Ed Brubaker and The Winter Soldier Comic – Why It Changed Everything

Winter Soldier Comic 14

Nobody in comics stays dead except for Uncle Ben and Bucky. Or at least that was the case until Ed Brubaker changed it.

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was the superhero sidekick to Captain America during World War 2. Although Stan Lee has said that he hates teenage sidekicks, Bucky was created to capitalize on a growing segment of teenage readers. In fact, around this time, Robin had just been introduced as the sidekick to Batman.

For years Bucky fought alongside Captain America and even joined him, the Human Torch, Toro, and Namor in the super group, The Invaders. For the better part of a decade the duo achieved unprecedented success. Unfortunately, as superhero comics and their sidekicks fell out of fashion, so too did Bucky.

In his last appearance, Bucky was thrown from a bomb into the depths of the seas. He was never found, presumed dead, and remained there for decades. His death, along with the death of Uncle Ben caused readers and collectors to coin the term, “Nobody stays dead in comics except for Uncle Ben and Bucky Barnes.”


After Bucky’s death, character deaths in comics became a natural occurrence. Important characters like Jean Grey, Green Goblin, Jason Todd, Supergirl, The Flash, and others began to die. However, unlike Bucky, each, at one point or another, made a triumphant return.

Not Bucky. Bucky was dead. Bucky never came back.

Following his death, Bucky became the focal point of every Captain America story that involved his past. Bucky was, for as mighty as Steve is, the one friend that he couldn’t save. Bucky, the teenager that Captain America let die.

Even the MCU adaptation of the two characters placed heavy focus on their relationship. Captain America The First Avenger, as much as it was an origin story for Steve Rogers, put on full display the importance of the bond the two had. 

In the mid 2000’s, Ed Brubaker sensed an opportunity and wrote one of the best Captain America stories…ever. He did what many had considered but had never done. His story follows a new enemy of Captain America dubbed the Winter Soldier. 

And who was the Winter Soldier?

The Winter Soldier is a premiere assassin capable of going toe-to-toe with just about anyone in comics. He is trained in numerous fighting styles, intelligent, and strong. Through the first many issues, readers around the world wondered who he was. Then, when the audience least expected it, Brubaker released the identity of the Winter Soldier.

Winter Soldier Shoots Captain America

Bucky. It was Bucky.

But how? How could Bucky be alive?

With the Winter Soldier comic, Brubaker created an intelligent way to retcon (change) the history of the character so that he didn’t die after falling into the water. Instead, he wrote that Bucky was found flash frozen by the Soviets and missing an arm.

Upon his rescue, the Soviets quickly realized whom they had found and begun to “work” on him. They fitted him with a cybernetic arm, increased his training and fighting abilities, and turned him into the world’s foremost assassin. For years they relied on Bucky to carry out assassinations when they were needed. 

The story was groundbreaking. Very few characters in the history of comics have undergone a change of this caliber.


When asked about the Winter Soldier comic and rewriting history Brubaker said this, “I also drew a distinction at age 10 between Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy [who each were killed off in the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man” in the 1970s] and Bucky Barnes. Most readers grouped them together because they were the three that always stayed dead but they weren’t the same to me. Uncle Ben actually dies in the comic and Gwen Stacy, I actually witnessed her death. You didn’t see Uncle Ben die but you saw Gwen die and you weren’t 100% sure that Spider-Man didn’t cause her death when he tried to save her. But Bucky was the first ret-conned death. My reaction was “It doesn’t count. I can fix it somehow.”

And fix it he did. 

Brubaker forced Captain America to battle his longtime best friend James Barnes in a way that could only happen inside the pages of a comic book. News spread throughout the industry that Bucky was alive, and well, a Soviet Assassin. Readers and collectors ate it up quicker than a child looking for dessert.

The story was a hit and the Winter Soldier comic instantly became one of the most popular Marvel stories of the last 40 years. To everyone’s surprise, his popularity began to rival staple characters like Deadpool and Wolverine.

But how?

How did a simple story have such a dramatic effect on the history of comics? Characters had been brought back before. Why was the resurrection of Bucky Barnes so important?

The resurrection of Bucky is as much as story about Captain America as it is about Bucky. For years, Steve Rogers only had one true failure…he let Bucky die.

Winter Soldier Comic - Captain America vs Winter Soldier

Imagine that for a moment. Imagine losing the sibling you always wanted. Think about the grief and torment that would plague you. Imagine the feelings of desperation, heartache and, despair. Imagine spending years coming to terms with it.

Then, at the moment you’re finally ready to move on with your life, that person reappears without recollection of who you are.

A new direction

The resurrection of Bucky Barnes gave Captain America depth that he sorely needed. Here was Steve Rogers, the mighty and infallible Captain America, face to face with the boy he let die. Brubaker’s story is so well written that you can practically feel the pain the Steve Rogers felt. The Winter Soldier was as emotionally draining as anything before it and perhaps anything after it.

The Winter Soldier comic laid waste to the notion that heroes don’t come back. Certainly, up to this point heroes and villains had died and come back. However, Bucky had an aura about him. Nobody touched Bucky.

Even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

When Captain America was found frozen in a block of ice, Lee and Kirby realized that they had to explain where Bucky was. The two had no intention to bring him back alongside Steve so they insisted he had died.

This, more than the actual resurrection, is what makes Brubaker’s story so intelligent. He questioned the notion that if Captain America survived, why didn’t Bucky?

Bucky’s backstory

Through a skillful imagining, the Winter Soldier comic showed Bucky was the one that carried out the deeds that were too brutal for Captain America to do. This meant that Bucky was sent in when Captain America couldn’t be. This small tweak laid the foundation for his reprogramming as a Soviet assassin.

What separates Bucky from the Winter Soldier is that the Winter Soldier is the character that Bucky could never be…in public. The Winter Soldier, while giving Captain America character depth, also went a long way in giving himself some. Bucky, before Brubaker, was a teenage sidekick. Nothing more and nothing less. Think Robin to Batman before Nightwing.

As the Winter Soldier, Bucky stepped out of the shadow that had hid him his entire life. He was suddenly interesting. Perhaps even more interesting than Captain America.

The transformation from Bucky to the Winter Soldier is nothing short of stunning.  Retcon’s and reimaginings don’t often work. Like the introduction of a new job, spouse, or fashion, people have trouble accepting change. Failed re-imaginings have occurred more times in comics than can be counted.

  • Captain America in Secret Empire
  • Cyclops to Phoenix
  • Scarlet Spider and the Clone Saga

But not Bucky

Bucky worked because the character didn’t have enough backstory for fans to care about. He was, for all intents and purposes, just a sidekick. Nothing more and nothing less. Due to this, the Winter Soldier comic allowed  Brubaker the freedom to rewrite everything about the character without fan backlash.

I don’t believe there to be too many characters that this would work for. This, more than any of the other reasons is why Bucky/Winter Soldier is so compelling.

I don’t think we will see a character changed and embraced by fans on this level for a long time. Brubaker’s mastery may never be replicated and that’s ok.

After all, there’s only room for one Bucky Barnes.



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