The Super Soldier serum that transformed frail Steve Rogers into the Marvel Comics hero known as Captain America gave him a physique that matched his already incredible resolve, an iron will that was forged on the mean streets of Great Depression era New York City where Rogers learned to stand up for the little guy and not let the circumstances of a desperate situation change him. Those lessons have served Cap well over the years and became especially relevant in the first issue of his Marvel NOW! series. Writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita Jr. have transported Cap to a strange and brutal alien world under the control of his old foe, the mad geneticist known as Arnim Zola.
By transporting Captain America to the alien reality of Dimension Z, Remender and Romita have afforded themselves the opportunity to create a whole new world, the look and feel of which pulls from a number of sources including classic EC Comics and the work of artists like Jack Kirby, Alex Raymond, Wally Wood and Al Williamson.
“That stuff is always fun to look at and it gives me ideas, but really this was a world where the life forms were not very evolved,” Remender told CBR. “It wasn’t a place where there were towering cities or flying cars prior to the arrival of Arnim Zola. We haven’t really seen much of Zola’s city yet, and the second arc takes us inside Zolandia where we’ll get a look at the city and and how it operates. Those influences are definitely there, and there’s also a little bit of Frank Miller sprinkled on this story in terms of trying to beat Cap down into the ground and then build him back up. That is, if I do build him back up.”
The process of tearing Cap down is a slow one that’s taken place over a number of years. By “Captain America” #4, the Sentinel of Liberty has been trapped in Dimension Z for over a decade, leaving many to wonder why Steve Rogers’ friends have not come looking for him and how his time in the reality will impact his adventures elsewhere in the Marvel Universe.
“There are a number of theories floating around as to what’s going on, and I don’t want to put a spotlight on any of them,” Remender said. “There’s a big reveal about how this all works and how exactly it will move into the rest of the Marvel Universe. The impact will be felt at the end of the story. I don’t want to give away any of the reveals. It will all make sense in the end, and at this point the craziness has really just started. You haven’t seen half of the story.
“I spent half of these first four issues really trying to get a look at Steve; who he was as a kid and how he earned his tenacity, his ethical compass and the great heart he possesses,” Remender continued. “When we add up the pages, in the first four issues it’s almost half New York flashbacks and half Cap in Dimension Z. We barely got things started, and when you eventually see the things that are going on in this story, you’ll be glad I didn’t reveal it in an interview.”
Cap’s adventures in Dimension Z may have isolated him from his friends and allies, but he’s not on his own. In the first issue of his new series, he found himself thrust into the unexpected role of foster father when he rescued an infant boy from Arnim Zola’s laboratory. Remender had Cap rescue and raise the boy, who Cap named Ian, after his grandfather, because he wanted to add to the character’s familial relationships.
“Steve Rogers life is too clean for me, so my plan for the first year or two is going to be to try and give him a number of other connections to family types that aren’t just a Sharon Carter or a Falcon. That’s all I can really say. It’s a bummer, because by the time we get to this, nothing is what anyone is going to expect. It’s all pretty big when it comes falling down,” Remender said. “I think more than anything, though, I wanted to give some context to what he was fighting for by giving him someone that he was protecting. Where this leads and where the story takes us will change Steve quite a bit moving forward. I think the added responsibility will perhaps spotlight the fact that he’s allowed his personal life to shrivel up and die in service to the uniform.”
While he’s expanding Steve Rogers family with the Dimension Z story, Remender is also showing how it fell apart on him during the Great Depression through the previously-mentioned series of flashbacks. Those experiences helped make Rogers the hero he is today, but Remender feels they also impacted Cap in other unexpected ways.
“His family fell apart and left him in a dangerous situation. He and his mother were all that was left by the time he was around ten years old. In my mind, he’s fighting for his mother and he always has been. This woman raised him on her own, with no money, during the Great Depression. Through all the hardships they faced, she continued to impart on him that you cannot allow difficult circumstances to change you. That you always have to stand up for and help protect those in need,” Remender said. “Steve has followed that to such a degree that he’s almost obsessed with it. He’s intent on showing his mother that he’s going to live up to this challenge she set out for him. None of that challenge, though, was, ‘Settle down and have a family.’ It was all about these ethical ideas and this moral compass that she built into him instead of having a life and being normal. If you look at the history of the character, he’s always washed that away.
“He’ll have a relationship and get his art career up and running — and it will immediately fall apart and he’ll just leave it alone. He struggled a little bit to hold it together in writer Mark Gruenwald’s issues, but for the most part it comes and it’s not that important to him. So he washes it away,” Remender continued. “In my mind, Spider-Man works because of Peter Parker, and if Steve Rogers doesn’t have a Peter Parker-style cast and life, the context for what he’s fighting for and trying to hold together isn’t there. He becomes a guy who’s chasing down this ideal. That’s why I tried to connect it to his mother. He’s really trying to live up to the ideals and expectations that she put on him. However, that pursuit has left only Captain America. There is no Steve Rogers. There is no accepting a wedding proposal from Sharon Carter and having a few children and enjoying your life. There is only service.”
But while Captain America choosing to focus on his alter ago at the cost of his personal life might remind readers of another costumed hero famous for his devotion to service, Remender says the parallels to DC Comics’ Batman pretty much end there. “Cap has a very different kind of origin, but that’s why I wanted to tell it. He wasn’t shocked into being this person by his parents being gunned down in an alley. Steve’s nightmare is slow and real. His existence is starving and being completely broke and destitute while caring for your sick mother during the Great Depression after you lost your father and your grandfather. So there’s nobody left in the god damn world who’s going to help him. I needed to tell that story to understand who this character was. I came out it with a much clearer understanding of Steve Rogers, and hopefully the readers will have as well.”
