Fanfic Characterizations, Narrative Control, and the Multiple Deaths of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars

Secret Wars is shaping up to be a great time to be a Bucky fan!”

I wrote those words in early April of last year. I had just learned that Bucky Barnes—possibly my favorite comic book character of all time—had been confirmed to appear in a third Secret Wars tie-in miniseries: Red Skull. Later that month I would realize that Bucky was a major component of the plot to Planet Hulk, bringing the number of titles that had teased the appearance of Bucky Barnes up to four (1602: Witch Hunter Angela, Runaways, Red Skull, and Planet Hulk). Though I was not aware of it at the time, Bucky was also scheduled for a relatively prominent appearance in the Civil War mini. All this in addition to an ongoing solo series that, as far as I knew, was continuing through Secret Wars. I added the new titles to my pull list and sat back to enjoy the show.

I have rarely enjoyed a show less.

sw_1602wha 01x
1602: Witch Hunter Angela no. 1 (2015)
Marguerite Bennett and Stephanie Hans

Bucky’s first death came in the first issue of 1602: Witch Hunter Angela. A man turned monster, he was remorselessly cut down by Angela during her quest to find and stop the supernatural creature who was making monsters of men. When Bucky’s appearance in 1602 was announced, writer Marguerite Bennett explained that she needed the most handsome man in the Marvel universe for the story, although as far as I could tell the fact that the character was Bucky Barnes had absolutely no impact on the plot. Bucky’s next death took place in the first issue of Red Skull. In a press interview for the series, writer Joshua Williamson explained that Bucky had joined a band of villainous rogues in order to take revenge on the man who killed Steve Rogers. Williamson discussed how much the book’s artist, Luca Pizzari, loved to draw Winter Soldier and how Bucky’s determination to get what he wants would play into his presence on the team. His determination ran smack dab into the Marvel zombies, where it was devoured along with the rest of him, and Red Skull subsequently became an entirely different story than had been advertised.

Planet Hulk, a story that was pitched as a kind of fun romp (with gladiators! and dinosaurs!) and whose climax should have been the rescue of Bucky Barnes by Steve Rogers, ended with the reveal that Bucky had in fact been dead all along and that Steve’s suffering on his behalf was all in vain. On the one hand, the fact that Steve’s suffering is inevitably all in vain is kind of a cornerstone of his character. On the other hand, I was getting awfully tired of watching Bucky die over and over. Marvel had gotten me to part with a fair bit of money on the assumption that it would in the service of supporting awesome Bucky content, and that content was not there. Furthermore, the multiple deaths made the endings of the remaining storylines pathetically easy to predict. I accurately predicted that Bucky would be killed after a change in loyalties in Runaways; I accurately predicted that Bucky had been replaced by a skrull in Civil War. What should have been exciting storytelling turned into a snooze fest that I just kind of wanted to be done with.

I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

sw_ph 05x
Planet Hulk no. 5 (2015)
Sam Humphries, Marc Laming, Jordan Boyd

So why did Marvel elect to go this route with the character? Well, I think it was partially just one example of how the Secret Wars crossover served the purpose of maintaining Marvel’s bottom line.

Let’s jump back another year to the summer of 2014. Marvel unveiled a number of sweeping changes to its lineup of heroes, including: that Mjolnir would be handed over to a woman more worthy of it than the Odinson; that Steve Rogers would be deserumed and the mantle of Captain America taken up by black hero Sam Wilson; that the supposedly unkillable Wolverine would finally die; and that Bucky Barnes would go in a totally unprecedented direction with his life. There was a lot of fanfare about the importance of these decisions—most particularly the decisions to genderswap and racebend two of Marvel’s most iconic heroes—and there was a lot of talk about the bravery of the choices.

