
    When Iron Man killed Captain America, I vowed never to pick up another comic again.

  11. kurumais says:

    thank you for putting my thoughts to paper so well. i have a love hate relationship with brubaker’s cap. if you read the issue right after cap’s death every line but one could have come out of jack monroe’s mouth which was a throw away line about ww2.
    i think over all the resurection of bucky hurts the cap mytho more than its enriched it.