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Winter Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots: World War II and the Cold War in Captain America

By Kathleen McClancy

In 2005, Ed Brubaker violated one of the most sacred unwritten rules of mainstream comics when he brought Bucky Barnes back from the dead.1 Of course, superheroes die and come back to life all the time in both the Marvel and DC universes, as do their husbands, wives, parents, children, and other non-super-powered associates; but Bucky, Captain America’s teenage sidekick who was retroactively killed during World War II, was the exception that proved the rule. In fact, Bucky’s death trying to disarm a drone plane was as formative a moment in the modern Captain America’s characterization as the death of the Waynes is for Batman. Since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Cap back to the Marvel Universe in 1964’s Avengers #4, altering his continuity by having his last sight before falling into icy waters and cryogenic stasis be of Bucky and the drone’s explosion, the living symbol of America has been haunted by his failure to save the life of his young friend. Over the next 40 years, Bucky would occasionally return to comics—in flashbacks, in tales of the war, and perhaps most often in Cap’s traumatic memories—but those returns were always nothing more than phantasms. Bucky’s death remained as inviolate and unchanging as Cap’s own origins in the Greatest Generation’s global battle against fascism, and Cap’s guilt over his sidekick’s demise has defined the character (R. G. Weiner, “Sixty-Five Years” 92).

So perhaps it is appropriate that the Bucky whom Brubaker resurrects is essentially a ghost—a whispered name in whom few believe, who haunts global political history even as he haunts Cap’s war memories. Bucky, it turns out, has become the Winter Soldier: a Soviet-trained assassin, kept in cryogenic stasis between missions, brainwashed to follow the orders of his communist masters, and responsible for shaping the course of Cold War history. And perhaps it is also appropriate that Brubaker would name this ghost after another group of Cold War ghosts: the winter soldiers of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, American culture has repeatedly tried to position the Global War on Terror through two nostalgic paradigms, oscillating between viewing the GWOT as a rebooted version of either World War II or the Cold War, and often conflating the two past conflicts in the process. The Winter Soldier storyline complicates this nostalgia, questioning both the impetus to view the GWOT through the past and the wistful whitewashing these nostalgic frameworks impose on history. In the process, Captain America joins several other popular cultural texts that have turned this American nostalgia on its head, using 20th century history to critique 21st century US foreign policy and the rosy retrospection that enables that policy.

The modern incarnation of Captain America has always been characterized by nostalgia. The character has been tied to the specific historical moment of World War II since his first cover depicted him punching Hitler in the face. But while his original incarnation battled Nazis in real time, and his second, retroactively disavowed, “commie-smasher” series tied him to the Cold War, his third incarnation permanently positioned him, as Mike S. DuBose points out, as “a man out of time; Rogers continually struggles to this day with the gap between his 1940s morality and that of the more modern world he inhabits” (927). In his 1964 resurrection in Avengers #4, Cap wakes up after a 20-year sleep to a radically transformed world. As time has passed, and the 1940s have receded further from the present, Cap’s sleep has lengthened while his origin point has remained temporally locked; in fact, as Richard Reynolds had already observed in 1992, Cap “has now remained ‘frozen’ in his late twenties for far longer than he was literally frozen in ice” if one dates his melting to 1964 (44). Meanwhile, his nostalgia for a past America has only grown. Indeed, it is this nostalgia itself which positions Cap as the moral touchstone of the Marvel Universe; Cap’s memories of what is characterized as a more innocent, more just version of America allow him a position of moral authority when he critiques present-day culture and foreign policy as lacking. In his book on nationalist superheroes, Jason Dittmer explains how Cap functions as a symbol of a better America, a role made possible by

his own origins in World War II, a war that occupies a privileged position in the narrative of American identity. Both a war that is seen as fundamentally moral (especially in contrast with later wars) and the war that thrust the United States into its role as a global hegemon, World War II has long served as a touchstone for Americans seeking to ground an identity of both power and innocence during periods in which American power has been tainted or delegitimated . . . . (Nationalist Superhero 93–4)

Cap’s role thus depends on a nostalgic conception of the WWII period itself—on the assumption that that war was fundamentally moral, a battle of good freedom versus evil fascism, and that the US that fought in it was both more innocent and more virtuous than today, when its GWOT enemies are positioned as less monolithicly evil and its methods as more overtly problematic.

Still, any attempt to reify a singular characterization of Captain America is doomed to failure; John Shelton Lawrence, in his forward to Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero, acknowledges the basic instability of the character, and J. Richard Stevens’ Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence identifies at least seven different iterations of Cap over his history (Lawrence 1; Stevens 3). Certainly the most dramatic revision to the character came with his resurrection in 1964. The character had previously been brought back into circulation in 1953 in a short-lived reboot often referred to as the “commie-smasher” era, in which Cap essentially turned the methods he had previously used against Nazis to rooting out Soviet spies in America; however, the series had not caught on and lasted only a few issues before being cancelled. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid repeating that mistake, the 1964 reboot disavowed these issues as well as their ideology, in the process disavowing the absolutist ideology of the World War II Cap that had informed them. The Cap that emerged from the ice was no longer unquestioningly nationalist or willing to use lethal force in the service of the nation-state, and his storylines reflected the spirit of 1964, with its increasing distrust for institutions and complicated foreign policy, much more than the propagandistic, even naïve, tone of the World War II comics. As Dittmer writes: “[T]he Captain America unfrozen by the Avengers in 1964 seemed to serve a completely different narrative purpose than the Captain America unleashed on Hitler in 1940. Instead, he was an idealist, preferring peace to violence, but willing to stand up for the ideals that, from his perspective, made America great—ideals that included multiculturalism and other pluralist accounts not readily found in the World War II comics, or the ‘commie-smasher’ variant of the 1950s” (“Captain America and Captain Britain” 135). This transformation changed the entire tone of the character and the comics in which he appeared, but much better suited the time; Terrence R. Wandtke elaborates: “Captain America would awake in a 1960s era not only no longer awash with American idealism but also informed by paranoia and eventually a deep cynicism toward American institutions. Therefore, in contrast to his initial run, which at times tonally bordered on jingoism, the second run of Captain America would be a contemplation of the validity of American ideals and inability of society to live up to those ideals” (17).

