These were the last words Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s boy partner, ever spoke in the Silver Age. One panel later, he was dead, blown to pieces by a booby-trapped drone plane, and a mere three panels after his Silver-Age introduction in The Avengers # 4 (Mar., 1964).
I’m tempted to say that that is some sort of record for shortest time between debut and death for a Silver-Age character, but to insist so would be a bit of a cheat. Comic-book fans with stubborn memories would remember Bucky’s long history with Captain America during the Golden Age.
Bucky first appeared alongside his star-spangled mentor in Captain America Comics # 1 (Mar., 1941). Following his own origin, Captain America was stationed, as Private Steve Rogers, at Fort Lehigh, New Jersey. There, he met Bucky Barnes, a boy whose soldier father had been killed in a training exercise. The other G.I.’s had adopted him as the camp mascot. One night, Bucky burst into Rogers’ tent and inadvertently caught Steve in the act of changing into his costume. In typical comic-book logic, this somehow entitled him to become Cap’s partner.
Donning his own blue-and-crimson outfit, Bucky enthusiastically fought the Nazis and the Japanese alongside Cap. He proved popular enough to headline twenty issues of his own title, Young Allies Comics, leading his own kid gang, including Toro, sidekick to the original Human Torch.
After the war, Captain America Comics shifted gears and turned Cap and Bucky into crime-fighters, tackling gangsters with names like Scarface and the Big Guy. As soon as he was given his discharge papers, Steve Rogers became a teacher at the Lee School, with Bucky as one of his pupils. But peacetime was not as good to Bucky as the war had been.
The youngster had battled Nazi troops from one end of Europe to the other and never received so much as a scratch. But only a couple of years after V-J Day, Bucky was gunned down by a slinky villainess named Lavender, in Captain America Comics # 66 (Apr., 1948). He survived the experience, but was wounded bad enough for Captain America to replace him with a female sidekick, Golden Girl, for a year and a half.
The lead story in Captain America Comics # 71 (Oct., 1949) saw Bucky finally released from the hospital, just in time for him and Cap to get caught up in a scheme by a second-rate villain named the Trickster. It would be the last time Bucky appeared in the comic, but it really didn’t matter, because the title itself ended four issues later.
In 1953, Atlas (as Marvel Comics was calling itself then) returned Cap and Bucky to active duty, in Young Men # 24 (Dec., 1953). Atlas even brought back the Captain America title, but it failed to make much of an impression and folded in 1954, after a three-issue run.
That was the last mention of Bucky Barnes until The Avengers # 4. But in that ten years’ time, a new generation of fans had stepped up to the spinner racks, youngsters who had never read any of Cap and Bucky’s Golden-Age adventures. To them, Captain America was an exciting new character. Sure, Marvel dropped enough baggage about Cap (especially in his Silver-Age “try-out” in the Human Torch tale that appeared in Strange Tales # 114 [Nov., 1963]) to figure out that there was some kind of history there. But, to all purposes, Captain America was a Silver-Age hero whose story began when Giant-Man fished his frozen body out of the Atlantic Ocean.
As the revived Captain America explained to the Avengers, he and Bucky had been trying to stop a hijacked drone plane from taking off for Nazi Germany. While Cap had failed to grab onto the plane, Bucky took hold, only to find that an explosive charge had been rigged. It detonated an instant later, plunging Cap into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, to fall into a state of suspended animation for two decades.
Bucky hadn’t been so lucky. He was blown into pieces-parts.
Now, this is where my non-comics-reading fans, like my friends, the Wards, are saying, “Wait a second, commander! You just told us Captain America and Bucky went home after the war and fought crooks. Bucky even survived being gut-shot by that brazen hussy. And, now, you’re saying Bucky got killed fighting Nazis?”
You see, Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee figured nobody reading his magazines now would remember all that stuff, or even know about it. So, basically, he took a big blue pencil to all those post-war issues of Captain America Comics and Young Men.
Later on, Stan would discover that fans did know about all those late-1940’s and early 1950’s Cap tales, and they wanted an explanation. Marvel Comics delivered one in 1972---but it didn’t take Our Heroes off that exploding drone-plane. (Instead, the 1950’s Cap and Bucky were a different couple of fellas, y’see . . . .)
And young Mr. Barnes was still very dead.
In that Silver-Age perspective, Bucky became one of those characters---like Ben Parker and Dr. and Mrs. Wayne---whose death was the principal reason for his existence in the first place. Stan Lee insisted that every Marvel hero of the Silver Age would have a tragic flaw, and Bucky’s death represented the cross that the otherwise-perfect Captain America would bear. Rarely did an early Captain America adventure go by which didn’t have at least one scene of the Star-Spangled Avenger reproaching himself over Bucky’s death---a combination of survivor’s guilt and self-blame over failing to save the boy.
Readers were hammered with Cap’s guilt over Bucky repeatedly in the first year of his revival, but probably nowhere did it manifest itself more strikingly than in his relationship with Avengers groupie Rick Jones.
