Before you’ve even started to read Ales Kot and Marco Rudy’s Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, its creative team wants you to know they’re going to fragment your consciousness. The new series’ first image is of the titular Bucky Barnes, smirking in malicious glee behind a red eyed domino mask as various other personas he has assumed crack open around his head. Like a ruptured Matryoshka doll, Barnes contains layers that offer up less and less of himself; one level up is his tenure as Captain America, one level further is his original, happy go lucky iteration as Bucky Barnes, All-American sidekick. It makes perfect sense that Ales Kot, a writer whose works all connect via the writer’s obsession with true identity and social identity, would be drawn to a character like Bucky Barnes, and of course a Kot take on Barnes would come in the form of a hallucinogenic, cosmic espionage story, equal parts Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury work and Total Recall (that other work prominently featuring a head splitting open to reveal another head).
Steranko’s mixed media S.H.I.E.L.D. shenanigans are en vogue again thanks in part to that creator’s unhinged comics game Don Corleone Twitter account, which makes that lineage a natural reference point for this new series, especially when you factor in the masterful aesthetic juggling Rudy does throughout the book. But Steranko’s spy work was always reactive and effortlessly cool– Hydra did some stupid shit, Fury is out to correct, mindfuckery occurs, status quo returns, repeat. That makes the Total Recall half of that equation the more important cultural landmark when approaching Kot and Rudy’s new series, particularly since it’s set after Original Sin‘s reconfiguration of Nick Fury as a cosmic assassin, proactively taking out threats to humanity, and the epic levels of dissociation Bucky Barnes went through to discover this information and succeed Fury in his role as The Man on the Wall.
Barnes’ character history had him operating in the dark, both in a literal and metaphorical sense– he was a superweapon, rolled out whenever his superiors needed him in action, then secreted away before he could gain true consciousness or age beyond usefulness. A life like that would undoubtedly be one of nonstop confusion, woken from cryogenic slumber states to carry out missions you don’t really understand, missions that might just seem like dreams or hallucinations after a point, until you’re forced to acknowledge their reality and are sent into a Cosmic Cube destroying state of post-traumatic stress. Like Total Recall, this is a story that wants to explore the traumatic effects being a superagent would have on your brain, while also embracing the campy elements of the spy genre, gently mocking tropes and adding new, dissociative elements along the way.
The story of The Winter Soldier truly starts with Barnes in shackles, captured by an alien race that has detected his “killing thoughts” and are looking to fix his behavior by placing him in a more “aesthetically pleasing animal.” The process sounds bad, but when you get down to it, that kind of threat just mirrors Barnes’ entire existence. It’s not much of a leap from being an animal whose aesthetic is wrapped up in death to being an animal wrapped up in harmlessness, neither offers middle ground or much of a choice. Rudy even draws the sequence in a way that emphasizes triangular shapes, not out of some kind of overt Illimunati signal, but as an effort to reference the life cycle– birth, life, death. Barnes is even introduced shackled within a triangle, deliberately not touching any of its points, as if to indicate he’s stuck between all three of those components of the cycle. He was born, he briefly lived, then he died and was stuck in a kind of limbo. Barnes’ alien priest captor is placed at the top of the life pyramid, his amphibious features framed in the apex, signalling his connection to life.
Basically, this is some heady fucking mainstream comics. But it’s not pretentious. Rudy’s art helps, full of soft colors and wide expanses of space, every page eagerly awaiting its own transfiguration into a dorm room blacklight poster. Kot has also filled the comic with pop culture detritus– an alien named after Judge Dredd slang, a holy space pig named after Trent Reznor, a space station called Herzog, a planet that shares a name with a Japanese noise rock band. Barnes’ swiss cheese memory allows Kot and Rudy to riff on that cloud of confusion, comfortably easing the reader into Barnes’ cluttered headspace by anchoring them with those pop culture references and throwbacks to other times, characters and worlds. It also thematically fits with Barnes’ exploration of his past by retracing his own lineage. In this first issue, he recruits his own “sidekick,” fan favorite Daisy Johnson, another agent in exile, who immediately makes it clear she’s not sidekick material. That works for Barnes, who was a uniquely independent sidekick himself way back when, notably killing off Nazis with abandon while Cap did his morale boosting thing.
Kot and Rudy also do some lineage altering of their own, taking Marvel’s indirect ties to the counterculture in the ’60s to a new futurist extreme. In this debut issue alone, we’re treated to a conversation between Namor and Bucky about everything from the positive effects of recreational drug use to Namor’s recent embrace of polyamory. The issue also has a thematic throughline featuring political theory as it might apply to alien species. Barnes’ opening enemies are basically communists, to the point that they expect their citizens to think and feel the same way, free of class or divisions. Bucky gives them “the gift of democracy” and his snarky insistence that he doesn’t care that it hasn’t worked for them in the past and they’ve long since abandoned it seems to be a clear dig at US intervention in the middle east, while an unveiled alien group discusses ecological anarchy and the creation of a political system that mimics the chaos of life itself. That particular system may not has as clear of a real world analogue, but Tom Kaczynski explored similar notions in Beta Testing the Apocalypse.
In other words, while old Nick Fury comics may have looked like drug trips, they were still basically conservative spy stories. Kot isn’t content with that. He wants Bucky Barnes to be a spy for our era, sexy, full of one liners, dark and mysterious…but also hip to pop culture, comfortable with drugs and willing to be educated on sexual and political evolution. Ambitious? Absolutely. But Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier is nothing if not full of swagger in this first issue, and mainstream comics are frankly the better for it. Yes, some of Kot’s dialogue falls flat, the plot still barely makes sense to me after several reads and Rudy’s storytelling has still yet to catch up to his abstract chops. But I honestly can’t tell you the last time I’ve been motivated to read a Big Two comic over so many times.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover