In Marvel Comics' Ultimate Universe death is permanent and events can have unintended and long lasting consequences. A prime example of that is the death of Peter Parker, the Ultimate U's first Spider-Man, who died saving the life of Captain America. Cap felt responsible for Peter's death and decided to give up his heroic identity at precisely the moment when some would say his country needed him the most, at a time when a high-tech terrorist attack in Washington DC and a brutal uprising by anti-mutant extremists in the Southwest have fractured America as part of the "Divided We Fall" event.
Fortunately, America's greatest hero saw what was happening to the land he loved and picked up his shield again, but the damage was already done. If Captain America is going to save the U.S.A. he will have to do more than just embody its core ideals -- he'll have to personally lead it back from the brink of destruction. Starting with "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #15, on sale September 19th, Cap's heroics lead to him winning a special election for President of the United States. CBR News spoke with with writer Sam Humphries, editor Mark Paniccia, and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso about the story line.
The idea to elect Steve Rogers to America's highest office came about when the writing reigns of "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" was shifting from former writer Jonathan Hickman to current scribe Sam Humphries. "Jonathan had a fantastic run and did an amazing job of setting up all these factors that pressured America from the outside and destabilized it from the inside. The last page of his final issue showed an antimatter bomb vaporizing half of Washington DC, and most of the elected officials. I took that as a challenge from him. It was like, 'Bye. Good luck with the book. Let's see what you can do,'" Sam Humphries told CBR News with a laugh. "When you come on a book with that kind of set up, especially if it's a book like 'Ultimates' where we can't sweep things under the carpet, there has to be some lasting consequences. The first page of my first issue couldn't be Thor helping to rebuild the capital building and everyone going, 'That was sad, but now we're back.'
"So when Jonathan and I first started working together he sent me all of his notes on the book. He was very generous with all his ideas. He said, 'Here's what I have planned. You can take some of it or you can ignore it all.' Buried within his notes was this idea that he had to make Cap president. He thought it would be cool, but knew it was a controversial idea that I maybe didn't want to pitch right out of the gate," Humphries continued. "The longer I planned the series and the longer I was developing these outlines and plans for my first year it was clear to me that this was the best thing we could do coming out of Jonathan's run. So I decided I would at least pitch this story."
When Humphries pitched the idea of a Captain America presidency to Marvel they were receptive. "They said, 'Here are our concerns. How would you mitigate those?' That kicked off a conversation between a whole lot of people," the writer said. "It started with me and our editorial team of Mark Paniccia and Sana Amanat and Jonathan Moisan. It then involved Axel Alonso, ["Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" writer] Brian Bendis, ["Ultimate Comics X-Men" writer] Brian Wood, Dan Buckley and several other people. We asked ourselves questions like, 'How could we do this story and do it wrong? Or not have it live up to its potential?'"
Mark Paniccia added, "At one point we thought about not doing it, but the more we talked about it, the more we wanted to do it. And it played to all of Sam's strengths and love for the character. He writes a great Captain America."
The idea began as Jonathan Hickman handed the title off to Humphries and felt like the right opportunity given Cap's Ultimate U retirement
Axel Alonso thought the timing of Humphries' story was good with 2012 being an election year in the real world, but felt Marvel could have told that story at any presidential election year during its history. What sold him on Humphries' story was the context.
"With Captain America having gone off the grid for awhile and returning to find an America that's being torn apart at the seams and ravaged by opportunists it just made sense that he could take a role in potentially repairing the country. And what better seat to do that from than the presidency?" Alonso remarked. "So in talking about the structure of the story it emerged that he could be elected on the ground swell of popular support. In a world where people walk around with hand held media and make impulsive decisions there might be such a sudden surge at a moment of incredible heroism that would ride him into the presidency and that's what happens here."
The context of the Sentinel of Liberty using the office of the president to try and make a fractured America whole again meant Marvel could also tell a story free of partisan politics. "I think the values espoused by Cap and what he ultimately says about the office is something that would be embraced by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. So I don't think people should come to this book expecting to find a left wing or right wing political statement," Alonso said. "I think once readers have read this story they'll see it's about more than just Cap becoming president and either signing bills and punching villains. It's about Marvel making a statement on the presidency and what it means. What do the people owe the president? And what does the President owe them? Does America get what it wants or what it needs? I think that ultimately we'll have something to say about that."