At the same time, it was Cap’s very origin in World War II that allowed him his position as a moral voice in a time of social upheaval, and the resurrected Cap’s social commentary always stemmed from comparisons of the tempestuous present to the halcyon past. Even as the commie-smasher comics were on the shelves, Americans had already grown tired of the anti-Communist hysteria of the early fifties, and the Army-McCarthy hearings of mid-1954 were only the beginning of a much less morally clear period for Americans; Cap emerged from the ice just weeks after the assassination of John Kennedy.2 This new history of Captain America allows the character to skip over all of that tempestuous history and to avoid its correspondingly murky morality. As Matthew J. Costello writes: “Moving directly from 1945 to 1964, Captain America does not experience the fall of Nationalist China, the anticommunist crusade of the 1950s, the Korean War, the rise of an arms race, and nuclear blackmail—none of the events that are seen as shaping the high Cold War culture into which he will reemerge. He is thus unaffected by these events and remains ideologically pure (or naive)” (104). Dittmer argues that this omission was intentional on the part of the Marvel staff, eliminating the more unsavory elements of recent history from Cap’s backstory to appeal to a more cynical audience. But at the same time, given Cap’s position as something approaching the embodiment of the United States, “the realignment of the comics’ narrative effectively writes a new history of America, blotting out the stain (as viewed in 1964) of the McCarthy hearings and other aspects of American history” (Dittmer, “Retconning America” 42). This repositioning of Captain America helped to create, in the body of the character, an America that was uncorrupted by recent history and remained grounded in a period that by 1964 seemed both less complicated and more just. That transformation of the character thus relied on the nostalgia for World War II as a Good War that was already present in 1964 much more than on either the actuality of American ideology during the World War II period or the ideology expressed in the original Captain America comics (Moser 31).

That same nostalgic imaginary of World War II has been foundational in the rhetoric surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Multiple scholars have noted the use of the metaphor of Pearl Harbor immediately following the attacks, from Peter Jennings first making the comparison on ABC news that morning (“Special Report”), to Senator Christopher Dodd using that comparison to call for national unity later that same day (Reynolds and Barnett 93), and to the eventual employment of Rooseveltean rhetoric by President George W. Bush to convince the nation of his foreign policy programs (Silberstein 15 et passim). This comparison has been employed specifically to bring the moral unquestionability of the nostalgic version of WWII to both foreign and national policy decisions of the GWOT (Carruthers 233). However, as Susan L. Carruthers, Linda Dittmar, Susan Faludi, and Jon Weiner (among others) all note, the characterization of the GWOT as WWII redux has failed to conform to the geo-political realities of the 21st century (Faludi 3–4; J. Weiner 35). Instead, the GWOT bears much more in common with the nostalgic imaginary of the early Cold War. Dittmar points out some of the similarities: “Once again, Americans see, domestically, the erosion of personal freedoms, concerted pressures toward ideological conformity, and a ruthless resurgence of the Right. Once again, these come across as part of an ideological battle of major proportions. And once again the actual fighting is occurring at the periphery of the West, not at its core” (110). However similar the 2001 terrorist attacks may be to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the GWOT itself bears a much stronger resemblance to the global, amorphous, and long-term Cold War, a similarity replicated in questions of domestic policy, from the anxiety over terrorists hidden as fifth columnists to the debate over increasingly infringed civil liberties. Even Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agreed, pointing out the resemblance between the Cold War and the nascent war on terror when speaking to reporters in early October of 2001 (Rhem). And the foreign policy embraced by the Bush administration during the early years of the GWOT was heavily influenced by administration members’ own understandings of the Cold War (J. Weiner 299). In fact, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence specifically describe the GWOT period as “inviting a new era of McCarthyism” (5).

Memories of both WWII and the Cold War greatly informed Bush administration policies, and the two wars often end up conflated in American political rhetoric today just as they often were in the latter half of the 20th century. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush made this conflation explicit in his call for Americans to again accept the responsibility of world policeman:

This threat is new; America’s duty is familiar. Throughout the 20th century, small groups of men seized control of great nations, built armies and arsenals, and set out to dominate the weak and intimidate the world.
In each case, their ambitions of cruelty and murder had no limit. In each case, the ambitions of Hitlerism, militarism and communism were defeated by the will of free peoples, by the strength of great alliances and by the might of the United States of America.

Bush here positions the GWOT as a continuation of a 20th century history of repeated engagements with the same enemy: madmen bent on world domination. The specific ideologies of these “small groups of men” not only are not important in this battle of good versus evil, but also turn out to be essentially the same ideology; Hitlerism, militarism, and communism are all described here as variations on the same theme of an existential threat to freedom. Even as Bush would use the WWII terminology “Axis of Evil” to define America’s enemies, he would characterize the terrorists as communists: “‘Like the communists, the terrorists and radicals who have attacked our nation are followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has expansionist ambitions and pursues totalitarian aims'” (qtd. in J. Weiner 35).