Another character trait Remender briefly examined in the series’ initial issues is his protagonist’s affinity for art with both the present day Dimension Z sequences and the Great Depression flashbacks featuring scenes of Steve drawing and painting.
“Art is an escape for Steve, as it is for most people who fall into it. I think if the world treats you really well and you’re an incredibly handsome, charismatic person with a great wife, you don’t fall into a notebook for 10 hours a day, trying to create fantasy worlds and realize them with the craft of illustration and writing.” Remender said. “I think most people who end up becoming artists have a wound. I think Steve has a wound. You see him in the Great Depression, when he first runs across Deidre, he’s sketching her. He’s sitting by himself on a stoop on a normal day, drawing the girl across the street.
“I think that’s something most people can relate to. It’s also something that I see as a big part of the character who was a skinny nerd. They say you can look at a person at seven years of age and see the man they’ll become. There’s a whole documentary series in England where they follow these people from the age of seven up into like their 60s, and it really seems to be true,” Remender continued. “Steve has the body and the physical wherewithal of a super hero, but inside, he’s one of us. Inside, he’s an introvert who’s an artist and who is dealing with being a skinny kid that’s getting picked on. I don’t think you get over that, even when you get bigger. The thing that makes Cap such a noble and good person is his empathy for the plight of the small guy.”
Having empathy is not a trait you would use to describe mad geneticist and Dimension Z overlord Arnim Zola. The eveil scientist’s god complex has driven him to create a multitude of genetic monstrosities, but his latest creations, Cap’s foster son Ian and Zola’s daughter Jet Black, appear to be normal human children.
“Beyond being a sociopath who craves experimentation and scientific knowledge, Zola wants to be loved. The big question was, why does this guy want to make these perfect children? Why did he bring Steve Rogers around to try and get some Super Soldier serum and make these kids as physically powerful, strong, intelligent and genetically perfect as he can? The answer is: ego. It’s a big sense of ego, but he also expects these kids to worship, adore him and love him. I don’t even know if he’s aware of that, but that’s definitely what’s going on in the background.
“We haven’t unveiled Zola’s big plan. Again, the first four issues of this story Cap is raising Ian on the planes of Dimension Z while years are passing by, and we’re getting a look at his origin,” Remender continued. “This first arc is a slow build that really just gets the train out of the station. When you think about five issues of modern comic books, you’re dealing with a hundred pages. To tell Steve’s origin, to get him to Dimension Z and set up there, and then get the plot bubbling took about a hundred pages.
“The second arc is really where we’ll get to what Zola is up to, his plans for the various mutates he’s created, what the kids are all about and what was expected of them. We’ll also explore the connections between Cap, Zola and Zola’s children. Zola is the vengeful father who believes that his son has been killed, and should he discover that the boy is alive, he will, of course, consider him to have been abducted. Jet is the vengeful and somewhat confused sister. And then you’ve got Steve, the accidental father who’s not sure he did the right thing by taking the kid in the first place. He was drugged up out of his head and he saw a baby in the clutches of Arnim Zola, so his first thought was, ‘Let’s get that baby and get out of here.’ I don’t think he had any idea of what was coming next. That drama is what drives the second arc.”
That tension begins to boil over in “Captain America” #5, which features the first confrontation between Cap and Jet Black. ” Issue #5 is the middle of our second act, and it’s the issue where everything changes for Steve,” Remender said. “The issue doesn’t have a flashback, but the idea is, at the end, you’ll see why I told each one of the flashbacks that I did. I hit a couple of the lessons that Steve walked away from in each one of those experiences on the head, but a few were more subtle. When you see the end of issue #5, you’ll see exactly how each one of those moments in his life, be they big or quiet, have informed him as a character. When he comes to certain points in life and he’s down low, he draws upon them to rise back up.
“Plus, issue #5 is all action! It’s John Romita Jr., Tom Palmer and Scott Hanna doing craziness with Dean White and Lee Loughridge colors. It’s a pretty spectacular looking comic book.”
Collaborating with Romita Jr. and colorists Dean White and Lee Loughridge has been a rewarding experience for Remender, leaving the writer — and sometimes artist, himself — consistently amazed by the way they’ve brought his story and the strange environments of Dimension Z to life.
“I’m normally a very anal retentive, tight scripter. As a former storyboard artist, I call shots out, and tightly control pacing, etc., even though I always let artists know that they can feel free to ignore that. The way this project has come together, though, I’m almost working Marvel Style. That allows John to tell equal amounts of the story and to do things his own way.
“It’s a pure collaboration at this point. A lot of the choices of storytelling and other elements of the book are John’s choices. In that sense, what we’re doing together here is a much purer collaboration than anything I’ve done before,” Remender continued. “Then we’ve got a murderers row of inkers in Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer and Scott Hanna dropping the lush science across the pages. When Dean and Lee come in and add the color, they’re both really good friends of mine, so we get on the phone and talk up what a scene might feel like and what things to try and convey colorwise in terms of tone.”
Remender and his collaborators will spend the next several months chronicling the saga of Dimension Z before moving onto their next big “Captain America” storyline. The writer couldn’t talk in great detail about his next epic, but was able to offer up some hints as to what it will feature.
“You’ll see Doctor Mind Bubble, the Super Soldier Serum mixed with LSD, the Weapon Minus program, and Nuke. Plus, we’ll see more of Green Skull, the villain from issue #1 who I write as if he’s the Dennis Hopper character in ‘Apocalypse Now!'”