There are few symbols greater in comic book history than the star-spangled shield of Captain America. Since his debut in 1941, Cap has stood as an icon of not only the American Dream but of righteousness and the good of humanity. But many forget that Captain America didn’t debut alone; he had a young protégé in Bucky Barnes, fighting alongside him from the very beginning.
Bucky has had a unique history in comics. He has been a sidekick, villain, anti-hero, hero, cosmic defender, leader, and so much more in his time on the page. With Winter Soldier’s return to the screen in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, now is the perfect time to read up on the comic book history of this iconic character. The following seven stories will take you through the character’s history from his very first appearance to his most recent outing.
Captain America Comics #1
Written by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Art by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.
The origin story of Steve Rogers has it all. It’s a mixture of political intrigue, spy thriller, superhero action, and war story. As World War II rages on, US intelligence agents realize that there are spies within their ranks. In an effort to stop this threat and turn the tide of the war, the US army brings in Private Steve Rogers for experimentation with a super soldier serum, turning him into the greatest weapon of the Allied Forces.
This story is an icon. Not only does the cover boast a favourite trope of the War, superheroes punching Adolf Hitler square in the jaw, but it also introduces Steve’s best friend and ally. Bucky acts as a camp mascot for a US Army Base, stumbling into his sidekick status when he walks in on Steve changing into costume. Though Bucky became a sidekick on accident, he would go on to earn the title of hero over and over again.
Out of Time/Winter Soldier
Written by Ed Brubaker. Art by Steve Epting.
From that first appearance, we fast forward several decades. Captain America went into the ice and reemerged, becoming a modern day hero. However, no one has heard from Bucky in all of that time. In what is now considered one of the most iconic events in comic book history, Winter Soldier brought Bucky back into the fold in a way that no one expected.
Starting with the story Out of Time, S.H.I.E.L.D. brings Captain America in on a shocking murder case that has personal ramifications for him. As this story continues, Steve learns that the killer is none other than Bucky, presumed dead all these years. However, this isn’t the Bucky that Steve remembers. Cyborg enhancements aside, Bucky is now a brainwashed assassin known as the Winter Soldier, and Steve takes it upon himself to rescue his best friend.
This 13 issue event is the story that transformed Cap’s famed kid sidekick into the antihero we know today, making it a must read for Winter Soldier fans.
Written by Ed Brubaker. Art by Lee Weeks.
If you read any story on this list, Winter Kills might just have to be one. During the events of Civil War, heroes fought heroes over the divisive Superhero Registration Act which forced heroes to become government agents rather than private entities. While Captain America fought Iron Man, Bucky was fighting his own past. During a Christmas raid on a Hydra Base, Bucky has to try and reconcile with his murderous history while trying to save the Young Avengers.
This story is short, only one issue, but it packs a huge punch. Its laser focus on Bucky’s trauma and failures over the last six decades cuts deep to the heart of the character. In many ways, this is the story that defines Bucky’s character, especially in the context of his appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The Trial of Captain America
Written by Ed Brubaker. Art by Daniel Acuna, Mitch Breitweiser, and Jackson Guice.
Following the themes and character development introduced in Winter Kills, The Trial of Captain America arc delves deeper into the crimes and redemption of Bucky Barnes. After the death of Captain America at the end of Civil War, Bucky dons his friend’s suit and title to keep his legacy alive. And for a time, he did his friend justice. However, this all changes when Bucky’s past crimes are revealed to the public. With the hate of the public spiralling out of control, Bucky agrees to face the charges put against him and go on trial.
The Trial of Captain America arc focuses on many of the same elements of Bucky’s character as Winter Kills. No matter how Bucky tries to redeem himself, to free himself from the chains of his past, it always seems to catch up with him. This story really digs deep into who this character was, but more importantly, it acts as a powerful step forward for him as well.
The Longest Winter
Written by Ed Brubaker. Art by Butch Guice.
As should be apparent from this list, writer Ed Brubaker has defined the character of the Winter Soldier more than any other writer. And in 2012, he took Bucky on another adventure to confront his past. When Russian sleeper agents activate and begin their own violent war, Bucky teams up with Black Widow to take them down. However, these aren’t just any sleeper agents; they were trained by Bucky himself to be the ultimate soldiers.
The original Winter Soldier solo series is likely the least well-known entry on this list, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Over and over again, the themes of redemption and trauma and past failures surround Bucky Barnes, and this idea is repeated again and again in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier television series. And like in the show, we learn that the only way for Bucky to heal is by confronting those sins head-on.
The Man on the Wall
Written by Ales Kot. Art by Langdon Foss and Marco Rudy.
With most Winter Soldier stories, you know what you are getting: political intrigue, high action gunfights, and the types of thrills you would expect from a Jason Bourne movie. However, this next entry on the list is VERY different. In 2014, the Marvel Universe was rocked by the events of Original Sin. Secrets of the world’s greatest heroes came to light, dividing teams and changing the status quo. In the midst of this chaos, Bucky takes it upon himself to become the “Man on the Wall,” taking the mantle from the late Nick Fury. In this role, Bucky acts as the last line of defence against cosmic threats, and he faces them all in this story.
Taking on forces from Asgardia to interplanetary invaders, Bucky is sent on his weirdest mission yet. This psychedelic trip of a story is vastly different from anything else on this list. It combines heavy science fiction with time travel, magical hallucinations and… a love story? Yeah, Bucky’s adventures in space get really weird and out of hand, and that is why I love this run. If you want to dig into the Winter Soldier but want something a little less James Bond and a little more Inception, this is the story for you.
Falcon and Winter Soldier
Written by Derek Landy. Art by Federico Vincenti.
The final entry on this list is also the newest. In preparation for the MCU miniseries, Marvel released this incredible five issue story focused on the titular heroes. After a trained military unit breaks into Bucky’s home and shatters his peace, he teams up with Sam Wilson to track down the men responsible. However, they soon learn of Hydra’s return and their plans for a terrorist plot meant to shatter world peace. Only together can these two former Captain Americas stop this enemy.
Really, to prepare for the The Falcon and the Winter Soldier television series, this is the story to read. While the plots are drastically different, the fun character dynamics and action packed set pieces are more than enough to excite fans of the show. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are an incredible duo, both former villains and former sidekicks. They understand each other better than most characters in the Marvel universe, and this series shows just how powerful they can be when fighting side by side.