This equation of Soviet communists with Nazi fascists was itself an early justification for American actions during the Cold War itself.3 In the immediate aftermath of WWII, American culture rapidly redefined the USSR from an ally to a threat, and did so in part by describing the Soviet Union through the Nazi model. Les K. Adler and Thomas G. Paterson have traced the pervasiveness of this conflation (1046). And as Carruthers notes, this transference was aided both by the post-war concept of totalitarianism and by the early Cold War concerns about the similarity of the Soviet gulag system to Nazi concentration camps (12, 126). By defining the Soviet Union as equivalent to Nazi Germany, both in terms of the basic inhumanity of its policies and the level of threat it presented to the free world, Cold War era policy-makers were able to justify extreme foreign policy measures by cloaking responses to the Soviet Union in the unquestioned moral rightness of WWII. Just as the US after September 11th used the parallel with Pearl Harbor to imbue the GWOT with the aura of both greatness and rightness, the postwar US defined communists as Nazis to justify national acts that were significantly more morally ambiguous than the global fight against fascism. Thus, the same assumptions about the innate morality of WWII that allow Captain America his privileged position in the stable of Marvel superheroes were also used to justify McCarthyism and expansionist American foreign policy in the 1950s as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. However, while the character certainly used his WWII-based moral authority to question US national policy throughout the Cold War,4 the canonical Captain America never made this Cold War conflation of Nazis and Soviets after his thawing, despite the concurrence of the early years of this version of the character with the hottest Cold War period for Americans: the Vietnam War. In fact, as both Shawn Gillen and Jason Dittmer point out, Cap was mostly silent on the debate over the morality of US engagement in Indochina, and never engaged in the Vietnam War as some of his fellow Avengers, most obviously Iron Man, did (Gillen 104; Dittmer, “Retconning America” 41).5 Instead, the villains Captain America fought in the 1960s were the same villains he’d fought in the 1940s: Nazis themselves. John E. Moser and Dittmer both argue that the choice to bring back Nazis as Cap’s foes, despite the apparent anachronism, was a result of a decision to avoid alienating young fans who, by 1964, were less likely to see Communists as uncomplicatedly evil (Moser 31; Dittmer, Nationalist Superhero 97). While the early Cold War of the 1950s demonized Communists by painting them as Nazis, by the mid-1960s, that comparison seemed strained at best to an increasingly radical youth population that was beginning to see the Vietnam War as a challenge to hegemonic American ideology—the very population comics publishers considered their primary audience. Nazis, on the other hand, are iconically evil, as Craig This points out (223). Furthermore, Nazis function as particularly appropriate villains for Captain America, given the character’s position as a symbol of American ideals; Peter Coogan notes: “Racist, genocidal, and totalitarian, the Nazi ideology stands in stark contrast to the American creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Captain America embodies that creed . . . ” (66–67). However, that conception of Cap as the embodiment of the greatness of America is itself a Cold War concept, isolating an essential, and essentially good, “Americanness” from the more cloudy reality of Cold War politics and foreign engagement. Positioning the symbol of America as the antithesis to Nazi ideology shored up the association of America with freedom, tolerance, and democracy even as that association was being challenged by the radical left. As Dittmer clarifies, the Nazis “were locked with Captain America in a ‘fascism vs. freedom’ dichotomy that proved useful in constructing an image of America as devoted to individual freedom and equality of opportunity” (“Retconning America” 41). While the American ideology Cap embodies is generally a liberal one—pro-civil rights, anti-violence, pro-tolerance—it is also a particularly Cold War vision of what America is—or at least, should be. Stevens goes so far as to describe the resurrected character as “mired in Cold War ideology” (42). As the ostensible date of Cap’s reawakening has moved forward in time, Cap’s own remembered history has left the Cold War behind, and the 21st century version of Cap missed the Cold War entirely, awakening after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, present Marvel continuity positions the Cold War as outside of Captain America’s influence even as Cap’s individualist, freedom-loving ideology is itself a fantasy of Cold War America.

On the other hand, the post-September 11th iteration of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier defined the Cold War as much as the character is defined by it. When first briefing Cap about the assassin he now suspects to be Cap’s old sidekick, Nick Fury describes him as “a Cold War myth that’s turnin’ out to be true” and explains the legacy of his actions as having “major impact on the Cold War” (Captain America vol. 5 #8 10–11). The Winter Soldier may have been cryogenically frozen much like his old mentor, but his Soviet masters awakened him periodically to shift the geopolitical balance; Bucky’s career as the Winter Soldier turns out to have been formative for the Cold War. However, his existence is only confirmed as more than a myth in the post September-11th era. The Winter Soldier’s actions during the Cold War were as covert and unacknowledged as those of the CIA. His unmasking brings to light the ugly reality of the Cold War—the legacy of assassination, puppet regimes, and atrocities—even as Captain America’s positioning as unquestionably moral obscures the more dubious actions taken by the US during WWII. And the Winter Soldier’s name links him to an earlier group of Americans who attempted to unmask the dark side of American Cold War policies and whose testimony has largely been forgotten: the winter soldiers of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

The idea of the “winter soldier” does not originate with Brubaker, or, for that matter, with Vietnam; it has its origins in Thomas Paine’s essay after the Revolutionary War battle at Valley Forge, “The American Crisis.” This pamphlet, read aloud to the Continental Army in the long, cold second winter of the war, was intended to bolster morale by reminding soldiers, and would-be Americans more generally, what they were fighting for. It begins:

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of this country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly:—’Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value.

At the time, soldiers had begun to desert Washington’s army; the war did not seem to be going well, the weather was miserable, and the men were considering the needs of their own farms and planting cycles. Paine essentially equates these deserters to fair-weather patriots, whose commitment to freedom and democracy cannot stand a little snow. In contrast, a true patriot withstands the winter, sure in the knowledge that his suffering will only lead to greater glory.

Almost two hundred years later, the antiwar group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or VVAW, would adapt this idea, defining themselves as winter soldiers in contrast to the summer soldiers Paine despises. VVAW members were veterans, the majority of whom had seen live combat in Indochina, who because of their experiences in Vietnam had come to believe that the war was not only futile, but morally wrong. The organization as a result conceived of its opposition to the war as a patriotic act, fighting against corrupt and imperialistic government policies to protect the ideals of America. Specifically, VVAW members saw themselves as winter soldiers because they did not desert the American cause when they demobilized; instead, they fought to protect the Constitution against the American government, regardless of the suffering that fight caused them personally (Stacewicz 221). For VVAW, their political critique was motivated by their belief in American ideals; while the Nixon administration might consider them little better than traitors, VVAW members saw themselves as upholding the ethics of the Founding Fathers themselves.

