In the late 1920s and early 1930s, many of the Marvel Universe’s fantastic fields of science began moving forward by leaps and bounds as the nations of the world began their preparations for World War II. In America, scientist Abraham Erskine developed a Super Soldier Serum that transformed a 98-pound weakling named Steve Rogers into the Sentinel of Liberty known as Captain America. The Axis Powers also had many breakthroughs in the fields of genetics and biochemistry, mostly achieved by a devious scientist known as Arnim Zola, who was known as the Bio-Fanatic thanks to his penchant for conducting unholy experiments that tampered with and tweaked the biology of his subjects.
Zola and his abominations battled Captain America several times during World War II, and their enmity was renewed many years later when Cap was revived from suspended animation and later encountered Zola in a twisted robotic form that the scientist had created for himself. This November, the conflict between Captain America and Arnim Zola will explode to a whole new level when writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita Jr. expand the Marvel NOW! Initiative with the launch of a new volume of “Captain America.”
Captain America has guest starred in several of Remender’s recent Marvel stories, most notably “Venom” #10 where the title character went head to head with Cap. The writer had been looking for a chance to explore Steve Rogers in greater detail and when Marvel offered him a shot at the monthly adventures of the Sentinel of Liberty, he eagerly accepted.
“When you write a character as a B player or somebody who pops in and out of a book, you’re writing a character who is recognizable and can play a role in the story, but you don’t really get into their character. Your job isn’t to develop them and move them forward or get into their head too much,” Remender told CBR News. “So the reality is I may have used several Marvel characters like that, but I never really wrote them, and I’ve wanted to write Cap for a while.
Remender may not have really written Cap before, but he did learn something from Steve Rogers’ appearances in books like “Venom” #10 and “Secret Avengers” 21.1 — the trap writers can fall into when playing with characters like Captain America.
“One thing I found myself doing often in those appearances was writing Cap as the authoritative, finger pointing Boy Scout. He was the guy who was going to tell you what the rules are,” Remender said with a laugh. “When I was done with those issues, I was not happy. I don’t want my Cap to come off as this guy with a giant stick up his ass, because that’s not entirely relatable. I want to lean into Cap’s positive attributes; the nobility and the tenacity and the patriotism. At the same time, you’ve got to have a relatable human being propping those things up; somebody with flaws who is imperfect. You want him to be somebody you can relate to on enough levels and relate with their conflict, or else it just becomes costumed guys punching for justice. If I ever fall into that I hope somebody tells me, because that’s when I said I would quit super hero comics.”
Remender’s initial “Captain America” plans call for stories that show off the character’s best qualities and how he developed those exemplary traits. “This is a guy who believes a world without strife is possible and worth fighting for. He’s an incredibly heroic and idealistic figure. In our first 10 issues, I’m putting him through an ordeal unlike anything he’s ever been through. I’m putting him through these hard times to show who he is. It’s all character based,” Remender said. “Our first 10 issues are one big story. In terms of tone, this is a high adventure story dipped in sci-fi, spy, fantasy with a heavy focus on the man under the suit and character focused conflict. The situation that we’re putting him in is a test of his mettle. How he became the hero we know and love is the other half of the story.
“We’re going to show what Steve’s life was like in flashbacks from 1924-1932 as he was growing up in the Lower East Side in Depression Era New York. How did this 98-pound weakling become the guy who would not be prevented from fighting in World War II? We’ve always taken that for granted. We’re told he was a guy with a big heart. You don’t just grow that, though. Character and courage are earned,” Remender continued. “How did 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers grow up on the mean streets of the Lower East Side with immigrant parents and not a lot to be hopeful for earn his courage? That’s something I really wanted to develop and get an eye on so that I can lean into it if I have to write a scene where where’s he’s the finger-wagging disciplinarian. I want you to understand the person behind that and his desire to fight for a world that’s just and right. So that when you do see that disciplinarian aspect of him there’s a humanity behind it.”
In “Captain America,” Cap’s mettle is tested by a situation that arises from his daily heroic routine. “He’s taking down super villains and saving the world and in the midst of all of this, Steve Rogers the person gets lost in the shuffle. He is so exhausted but driven by this sense of duty that when this situation arises and things move forward, he’s going to have a very big reaction,” Remender said. “I’ll deal with the fallout from things like ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ and how it affects Cap in ‘Uncanny Avengers’ where you’re also getting the return of the Red Skull. This is going to be a very different thing and won’t really deal with those ramifications so much. He’s got his mind on other stuff in this adventure.”
