Monday, March 24, 2014

Winter Soldier Blogathon, Day 5: What to Read, Where to Start, and Why to Care

Wow, you made it through! Or you skipped here. Either way’s fine by me. This entry is designed to be a guide to the Winter Soldier’s appearances in the comics. I’ll start with a chronological rundown of the graphic novels in rough order of publication, and then do a short list of the best jumping-on points for this character. I’ll conclude with one last bit of fannish gushing on why you should care about this character, and a little bit of what he means to me.

Be warned—there’s a lot of stuff to cover. Here’s a picture of my personal collection of Winter Soldier graphic novels, in order:

Yes, I can lift the entire stack at once. Barely.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff. But I’ll guide you through it. And as always, I recommend used booksellers like and Powell’s Books over paying full price at new-book retailers. Onward!


What to read: This.
For once, Marvel has made your job easy. If you want to get started on the world of Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier and you don’t want to do any hunting, there’s a terrific new hardcover edition of the complete Winter Soldier storyline, put out just in time for the movie. It’s $34.99, and worth every penny. (If that seems pricey for one graphic novel, note that it’s got thirteen issues in it—the equivalent of two trade paperbacks, either of which would retail for about $20. So even in hardcover, it’s a bit of a cost savings.) There’s one issue missing from this book, but it was a one-off “event story” that took place in an alternate universe and had absolutely nothing to do with the Winter Soldier storyline, which I assume is why it’s been omitted. The book does not suffer in its absence. Don’t worry about it.

If you’d rather go the cheaper route, Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the Winter Soldier storyline are available in used paperback form, though they appear to be out of print.

If you like that story and want to keep reading, here’s a short rundown of later volumes in the series:

3 and 4. Red Menace: Crossbones returns, and Steve and Bucky end up in London.

5. Civil War. Cap joins the resistance to the Superhuman Registration Act. Bucky does some skullduggery for Nick Fury. Contains Winter Soldier: Winter Kills, a beautiful one-shot special about how Bucky spends his Christmas. Hint: it involves violence and awkward team-ups with teen superheroes.

6, 7, and 8. The Death of Captain America, vols. 1-3 (The Death of Captain America / The Burden of Dreams / The Man Who Bought America). This three-volume saga covers it all, from Steve’s assassination to the hunt for his killers to Bucky’s transition to life as the new Captain America. Some of the knottiest plotting in all of Ed Brubaker’s run. I cannot summarize this, but if you really like twisty plots and a million reversals per chapter, this is going to be your crack.

9. The Man With No Face. Bucky-Cap faces the vengeful survivor of one of his nastiest Winter Soldier missions. Guest-starring the Sub-Mariner, who adds a lot of comic relief.

Namor reacts to Bucky and Natasha having a moment. Thanks a lot, Namor.
10. Road to Reborn. A more or less random collection of stories, collecting a series of clues leading up to …

11. Captain America: Reborn. Guess what? Steve’s not actually dead! There’s time travel and mad science and oh so much crazy. It’s a fun story, though.

12. Two Americas. Steve insists that Bucky keep the Captain America identity, so Bucky and the Falcon go hunt down an insane doppelganger of Steve Rogers who escaped during a previous story. Imagine Bucky and the Falcon fighting domestic terrorists in rural Idaho. Yeah, it’s like that.

13. No Escape. Baron Zemo, the grandson of the World War II villain who nearly killed Cap and Bucky at the end of the war, decides to avenge his grandfather’s honor and kill Bucky-Cap off. He eventually settles for second prize …

14. The Trial of Captain America. Once Zemo has exposed Bucky’s past as the Winter Soldier, Bucky goes on trial for his decades of Cold War crimes. Meanwhile, the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, proclaims herself the new Red Skull and goes on a rampage. Bucky must decide whether being Captain America means a) going along with due process or b) stopping a supervillain from blowing up the Statue of Liberty. Did I mention Bucky has poor impulse control?

15. Prisoner of War. Bucky gets off on the U.S. charges, but the Russians demand extradition. Bucky goes to the gulag and gets thrown into a series of cage matches, which turn out to have a motive even more sinister than bad guys just wanting to watch an American superhero fight for his life. The Winter Soldier’s legacy just won’t leave Bucky alone. Psychological games ensue. Meanwhile, Steve and Natasha try to prove Bucky’s innocence. Espionage hijinks ensue.

16. Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes. After Bucky “died” during the not-very-good Fear Itself crossover, the monthly Captain America comic became Captain America and Bucky for a while. The first storyline, “The Life Story of Bucky Barnes”, presents a series of untold tales from Bucky’s past—including his childhood before he met Steve Rogers, a couple of wartime adventures, and a Winter Soldier tale focusing on his romance with the Black Widow. I have not included the next volume of Captain America and Bucky in this list because Bucky Barnes isn’t actually in it. Long story. After that the title became Captain America and Hawkeye, and then fizzled out. This volume is the only one relevant to this timeline.

17. Winter Soldier: The Longest Winter. With Steve finally back in the Captain America costume (and a new Captain America monthly title), Bucky sets off to clean up a few Winter Soldier-related messes. Natasha comes along for the fun and because somebody has to stop Bucky from leading with his face. Romance and a machine-gun-toting gorilla ensue. Also, Bucky meets Doctor Doom and they get along as well as you’d expect. Ha.

18. Winter Soldier: Broken Arrow. A Soviet sleeper agent, trained long ago by the Winter Soldier, is out to destroy the world that replaced his. A key part of his plan involves getting the Black Widow on his side, in more ways than one. Creepy and action-packed, with great twists.

19. Winter Soldier: Black Widow Hunt. The saga of the sleeper agent continues, as our heroes discover some nasty parts of that plan that I won’t spill here. Bucky fights Hawkeye, Wolverine, Daredevil, Cap, and the Black Widow. There’s really an unreasonable amount of fighting in this book. Oh, and it also rips my heart out and crushes it before my eyes, because … well, you should know by now.

20. Winter Soldier: The Electric Ghost. With the Black Widow out of his life, Bucky sets about picking up the pieces of another old mission—one that killed a SHIELD agent and left a little girl named Tesla Tarasova orphaned. Tesla has grown up into the rather frightening Electric Ghost, who can get into Bucky’s head like no one else. This storyline is the only one on this list that Ed Brubaker didn’t write, and it’s also one of the weakest.

Winter Soldier was canceled after the Electric Ghost storyline, so since then it’s just been individual comics not yet collected in trade form. If you want to check them out, there are two series:

21. All-New Invaders. This comic, written by James Robinson (a man who knows his World War II heroes) is a big team-up between Captain America, the original Human Torch, the Winter Soldier, and Namor the Sub-Mariner, among others. Lots of World War II flashbacks and some really good Band of Brothers-style camaraderie in a group of modern heroes whose bond goes all the way back to the 1940s. Right now the plot involves the alien Kree kidnapping Namor for plotty reasons and Namor’s old war buddies invading the Kree homeworld to get him back—largely because Namor’s such a jerk to most people that nobody else wants to rescue him.

22. Winter Soldier: The Bitter March. I wasn’t impressed with the first issue of The Bitter March, written by Rick Remender, but the second has piqued my interest. The story follows a lone SHIELD agent, Ran Shen, trying to smuggle a couple of ex-Nazi scientists out of eastern Europe  in the 1960s so SHIELD can have their magic formula. Chasing Shen is a bunch of Hydra goons and the Winter Soldier. The first issue focused mostly on Shen, and Bucky was basically playing the Terminator, coming after him over and over again. The second issue, however, got into the Winter Soldier’s head a bit more; it’s starting to look like Bucky is trying to retake control of his own brain, and that’s not going to end well for anyone. Seems like things are heating up!

I’ll make this short and sweet. Find the quote that sounds like you and read the answer:

“I want to know what’s going on when I watch the movie, but I only want to read one book.”
Read the Winter Soldier hardcover, or its two trade-paperback equivalents. That’s you sorted.

Pictured: You, sorted.
“I want the best Bucky-Cap storyline.”
Read The Man With No Face. Action, angst, and a pretty good mystery. This is good for the Bucky-Natasha shippers, too.