When VVAW decided to hold a series of hearings where members testified to atrocities they had both seen and committed, they named these hearings the Winter Soldier Investigation to cement this connection. A number of smaller, local meetings that eventually culminated in a three-day conference in early 1971, the investigation was intended to bring to light the true destruction the war was causing, not only to the Vietnamese, but also to the psyches of American soldiers and to American ideals themselves; the VVAW wanted to cut through the administration’s propaganda surrounding Vietnam and to expose the true savagery of the war. Jan Berry, one of the founders of the VVAW, outlines the group’s motivation:

We were going to level with the American people and tell them things, even if they didn’t want to hear about them, like war crimes. We discovered early on, when going around speaking, that you couldn’t even touch on the subject [of war crimes]. People didn’t want to hear that. “There’s no way that American boys would ever do something like that!” Everybody—liberals, conservative—just cut it right off. You felt stunned. This is what had been the reality over there. You’re simply reporting the reality, and people say, “No, it couldn’t have happened.” (qtd. in Stacewicz 198–200)

The Winter Soldier Investigation was thus an attempt to make the invisible visible—to reveal to Americans that their image of what was happening in Indochina did not match the reality. To prove this claim, veteran after veteran essentially confessed to war crimes, listing the horrific acts he had participated in during the war.

VVAW’s goal was not to demonize American soldiers but to demonstrate that the brutality of the war was not the result of the pathology of any one soldier, or even any one group of soldiers, but was standard operating procedure; violating the Geneva Convention had become military policy. These individual soldiers had committed these atrocities not because they were baby-killers at heart, but because the United States military had trained them to do so, ordered them to do so, and condoned their doing so. Now that they had left Vietnam, and left the environment that treated such atrocities as not only acceptable but unremarkable, these veterans were determined to show Americans how the war was corrupting America itself, making American boys do un-American things. As John Kerry would tell Congress four months later, during Dewey Canyon III, an antiwar march on DC:

We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out. (qtd. in Tickle)

When Brubaker transformed the character Bucky Barnes, faithful friend of Captain America, into the Winter Soldier, communist assassin, he was intentionally invoking this history, referencing both Paine and the VVAW. He explains his thought process:

I came up with the name in 2004, when I was pitching for [Captain America]. I liked the sound of it for a Russian assassin from the cold war, and also liked its connections to Thomas Paine, my personal favorite founding father . . . . But yes, the first time I heard the specific name was when reading about the Vietnam War and the Winter Soldier hearings. I think that sparked something, a name that could imply Russia’s cold winters and the cold war, that was also tied to atrocities in another war, and that connected all the way back to the American Revolution. (qtd. in Tickle)

If Captain America is emblematically a World War II hero, the Winter Soldier embodies the Cold War. His name evokes the undeclared war itself and the climate of the Soviet Union while also engaging with the history of protest against Cold War-era American foreign policy. As a result, Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier becomes a kind of dark reflection of Steve Rogers as Captain America, even as the realpolitik Cold War is a dark reflection of the glorious sacrifice of WWII. Both men fell into the frozen sea, and both men were later revived to become symbols of nation-states; but while Steve Rogers was found by the Avengers, Bucky was found by a Soviet submarine. While Captain America—blond, in his brightly colored costume—would go on to fight evil with the Avengers in a very visible way, the Winter Soldier—brunet, dressed mostly in black—would engage in clandestine spywork from the shadows. And while the peacetime Cap would lay down his weapons and refuse to kill his enemies, the Winter Soldier would become an assassin. Brubaker has metamorphosed Bucky from the sidekick of Captain America to his Cold War manifestation.

Furthermore, Brubaker does not just transform Bucky in the present of the comic—he also transforms him in the past. Before Brubaker’s run on the title, Bucky’s history was of a camp mascot, recruited to be Captain America’s sidekick when he discovered Steve Rogers’ secret identity. But the fifth issue of the “Out of Time” arc that begins the fifth volume of Captain America reveals a much more surreptitious origin for the character. Recounting a World War II battle over images of Bucky sneaking into a German encampment to slit the throats of several guards, Cap explains:

Which is the real secret of what Bucky was. The official story said he was a symbol to counter the rise of the Hitler youth… and there was some truth to that. But like all things in war, there was a darker truth underneath. Bucky did the things I couldn’t. I was the icon, I wore the flag…. But while I gave speeches to troops in the trenches… he was doing what he’d been trained to do… and he was highly trained. (Captain America vol. 5 #5 13)

This retconning changes Bucky from a sidekick to a killer, taking on the dirty jobs the symbol of the United States can’t be seen doing. While Captain America is a hero of World War II, charging boldly into battle, always looking his enemies in the eye, Bucky is now a Cold War guerrilla, sneaking through barbed wire to take out sentries and stabbing his enemies in the back. Furthermore, this change also undermines the cultural memory of World War II as an inherently just, almost innocent war by both implicating the American armed forces in the training of a 16-year-old boy in stealth killing techniques and by revealing that the symbol of America, the incorruptible Cap, was complicit with this project. The majority of Cap’s flashbacks to World War II in these arcs are illustrated in a fairly stark black and white, distinguishing them from the present of the comic while also reflecting the more black-and-white, good-versus-evil morality associated with the nostalgic imaginary of that period. However, this memory is drawn in color, tying it visually to the more complicated post-September 11th world of the comic even as Cap is admitting to the ambiguous reality the sanitized memory of the war refuses; in addition, the sequence is marked by the digital addition of flecks of unfocused snowfall across the panels, obscuring the action and calling attention to the blurry ethics of Bucky’s role as a teenaged assassin. World War II starts to seem less an innately moral conflict and more as filled with moral ambiguities as the Cold War itself.

