Bucky charms

April 30, 2005

The following spoils certain plot developments from Captain America 5. If you haven’t read it but plan to, turn back!

I am clearly a ghoulish person, because every time I think about what I learned about Bucky Barnes in Captain America 5, I grin. Sometimes I even laugh out loud.

For those of you who don’t follow the book, writer Ed Brubaker has revealed Bucky’s true function as Captain America’s sidekick. Bucky Barnes, beneath his boyish innocence, was a highly trained killing machine. While Cap was giving inspiring speeches to the troops, Bucky was sneaking past the front lines, slitting throats and gunning down advanced guards. Cap couldn’t get his hands bloody and maintain his inspirational image, so he sent a kid to do it.

I don’t know why that idea tickles me so much. It might be the perverse logic of it. It might be the way it answers the long-standing question of whether Cap actually made it through World War II without killing anyone. It might even be the way it’s such a perfect thematic sibling to Gwen Stacy’s lusty romp with the Green Goblin.

Some people have noted, I think quite correctly, that the idea of teen sidekicks isn’t one that benefits from careful scrutiny. The argument goes that it’s hard to endorse an adult knowingly putting a child (or at least a minor) in real peril. And situations don’t get much more perilous than the front lines of World War II, so Cap and his military handlers could easily look criminally irresponsible for letting Bucky tag along at all.

But this revelation has a weirdly beautiful insanity to it. Bucky is one of those characters whose value has been that he’s dead, and that Cap feels badly about that. I’ve never seen a flashback story featuring Bucky where he made any kind of impression. (I admit that I haven’t read too many, and I don’t follow Captain America’s adventures too closely, because he bores me.) He’s never been a character so much as an emotionally charged headstone.

Now, everything we knew about Bucky was wrong! (Yes, I usually hate that as a narrative device. Consider this the exception.) He was a black-ops machine, stealthily offing the opposition as easily as he cried, “Jeepers, Cap!” (Okay, maybe I’m inserting the “Jeepers,” but you know what I mean.) It makes an odd kind of sense, but it’s inexplicably, morbidly hilarious at the same time.

As I said, Cap doesn’t really do a thing for me. I’m enjoying Brubaker’s run so far, but I wouldn’t be picking up the title if I didn’t generally admire Brubaker’s work (and that of artists Steve Epting and Michael Lark). So I’m curious to see how this development will go down with readers who actually are Cap fans. Because he does seem to inspire a great deal of reader loyalty, and some of those loyal readers are real purists about what they think Cap will and will not do. I’m actually kind of surprised I haven’t seen more of a reaction already, though I may be looking in the wrong places. (And maybe they’re waiting to see if this twist is just a side effect of Cap’s apparently unreliable memory.)

But the image of Bucky skulking through undergrowth with a big knife in his teeth, waiting to slit someone from ear to ear, is an image that makes me happy for reasons I simply cannot explain. It’s nuts, and I just love it. I know it’s wrong, but I just don’t care.