Quarantine brings lots of time to read so I guess there’s a little silver lining to be found in our lives of social distancing and self-isolation. While I’ve been at home, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading. Since I’ve had Bucky Barnes on my mind lately, I thought the time was right to finally read Ed Burbank’s “Winter Solider,” the 2005 storyline that served as the inspiration for one of the MCU’s most well-received films. I figured I’d use the format I chose when I wrote about Marvel’s epic “Civil War” storyline a little over a year ago, too. With a story so widely known and discussed in popular (comic) culture circles, where there any surprises left to be found reading it fifteen years after the fact?
First, maybe, I should address why the Winter Soldier’s been on my mind. Well, before the coronavirus had us all locked up, my brother had been encouraging me to join him on some cosplaying ventures. He’d assembled a pretty kickass Hawkeye suit and he’d been making appearances with friends as a cosplay Avengers team. I told David I had my Star-Lord costume for when my hair was short, but now that I’ve grown it out again, I really didn’t have anything superhero appropriate, let alone Avengers-adjacent, in my costume box in the basement. David brushed my objections aside, immediately saying the Winter Solider should be my go-to option – all I really had to do was shave my beard closer and figure out the arm and I was good to go. And the less amount of work I have to do, the better! I grant I do have to work on my smolder a bit.
So I considered it. But, because I am who I am, if I was going to do this I was going to do this right. David has been immersing himself in some iconic Hawkeye stories, to have a better handle on the character than just what Jeremy Renner brings to the movies. I figured, if I was contemplating doing this Winter Solider cosplay, I needed to do the same. I needed to meet the Winter Solider as a character in the comics. Sebastian Stan is great. But I had to do the deep research. (Plus I’ve been doing a massive reading dive in Black Widow’s comic history and I know Bucky features prominently in her post-2000 stories, too.) Naturally there was no better way to start than with Ed Burbank’s 2005 storyline where he reintroduced Bucky Barnes to the world as the Winter Solider.
Much like my experience reading “Civil War,” I found “The Winter Solider” had some surprises in store for me. And we’ve FINALLY hit that point in this post where I can regale you with them! Are you ready? I’m ready!
1) They reveal Bucky is the Winter Solider right away…like right away.
There was no mystery here! Like, none at all! I remember being very disappointed with the trailers for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. We saw Sebastian Stan’s eyes from the go! Sure, his hair was longer and his mouth was covered but who was that fooling? Plus, if you were lucky enough to not make that immediate connection the internet came along and ruined it for everyone immediately posting zillions of articles about how Bucky is the Winter Solider. I just kept thinking how exciting it would’ve been if they really built the anticipation and led to this astonishing reveal within the film. I kept imaging what that would’ve been like and what it would’ve been like to read the comics and have that moment, that shocking twist revealed.
Except it wasn’t in the comics. They also gave it away IMMEDIATELY.
Ed Burbank’s first story arc writing Captain America in ’04 was called “Out of Time” and it ran through issues #1-6 with an interlude story in #7. His second arc was “The Winder Soldier,” running from issues #8-14. We see a mysterious figure assassinate the Red Skull in issue #1. Issue #2 has a lot of Bucky flashbacks so the whole “background character introduced and then forgotten and revealed at the end” mystery trope doesn’t really apply. It’s obvious all this Bucky-centric stuff is leading to something. Then issue #5 sees Nick Fury say he wants to be sure before he tells Cap anything as, if it’s true, the identity of this mysterious Winter Soldier will “destroy [Cap’s] world.” Then in #6 Sharon straight-up screams to Cap, “I think it’s Bucky!” His identity is revealed before the “Winter Soldier” storyline even officially begins.
2) We get the Winter Soldier’s whole back story in ONE issue.
This sort of keeps with the above issue of “no surprises/no mysteries.” After revealing Bucky is still alive and operating as the shadowy super assassin the Winter Soldier, obviously Steve Rogers has some questions. Wasn’t his best friend dead? How could he have survived?? Even if he survived, ow is he still alive??? The reader, naturally, has similar questions, too. This is HUGE. This is akin to bringing back Gwen Stacy (and not a clone or an alternate reality Gwen or anything like that) and having her walk unannounced into Peter Parker’s life. This manages to be a MAJOR twist in a medium that’s known for bringing people back from the dead. So what happened???
Well, the entire thing is explained in one issue. Soooooo there’s no real teased out mystery here nor is there any sort of build-up or slow reveal. That’s right, Captain America #11 explains EVERYTHING that happened to Bucky from the war to the present. How is this information revealed? Well, in the type of exciting fashion you’d expect from a superhero comic book. Steve comes home, finds a folder mysteriously left in his apartment, and he proceeds to sit down on his couch and read it.
Yep, Steve Rogers – and the reader – just flips through a folder that holds alllllllllllll the information about everything that’s happened to Bucky Barnes in his journey to becoming the Winter Solider. No twists. No games. No misdirects. He just reads it all right there. It was as exciting to read as you might expect.
3) Captain America is such a S.H.I.E.L.D. flunky!!
I knew that Cap worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics. I knew this was the inspiration for his character’s first arc in the MCU films. I also knew it set the stage for the soon-to-come Superhuman Civil War. But I had NO IDEA he was such a “company man.” This wasn’t the Captain America I am used to! This wasn’t the inspiring symbol of the American Dream. This wasn’t the man who would lead the fight against any and all threat – domestic or cosmic – to the Marvel Universe. This was a guy who jumped when S.H.I.E.L.D. said “jump.” This was a guy who freely served alongside a black ops, paramilitary group with no real questions or qualms about what they were doing. And yeah, I get it. Cap was a military man. He’s used to serving. But he also has principles. He serves the American Dream. He doesn’t serve an intelligence machine. It’s hard for me to square the Steve Rogers I see through this story with the one who will so passionately defend civil liberties in the “Civil War” storyline to follow. Hell, it’s hard to square him with any incarnation I’ve seen of Cap in the comics.
4) Captain American is also a surly, uncommunicative jerk.
This surprised me too! You get some scenes of Cap and Sharon together and, while I will fully own I didn’t read all the issues that came before “Out of Time” and “The Winter Soldier” so I don’t know the whole history of their relationship, he is kind of a tool. He can’t voice his feelings. He can’t communicate. He boxes her out coldly and he certainly doesn’t seem to understand Sharon’s feelings. Again, one of the key facets of Captain America as a character is he represents the best of us. But this? Honestly, it felt like just another tired and hackneyed attempt to make him “relevant” or “relatable” by making him darker, edgier, and surlier. And I didn’t care for it.
5) Captain American magically fixes everything with a Cosmic Cube.
Yep, so after revealing the Winter Soldier’s identity before the story even begins and revealing his whole backstory in a manner as exciting as sorting and filing paperwork, we have several issues of Cap and Sharon tracking Bucky around the world only to end with the most magic and convenient of magic, convenient plot resolutions. In issue #14 Cap picks up a Cosmic Cube and says, “Remember who you are” annnnnnd Bucky does. Just like that.
It had the potential to be such a powerful scene! The Winter Soldier and Cap were battling each other. Cap’s sure he won’t shoot him…but he does! They struggle! Cap’s heartbroken! The Winter Soldier has no idea who Cap is! What’s going to happen?!!? Well, Cap picks up the ol’ deus ex machina and magically fixes Bucky with literally four words. Then Bucky’s memories come back in a rush and he runs off, trying to struggle with all he was made to do. All this had SO MUCH POTENTIAL to make for a powerful, emotionally-charged story. But, as far as I’m concerned, none of it worked. So much of Ed Burbank’s “The Winter Soldier” felt like lazy and/or uninspired storytelling. It was like he knew the big plot point – Bucky Barnes is back and he’s an assassin called the Winter Soldier! – but he didn’t know how to get there or where to go from it.
6) The story wasn’t long enough or complex enough to have ten surprises.
Yes, yeah, I know. I get the title to this post may now feel like a bit of a mislead at best or a rip-off at worst buuuuuuut that was exactly how I felt reading “The Winter Soldier” so I figured I’d go with it and this post then would help drive home my point.
I am just so surprised! I can’t see how this story is considered a modern classic by any stretch of the imagination. I get the return of Bucky was a major moment with massive implications for the rest of the Marvel Universe up to the present. But how he came back? It wasn’t a story worthy of his character nor was it one worthy of the time I spent reading it. If nothing else, thankfully the constant forward momentum of the comic medium means lots and lots of other authors have had their chance to shape Bucky’s story and I hope others have done a better job. (Here’s hoping his interactions with the Black Widow are more compelling and better written!)
“The Winter Soldier” also serves as a reminder that sometimes, sometimes the movie can be better than the book. Captain America: Winter Soldier is one of my all-time favorite films in the MCU. It’s this amazing political thriller and it adds so many rich dimensions to both Cap and Natasha’s characters as well as their friendship. It has legit surprising plot twists with real ramifications for the MCU and the battle between Cap and Bucky on the helicarrier is everything I wanted that the comic failed to deliver in terms of emotional stakes. It also introduces the Falcon to the MCU! It is so, so good and it’s one of those films I can’t tire of watching. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier is a real character, full of conflict and a desperate drive for atonement. The comic that (oh-so-loosely) inspired all this? Nah, not so much.
If you read “The Winter Soldier” and enjoyed it, feel free to comment below. Maybe you can show me something I missed! If you’re like me and you haven’t read it…uh, there are PLENTY of amazing Cap stories to enjoy. With this one I think you’re better off just watching the movie instead. That’s what I wish I did…