Remender’s “Captain America” begins the month after writer Ed Brubaker brings his eight-year run on the title to a close. Under Brubaker, many of Cap’s adventures were action thrillers with fantastic elements involving the Sentinel of Liberty’s significant other, Sharon Carter, and many of his longtime allies. Remender’s initial stories take things in a different direction.
“When Ed picked this book up it wasn’t withering by any means, but it wasn’t what it is now. Now, it’s got two huge films behind it — and Ed Brubaker’s eight-year multi-Eisner winning run is what they’re basing the next movie on. Now you get to do it! Okay, go!” Remender said with a laugh. “You’ve got two options when you’re in this scenario. You’re going to reread everything Ed wrote and memorize it and stick to that tone exactly as you move forward. That might be a safer bet. Or you’re going to have to pretend that there’s not a giant film franchise or two behind this. You’re going to have to pretend that there wasn’t such a critically beloved hit run right behind yours. And you’re going to have to do what you feel is right and write the thing as if you had just picked up the book with none of that pretense and no sort of expectations or fan reactions in mind. That means changing it quite a bit, and that’s what we’re doing here.
“While I am building off what Ed has done, tonally I’m taking Cap and throwing him into a situation unlike anything he’s ever been in before. When you get to the end of the second issue, people will see what I mean and hopefully be hooked,” Remender continued. “I’m damn confident that we knocked this thing out of the park. Seeing John Romita Jr’s first issue and having finished the first couple of scripts, I feel great about it, but this is a departure. That said, if you’re a fan of things I’ve done like ‘Uncanny X-Force’ or ‘Fear Agent,’ you’ll like this.”
Remender’s initial story will thrust Captain America into the middle of a strange environment known as Dimension Z and pit him against the world’s architect, Arnim Zola. “For this initial story, I wanted our big bad to be a Cap rogue that has never really been given the A-List treatment — and I love Zola. So Dimension Z is Zola’s doing and I don’t want to give away too much about it. I think the first issue has a lot of great reveals and surprises that I’d hate for people to go into being aware of. I can talk a little bit about Arnim Zola though and why I dig him,” Remender said. “To me, Zola is equal parts the twisted evil of Joffrey from ‘Game of Thrones’ and the cold amoral brilliance of Hanz Landa from ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ I like his motives a lot because he’s incredibly villainous, but he’s just one of these guys who is fixated on something. In his case, he’s the Bio-Fanatic. He has this unquenchable thirst for knowledge and feels like he should be free to experiment on whomever and how ever he desires.”
Remender feels that Zola sees himself as both a scientist and artist who crafts masterpieces on biological canvases. Over the years, Zola has been responsible for a number of twisted creations and many of them will appear in Remender’s initial stories.
“He’s created some of the most incredible cast of mutates. I’ve dug up some from the Jack Kirby stories featuring Zola. I think people will love them because they’re like a treasure chest of amazing Kirby insanity that was just left in the past,” the writer stated. “Zola’s various experiments often have no purpose other than to prove they can be done or to see what would happen. So the more I got into that the more I wanted to do for him what I did for Apocalypse over in ‘Uncanny X-Force’ or Jack O’Lantern over in ‘Venom,’ and really try and build this guy up because there’s a lot of meat there. He’s a great science fiction villain and he’s a classic Kirby creation. Plus, he looks creepy as hell. John Romita Jr’s design is so great.
“Ultimately, I figured it was more interesting to take a character like Zola and try to build them up and do something really interesting with them than to just go to a tried and true villain. I am sort of doing that anyway because Red Skull ends up as my villain in ‘Uncanny Avengers,'” Remender said. “I still get to have Cap deal with the Red Skull over there, but in a completely new way.”
The rivalry between Captain America and Arnim Zola dates back to World War II where Zola served as the Red Skull’s chief scientific advisor, but in the Dimension Z story, the characters’ conflict will be about something else entirely. “Zola has served the Red Skull and his quest to destroy Cap, but for him it’s always been about earning the time to do what he wants. That way, he can go off and do his ugly mischievous bio-engineering and create whatever crazy things his twisted mind can come up with,” Remender said. “Getting rid of Captain America has always been something that’s a necessity to get to that point, but it’s not the case now. I think to address the nature of Zola and Steve’s relationship directly spoils our first two issues. It’s a big reveal.”
