How an old friendship saved a man out of time
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In comics, there was once a rule that creators followed. Anyone can be brought back from the dead except for Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, and Uncle Ben. Well, one of those has managed to still hold up in a world where death is more of an inconvenience. The Batman story Under the Red Hood not only changed how the audience perceived the character of Jason Todd, but it also showed that even some of comics’ oldest rules could be broken. While the return of Jason Todd marked a change in comics, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s run on Captain America began one of the biggest changes to the world of Steve Rogers with the introduction of The Winter Soldier.
Hot off the heels of Avengers: Disassembled, Steve Rogers is faced with a consistent bout of moral struggles that challenge everything he has come to understand in terms of what is right and what is best for the greater good. For a lot of the 2000s, readers have seen Steve working alongside SHIELD and his partners Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson AKA The Falcon, defending the country from threats both foreign and domestic but as the enemy becomes more and more elusive, Steve becomes more and more lost in what he is fighting for.
Brubaker’s run sees the character in a way that we haven’t seen before, and that thought is driven home even further by the darker tones of Epting’s art and the more mature looking iterations of the character; this isn’t a version of Captain America for the kids to read; this is something much more mature and potentially marks the first time we see Captain America fighting a battle he can’t win with strength.
The first arc, “Out of Time,” actually has nothing to do with the introduction to The Winter Soldier; instead, the story unravels a mystery that is tied to the murder of the Red Skull and the first appearance of a new villain by the name of Alexsander Lukin, a man who is just as conniving as the Red Skull but much more subtle. As Steve and his team try to uncover this mystery, they encounter some of Cap’s oldest enemies, including the Hydra mercenary Crossbones. While the case continues to be worked, Steve begins to deal with dreams of his time in WW2 and the casualties he faced, including the one that has haunted him the most, the death of Bucky Barnes. As the past begins to show up in reality, so do his memories, and sadly it doesn’t stop there for the Star-Spangled Avenger.
While Steve was on ice, many people tried to take the mantle of Captain America and Bucky, some with their own super-soldier serum that yielded dangerous results. Jack Monroe was one of those subjects, beginning as Bucky and later, with Steve’s help, becoming the new Nomad. Everything was finally going well until he discovered that his super-soldier serum was now killing him. In the interlude issue, “The Lonesome Death of Jack Monroe,” we are treated to a sad story reminiscent of the play “Death of a Salesman” about a man facing his own mortality and having it violently cut short with an unceremonious murder. The story doesn’t only act as a direct segway into The Winter Soldier arc, but it also portrays the disposability of Captain America’s earlier years, when Steve wasn’t around. Bleak? Sure, but reality often can be.
The Winter Soldier arc begins with the following issue and sees Steve facing off with his new enemy in a once standing structure’s fiery rubble. Serving as a visual representation of the enlightenment that Steve has forced upon him, he looks at the figure before him with eyes of surprise. “Bucky?” he asked, completely disarmed; “Who the hell is Bucky?” the man retorts. From that point forward, the world of Captain America will never be the same.
For the rest of the arc, I have always believed that the battle being fought was not truly Steve and SHIELD against Lukin and his forces but rather Steve against the cynical world around him, telling him to let the past go. While Brubaker’s series is dark in tone and dark in subject matter, the message is about hope and faith. Hope that things will get better and faith in your friends. Steve can’t do this alone; in fact, he never has, and because of that, he has been able to overcome so much. So many people told Steve to give up on Bucky, and as Steve read his file and saw what his oldest friend was subjected to and endured, he knew he had to save the part of him that was trapped, the part he knew as his friend. As Sharon and Nick Fury tried to convince Steve to give up his crusade, it was the Falcon who decided the right thing was to try to hold on to the hope that Steve had rather than do something that was best for the greater good.
With Falcon and even Iron Man at his side, Steve decided to take the battle to Lukin and Bucky with one goal in mind: save his friend by using the one thing that both sides were fighting over, the Cosmic Cube. With the cube’s powers, Captain America hoped to use it to help Bucky remember who he was, and after a battle that left both parties bloodied and beaten, Steve managed to do just that.
While Bucky would have preferred death, his newly freed mind would take time to mend, and in that time, he would end up becoming one of the most important characters in Marvel Comics that very few know much about. Brubaker kicked his run off with an earth-shattering kaboom and not once let off the gas. With Civil War, death, and a brand new Captain America on the horizon, he and Epting would usher in a new era of espionage comics that can still be felt today. As for Steve, his arc in these first few chapters is of a man plagued by a past that doesn’t fit in a modern world. However, it is the ideals held in his own era, and the faith in people that he never let go of that helped him overcome the impossible odds he faced. His old friendship with Bucky and the faith that he was still in there helped save not only him but also Steve.
At the end of the day, all we have is each other, and while everyone may say you need to give up on something you believe in, it’s up to you to hold to your ideals and persevere. It’s easy to do wrong, but it’s hard to do what is right, but if Captain America can tell a whole government to wait so that he can save his friend, imagine what you could do?