In fact, it is this World War II training in killing techniques that allows the captured Bucky to be transformed into the Winter Soldier. When Bucky is first revived by the Soviets, he has no conscious memory of who and what he was; he does, however, have muscle memory. In the third issue of the “Winter Soldier” arc, Cap comes by the Russian file documenting the Winter Soldier’s history. Typewritten captions excerpting the contents of the file recount the report of the doctor who resuscitated Bucky: “But whatever the reason, though we now have a live subject, there appears to be considerable brain damage. The subject has no memory of his previous life. What he does have, as he tragically demonstrated on two of our aides—remarkable with only one arm—are reflex memories” (Captain America vol. 5 #11 8). The image under this caption shows Bucky using the techniques he was trained in by the US government to create violent chaos in the operating room. Bucky is valuable to the Soviets because of his ability to pass for American, but it is his American military and guerrilla training that makes him into the deadly Winter Soldier. These memories of violence, drilled into his reflexes, remain even when all his other memories are gone. Without those other memories, the Soviets are able to brainwash Bucky, and repurpose the American guerrilla scout into a Russian killing machine: “And because of the American’s memory loss, it was quite simple. We were able to reprogram the American’s mind. We gave him a purpose, and we made him loyal to no one but us. Once that was accomplished, we had simply to train and prepare him for a field evaluation” (Captain America vol. 5 #11 11).

The art of this sequence is strikingly distinct from that of the rest of the comic. While both the present of the story and the flashbacks to WWII are laid out in a typical comic style, with distinct panels separated by gutters of negative space, these pages are drawn in a kind of collage, emphasizing what Theirry Groensteen terms the hyperframe with the addition of red and yellow strips on the left and right margins of the pages (35). The various events the pages illustrate overlap each other, with disconnected heads and torsos drawing the eye; the chaotic mingling of images is broken only by one inset panel, ostensibly a photograph of Bucky’s handler; one image of a piece of stationary, ostensibly a page from the file; and the typewritten captions, their boxes drawn to resemble torn pieces of paper. The effect is of a deluge of information, as if Cap had thrown the file in the air to have images rain down upon him, and overwhelms the reader just as the truth about Bucky is overwhelming Cap. At the same time, the sequence is also resisting the distinct, quantum time that a standard comics layout imposes on its narrative, instead presenting the images, and the events they depict, as somehow simultaneous (Groensteen 97). Bucky’s transformation into the Winter Soldier, and his subsequent effects on the Cold War, thus cannot be put safely in the past—these moments are ongoing and continual. Furthermore, the loss of the standard comic layout also takes this sequence outside of the logic of comics as a medium, and superhero comics as a genre—this brainwashing, these assassinations, cannot be dismissed as simply the imaginings of a funny book. That impression is furthered by the captions themselves, which replace standard lettering with type and basic square caption boxes or balloons with torn strips of paper to cement their authenticity as actual historical documents. This file seems almost to be forcing Captain America into the real world and out of the overly simplistic, comic-book world his naïve and nostalgic memory has imagined, while also forcing the reader to recognize the dirty realities of the Cold War and that those realities are in no way safely confined to the past.6

Furthermore, Bucky’s repurposing from American hero to Soviet technology echoes perhaps the foundational moment of the Cold War: the Soviet development of atomic weaponry from British and American plans. Although the Cold War does not begin with a firm date, the 1949 announcement that the USSR now possessed the doomsday technology that had cemented American hegemony at the end of WWII certainly solidified the enormous importance of the conflict between East and West in the American mind. Furthermore, the revelation that this Soviet advance had been at the very least hastened through American and British citizens passing atomic secrets to the enemy ushered in the domestic politics of the Second Red Scare. Given that Americans already conflated Soviets with Nazis and assumed that the USSR shared the same expansionist policies as Germany, the acquisition of atomic weaponry by the Soviet Union could not but be perceived as an immediate existential threat. However, if that conflation is removed, and the basic ideological differences between Nazism and Soviet communism taken into account, then the desire of the USSR to possess atomic weapons starts to seem less immediately belligerent and significantly more defensive. Adler and Paterson have pointed out how the equation of Nazis and Russians led Americans to view postwar Soviet actions, in particular the liberation of Eastern Europe, as acts of aggression, and to see the continuing presence of Soviet troops in Eastern European states as occupation rather than defense (as, for instance, American troops in Berlin were viewed) (1061). In the same vein, to assume that the USSR wanted atomic weapons in order to conquer the US, rather than to defend itself against the US’s own arsenal, requires looking at the USSR through Nazi-colored glasses. Amy Knight examines the Soviet anxiety over American atomic monopoly: “The United States now had a weapon of mass destruction at its disposal and had shown its willingness to use it. Meanwhile, the Soviets, who were working furiously to develop their own atomic bomb, were still several years behind. As one historian put it, the bombing of Japan ‘destroyed Stalin’s expectations of being second to none among the great powers'” (8). If the comparison with Nazism is abandoned, then the USSR’s desperation to level the military playing field seems sensible rather than militaristic.

In the Winter Soldier storyline, the desire of the USSR to create a super-soldier to balance out the US’s Captain America parallels the Soviet desire for atomic secrets, and just as the Soviet Union stole American atomic plans created by ex-German scientists, the Soviet Union of Captain America steals Bucky in search of the super-soldier serum created by an ex-German scientist. When Cap finds out that the villain of the story, Aleksander Lukin, was mentored by a Soviet general named Vasily Karpov, he remembers the WWII battle in which he and Karpov fought together against the Nazi menace and perennial Captain America villain, the Red Skull. This 1942 battle brought Cap and Bucky together with Karpov to capture a Nazi super-weapon on the Eastern front; while the Soviet troops do their best to protect the townsfolk, Cap’s super-powered Invaders do battle in the sky with Master Man, “Hitler’s personal super-soldier” (Captain America vol. 5 #5 12). Both Master Man and the Red Skull are driven off, leaving behind the super-weapon; Karpov immediately sends troops to claim the weapon, only for the self-destruct sequence to activate, killing his own men and furthering the total destruction of the town. Cap berates Karpov for valuing the weapon over the lives of his countrymen. There follows a wordless panel as Karpov considers Cap’s words, before he responds over the next two panels: “You do not understand… you cannot. You and the Germans, you have your super-soldiers, your secret weapons… but we Russians… we have nothing but our winter” (18). Karpov later would pull Bucky from the sea in an attempt to create a Russian answer to these American and Soviet threats, and would name his new weapon after the only weapon Russia has ever been able to count on. In the process, Captain America calls into question the demonization of Soviet actions during the Cold War while also equating American actions during WWII with those of Nazi Germany and refusing the conflation of Soviets and Nazis.