But there was nothing brave about any of these choices. In fact, the rebooting of major Marvel characters at this time was almost certainly a highly calculated and entirely risk-free “gamble.” In the summer of 2014, Marvel had the Secret Wars story mapped out and were beginning to build their post-incursion universe. It was the perfect time to take a bunch of potentially unpopular changes out for a test drive in order to see what worked; with Secret Wars on the horizon, anything that didn’t work could easily be walked back. Secret Wars was Marvel’s emergency reset button, enabling them to keep the successes (The Mighty Thor, Captain America: Sam Wilson) and toss the failures (frail Steve, dead Wolverine, cosmic Bucky).

To say that Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier was an incredibly atypical take on the character would be an understatement. Ales Kot did something with Bucky Barnes that had never been done before; he gave the readers a Bucky who questioned his role as a soldier and envisioned new possibilities for himself. Always before, Bucky had fatalistically accepted his lot. He knew the trajectory of his life would always be violent; he knew it would always be painful. In Kot’s series, however, he learned that he didn’t have to live his life that way. He could be at rest; he could come to know peace; he could find contentment; he could choose to be different.

bbtws 11x
Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier no. 11 (2015)
Ales Kot and Marco Rudy

It was a bold and brilliant approach to the character, but it didn’t sell. Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier was a non-starter, and Secret Wars was waiting in the wings. Cue the assorted deaths of Bucky Barnes—a spate of brutal butchery to cleanse everyone’s palate before the relaunch of Bucky in Avengers: Standoff. However, those assorted deaths weren’t merely responding to the lackluster performance of Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier. I suspect they were, either subconsciously or deliberately, also responding to another phenomenon that had taken off in 2014: Bucky Barnes fanfiction.

If you think about it, every incarnation of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars is a permutation of a popular characterization of Bucky in fanfiction. Witch Hunter Angela Bucky was the wounded, in-need-of-a-warm-glass-of-milk Bucky. Red Skull Bucky was the cold-blooded assault-on-HYDRA Bucky. Planet Hulk Bucky was the lovers-in-arms Bucky. Runaways Bucky was the high-school-AU Bucky. Civil War Bucky was the mind-controlled-to-fight-against-Steve Bucky. Every incarnation of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars is a permutation of a popular characterization of Bucky in fanfiction, and every incarnation of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars dies. (They even put the brakes on the BuckyNat shippers by having 1872 start off with Bucky dead and Natasha widowed.)

Brutal butchery to cleanse everyone’s palate—whether they wanted it or not.

At the same time that Bucky was dying across the face of Battleworld, Marvel launched a Bucky-centric title that overlapped with both the conclusion of Secret Wars and the start of the All-New All-Different universe—Captain America: White by Jeph Loeb. This more-classic-than-classic Cap ‘n’ Bucky story took the character back to his origins as the markedly younger, almost-little-brother-like, hot-headed sidekick of straight-laced Steve Rogers. It was the most classic take on the character since the Brubaker-era Cap & Bucky run, and I don’t think that this was an accident. Ales Kot took Bucky from fatalistic forever soldier to contented man of peace; fanfic writers took him from unknown quantity of dubious motivations to trauma survivor battling PTSD to reconnect with the love of his life.

And Jeph Loeb walked him right back to his macho starting point.

caw 01x
Captain America: White no. 1 (2015)
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Now we’re all set for the reintroduction of a Bucky Barnes who is much more like the Bucky Barnes that Ed Brubaker left us. Bucky will play a large, though morally ambiguous, role in the Avengers: Standoff crossover—just about to get into full swing—and he’ll straddle the border between anti-hero and outright villain in Thunderbolts—a personal conflict that seems to dovetail with the personal conflicts that the MCU version of Bucky will struggle with in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. All very nice and neat. Marvel is betting that a majority of fans want the old hyper-masculine Bucky back, and it’ll be interesting to see how that bet pays off.

I think there’s no question that a decision was made to get Bucky back to a more Brubaker style of character in the wake of the financial failure of the Ales Kot interpretation, but it also seems as if the various deaths of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars were intended to take a swing at fan interpretations of the character. That is, of course, difficult to say definitively. What happens behind the scenes at Marvel’s creative division typically stays behind the scenes, and creator motivations are often difficult to parse. And yet there’s no question that fan interpretations of Bucky Barnes—for better or for worse—influenced how he was depicted in Secret Wars.