Captain America’s various relationships will factor into his battle with Arnim Zola, but Remender couldn’t reveal details without spoiling things. “All of Cap’s various relationships interest me on a certain level. Sharon Carter is as much somebody he’s in love with as she is a great fighting companion. The Falcon is both Cap’s good friend and his crime fighting partner, and with the Winter Soldier it’s like having a long dead brother come back to life,” Remender said. “Telling how those relationships will play out in his life moving forward would spoil things. I know I’m being cagey, but I don’t want to spoil any of the big fun reveals.”
In terms of overall tone, the Dimension Z story will resemble a mash up of the psychedelic sci-fi stories of Jack Kirby and the “Indiana Jones” films. “It’s a very serious and rough and tumble story with high stakes and dire threats,” Remender said. “Because they’re being created by the Bio-Fanatic, those threats have a fun, pulpy, B-Movie sensibility to them. I’m a big fan of writing that.”
Remender wants to make sure that his artistic collaborators are have as much fun depicting Captain America’s adventures as he has writing them. Based on their work so far, the writer is confident the art team is having a blast. “Stylistically, John Romita Jr’s work here is very similar to his ‘Daredevil: Man Without Fear’ stuff. The pages are gorgeous,” Remender said. “Our story of an eight year old Steve Rogers growing up on the Lower East Side was a byproduct of knowing John was going to be drawing the book. That story was originally only going to be part of a couple issues, but it really grew once I found out that I would be working with John.
“That’s what happens when you know the strengths of the person you’re working with. With Johnny, it’s all of it. He can do big sci-fi, action adventure and street level stuff with heart like ‘Daredevil.’ So it’s really enabled me to open up and feel comfortable with what I’m writing,” Remender continued. “John isn’t the only artist on a tear here either. Our inker Klaus Janson and our colorist Dean White are both doing amazing work. When people see the work that Johnny, Klaus and Dean are doing on ‘Captain America,’ I think they are going to be very excited.”
That excitement will continue as the new volume of “Captain America” moves forward. Remender already has almost two years’ worth of story ideas planned. The writer has become famous for seeding elements in stories that pay off further down the line in huge mega arcs, and his current outline for “Captain America” will take him all the way to issue #25.
“I’ve got bigger plans that go forward past [‘Captain America’ #25] and I’ve discovered with most things, that once you start getting into the story it takes months before you’re fully immersed. More than anything, it’s like an outline of some of the bigger events and beats that you can start building towards. Then once you start telling that story, you want enough leeway and wiggle room where you can shift things and get better ideas when you re-massage the outline,” Remender said. “For that reason, I’m trying to outline things in beat format. Right now I’m at the end of the second year with the basic beats of Cap’s life. In two years, we’ll have a pretty different character. He’ll still be Cap, but when you put someone through what we’re going to do to him, they have to come out a bit changed.”
When Remender’s second year of Cap begins, the Sentinel of Liberty will find himself up against a number of adversaries, which include both new and established villains. “There will be some new villains that I created. They’ll pop up around the end of the first year and the beginning of the second,” Remender said. “We’ll be seeing new characters like the Iron Nail, Doctor Mind Bubble and some others. Then there’s one other giant villain, who’s not an established Cap villain, but it’s somebody who makes perfect sense that Cap would be up against. They’ll be in our second arc.”
Remender’s long term “Captain America” plans also call for some interplay between Cap’s core series and “Uncanny Avengers.” “Given the nature of the Cap story and how much I’m changing things for him, I don’t want there to be a feeling of ‘You have to go read this other book.’ Once that’s done and we get towards the end of the first year of both books, there will be room for some interplay since I’m writing both and Cap appears in both,” Remender said. “The way I started the Valkyrie-Venom relationship in ‘Venom’ and then paid it out in ‘Secret Avengers’ is a good example of what to expect. At the same time, I always try to make sure that it’s nothing that’s so heavy where if you didn’t read one, the other is going to be nonsense to you.
“So there’s be going to a lot of interconnection for sure. I just got off the phone last week with Jason Aaron. We talked about his ‘Thor’ plans. We also figured out ways for the specific story that Jason is telling in ‘Thor’ to play a big part in ‘Uncanny Avengers’ as well. I also know what Jonathan Hickman has planned for Cap in ‘Avengers.’ We keep in contact to make sure that all this stuff fits together,” Remender said. “You don’t want to think that every writer is handed their own character and they then go off and do their own thing. I think the interconnectivity and the shared universe is a big part of the allure of super hero comics. So we want to make sure all these new directions and new plans can link up in natural and interesting ways. It’s important.”
“Captain America” #1 by Rick Remender with art by John Romita Jr. hits stores in November.