Bringing dead characters back to life in comic books is a given. Readers generally don’t even really believe it when major heroes die anymore. We expect them to come back.
I mean, technically, they’re just drawings on pages, so they can be revived rather easily. You just need a good reason.
How, then, did Marvel pull off resurrecting a character that had been dead for decades in a way that actually worked?
Bucky Barnes is, as originally created, a really odd character. Most Golden Age superheroes had sidekicks, of course. Sidekicks tended to be either female counterparts, comic relief characters that may or may not actually be funny, or kids. Even Wonder Woman had a sidekick back then, the overweight Etta Candy. So, Captain America having a sidekick isn’t unusual.
What is unusual is Cap was supposed to be, you know, fighting in the war. Taking a kid in a costume out to beat up gangsters in the mean streets of Gotham City may be enough to get child services called in if you live in a relatively sane place, but taking a kid into a war zone seems a whole hell of a lot worse when you put it that way. Cap’s adventures may or may not have taken him away from the American homeland (the only Golden Age Captain America story I have read showed him stationed stateside), but more recent stories often showed Bucky shooting machine guns at Nazis and other things that probably should disturb modern readers.
Granted, DC was hardly innocent since they had a whole team of “Boy Commandos”. Sgt. Rock also worked with a group called the “Kid Guerrillas of Unit 13,” a squad of French resistance children. One of them gets killed in the last issue I’ve read of theirs, because attacking armed Nazis with a scythe is always a good idea. I know, logically, that this was done for the young readers at home, kids themselves, under the belief kids wanted to have a character to identify with their own age, but to a modern adult reader, this sort of stuff just horrifies me. Yes, let’s take children to fight in the war zone. It will be such fun.
But, back to Bucky. Most comics readers with a general knowledge of Captain America know that he was frozen in ice after falling off an exploding plane until he was thawed out decades later by the Avengers, where the Super Solider Serum in his bloodstream kept him alive and without aging him a day. Originally, his sidekick Bucky died when the plane exploded.
Except, that was the story as it was told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby years after the fact. There was no issue prior to Avengers #4 depicting the events of Cap’s fall and deep freeze or Bucky’s death. Most likely, Stan and Jack knew that they needed to address the Bucky issue, and did so by simply killing him off. The Marvel heroes by and large didn’t have teenage sidekicks; instead, the teenagers tended to be superheroes in their own right. Marvel did have one, sort of, and Cap noticed the Hulk’s pal Rick Jones did somewhat look like Bucky and trained Rick a bit, but really, Cap didn’t need a sidekick. He got partners here and there, particularly the Falcon and Agent 13, but they were often treated more as equals than some kid tagging along. As a result, Bucky was officially dead, and that was that.
This is what makes Ed Brubaker’s return of the character so darn good. He actually sat down and planned the whole thing out. If Cap could survive, why couldn’t Bucky? And why couldn’t Bucky be a dangerous fellow in his own right? Brubaker had flashback stories of Cap remembering Bucky and Bucky was treated as someone who was in many ways tougher than his age. Bucky did the dirty work Cap couldn’t, because Cap was in part a propaganda piece, and Cap and Bucky both knew that. Bucky was the one to sneak behind enemy lines and knife a guy in the back. Captain America can’t do that.
Further, what happens if Bucky survived but wasn’t reclaimed by the Americans, but by our Cold War adversaries the Soviets? Bucky didn’t quite have Super Soldier Serum, but combine brainwashing, cybernetics, and cryo-freeze, and you have the potential to have Bucky be alive and OK (sort of), explain where he’s been all this time, and eventually have Cap rehabilitate him. Much as Nightwing is probably more interesting than Robin, so too is the Winter Soldier a more interesting character than Bucky could ever hope to be. The character has been removed from his old mentor’s shadow and shown what someone who’s been trained to do what he does could make of himself. And gee, Bucky was trained to be a commando. There aren’t many options for him, are there?
Plus, Brubaker not only tied Bucky’s past into actual Cold War actions, he also gave Bucky a distinctive personality, a must for the now-adult sidekick. Nightwing may dress in dark colors and swing around the city dispensing justice, but he’s still a lighthearted character compared to Batman and many artists remember he started off as a trapeze artist who’s probably more acrobatic than Batman. Bucky, when he became Cap for a period, was a Cap who could and did carry a sidearm. That is far and away different from how other sidekicks are treated as adults (how different are Wally West and Barry Allen, really?). Care was taken to really delve into who Bucky was, why he mattered, and where his mind probably was.
The bottom line is that the Winter Soldier probably should have been a huge disaster. It wasn’t as if the fans were clamoring to see Bucky again. But careful consideration was taken asking the big questions: why didn’t he die, where was he, and what’s he like as a result? Answer questions like that, and maybe resurrection won’t seem so cynical to the readers.