Whether the canonical destruction of various fanfic!Bucky archetypes was subconscious or deliberate, the fact that it happened at all is suggestive of the general culture of comics and comics fandom. Fanfiction, whose proponents have historically been overwhelmingly female, is often derided as an inauthentic expression of fanhood in comparison with the collecting of comics, merchandise, and canonical knowledge. It is productive rather than curatorial, and it transgresses canon by creating new possibilities for stories and characters that lie outside corporate control. In doing so, fanfiction challenges both the established narrative and the concept of who has a right to control that narrative. Viewed from this perspective, the multiple deaths of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars might be seen as an assertion of narrative ownership over the character.

Creating a collection of Bucky Barneses who manifest the characteristics of fanfiction versions of him only to emphatically eradicate their existence and return the character to a pre-fanfic (and thus pre-transgressed) status quo sends a message—not necessarily about who is welcome in the fandom and who is not (Marvel is a corporation, after all, and as such they welcome everyone’s hard-earned cash) but about who controls the narrative.

Enjoy the show.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Fanfic Characterizations, Narrative Control, and the Multiple Deaths of Bucky Barnes in Secret Wars

  1. I was particularly disturbed by Bucky’s multiple deaths in multiple universes because I consider him almost a proxy for female readers (besides being fridged until Brubaker, his loss of agency/bodily autonomy really resonates for survivors of sexual abuse who want to process their trauma through the “safer” lens of a male character).

    Like

  2. It pains me to think that Kot’s Winter Soldier book might have been the trial run for a Bucky who manages to contemplate a different life than that of a soldier, because it’s a concept I would have loved to see explored. Bucky being able to finally make peace with the world and himself, and to make his own choices without being guided by guilt or regret is actually my biggest wish for the character. But at least for me, if that really was intended to be the central theme of Kot’s series, it was completely lost in a sea of weird pseudo philosophical randomness, in the midst of which it just seemed like another random idea thrown around for the sake of it, without any serious character development or narrative weight to back it up. The concept might have been great, but the execution was terrible. My dislike of the book stems entirely from that, not from the fact that I miss the good old daddy issues and manpain of the Brubaker era (I don’t. Not even a little bit).

    Like

    • Hey, thanks for your comment!

      I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all fans disliked BB:TWS on the basis of it not having enough manpain. (My apologies!) I’ve spoken with a number of fans who disliked it for the very reasons you outlined, and I totally respect those reasons. Ales Kot has a very specific storytelling style—psychedelic, holistic, ofttimes stream-of-consciousness—that is (perfectly understandably) not everyone’s cup of tea. However, I do think there’s a case to be made for the idea that so-called traditional fans of Bucky Barnes—the ones coming primarily from a comics-base background—didn’t like it on those grounds. (Or failing that, that Marvel thinks that’s why people didn’t like it.)

      One thing that’s interesting to me is that when you crunch the numbers, Secret Avengers (also penned by Kot and also extremely psychedelic and stream-of-consciousness) did pretty well, which suggests that the problem was not necessarily Kot’s writing but Kot’s writing Bucky. In many ways, I think it was too different from anything anyone was expecting of the character. Traditionalists didn’t like it for the way it emphatically rejected manpain, film-fans looking for something to continue the story they loved didn’t like it because it didn’t make any sense to them, other fans—like you and many others—didn’t like it because the storytelling style (and potentially some of the non-Rudy art?) didn’t impress. It was a perfect storm of problems.

