Author’s note: This article centers around the storyline from Ed Brubaker’s run of the Captain America comics and, as a result, may contain spoilers for the upcoming 2014 Marvel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Read at your own risk.
James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was presumed dead in the late 1960s, when his supposed demise was depicted in an issue of The Avengers as a flashback. (He and Cap were trying to take down a Nazi drone plane and, in the ensuing confusion, Bucky’s sleeve got caught on the cockpit when the plane exploded.) For the next thirty-plus years, he appeared in flashback form and his name was occasionally mentioned as a warning to all superheroes as a consequence of having a young kid as a sidekick. And then in 2005, with writer Ed Brubaker at the helm of the new Captain America comics, he did the previously unthinkable: he brought Bucky Barnes back “from the dead,” and in a whole new way.
Bucky Barnes, formerly ‘sidekick’ to Captain America, was the cybernetic-armed Soviet assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
But how? How did Bucky go from Cap’s right-hand man to the Russians’ pawn? Through brainwashing, of course – and this is where Bucky’s story gets sad. (Not that it wasn’t already sad before.)
Both of Bucky’s parents died when he was very young – his mom passed when he was a small child, and his dad died in an accident while in basic training at Camp Lehigh when Bucky was only twelve. He had a sister, Rebecca, but they were separated as she was sent to boarding school while Bucky stayed at Camp Lehigh as a ward of the state. Already alone in life, these formative years would prove to be important for Bucky’s character, not just in terms of special training, but because this is where he meets Private Steve Rogers for the first time.
The relationship between Bucky and Steve in the comics spanned several layers – as mentor and student, as brothers, as best friends. Though Bucky was often cynical of Steve’s idealistic and patriotic outlook on the war and life in general, they undoubtedly connected with one another in a way that made it easy for people to think of them as a unit: Captain America and his sidekick Bucky. Though Bucky was a few years younger than Steve, that didn’t stop them from becoming best friends, on and off the battlefield.
Fast forward to Bucky’s demise. When the Soviets found him frozen in the English Channel, they initially placed him in cryogenic stasis, hoping they would become useful later, and they didn’t wake him until 1954 to serve as their spy. Before releasing him on missions, though, they had to make sure the already amnesiac and brain-damaged Bucky stood no chance of remembering who he is or where he came from and ruining their plans, so they took to brainwashing him, ‘programming’ him to hate the West and all that Captain America stood for.
And, of course, he was no longer James Barnes and certainly no longer Bucky the sidekick – now he was the Winter Soldier.
With no sense of who he really is and no sense of the truth, Bucky during his period as the Winter Soldier became completely orphaned in a different sense. His identity was stripped from him without his consent; he’s no longer owner of his own name, nor does he remember anything prior to being the Winter Soldier. Bucky Barnes is no more – or, as Bucky himself remarks in his early reappearance in the Captain America comics, “Who the hell is Bucky?”
He also has no concrete sense of national loyalty. There were moments every now and then, rare though they were, where Bucky would sometimes look as though he were regaining some sense of his former self; there is a flashback moment where, once, Bucky grew so aggravated with the Soviet high command that he began to yell at them in English instead of Russian. His American roots were at war with his brainwashed Russian identity, even under the surface, but always just out of reach.
And, of course, we can’t forget that Bucky was once again stripped of family, because really, Steve Rogers was – if anything – an older brother to Bucky, simultaneously his best friend, sibling figure, and teacher throughout the years. With these memories of Steve lost, Bucky is once again on his own, orphaned by the unfortunate and tragic circumstances outside his own control.
While he doesn’t necessarily remember what he’s lost (he doesn’t remember or recognize Steve at all during their first encounter after all these years), that doesn’t make his losses void and unimportant. There’s no hesitation on Bucky’s part when he and Steve/Captain America first fight each other, because there’s no fond memories of Steve holding him back. Steve is just another Westerner that Bucky needs to get rid of, and Captain America especially is the symbol of everything Bucky’s been indoctrinated to hate. Without his memories, his best friend is now just another stranger to him.
Orphaned of his family, his country, his mind, and his friends. It’s a wonder Bucky Barnes is still standing, but it’s a true testament to his character that he’s managed to overcome these and other obstacles.
But fear not, Winter Soldier fans – not only do you have the upcoming movie to look forward to, but as of writing this article, writer Rick Remender and illustrator Roland Boschi will be putting out a new five-issue mini-series in February 2014 called “Winter Soldier: The Bitter March.” Mark your calendars now so you don’t forget! (No, I didn’t just make a memory joke in a Bucky article. Why do you ask?)
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a senior at New York University studying creative writing. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.