Retconning is tricky business. The writers are basically meddling with fictional history—changing backstories to suit current stories. When dealing with the Marvel Universe’s elastic timeline, tweaks are often necessary to keep things modern. But when the adjustments are more ambitious, books can easily go off the rails…or, when done properly, they can further enrich characters and stories.
Fortunately, Ed Brubaker’s major retconning of the Captain America and Bucky Barnes partnership falls in the latter category. Marvel doesn’t really do teen sidekicks, but it hadn’t figured that out yet in the 1940s (it also hadn’t even figured out it was “Marvel,” yet—it was Timely Comics back then).
The established story for many years was that teenage Bucky was an Army orphan who stumbled upon Cap’s secret identity, and he convinced Cap to take him on as a partner. And then he died at the same time Cap began his decades-long hibernation on ice. So…Cap fought with the aid of an experimental Super-Soldier serum coursing through his veins, while Bucky fought with the aid of plucky youthful exuberance and somehow managed to keep up. Other than the part where Bucky dies, it never made any sense, even by comic book standards.
In the “Winter Soldier” arc, Brubaker rewrites and fleshes out that backstory. Issue #12, we see Cap in 1941 learning about Bucky for the first time, as his superior officer explains the rationale for Captain America having a young sidekick. Part of it is propaganda, making sure the symbol of Captain America appeals to the youth. But there’s also a more pragmatic side—Bucky’s a gifted natural fighter who has received advanced training, and he can perform some of those wartime dirty deeds that need doing, thereby allowing Cap to keep his red-white-and-blue hands clean.
Brubaker didn’t merely retcon Bucky’s backstory—he gave a previously underdeveloped character an identity worth having. The friendship between Cap and Bucky was genuine, and that’s key, but otherwise the Bucky we had known was just the propaganda front. Turns out he was really Captain America’s secret weapon.
And now that secret weapon is aimed at Cap himself. It’s a rich conflict indeed.
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Steve Epting and Michael Lark
Cover: Steve Epting
Publisher: Marvel Comics
How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; included in Captain America: Winter Soldier (TPB)
Appropriate For: ages 14 and up