If you were a bookish kid, you probably ended up reading some stories that tore at your heartstrings. J.K. Rowling famously broke the hearts of children all over the world by killing some of her characters. Old Yeller is probably the worst childrens' book ever (who the heck wants to read about a dead dog?!), and you probably fantasized about going back and fixing things for the characters you loved.
That's exactly what Ed Brubaker did.
Originally, Bucky Barnes was the plucky young sidekick of Captain America. His character was there to appeal to kids (much like Robin in the Batman franchise). Teenaged sidekicks were a staple of 1940s comics, but when Captain America was brought back decades later, young characters like this were no longer popular. Just like that, Bucky was killed offscreen by an airplane explosion to give Cap room to regain popularity. At nine years old, Ed Brubaker was devastated; Bucky had been one of his favorite characters.
"I had always liked his character because I had read those “Tales of Suspense” issues — the ones that were Iron Man story and half Captain America wartime story — and Bucky was always running around with a machine gun. He didn’t look like a little kid like he did in the comics in the 1940s. The funny things is in the [pre-code era] comics of the 1940s he was actually more [of a bad guy] running around with a flamethrower and dropping atom bombs on people. [Marvel executive editor] Tom Brevoort told me that every third cover in the ’40s it was Cap and Bucky parachuting into enemy territory and Cap is holding his shield while Bucky is the one unloading with multiple machine guns on anybody below. Bucky was more of the [bad guy] of the two. I started looking at it that way as I built his character." -Ed Brubaker
Thirty years later, Brubaker had a successful career in comics, and was hired to write an issue of Captain America. The first thing he did? Bring Bucky back- in the most brutal way possible.
"For years the only thing that was important about Bucky was the fact that he was the thing that Captain America lost. And that remains important — in fact it’s the reason the Winter Soldier story worked. Cap still lost. If I was going to take away the tragedy of Bucky being killed in action, I had to replace it with something worse. Cap couldn’t save Bucky and because he couldn’t, Bucky became his own worst nightmare." -Ed Brubaker
Ok but as a fangirl, I have to ask: did you really need to making it THIS MUCH WORSE? When Bucky returns as The Winder Soldier, he's been programmed to be a killing machine, he doesn't remember his own name, and he's probably spent about 70 years being tortured to make those two things possible. My heart has too many Bucky feels. It's a serious problem.
This story also puts the "who the hell is Bucky" line into perspective. As a kid, Brubaker felt like the comics had forgotten his favorite character. Of course, he did everything he could to honor the original story, but it seems like he couldn't help but include a snide little reminder for his childhood self, too. It's sort of become the golden rule of Marvel: nobody stays dead, except Uncle Ben. I think this storyline really works, because it's a heart-wrenching twist that makes the story expand. However, I feel like at some point, a character dying has to mean something, and be permanent, otherwise it lowers the stakes. This probably only worked because of Brubaker's dedication and skill (and he had 30 years to fantasize about making the story happen).