The fracturing of the United States also gave Captain America a reason to accept the presidency. Ultimately, the office of the President is a political one and Steve Rogers is a soldier. The last thing he'd want is a political office, but there's no way he'll turn the presidency down when it's the best way to lead America out of a crisis he feels partly responsible for.
"Steve Rogers was a soldier during World War II. He saw America through that crisis and fought hard to make sure America never had to face a challenge of that scale again. Then, unfortunately, he experienced a personal crisis when Peter Parker died saving his life. It really made him question what he was doing and why. So he went on this prolonged, extreme camping trip; a sort of vision quest or spirit journey, and while he was gone America fell apart," Humphries explained. "It was a chance encounter with a television set in the wilds of Alaska where he saw how bad America got in his absence, and he came back. So he feels responsibility for America in his role as the Sentinel of Liberty, but he also feels guilt because this crisis happened while his back was turned. So there's a part of him that's afraid that this wouldn't have happened if he hadn't left. He's come back out retirement, but now he's afraid that it might be too little too late.
"So America is in the midst of a leadership crisis, a constitutional crisis, and a unity crisis. When the people reach out to him, Cap is going to answer that call," Humphries continued. "He says, 'Yes I will step forward. I will do everything I can to save this country.' If that means being President, than he will be President."
Captain America may be the new President of the United States in the Ultimate Universe, but he won't be the type of leader Americans have grown accustomed to. He's taking control of the country for a specific purpose at a time when many of its states have tried to secede and form their own nations.
"His point of view is that he's been elected to do a job, and his job is to pull this country back together. That's what he's going to go out and do," Humphries explained. "He's basically saying, 'If you expect me to sit behind a desk you're sorely mistaken. Because I'm going to be out there doing everything I can. I'm not going to be sitting in a mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. I'm not going to be hiding behind a security detail. I'm going to be in the thick of it making sure that I live up to my potential and I save this country.'"
Mark Paniccia added, "He's going to be in the trenches, jumping from jet planes and punching bad guys, doing whatever he can to bring America back together. And it's going to be a big job. Because we really made the Ultimate Universe a tough place to live."
Captain America's mission to reunite his country gives him some common ground with Abraham Lincoln, but Alonso feels that President Steve Rogers also shares some traits with America's first president as well. "Our conversations kept coming back to George Washington who of course didn't really want to be president. He was a soldier, and from what I understand he wasn't a particularly comfortable politician, but he took on the responsibility because he understood that he was needed at that time," Alonso said. "He was probably a better warrior than a president, but the long and short of is Cap has the opportunity to be both. He know's he's a good warrior. He's proven that and he'll have to prove that over and over again over the course of this current arc, but ultimately this story is about if he can be more than a warrior. All problems can't be punched."
Captain America's mission to heal the country means he'll be acting as he sees fit and not asking permission before hand. It also means that his closest advisors will be the people who can help him best accomplish that mission, his fellow Ultimates.
"Becoming president is not something Cap does lightly. He's emboldened in his decision though knowing that he has a team of great soldiers behind him. He's got Thor, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. Knowing they have his back gives him the confidence to step up into this role," Humphries stated. "They're like his platoon back in World War II. If you know that you've got a platoon that you can depend on, you may find yourself doing extraordinary things like jumping into a German foxhole. So for Cap, knowing that he has the Ultimates backing him up, it gives him a level of confidence to do something extraordinary like jump into the Presidency."
As President, Captain America will have to do some extraordinary things, because the United States has some deep divisions that won't be magically healed by Steve Rogers becoming President. "There are a number of secession groups in the Ultimate Universe right now and they don't all have the same purposes or the same goal. Some of these 'independent countries' are just afraid. Since the attack on Washington they haven't seen strong leadership, they've been overwhelmed by disasters, and they feel they have to protect their territory from the chaos by taking matters into their own hands. So when a strong leader steps up and tries to restore control those will be the first nations to come back into the fold," Humphries remarked. "Then there are other movements who are taking control of the chaos. They have some axes to grind that predate the attack on DC and are more fundamental than whether or not there's a nation of super powered citizens in Asia. Those groups will be more difficult for Cap and the Ultimates to bring back into the Union."
In "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #13-14 readers saw a mysterious figure named Mister Morez fanning the flames of unrest in America by arming various groups and inciting them to violence. So far the only clues to his identity have been his different colored eyes, his ability to teleport, and an insignia that evoked an emotional response in Thor. Humphries promises that upcoming issues will reveal Morez' true identity and show just how big a threat he is to Captain America's mission to heal the US.