In fact, the characterizations of both Karpov and Lukin undermine the equation of Nazis with Soviets as well as the equation of modern-day terrorists with either. Karpov is obviously motivated to create and use the Winter Soldier as revenge against Captain America for the destruction of this small Soviet town, as is Lukin, who was orphaned by that battle and is found in the rubble by Karpov. Karpov takes Lukin under his wing, telling the sobbing boy: “You come with me, Alek. I’ll take you back to Stalingrad and show you what it truly means to be Russian. You’ve already learned the hardest part…” (19). Given that the Battle of Stalingrad was in full swing at the time of this battle, it seems quite likely that one of the bloodiest battles in history, which during the war was touted as a monument to Russian determination, would have been formative to both characters. In the present of the comic, Karpov has died, and Lukin seems to be following his legacy by trying to strengthen faltering Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Lukin himself turns out not to be responsible for his own actions. Literalizing the forced conflation of Nazis and Soviets, Lukin becomes possessed by the Red Skull, and following the Red Skull’s own plan to energize a new Cosmic Cube, unleashes a weapon of mass destruction on Philadelphia. This terrorist act, obviously reminiscent of the September 11th attacks, turns out to have been committed by a communist under the control of a Nazi. This plan of world domination does not originate with Lukin—who seeks to restore Russia to greatness, not specifically to destroy the US—but is read by SHIELD and Captain America as yet another Cold-War-esque Soviet plot because of their inability to distinguish between Soviet motivations and Nazi ones.7

Furthermore, the villains of the story are not the only ones who complicate simplistic definitions of evildoers; both Cap and the Winter Soldier’s own histories remind readers that the US engaged in tactics it regularly accused the USSR of employing. After his initial re-programming, Bucky spends the next sixty years in cryogenic stasis, emerging from his personal winter only occasionally to engage in covert actions at the behest of the state. To maintain his conditioning, each time he awakens he is brainwashed anew. Brainwashing was almost a Cold War obsession, to the point where Walter Cronkite called it “one of the underlying themes” of the 20th century (qtd. in Carruthers 231). That obsession has its most obvious origin in American concerns about the fate of its POWs during the Korean War, immortalized in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. However, while there was never any evidence that the Korean POWs were brainwashed, either by the Chinese or by the Soviets, the CIA certainly engaged in its own brainwashing program known as MKUltra. Reminiscent of this Cold War obsession, in Captain America, it is not just Bucky who has been brainwashed, or just the Soviets who have been brainwashing. At times, it seems like every character in these arcs is brainwashed—Sharon Carter, Jack Monroe, Synthia Schmidt—and even Captain America himself is not immune. This run of Captain America begins with Cap suddenly recovering alternate memories of the day that Bucky was ostensibly killed. The comic never really clearly explains the return of these memories—the explanation given seems to have to do with the Red Skull’s manipulation of the Cosmic Cube, but the Skull’s motivations are unclear, and the whys and wherefores are mostly glossed over—but the sudden appearance of the memories themselves dramatically undercuts the reliability of Captain America’s own perceptions. At first, these new memories, which involve Cap and Bucky being tortured at Baron Nemo’s hands before escaping to chase down the drone, seem like little more than a minor retcon, a new author’s attempt to put his stamp on a character’s origin story. However, the very mutability of this moment of Cap’s backstory starts to make the entire Bucky death episode seem like something more constructed than remembered.

Bucky’s death scene has appeared several times over the 60 years of Captain America comics, and while the details have changed, Bucky’s death itself has remained a constant. In fact, the first flashback to the drone explosion, in Avengers #56 from 1968, involves Cap leading the Avengers back in time specifically to determine once and for all that Bucky was really dead. And in the final issue of “Out of Time,” the first story arc in the Winter Soldier cycle, Cap returns to the scene of Bucky’s death to sort the true memories from the false ones (Captain America vol. 5 #6). As he explores the castle that was Zemo’s wartime base, Cap’s memories at first manifest in the panels like ghostly apparitions, a transparent, colorless overlay on images of battlements and dungeons. However, these memories slowly become more visually weighty even as they become more real to Cap himself, becoming first sepia-toned and then fully colored as the character dodges the gunfire of the Nazis of his memories, only to return to transparency as Cap realizes that his visions are a creation of the Cosmic Cube. Finally, Cap’s memory of Bucky’s death on the drone plane returns, drawn with no visual distinctions from the “real world;” but the hallucinatory quality of Cap’s previous memories, and in particular the rapidity with which those memories both emerged from and returned to a ghostly, imaginary state, calls into question the validity of this final memory of Bucky, regardless of the realism with which the memory is drawn.