      I was talking about all this with a good friend of mine, who suggested that Marvel may have deliberately torpedoed the Bucky at peace concept by hiring Ales Kot to do the book. He was well into Secret Avengers by the time he was given the BB:TWS job, so Marvel knew what kind of writer he was, what kind of story he was planning to tell, and how he was planning to tell it. I’m not sure if I’d go that far myself, but unconscious bias may have played a role in the decision. In any case, it is—as you say—painful to think that we may never get another look at a Bucky who makes peace. I’m still hoping that Zub will make the tension between a peace-loving Bucky and a Bucky pulled back into battle a cornerstone of his Thunderbolts series. In fact, I’d honestly love to be wrong here. Fingers crossed!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Like

  3. Thank you for your response! And no need to apologize, your analysis here makes a lot of sense. I’m actually a bit angry at myself now, because it just didn’t occur to me as I was reading the book that Marvel might have been testing the waters, and if it had, I would have definitely supported BB:TWS longer than I did, even if I didn’t really grok it. A lot of the comics fans I know fit fairly well the ‘traditionalists’ label, so I completely understand where you were coming from with that remark.

    There’s also a lot of movie fans who seem to be eagerly awaiting CACW to finally deliver The Manpain, a possibility that I positively dread, seeing as movie Bucky was and still is my first and favourite. I actually didn’t even start reading the comics until after CATWS, and honestly, to go from the movieverse to Brubaker to BB:TWS was a wild experience. I did know of the major differences between the MCU version and the comics version of the character going in, but the more I read the more they felt to me almost like two different characters. I liked comics Bucky well enough on his own merits, but like I said, I found the endless cycle of manpain and the constant feelings of inadequacy with regards to Steve’s (manly!) perfection very off-putting. Then there was BB:TWS, with its Bucky who didn’t really feel like it fit either the comics mold or the MCU mold. In truth, I’m not really sure what impression I got of Kot’s Bucky, he seemed to be prompted into action by others most of the time, and that, combined with the fact that he was basically cut off from all of the characters I was used to see him with, made it especially difficult for me to figure him out.

    Your friend’s theory sounds a lot more plausible than I wish it would; after all, as you’ve said yourself, the temptation to remind the fans of who actually owns and controls the narratives that are most dear to them seems to be particularly hard to resist for a lot of the people in charge of the comics industry today.

    Again, thank you for listening and for the additional insight, it’s been a very interesting chat 🙂

    Like

  4. This has given me so many thoughts, especially in conjunction with the Carol Danvers article you did (regarding Civil War II). Forgive me for a long and somewhat rambling comment but I have Feelings on this, apparently.

    Firstly: Marvel seems to forget that if we really want to (and are willing to dig for it), we can get better stories for free from other fans.

    I mean, really, nobody expects Marvel to make SteveBucky canon anytime soon (that would scare the hetero male fanbase off far too much), but as far as the equivalent of “Gen Fic” goes… killing the character off five times in a year!?

    Even if it wasn’t deliberate and they have no concept of what versions of Bucky are popular with female fandom online, that just seems like shooting themselves in the foot, when the “competing” narratives include ones we can read for free, so long as we’re willing to put up with more uneven and potentially unfinished/less reliably-updated works. If I’m going to pay for my fiction, it should not *just* be reliably updated; it should be both good, and respect me as a reader – no, I’m not saying it can’t take risks that might tick off a fan here or there (there’s no pleasing everyone, and without “risk-taking” that could annoy a certain portion of the base, we wouldn’t have perfectly good results like the female Thor comics – which I’m still catching up on but have enjoyed the first two volumes of), but. BUT.

    Pointless fridging of a beloved character that doesn’t really serve much narrative purpose other than “ZOMG! A TWIST!”, and doing it so often in the course of a year that it actually becomes *predictable* to do the same thing to the same damn character again and again – and then not subverting that expectation, and just literally doing it again? That is NOT good storytelling. That’s just…no. What the heck are you doing, Marvel??

    Then again, I say this and I haven’t bought Marvel in a while (I probably would have been buying Ms Marvel, the one with Kamala Khan, at least but there was a while where I wasn’t able to buy comics regularly, so I got behind and I’ve learned that with ongoing comics it’s better for me not to just randomly jump in again after missing months or years of a run, as understandably things get strange and confusing that way. Eventually I’ll pick up the collected editions and catch up because I really love Kamala, but)…I’m just.

    I’m so burnt out on Marvel, somehow. It feels like so much of what they’re doing the last couple of years is nothing but “twist! AND ANOTHER TWIST! SHOCK! MORE SHOCK!” sensationalism, on top of the fact that I sometimes can’t even keep the umpteen jillian universes straight (and when I think I can, sometimes they decide to make an unpopular change retconned out by saying “oops, that was actually universe [random number], not 616!”, or at least it feels like it). I guess I’m glad to hear that Civil War II is proving interesting, but to me it just came across as “here’s another manufactured conflict to force all the heroes to pick a side and fight each other” and then they had to go and kill off Rhodey as part of the starting chapter to boot, and then the whole stupid thing with Nick Spencer’s book felt like more of the same, sensationalism for the sake of it rather than for a good story told well. And I just. I was like, ” I can’t do this Marvel. Call me when you settle down a bit and stop throwing stuff at the wall like you’re trying to hit a dartboard with blindfolds on. ”

    And I gotta say, when it comes to Marvel getting my pocket money, they had the misfortune of pulling this crap right as DC decided to do a (mostly – I’m confused on the Green Lantern content but everything else seems pretty easy to follow) new reader-friendly soft reboot, which not only was doing course-correction on stuff like the crap they pulled with Wonder Woman’s background, but was also not long after they had done a fairly well-received plot that introduced a new and female Green Lantern from Earth, who was sticking around for a new book (plus Kate Kane, who I like, being in Detective Comics in a new arc, etc). So basically DC started doing almost everything right, right as Marvel was annoying the crap out of me. Whoops, guess who’s taken over my pull list this summer.

    I’ve heard jokes that this is something that tends to happen with the Big Two – one screws up right as the other is doing something that fans like, you can basically use the same “well it looks like Marvel/DC has screwed up again, but meanwhile what DC/Marvel is doing is good so I’ll be buying DC/Marvel for a while until Marvel/DC stops sucking” template every other year almost – and I can’t dispute that. That’s exactly that it feels like, with New 52 having started to go “meh” on a bunch of titles right when Marvel had some interesting stuff happening, and then suddenly Marvel is “meh” on several fronts right as Rebirth comes out. I wonder how much of a newer industry trend this is, because it IIRC before DC’s Invasion! crossover event, there weren’t that many Really Big Comic Book Events, but over time they became more common and now it feels like at this point such things not only happen frequently but are about 90% of the Big Two’s approach to sales, and those things can be really high-risk if you’re not careful.

    You’ve mentioned in the Carol Canvers CWII article, about how Marvel fans in particular have gotten fatigued by the number of resets to the point where they’ve started overlooking the fact that it should be about individual stories’ merits, that a good story is still a good story; likewise, I have observed fans react the same to the inverse, telling me right to my face that I shouldn’t be annoyed at say, the nonsensical and badly-written trolling that was the first chapter of that ‘Hydra Cap’ arc, because “it’ll be retconned later anyway” – like, no, you don’t understand, I’m not saying they won’t retcon it later! I’m saying they should write a GOOD STORY in the first place, so they won’t HAVE to! And if the very first chapter does nothing but make the people who love the character angry because it fundamentally seems to misunderstand the character, guess what, that’s not good storytelling!

    They even went so far as to say: “Yeah but the only people who’re really upset about it just Don’t Know How Comics Work, and they Don’t Buy Comics Anyway, they’re just people on Twitter and tumblr who like to complain” – ignoring the fact that I obviously passionately hated it myself, and was literally at the checkout counter with a handful of comics I was purchasing, of course (I point that fact out and they sort of went “Well yes, but you’re the exception…” and it went downhill from there).

    Also, though I didn’t tell them this, I too happen have a tumblr and a twitter – and yet, again, lo and behold, there I was, buying Actual Comics. Gasp! Imagine that! Actual tumblr users buy comics!? WHO KNEW (tumblr users. tumblr users knew). Further, had they read a lot of the complaints I had (in other words, had they engaged with people who disagreed’s arguments), they would KNOW that about 90% of the complainers on tumblr KNEW it would be retconned later because it seemed like such a horrible take on the character; the reason they were angry was that it was a cheap move to promote sales, not because they genuinely thought He Was Changed Forever.