"Morez is a very dangerous individual because he seems to have the knack to show up at the right place and the right time. He is able to whisper the right lines into the right ear to create more division and chaos in America. America's apparent disintegration is actually a web of events, and as we've seen so far in the chapters of our 'Divided We Fall' arc Morez is there at each of them. He's persuading people to go a certain direction and do things that they wouldn't normally do or perhaps enabling them to do something that they weren't able to do before," Humphries explained. "We will know exactly who Morez is by the end of issue #16 and we will see his final confrontation with the Ultimates at the end of our 'United We Stand' arc."
Morez and the various militias are a dire threat to America's unity, but they aren't the only threat. The other danger to America lies in the Southwest states where anti-mutant extremists and an army of Sentinel robots are conducting a genocide against mutantkind.
"Before Cap was president he took his role of guardian of every American citizen and everyone in the world who strove for freedom and liberty very seriously. Now that he's president that concern has become even more explicit, sharp, and defined. So an issue like we have right now in America where there are killer Sentinel robots streaming across the skies of the Southwest targeting and killing mutants is something that Cap would be very concerned with, but he does have a man on the inside in the form of Nick Fury," Humphries remarked. "He's Cap's man on the ground and his presence in the Southwest allows Cap to focus on other issues that are immediately pressing like the situation around the California border, in Detroit, the Carolinas and so on and so forth."
Writer Brian Wood will address Fury's plans for the Southwest directly in upcoming issues of "Ultimate Comics X-Men," but before the "United We Stand" arc in "Ultimates" is complete Steve Rogers will make a decision that will have a major impact on mutantkind.
"Cap is going to have to address mutants and their role in America directly, and it's something that he's going to have the power to decide unilaterally," Humphries said. "We'll definitely see how Cap feels about the way his country has been treating mutants."
"Captain America's presidency will have ramifications for all the books in the Ultimate Comics line. One of the great advantages of the line is that it's only three titles and easy for our creators to coordinate with each other. We do weekly conference calls to discuss developing stories and there were plenty of great opportunities for all the books to feel the impact of both 'Divided We Fall' and 'United We Stand," Paniccia added. "One of Cap's decisions will hugely affect the cast of 'Ultimate Comics X-Men.' And over in 'Ultimate Comics Spider-Man,'Miles Morales will see what it's like to be an Ultimate at one of the most challenging times to wear a mask."
President Steve Rogers' early struggles against the various conniving politicians and super powered militias that oppose him will be brought to life by two artists. Billy Tan will draw election day in "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #15. Then Luke Ross will depict the initial days of the Rogers Presidency during "United We Stand" arc, which begins in "Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #16, on sale September 26.
"Billy is a great artist with a lot of dynamic energy and I think his style is uniquely suited to the chaos and uncertainty of 'Divided We Fall.' Billy has a good eye [for] the atmosphere of a divided country. It's been great working with him," Humphries said. "Luke Ross is rejoining us after his first arc on issues #11-12. I loved his art on our first story together and we're very excited to have him back for 'United We Stand.' He's knocking these issues out of the park and by the end of the arc I think you'll see Luke's status elevated in the minds of comic book readers."
Steve Rogers vow to defend his country against the various foreign and domestic enemies that threaten it and the consequential nature of the Ultimate Universe means that the Presidency of Captain America won't just be something that lasts a short time and is forgotten or undone. It's a story line that will keep Humphries and the other Ultimate line writers busy in the months and perhaps even years to come.
"The mandate of the Ultimate Universe is to do things with these characters that you can't do in the main Marvel Universe books, the movies, the cartoons, or the video games. That gives us the chance to tell a story about Captain America being president and it encapsulates what makes the Ultimate Universe so great," Humphries remarked. "In the Ultimate Universe we've made a commitment to showing how epic events have far reaching consequences. President Cap is both a far reaching consequence and an epic event that will generate its own far reaching consequences.
"This is a universe where things aren't swept under the carpet," Humphries continued. "President Cap is not just proof of that. You'll also see things develop out of the Cap story line. This isn't something where he'll be president for two issues and then step aside. This is something that's going to have a long term effect on Cap, the Ultimates, the America of the Ultimate Universe, and really the whole Ultimate Universe."
"Ultimate Comics Ultimates" #15 is on sale tomorrow, September 19.