Meanwhile, Cap’s thought captions during his exploration of the castle provide a kind of metacommentary on the unreliability not just of history, but specifically of comics continuity over time:

So many conflicting reports about that day… the day everything went wrong… so many false details leaked for top secret reasons. I’ve read them all. Some say it all took place in England. One report I read claimed we were brought to Newfoundland. Sometimes I think I’m not even sure what really happened anymore. Did I ever really remember any of it, or was I just filling in blanks? Like an accident victim who doesn’t remember anything after getting in their car until they wake up in the hospital… No… I always remembered Zemo and the drone plane…. Always remembered it exploding. (Captain America vol. 5 #6 7)

Except Cap did not always remember the drone plane exploding; or at least, the comic has not always shown that memory as true. In “The Extremists,” the second arc of the first reboot of Captain America after September 11th, begun by John Ney Rieber but finished by Chuck Austen, Cap is given a drug to unlock the true memories hidden by the false ones of Bucky’s death (Captain America vol. 4 #10). According to this storyline, and the arc “Ice” that follows it, neither Cap nor Bucky were caught in a drone explosion; instead, Cap was brainwashed to believe that version of history by the US government itself. Fearing that Cap would oppose the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cap was intentionally put into cold storage to get him out of the way (Captain America vol. 4 #11). So in these storylines, we have Cap experiencing the same brainwashing to blind loyalty to the state that Bucky experiences in Soviet Russia. Furthermore, the morality of the US prosecution of World War II is again undermined here, not only because of the government’s decision to wipe the mind of its own symbol to hide its foreign policy but because of the link between that brainwashing and what was arguably the greatest unprosecuted war crime of the century: the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians in atomic fire. Marvel’s decision to drop these storylines and to give no explanation for these sudden claims that Cap was brainwashed—the events of these storylines have not been mentioned since—almost seem the publisher’s attempt to brainwash its readership into forgetting the US government’s manipulation of Cap’s memories.8 Furthermore, the mutability of this storyline is reminiscent of the mutability of the justification for the atomic attacks on Japan themselves, in particular the continually increasing number of lives “saved” by the avoidance of a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland, which has, perhaps, brainwashed Americans to dismiss the questionable ethics of mass destruction in WWII (Bernstein 130–131).

If Cap’s memories of World War II are faulty, his nostalgically-informed impressions of the time he missed frozen in ice are equally unreliable. In issue 4 of “Out of Time,” Cap investigates the desecration of the tombs of two men who took up the mantle of Captain America while he was missing in action. He gets into conversation with the cemetery groundskeeper, explaining the role these two men played in protecting America at the beginning of the Cold War, finally telling the man: “I wish I’d been there to see it… The Civil Rights Movement… The race to the moon. You’re lucky to have lived then, Lieutenant Keller.” The groundskeeper amusingly responds, “I was actually born in 1973, sir,” reminding readers of how out of touch with the passage of time Captain America actually is (Captain America vol. 5 #4 14). However, even more worrisome than Cap’s nostalgia here is the fact that Lieutenant Keller is obviously drawn as African-American. Cap’s desire to have lived in the ’60s, and his assumption that Keller would have enjoyed living in the 60s, demonstrates his rosy-colored view of the Cold War period: his total blindness to the fact that had Keller been alive at the time, he would have been subject to Jim Crow laws and racial violence. Only Cap’s position as a white man allows him to ignore the violence directed towards non-whites and the racism endemic to America both during the ’60s and today.9

Still, within this specific storyline, Cap is not literally brainwashed by the US government or any other government agency; his memories of Bucky’s death may have been faulty, but they were not intentionally removed by SHIELD. That honor is reserved for Synthia Schmidt, the Red Skull’s daughter. The second issue of the “Winter Soldier” arc opens with Red Skull henchman Crossbones attacking what the comic identifies as a “Secure Government Re-Education Facility” and kidnapping a terrified teenage girl; the issue ends with the unexpected revelation that this teenage girl, who believes herself to be Erica Holstein, is in fact Synthia Schmidt, the Red Skull’s daughter (Captain America vol. 5 #9). This sudden revelation is then unceremoniously dropped for six issues; after one issue removed from the Winter Soldier story that is part of a larger Marvel crossover, Bucky’s story picks up in issue 11 with Cap’s discovery of Bucky’s Winter Soldier file and the revelation of Bucky’s brainwashing. Not until issue 15, after the “Winter Soldier” arc has completed with the restoration of Bucky’s memories, do Crossbones and Synthia return in “Red is the Darkest Color.” This issue is devoted to fleshing out Synthia’s backstory using the narrative device of having Crossbones remind Synthia of who she really is. Synthia—or Sin, as she’s more commonly called—was apparently captured as an adult woman by SHIELD, which then de-aged her to a teenager before brainwashing her to forget her life as the daughter of the Red Skull and a villainess in her own right. Crossbones spends the issue deprogramming Sin, using methods including both waterboarding and psychological torture. The issue ends with Sin, her memories restored, beginning a sexual relationship with her captor/liberator (Captain America vol. 5 #15).10

Interestingly, the issue begins with black-and-white images of Captain America fighting in World War II. These images are essentially identical in style to Cap’s WWII flashbacks in the first two arcs of the storyline; beyond the lack of color, the gutters and page borders are black, rather than white, and the Cap-in-action content has the same resonance. However, these images are not memories; they turn out to be propaganda films that Crossbones is forcing Sin to watch so that he can critique their ideology. These pages thus suggest that what had appeared to be Cap’s memories in the previous arcs themselves had more in common with propaganda than with history. When Crossbones turns to telling Sin her own backstory, the images that illustrate this backstory are not visually distinct from the panels set in the present, nor are the images composing Sin’s brief flashback to her SHIELD brainwashing and her violent attempt to escape that brainwashing by biting through a doctor’s throat. When Sin’s memories finally return, they take up only half a page, but the style again is a collage rather than distinct panels, reminiscent both of Cap’s discovery of the Winter Soldier file and of Bucky’s reclamation of his own memories (22). Sin’s experience at the hands of SHIELD is thus visually tied to Bucky’s experience at the hands of the Soviet Union, and their brainwashing experiences by their enemies seem essentially the same. This correspondence is further emphasized by the narrative structure, which has Sin’s story essentially bookending Bucky’s, from the revelation of his brainwashing to his eventual deprogramming through the Cosmic Cube. Sin’s brainwashing at the hands of SHIELD thus makes explicit not only that the Soviets were not the only ones programming their soldiers, but further suggests that Cap’s WWII experiences were themselves a kind of propaganda while also implicating US policies of extraordinary rendition during the GWOT.

