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Originally taking place in Captain America Vol. V, #8-14, “The Winter Solider” not only did the impossible in bringing Cap’s long dead sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes back to life, but it also firmly established Ed Brubaker as the definitive Captain America writer of this generation. Despite decades of stories starring the Star Spangled Avenger, this arc will forever be my favorite Captain America story ever written.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Steve Epting, Michael Lark, Mike Perkins

For months, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Michael Lark had been turning Captain America into one of the most impressive titles in Marvel’s publishing catalog. Brubaker has always shown a knack for street-level stories and characters, and his take on Cap was surprisingly different. This new spin on Captain America placed a stronger emphasis on espionage. Cap was, and will always be at heart, a government agent. Who better to combat super-spies than the original super-soldier? The enemies were still fantastical (A.I.M., the Red Skull, M.O.D.O.Cs), but the stakes felt so much more real and honest. That is especially true of the book’s second major story arc, “The Winter Soldier.”

As the old comic book geek axiom went at the time, “No one stays dead but Bucky.” For close to half a century, that was true. Everything changed in 2005 when a mysterious man with a cybernetic arm began appearing in the background of just about every issue of Brubaker’s Captain America. Readers were enthralled by the mystery of the man we’d simply believed to be known as the Winter Soldier. Though it wasn’t until Captain America himself said, “I think it’s Bucky!” that I started to believe it. That sighting of what appeared to be his former partner set off the arc that not only put Bucky back on the map permanently, but it also deftly explained how it was possible that a man believed dead since World War II could even be so young and alive.

Recovered from the ocean in 1945 by the Russians, James Barnes was in pretty bad shape. His arm had been blown clean off by the explosion that also sent Steve Rogers into the icy depths, and the time he spent in the frigid temperatures had caused some pretty bad brain damage. Though they were searching for Cap, what the Russians found that day proved to be even more valuable. A soldier trained by Captain America, who had no idea who he was or where he came from. He was the perfect specimen for a new series of radical robotics and psychological tests to create a new type of Cold War trooper – The Winter Soldier.

We learn all of this at the same time Steve Rogers does thanks to the delivery of a top-secret file dropped off conspicuously at Rogers’ hideout. The documents provide a clear detailing of what happened to Bucky after the war all the way up until 1988, when he was put back into what appeared to be permanent stasis. All that time, the Winter Soldier had been used sporadically as an assassin for the Soviets. He was released to compete a mission, then brought back to the USSR and put into stasis. Though he appeared to have only aged 10-15 years, the Winter Solider was active since the onset of the Cold War. When Cap finds all of this out, he’s as devastated and heartbroken as we are. He isn’t the only who thought Bucky was dead since that fateful day during the war.

What really makes this storyline work, and why bringing Bucky back to life was such a great moment in comic history, is the way Brubaker is able to put us in Cap’s shoes. Though we do get to see a bit more of how Bucky was found and treated during some flashback sequences, prior to this storyline, we had only gotten to see Bucky as Cap did in looks back at his own memories. We got to see the teenage sidekick in a whole new light. What was formerly just a kid who got to tag along with the United States’ most important soldier was now shown as a black-ops specialist. Brubaker portrayed Bucky as an actual soldier with a skill set that completely made sense for the time period and type of person he was.

As Cap is reading these secret documents, we’re seeing how horribly the Russians treated Bucky. We don’t feel betrayed that Marvel had dared to bring him back to life. We felt just as sick to our stomachs that this was how Cap’s one and only true friend was treated. Brubaker does an amazing job of keeping you focused on being angry that this was what happened to such a hero. Epting’s strong interiors here really shine, with some great full-page montages. Rather than raging out because some unspoken law of comics had been broken, you felt sad. When Cap gets himself together and decides to try and get Bucky back, you weren’t groaning over the absurdity of it all. You were cheering him on. You wanted Bucky back alive and as one of the good guys. Bucky’s fate wasn’t supposed to consign him to a life of murderous servitude. It was a huge gamble that Marvel was willing to bet on, and they certainly put their trust in the right creative team.

I never really even had a connection to Bucky since I grew up more than forty years after he was relevant. All I knew of the character was that he died helping Captain America save the day once again. Bucky stayed dead because there was no real reason to bring him back. Of course, there was also no real reason to keep him dead. His death wasn’t the turning point of Captain America’s career. Steve Rogers had donned the suit before Bucky was part of the picture. If anything, Bucky was a solemn reminder to Steve Rogers of the one person he just couldn’t save. Bringing him back as a misguided and brainwashed villain gave Captain America a second chance. Brubaker and team made me want the best for Bucky. I didn’t know what was best for Bucky, but I knew and felt so strongly that he needed to live.

“The Winter Soldier” isn’t just my favorite Captain America storyline because Bucky came back from the dead. I like it so much because it made me care about someone that I knew only in the most minute of ways. I was emotionally attached to this character in a way that I had never been before. Hell, I was only reading Captain America because Ed Brubaker was writing it. I didn’t even follow Cap stories closely before this new series launched. This creative team got me to invest in fictional people for the first time in quite a long time. Sure, I’d followed Green Lantern and the X-Men, but I just liked those characters and stories. Here, with this storyline, I truly felt attached to the people all these awful things were happening to. That’s what makes this story so special. Not that Bucky came back to life, but that I cared that he did.

It’s Captain America Week on TheQuarterBin, and all this week you can check in for some great original articles leading up to the release of Captain America: The First Avenger.

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