Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Dead ain't Dead

A few years ago, in a strange bit of synchronicity, two of comics longest standing definitively-dead-and-they’re-never-coming back characters both reemerged when Ed Brubaker brought back Bucky in the pages of Captain America and Judd Winick resurrected the second Robin, Jason Todd, in the pages of Batman.

Resurrections in comics are always tricky business and I think how these respective characters have fared in the years since is particularly interesting in how similar their circumstances were. Both were characters that fans were never expecting see alive again, both were largely controlled by a single writer, and both were brought back as villains.

Bucky was the original dead-means-dead superhero. When Stan Lee brought Captain America back to life in the 60’s, he killed Bucky in a flashback to give Captain America a little pathos and something to angst over. We’ve seen some other people wear his costume and we’ve seen him in too-many-to-count time travel stories, but I think Uncle Ben is the only character I considered less likely to return before the Winter Soldier storyline.

Jason Todd was the second Robin and really the first modern legacy character if you think about it. He was a scrappy and edgy street kid. Then the creative team got tired of him, got him killed through a 1-800 number call in stunt, and he’s been a stand in for Batman’s guilt ever since.

Judd Winick brought back Jason Todd as the Red Hood (the Joker’s first alias), a vigilante determined to wipe out crime in a way that met his own ends. Also, he was super violent and had no compunctions about killing. He fought Batman for the Under the Hood storyarc, guest starred in a few of Judd Winick’s other series and really hasn’t been seen much in recent years.

Ed Brubaker brought back Bucky as the Winter Soldier. Brainwashed by the Russians after they found his body and given a cybernetic arm, Bucky was used as an assassin throughout the 21st century by the Russians through the miracles of cryogenics. Co-opted by a Russian ex-general and then the Red Skull, he eventually had his memory restored thanks to Captain America using a cosmic cube. Eventually, he became Captain America following Steve Rogers’ death. He’s currently serving time for his crimes in a Russian gulag.

Of the two storylines, the Red Hood storyline was met with more excitement, if only because it became clear right away that Jason Todd was back. He made a couple appearances in books like Teen Titans and Green Arrow, but once the Batman story ended, his role in the DC universe sort of evaporated.

The Winter Soldier took about six issues for people to realize it was Bucky, and most people couldn’t believe it. I mean, he wouldn’t bring back Bucky would he? Especially as a cyborg Russian killer? Well he did. He became a mainstay in the Captain America series and Brubaker has written more issues of Captain America with Bucky as the star than Steve Rogers.

The enthusiasm gap on the stories seems to me to be inversely proportional. Enthusiasm for Jason Todd waned while a lot of people have loved what Brubaker has done with Bucky. And while the Red Hood has sort of vanished from the DC universe (which is puzzling considering how popular he initially was), Bucky has become a mainstay in Marvel’s. Hell, even if he leaves the Cap identity behind, it looks like he’s not going anywhere for awhile.

To me, the difference is clearly tied to the thought the creators put it in bringing the characters back. When Brubaker brought back Bucky, his editor, Tom Breevort, was deeply uncomfortable about the idea and made Brubaker answer a series of questions how the story would work. One of the key components was that it couldn’t compromise what Bucky’s death did to Cap. By making him a Russian assassin, Bucky remained a wellspring of guilt for Cap, even in the land of the living. Even though the death of Cap was unplanned, Bucky’s storyarc felt natural and remained in the forefront of the book.

Winick on the other hand, brought back Jason Todd in the midst of the run up to Infinite Crisis. He promised there was a great story about how he was alive and how it had nothing to do with Infinite Crisis. When the annual came out with his origin, it was a hodgepodge mess where Superboy Prime (right out of Infinite Crisis), punched the universe so hard that Jason Todd came back to life. Further more, once the initial storyarc in Under the Hood wrapped up, Todd got caught up in the utterly woeful Countdown miniseries and has since been relegated to occasional miniseries in the DC universe.

That either of these characters came back with any level of commercial success is a testament to their creators, but it seems to me that Brubaker had a far more comprehensive plan for Bucky than Winick did for Jason Todd. I don’t think there’s been any forward momentum for Jason Todd since Under the Hood ended. On the other hand, I don’t think that Marvel could have possibly done a better job bringing back Bucky. He’s been the star of Captain America for over 3 years, a member of the Avengers, a guest star who actually draws attention, and for some fans (me and Jim at least), more popular than Steve Rogers.

Bringing characters back from the dead is frequently derided, but both of these characters have been at the center of some of the most interesting superhero stories of the past few years. Maybe we should try bringing back Uncle Ben?


  1. Another huge difference is Marvel is content to get a writer on a series and leave them alone for a long time. That allows a writer to build a story and continue with its momentum. DC has had this perverse thing where writers often are only on a series for a short time (with exceptions). Also Brubaker excels in telling stories that continue to build. The Gulag story is a great example of Bucky's history coming back to create problems today.

  2. This is going to be interesting, though, now that Bucky is losing the Captain America mantle. His story has essentially reached its conclusion - so where does the character go from here?