Furthermore, to turn from comics back to history, VVAW members described their own military training as a form of brainwashing. The description of Bucky’s long periods of inactivity interspersed with brief periods of extreme violence for which the subject is psychologically prepared by the government has an eerie parallel in the experience of combat soldiers fighting in Vietnam. In the documentary Winter Soldier, filmed at the Detroit Winter Soldier Investigation, two veterans explain how boredom on base readied them for violence, mimicking the brainwashing they trace to boot camp:

VET 1. I’ll tell ya a trick they pulled. Uh, they’ll take a company, and they’ll pull ’em back into battalion; they’ll keep ’em there for darn near a month with no contact whatsoever with enemy troops, all right; then all of a sudden, hey, we found a Vietcong regiment, we’re getting ready to move out tomorrow morning, standby. It keys your mind. All of a sudden you’re getting a chance to get a piece of the action because you’re tired of sitting around in mud holes, you know, doin’ nothing . . . . So, consequently, you know, you’re ready, you know, and you’re keyed up, you’re tired of sitting down . . . .
VET 2. Yeah, really. They’re, they’re like overgrown kids. When you go to Vietnam, you’re prepared to play the Marine Corps role; you’re assuming the role as a professional Marine, a killer, whatever, and you’re going to play that out, exactly the way it’s been defined to you.
VET 1. Things like this here work on the mind. And if they can, if they can deteriorate portions of the mind, for any period of time, see, then they could just about gear you into doing anything they want.

These soldiers here describe how they experienced long periods of inactivity that essentially primed them for the violence they would wreak on Vietnamese villages, and describe their experiences in boot camp as a kind of nationalist brainwashing. In the end, Bucky’s experiences at the hands of the Soviet Union sound like only a comic-book sensationalizing of the real-life experiences of Vietnam soldiers at the hands of the United States. Bucky’s code-name suggests the claims of Vietnam vets of their own brainwashing, even as the juxtaposition of Bucky’s programming with Sin’s begs the comparison of Soviet programming to American. So while on one level these Captain America stories position the Winter Soldier as a villain because he is controlled by Communist Russia, on another, they suggest that American actions and methods are not that far removed from Soviet ones, and that those actions were not limited only to super-soldiers, but have become standard operating procedure for the entire military.

In the end, the resurrection and introduction of Bucky as the Winter Soldier work to destabilize the cultural memory that Cap’s nostalgia for both World War II and the Cold War embodies. Andrew J. Friedenthal, in his study of retroactive continuity, suggests that the increasing prevalence of retcons in comics specifically and popular culture more generally allows for a more fluid interpretation of history; he writes: “Retconning, on the whole, has a positive impact on society, fostering a sense of history itself as a constructed narrative and thus engendering an acceptance of how historical narratives can and should be recast to allow for a broader field of stories to be told in the present” (3). In the aftermath of September 11th, American society has turned to past conflicts to explain the War on Terror, viewing this new fight through the lens of the two most momentous wars of the 20th century while also refusing to admit more complicated, alternative understandings of that history. The retroactive continuity of the Winter Soldier arcs reminds us that our memories of those wars are flawed, are white-washed, and forces us to confront the atrocities of those wars if we want to begin to understand the impulses behind this one. The storyline refuses the easy conflation of Nazi/commie/terrorist, instead insisting on investigating the distinct motivations behind each of these historic enemies. At the same time, it questions the morality of American actions, not just in the somewhat ambiguous Cold War but in “the good war” itself, as well as the present day GWOT. By giving in to the nostalgic impulse to the point of returning to the past, Captain America reminds readers of the history buried under the nostalgia, defusing the nostalgia to help its readers learn from the history rather than repeat it.


[1] While Brubaker as writer is usually credited with the creation of the Winter Soldier character, comics are a collaborative medium, and artist Steve Epting’s contributions should not be discounted.

[2] While the issue is cover-dated March 1964, comics are often published several weeks before their cover date.

[3] This conflation perhaps explains the “Commie Smasher” period of Captain America, in which Communists were essentially presented as Nazis in different uniforms.

[4] Most obviously in his “Nomad” period, when Steve Rogers rejects the “Captain America” title as a kind of protest against the policies of the Nixon White House.

[5] Cap did travel to Vietnam on two occasions, both times to rescue prisoners of war, but the rarity of these occasions is striking, especially given his continual involvement in WWII battles during his original incarnation.

[6] This collage style is also later used when Bucky’s memories return, another moment when a hidden history is brought to light.

[7]  In fact, Lukin eventually tries to send the cosmic cube away in an attempt to separate himself from the Red Skull because of the indiscriminate violence and hunger for power it inspires.

[8] “The Extremists” was not the first Captain America tale to suggest this revised backstory for the character. In Captain America volume 2, part of the “Heroes Reborn” rebooting of the Marvel Universe in 1996, Cap’s history was retconned to something much closer to the later Winter Soldier’s than his own. Cryogenically frozen by SHIELD after refusing Truman’s order to support the use of atomic weaponry on Japan, Cap was periodically thawed out to fight America’s battles in Korea and Vietnam, only to be returned to stasis when his morality inevitably rebelled against the Cold War complexities of those conflicts (Captain America vol. 2 #7 14). However, the events of “Heroes Reborn” (part of an effort of the financially struggling Marvel to modernize its continuity to appeal to Hollywood) took place in a “pocket universe” separate from mainline continuity; when the character was returned to the central Marvel universe, his previous history was restored. See Dittmer, Nationalist Superhero, for an analysis of this version of Cap, and Howe for a discussion of the politics behind the “Heroes Reborn” reboot.

[9] In fact, as Robert Weiner has pointed out, one of the ironies of the Nazi-fighting Captain America is how closely he conforms physically to the Aryan ideal (R. G. Weiner, “‘Okay, Axis, Here We Come!'” 86)

[10] The problems with having a teenage female jump into bed with her torturer have not gone un-commented upon; see Dittmer for a discussion of the controversy inspired by this issue (Nationalist Superhero 34)

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