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.
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.
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.
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.
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.