A Look at the Comic Book History of Bucky Barnes
One upon a time, he was one of the first teen sidekicks to a superhero. Then, he became known as one of the few people in superhero comics that would stay dead. But like his mentor/best friend, he would be revived in the modern day with a noticeably darker personality. All of these things are used to describe the character of Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier.
I’m RJ Writing Ink, and to mark the premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I’m here to explain the history of Captain America’s partner. And it’s going to get confusing at times.
Bucky Barnes: Origins
James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was born in 1925, the son of a soldier in the US Army. Growing up as an army brat, Bucky didn’t have it easy early on. His Mom died when he was 10, while his Dad died in a training accident when he was 13. In addition, his sister got sent to boarding school, so he never saw her.
Despite the hardship, Bucky made the most of his life, being looked after as a ward of the army in Camp Leigh, Virginia. He even became the Camp’s mascot. By the time he reached his teens, Bucky would be trained by both the US Army and the British S.A.S. in the arts of kicking ass. As a result, he turned into one of the most badass teens in America. That’s when Captain America stepped onto the scene.
In order to counter the role of the Hitler Youth, the US Army needed a young partner for Cap to work with to inspire America’s own youth. In addition, they needed someone who could do the things they didn’t want Cap directly involved in. With his skill set, Bucky Barnes was perfect for the job. Together, Cap and Bucky would spend World War II fighting the good fight. Steve and Bucky would end up becoming best friends; hell, I’d go so far as to call them brothers. Tragically, their bromance was doomed to tragedy. On their final mission to stop the theft of an experimental plane, Bucky managed to leap on and grab hold. However, the thing was rigged to explode. While Cap was blown clear of the blast and fell into the sea, Bucky would not be so lucky.
Codename: Winter Soldier
Eventually, Marvel would decide to revive Captain America in the modern ageas part of the Avengers. However, due to the realization that sending teens into battle wasn’t the most responsible thingfor someone like Cap to do, Bucky was written off as dead. And for the next forty years, he would stay that way. There was even a saying that he was one of only three people in comics that would stay dead.
Then in 2005, Marvel decided to bring Bucky Barnes back.
As it turned out, Bucky survived the explosion, albeit without his arm. A passing Soviet submarine picked him up and, thinking that he could be helpful, experimented on him. The good news? They managed to save him from death. The bad news? He didn’t remember anything about his past. The worse news? His body remembered all the elite training and foreign languages a la Jason Bourne. Understanding what he had, Vasily Karpov, who previously worked with Cap and Bucky, decided to put Bucky Barnes to use. Outfitting him with a cybernetic arm and brainwashed to be loyal to the Soviet cause, Bucky Barnes became the Winter Soldier.
For the next forty-three years, the Winter Soldier would be an elite Soviet assassin. I can’t even begin to account for how many bodies he piled up. In addition, he would also train other Soviet spies and assassins. One of them happened to be Natasha Romanoff, the future Black Widow. The two even briefly dated.
When he wasn’t on missions, Bucky would be kept in cryogenic stasis. Like this, he only aged a few years. This continued until Karpov passed away in 1988, with Bucky being out on ice indefinitely. Or so it seemed.
Remember Who You Are
It turns out, Karpov had an adopted son, Aleksander Lukin, that he groomed to be his successor. When Karpov died, Lukin inherited all of his assets, including Bucky Barnes. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lukin went rogue and became a business tycoon, but he didn’t stop there. He wanted even more power, and the Winter Soldier would be the means for him to get it.
Step one: send Winter Soldier to kill the Red Skull and take his reality-warping Cosmic Cube
Step two: have Winter Soldier kill hundreds of people to power up the Cube.
Final Step: Profit
Unfortunately, this alerted Captain America to the fact that Bucky was still alive. Now determined to save his best friend/brother, Cap fought Winter Soldier with all his might. However, it was only through using the Cube itself that Cap was able to make Bucky remember who he was. Now wracked with guilt, Bucky fled, ashamed of what he’d been made to do. This would lead Bucky on a long and painful road to redemption and take up a new title.
Becoming Captain America
So, remember Captain America: Civil War? The crossover in the comics that inspired it was much more significant. And it ended with Cap losing and being arrested…and then assassinated by the Red Skull.
With the Red Skull’s dying breath, he transferred his mind into General Lukin’s, and then they offed Captain America. He wasn’t dead, but more on that in a moment. In the meantime, someone new had to take Steve’s place. Long story short, Bucky would be the one to take up his mentor’s title. And despite misgivings from the public and other heroes, Bucky soon proved more than worthy of the title. Together, he and his allies thwarted the Red Skull/Lukin’s attempts to seize control of the US Government via a puppet candidate, with Lukin himself dying at the hands of Steve’s girlfriend, Sharon Carter. However, the Red Skull cheated death again using an android body.
As for Steve Rogers, he wasn’t dead. He was actually trapped in a moment in time as part of a convoluted plan to transfer the Red Skull into his body. Eventually, the Red Skull succeeded, but then Steve drove him out of his mind, and Steve and Bucky killed the Red Skull, seemingly for good. It makes as much sense in context. After his resurrection, Steve decided to retire from being Captain America, leaving Bucky Barnes as his successor.
Too bad for Bucky, it wasn’t permanent.
Outed, “Death” and Return to Being Winter Soldier
After continuing to serve as Captain America for some time, the son of one of his and Steve’s old enemies proceeded to out him as Bucky Barnes. Worse, he leaked information about what he did as the Winter Soldier to the public, who reacted about as well as you’d expect. As a result, Bucky stood trial for his crimes as a Soviet assassin. Fortunately, his friends and allies were able to prove that he was amnesiac and completely brainwashed during his time as the Winter Soldier. Ergo, his actions weren’t of his own accord, and he shouldn’t be held accountable for them. The argument worked, and the courts found him not guilty. However, the Russian Government tried arresting him on fake murder charges, but he busted out of the Gulag.
The damage to his reputation was already done, though, and it looked like Bucky would have to give up being Captain America for good. Then in the next big crossover event, it looked as though Bucky died; again. He didn’t. His death was faked by his allies, forcing Steve to become Captain America once more. As for Bucky, he took up the mantle of Winter Soldier once more. This time, though, he would be a force for good, working from the shadows to eliminate threats and tie up loose ends from his past.
A Soldier Through and Through
Bucky Barnes has had quite the tumultuous history over his eighty years of existence. First created as the antithesis to the Hitler Youth/a counter to Robin the Boy Wonder, then relegated to being dead for almost forty years. Had he stayed that way, he would have likely been a footnote in Marvel’s history. Thankfully, he was revived in the modern day as someone who could stand as his own character. Heck, he even took up the role of Captain America for a couple years, and more than proved himself worthy of the title during that time.
With the arrival of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+, there’s a big question on everyone’s minds: now that Steve Rogers’ retired, who will wield the shield? Will Sam Wilson or Bucky Barnes become the next Captain America in the MCU, or is this just wishful thinking on the part of a fan. Regardless, I think that Bucky’s comic book history, while not as rich as other heroes, is still fascinating to learn about. And the original comic book run about his return is one of the best stories Marvel put out in the 2000s, so I’d recommend you go check it out.
Soldier, superhero, assassin, and spy. All of these things can be used to describe Bucky Barnes. One thing’s for sure, though: he’s one of the people in the Marvel Universe that you don’t want to come after you!