    In other words, they felt insulted not because they were naive and Didn’t Know How Comics worked but precisely BECAUSE they Know How Comics Work, and that Marvel probably thought they could take the risk because sensationalism sells in the short term and all of it is retconnable, rather than bothering to have a truly good story premise to begin with and having it executed well.

    The fact that I have yet to hear anything further about that book after the first issue, probably means that they were right, and it’s nothing special, and Marvel was relying on the shock value to produce sales. It’s possible Marvel was doing something a bit similar with the multiple Bucky deaths, too – entice readers with content about a version of a character that they like (get attention to make people curious about book), and then pull the rug out from under it, because they knew they could get away with it, because they’d already sold a few books so what did it matter (if it proved unpopular, well, reset button is still there). I really hope Marvel stops doing this kind of thing soon, it’s getting frustrating. I want to be like you said, focusing on the quality of the story, but it feels like I can’t trust them to just…give me a good story.

    This is why with some titles (e.g. female Thor I did this with), I just wait until a story is at least partly finished before picking it up, so I can find out if they pull crap like that that would annoy me, vs “oh, people are saying this is good,and it sounds like something I might like”. Collected editions are a godsend, really, for that reason. Unfortunately though, collected edition sales probably aren’t the ones that the Big Two watch when trying to decide if they want to cancel or keep a book. >_> So there’s that factor, too. Catch-22; if it’s a good story they do right, but you don’t buy it in floppies, it might not stick around, but if you take the risk and buy the floppies you might wind up with an experience like the one you had here, where you get basically tricked into giving them money for a story that just disappoints you with a not-so-shocking Twist that it really didn’t need. Sigh.

    I really should catch up on Ms Marvel though. THAT was a good story, about a good character, and from what I’ve heard it’s continued to be good for a while. And that is something I’d like to support.

    Like

    • Hello! I have owed you several responses for quite a while now, and I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. Unfortunately, you caught me right at the start of an extended vacation, but I’m back now so expect to see several pingbacks from me starting with this one. 🙂

      First off, no need to apologize for the length of your comments. I’m always excited to read other perspectives, and I appreciate (and am flattered by) the fact that you felt inspired to respond to my writings. So thank you!

      I think the point you raise about the availability of free fiction that better serves the desires of the female reader base is really on the mark. It’s something that I don’t think Marvel has fully gotten a handle on. There are clear indications that they are trying to court a more diverse audience with new heroes that can be “owned” by a new fanbase, but they seem to be quite adamantly opposed to courting the new fanbase when it comes to established heroes. “Make your own,” is the rallying cry of every entrenched (and typically white and/or male) fan, and that seems to be Marvel’s policy for better or for worse. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense, I think. Marvel simply does better creating new characters than fiddling with old characters. (And the overwhelmingly positive response to DC’s Rebirth initiative suggests that the same is true for them.) So many fans just do not like it when things change, and this doesn’t necessarily apply only to changes that strike old-school fans as “politically correct” or “diversity for diversity’s sake.” The uproar over Marvel’s decision to break up Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson springs immediately to mind as an example of this attitude, and I think Marvel’s decision to give fans what they want (“Because you demanded it…”) and launch a very retro line of X-Men comics is another example of fans resisting status quo changes even years after the changes took place.

      But to return to Bucky, you mention “pointless fridging” in his case, and I think that’s one of the things that makes his multiple deaths feel, well, pointed. There was another character who died in every Secret Wars incarnation: Scott Summers. But in his case, it felt less like pointless fridging and more like foreshadowing. When we landed back in the regular Marvel universe (eight months after the Incursion event), Scott Summers was very very dead. That made his deaths in Secret Wars feel like they had at least tonal relevance, if not actual narrative relevance. But Bucky’s deaths were just bizarre. As you rightly point out, at the end of the day it’s about telling a good story, and Bucky’s Secret Wars deaths didn’t feel like good stories to me.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s