Within hours of coming out of suspended animation and returning to New York, the shield-slinger has decided to give up his life as Captain America. “It would be meaningless without Bucky!” he concludes. “I don’t belong in this age---in this year---no place for me---if only Bucky were here----“
On cue, Rick Jones enters Cap’s hotel room, and Cap nearly jumps out of his skin. “Bucky!! It’s you!!” he cries. “You’ve come back!! Bucky, you’ve come back!!” All things considered, Rick takes that greeting pretty much in stride, but outside of telling Steve who he really is, the lad can’t get a word in edgewise.
“It’s unbelievable!” Cap rants. “You’re like his twin brother! Your voice---your face---everything!! You could be Bucky’s double!”
Understandably, Rick starts to get the idea that he just barged in on a star-spangled nutcase, and starts edging his way toward the door when Cap says, “. . . You’ve suddenly made me realize that life goes on! In a way, Bucky can still live again!”
I shudder to think of what modern sensibilities would make of that exchange, but fortunately, Rick met Cap in a more-innocent time, and in short order, Rick becomes a true Captain America booster. Even by Silver-Age comic-book standards, though, Cap’s attitude toward Rick Jones bordered on the psychotic.
During most Avengers stories, Cap kept Rick close to his side, protectively. He was like the big brother that Rick never had. He taught Rick self-defence techniques and expressed his support of the lad’s efforts to become an Avenger.
. . . Except for the time, in The Avengers # 7 (Aug., 1964), when Rick finds one of Bucky’s old costumes in Steve’s closet and tries it on. Cap spots him wearing it and rips Rick a new one, swearing that he will never have another partner.
. . . And except for the time when Iron Man, in issue # 10 (Nov., 1964), recommends that they make Rick a full-fledged member. Captain America slaps the idea down almost before Shellhead can finish his sentence, objecting on the basis that he still carries guilt over Bucky Barnes’s death. And none of the other Avengers has the gumption to overrule him.
. . . And then there is the time that Cap jumps down Rick’s throat for daring to express his opinion at an Avengers meeting, in issue # 11 (Dec., 1964).
Captain America’s moaning and groaning over Bucky’s death increases after the story “The Masters of Evil”, from The Avengers # 6 (Jul., 1964). Here, the readers discover that Baron Zemo was the Nazi agent who tried to steal the drone plane upon which Bucky met his end. When the baron, safely hidden in his South American stronghold, learns that Captain America is still alive, he forms the Masters of Evil to take revenge on the Star-Spangled Avenger. And when Cap finds out that Zemo is still alive, it flames his own thirst for vengeance, a chord that repeats through all of Zemo’s repeated attacks on the Avengers, over the course of several issues.
Probably sensing that the readers were tiring of Cap’s constant whining, Stan Lee brought things to a head. In “Now, By My Hand, Shall Die a Villain”, from The Avengers # 15 (Apr., 1965), Cap jets to Baron Zemo’s jungle hideout for a showdown. In a final confrontation, Zemo attempts to blast Cap with a disintegrator pistol. However, the Star-Spangled Avenger uses his shield to reflect sunlight into the villain’s eyes, blinding him. Firing wildly, the baron triggers a rockslide which crushes the life out of him.
Stan also probably suspected that the fans were starting to find Cap’s relationship with Rick rather creepy, so in the next issue---the landmark “The Old Order Changeth”---Rick was once again passed up for Avengers membership and summarily dismissed from the series.
By this time, Captain America had been awarded a series of his own, taking up the back half of Tales of Suspense, beginning with issue # 59 (Nov., 1964). After a handful of minor-but-entertaining tales, Cap’s series shifted back to World War II, beginning with a retelling of his and Bucky’s origins. The Cap stories from Tales of Suspense # 63 (Mar., 1965) through # 71 (Nov., 1965) were all set during the war. These offered the Silver-Age readers their first look at Bucky in action.
Stan Lee wrote all of these WWII tales, and he gave Cap and Bucky an easy comaraderie, portraying them as confident and capable, with witty dialogue in the same vein as his later Sgt. Fury scripts. For someone who professed to hate the idea of “kid partners”, Stan did a superb job of writing Bucky as a competent, resourceful hero in his own right, a true partner to Cap, rather than a sycophantic hanger-on.
It paid off, after the series shifted back to the present; Bucky had become more of a real character in the eyes of the fans. Thus, when Cap was shown reflecting on his partner’s death, it had more gravitas, more meaning, because the readers could now more easily identify with his loss. I don’t know if that result was what Stan had in mind when he scripted those wartime tales, but I’m sure if you asked him, he would tell you “Of course!”, whether he did or not.
While the constantly brooding Cap was pretty much a thing of the past, Stan would still play the “Bucky card” on occasion. One such occasion arose in a four-issue arc beginning with Tales of Suspense # 88 (Apr, 1967), and the story “If Bucky Lives!” It kicks off when Cap receives a video transmission from Bucky over an Avengers monitor, drawing the shield-slinging hero to a remote island off of Nova Scotia. To no-one’s surprise, this turns out to be an ambush laid by his arch-foe, the Red Skull.