Oh, look, the cover is a Bucky fashion show!
“I want a little bit of everything—a sampling of the character from different periods in his life.”
Read The Life Story of Bucky Barnes. It’s your one-stop shop.

Also, there's interior art by Chris Samnee. You want that.
“I want the most kickass Winter Soldier action you’ve got.”
Read Winter Soldier: The Longest Winter. Then keep reading if you like what you see.

Including a gorilla with a machine gun. And a jetpack.
Aside from the fact that I obviously adore this character and these storylines, it’s worth pointing out why I adore them. The Winter Soldier storyline was, at the time, one of the most complex ever to appear in mainstream superhero comics—both in terms of plot twists and in terms of its characters’ emotional arcs. It set the pattern for a lot of the really terrific stories that have come out of the Big Two—especially Marvel—in the last decade. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Winter Soldier gave a lot of people permission to break the rules of comics—as long as they produced exceptional stories in doing so. At the same time, it set the bar pretty high. As I said at the beginning of this series, this is one of only two comic books that I hand people in order to make them cry. Its cinematic scope and the neverending gut-punch of its emotional impact cannot be understated.

You will spend the entire storyline doing this. I am not kidding even a little bit.
Don’t believe me? Look at this incredibly short summary:

In Winter Soldier, Captain America finds out that his long-dead kid sidekick, Bucky, is actually a zombie cyborg assassin working for the Russians. Fight scenes and angst ensue.

Pretty much what I thought would happen when I saw this.
Does that sound remotely interesting? No. In fact, it sounds completely batshit insane. I’ve quoted this summary to non-geeks and gotten completely baffled looks. And yet that’s the bare bones of this storyline. What makes it work—what made me and a million other fans care about it—is the way in which that batshit-crazy story was told. This book makes you care about one of the permanent corpses so much that even the most rule-conscious nerd can be persuaded not to care about the rules. Screw Steve Rogers’ angsty motivation and screw the necessity of conflict; by the end of this book, you want Bucky to live and be happy, no matter what it takes. And yet we’re talking about Bucky the dead kid sidekick, butt of a thousand nerd jokes. And yet, when Steve Rogers came back from the dead in 2011, there was significant fan outcry against killing Bucky off because so many people liked Bucky-Cap better than Original Cap. He had earned their allegiance. Nerds almost never shift their loyalties like that—but this storyline got them to do it.
I own the T-shirt of this.
I MADE the T-shirt of this. And people bought it.
On paper, this story should never work. And yet it did, and it still does, and it’s inspired a lot of great work from a lot of other writers.

I promised myself when I started this series that I wouldn’t talk about my most personal reason for being a diehard Winter Soldier fan, and I won’t. It’s not something you need to hear, especially on a blog whose audience includes children, and in any case I probably won’t be able to talk about it in public for a while yet, if ever. But I will say this: For a lot of fans, especially younger ones (by which I mean under the age of 35), there’s something in the saga of Bucky Barnes that resonates. If you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t escape some horrible piece of your past, he’s a character for you. If you’ve ever been expected to measure up to an impossible standard, he’s a character for you. If you’ve ever had to sit and wrestle with your demons in silence because, for one reason or another, you just couldn’t speak up about them to anyone—here’s Bucky Barnes.

This page probably sums up James Buchanan Barnes better than any other.
He’ll match you ghost for ghost, burden for burden, demon for demon, and he’ll still get up again the next morning. He’ll make fun of himself sometimes, and he’ll play the hardened cynic, even though he’s really got a squishy romantic heart that’s far too close to his brittle surface.
Bucky and Natasha go for a walk in the rain. Squishy romanticism ensues.
He’ll never be the hero Steve Rogers is, and he’ll never live up to Captain America’s example, and he knows both those things—but he usually has no idea how deeply he inspires the man he admires most.
Steve works on his eulogy for Bucky, just before finding out Bucky's not dead.
“This is what it is to be human,” Spider Robinson once wrote: “to persist.”

Bucky Barnes persists. Half man and half machine, half monster and half hero, he is one of the most human characters in modern comics. So here’s hoping his movie turns out half as good as it looks.

And hey, would it kill anyone to get Natasha back in the book? Come on!

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