The highlight of the multi-parter is the next issue’s confrontation between Cap and Bucky. The Skull tells him that Bucky survived the drone’s explosion in a state of suspended animation, similar to Cap’s own. The Nazi villain then brainwashed the youngster, instilling hatred for his former partner. Or so he says.
The shield-wielding Avenger is forced to fight the youth, and his reluctance lets Bucky get the best of him---until tell-tale clues inform Captain America that Bucky is really a sophisticated robot. Enraged over the Skull’s manipulation of his feelings, Cap quickly reduces the replica to nuts and bolts.
The “Bucky Returns” trick was used a lot over the next fifteen years, probably because Cap fell for it every time. They always involved a duplicate of Bucky Barnes---robot, android, or human double---used to lure the Star-Spangled Avenger into a trap. Most of them came after my 1968 cut-off point for the Silver Age, but it was a common Bronze-Age device. In fact, the next time it was attempted, in 1970, it followed the plot of “If Bucky Lives!” almost identically, substituting Modok and Baron Strucker for the Red Skull as the main villains.
(Cap shows he’s finally wised up to the gag in Captain America # 281 [May, 1983], when yet another Bucky shows up at Steve Rogers’ door. The Avenger grabs him and bounces his head off a wall several times, expecting to find another robot---only to discover that he is Jack Monroe, the 1950’s Bucky. Oops.)
However, the last Bucky story of the Silver Age brought the character full-circle, back to where he entered the era. Appropriately, it appeared in The Avengers---in issue # 56 (Sep., 1968).
In the rush to present Captain America to the Marvel fans of 1964, the one-page account of Bucky’s death and Cap’s survival shown in The Avengers # 4 left many unanswered questions. Why were Cap and Bucky going after the drone-plane? Why was it booby-trapped? And why were Our Heroes in standard G.I. uniforms, instead of their colourful costumes? The breakneck pace of the story brushed right past those details, and nobody seemed to care enough to go back and find out.
Leave it to Roy Thomas to care enough. He unveiled the full events of that final adventure in the story “Death Be Not Proud!” It begins with Captain America summoning the then-active roster of Avengers to the castle once occupied by Doctor Doom ‘way back in Fantastic Four # 5. Cap confesses to the assembled heroes that he has been preoccupied lately with determining whether or not Bucky could have survived the explosion of the drone-plane. “If I somehow survived it,” reflects Cap, “couldn’t he have, too?”
In order to put an end to his gnawing doubts, Cap proposes using Doom’s time machine to go back to that fatal day. Goliath, Hawkeye, and the Black Panther insist on tagging along with their red-white-and-blue buddy, while the Wasp operates the device.
Since all of them were alive in 1945, the Avenger foursome, borrowing a page from DC’s rules of time-travel, arrives in wartime England in an invisible and intangible state. Led to the proper hangar by the 1968-Cap, the Avengers have a ringside seat to the last mission of Captain America and Bucky.
Roy Thomas crafted a masterful tale, an early showing of his proclivity for fleshing out old stories without altering the original events. All of the loose ends from The Avengers # 4 are tied neatly. And though briefly materialised on the scene, due to an outside influence on the time machine, the Avengers are unable to thwart Zemo’s plan before the effect wears off. Thus, they are forced to helplessly watch those last, awful moments.
Bucky Barnes leaves the Silver Age in the same four panels in which he entered it. And this time, Captain America has no doubts; he could only have been killed instantly.
At least, there were no doubts, then.
For nearly forty years, despite all the times Marvel had tantalised Captain America and the readers with “Bucky Returns!” plotlines, the true Bucky Barnes had remained really, most sincerely dead. So certain was this that the comics fanship coined the term Bucky-dead for any character perceived to have been killed off permanently, with no chance of revival.
Like most shorthand terms, Bucky-dead was instantly descriptive. Then, in 2005, it became instantly invalid. For that was when Bucky returned to the Marvel universe alive, all grown up, and working for the Commies as “the Winter Soldier”. As the modern account would have it, the Red Skull’s phoney story, back in Tales of Suspense # 89, wasn’t too far off the mark. Bucky did survive the drone’s explosion, only to be found by the Russians, who altered his memories and put him to work for the KGB.
As with all controversial comics plotlines, the readers are largely divided over Bucky’s survival and return. I suspect most of those who don’t like it are of my vintage. As I see it, Bucky’s death, and Captain America’s perception of it as his one tragic failure, had more dramatic cachet than any shock value from his resurrection. It also doesn’t help things that the revolving door of comic-book deaths was opened a little wider.
Fortunately, I am rooted in the Silver Age; editorial decisions of the modern day don’t count. For me, Bucky Barnes’ story ended right where it should have, with the conclusion of The Avengers # 56, when Cap gave his little buddy his final send-off . . . .
Bucky Barnes, Requiescat in Pace.