Rebooting after Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on the title, the newly rebranded Marvel NOW Captain America from writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita, Jr. recently wrapped up its first arc, The Odd War of Dimension Z. In a story that spanned ten issues and twelve years, this bold new chapter in Captain America’s enduring saga saw the rise of a surprising new status quo. Steve Rogers finds himself abducted by Armin Zola and whisked away to the bizarre wasteland of Dimension Z, with only the principles he learned from his mother Sarah to keep him going. A stark departure from that Sentinel of Liberty we know, he’s stripped of his usual power and authority, haggard and battle-scarred after over a decade on the run, without the luxury of superhero friends and A-List guest stars to bail him out. Now a single father, he’s charged with caring for his son Ian, the heir he rescued from Zola’s clutches, raising him to the best of his limited ability in the face of constant danger. Suffice to say, this is definitely not your parents’ Captain America.
Switching gears from the typical action-adventure and espionage themes of the series, Remender takes a sharp turn into the realm of fantasy and science-fiction. He and Romita develop Dimension Z quite well, a hellish wasteland populated by strange beasts and Zola’s genetic experiments, its jagged horizon peppered by artificial structures and Zola’s looming citadel. The inks of Klaus Janson and the color palettes of Dean White flesh out this world of metal spires and spindly mountain ranges, rocky gorges and endless deserts, making for a unique read that’s visually more Arzach than Avengers. Over the course of the story, this changes Steve, a victim of Zola’s experimentation in an unpredictable wasteland of monsters and mutants. He begins to let go of the memories and experiences that had previously defined him, adapting to survive the unsettling landscape of Dimension Z. Through violence and art, warfare as well as fatherhood, Remender depicts Steve’s twelve-year evolution in fascinating ways.
Prior to his abduction, Steve had fallen into a rut. Exhausted from the endless flood of hackneyed villains and terrorist plots, he was lost under the weight of his role as Captain America, having sacrificed his own happiness and sense of identity to live up to his legendary namesake. We see that in his relationship with longtime on-again/off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter, whose marriage proposal Steve meets with a weary mixture of passiveness and obligation. Over time in Dimension Z, however, separated from everything he knows, he begins losing the Captain America identity that he’s built, the wall of service and duty that overshadows every other aspect of his life. Even as he still carries the shield, it again becomes the symbol of strength it was originally intended to be, and less the burden that’s cost him so much. Remender does something quite interesting in showing the development of Steve, and the resurgence of his fundamental identity over that of his all-encompassing alter ego.
The core of this book, the germ of Steve’s transformation, and the unifying theme throughout, is Steve’s relationship with his mother. In Remender’s version of Cap’s origin, Steve is the son of Irish immigrants during Depression-era Brooklyn, a sickly boy terrorized by his abusive alcoholic father. It’s only through watching his mother stand up to his father that a young Steve learns the moral code that would later dictate his entire ethos: Stand up to bullies wherever you find them. Never back down. Flashbacks to several key moments in Steve’s turbulent childhood are present throughout this storyline, as Sarah’s teachings keep her young son going, despite the insurmountable odds. When his mother eventually dies of pneumonia, she leaves the orphaned Steve with the strength to survive without her. The idea of having the mother impart this knowledge and strength to the son is not a convention one often encounters in superhero fiction, as this is a genre where the relationships of fathers and sons are privileged above most others. It’s an interesting emphasis in his backstory, as this unique mother-son dynamic is paralleled through Steve’s relationship with Ian.
Steve, having stumbled into parenthood, is in no way equipped to deal with raising a child, let alone by himself. Ian is a rebellious young boy with a lot of questions, about his past, his father, and the future. Their relationship is complicated, and sometimes quite messy, too. As a father, Steve wants to impart to Ian all the things that his own mother taught him, but this is a far different world than the one that he left behind. For this, Steve’s often critical of himself and his inability to meet all of these challenges the way he would like to. He makes mistakes, he has regrets, but he’s still hanging on. In this way, he’s become like his mother: Trying to instill the strength of will in his son that his mother had in him, but accepting that hiding behind his mother will only bring him more pain. Through Ian, Steve is finally shocked out of his malaise to accept that there are things larger than the heroic persona that he had forged in his mother’s memory. Ian gives him something to live for beyond his ideals and, despite his perceived shortcomings as a father, Steve conquers that emotional baggage that’s been holding him hostage all these years.
Besides Ian, one of the more fascinating characters that Steve encounters along the way is Jet Black, Zola’s daughter and Ian’s older sister. Jet is an accomplished warrior with unique powers that give her an advantage on the battlefield. When we first encounter Jet she’s just a child, a witness to Zola’s experimentation on Steve and Ian’s abduction as Steve breaks free and escapes. Soon, raised on cruelty and violence, Jet grows up the formidable successor to her father’s realm, determined to retrieve her stolen brother and kill Steve. While her initial, vaguely romantic interest in Steve feels a bit shoehorned in, Remender manages to salvage Jet and Steve’s peculiar relationship. In having Jet come around as an ally, abandoning her father’s quest for power to help Steve escape Dimension Z, Jet fills a strange new role in Steve’s life once they emerge on the other side.
The ten-issue arc comes to a head as Zola, planning to return to Steve’s dimension with an army of mutants, abducts Ian and leaves Steve for dead. Steve, already infected with the same techno-organic virus that Zola plans to unleash on Earth, storms Zola’s citadel to rescue his son, despite his ravaged condition. Steve is able to persuade Jet to his side, having seen the true extent of her father’s madness and becoming a critical player in stopping him. Ian, who’s been brainwashed into accepting Zola as his father, rejects Steve and tries to kill him. Just as Steve is finally able to get through to Ian, Sharon appears, having traveled into Dimension Z to rescue Steve. Seeing what she thinks is a hostile target, she shoots and kills Ian. Steve is completely destroyed by this, but, with no time to grieve, pulls it together long enough to take Sharon and Jet into one last battle with Zola.
Compounding Steve’s loss and grief, Sharon stays behind to destroy Zola and his citadel, buying Steve and Jet enough time to get through the quickly closing portal to Earth. Steve tries to go back for Sharon, having already lost his son, but there’s no hope. As the portal wreaks havoc on time-space in Dimension Z through the use of some intriguing imagery on Romita’s part, Jet takes Steve’s hand to lead him through the portal with her, emerging on the other side in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. While Steve has aged twelve years in Zola’s personal Hell, it’s only been a day since he vanished, leaving the reader with the cold realization that Steve has spent more time in Dimension Z than he has our modern world. As Jet tries to herd him to safety, surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar place, Steve stumbles out of the subway and collapses on the sidewalk, crushed by his grief. He’s lost his son, and with him all of Steve’s hope for the future; he’s also lost Sharon, and with her his connection to the life he no longer figures into. If Steve Rogers no longer belongs to our world, what does that mean for Captain America? Who is Captain America going to fight for now?
This is an arc that posits more questions than it answers, and that’s what makes it so engaging. There are no easy conclusions or neat little bows on this one, as Steve must find a way to reconcile the last twelve years and deal with his grief. The epilogue suggests that we may not have seen the last of Dimension Z, as the war between the indigenous Phrox and Zola’s mutant army rages on in Steve’s absence. Another warrior bearing Captain America’s shield and principles emerges to lead the Phrox armies to victory. We can only assume that Ian somehow survived his apparent death, or Zola used some kind of trickery to convince Steve that Ian had betrayed him. In any case, seeing how this plays out, and what Steve would think if he knew what happened while he was away, could be quite interesting if Remender chooses to follow-up on this thread in the future.
This isn’t a perfect story, by any means. Remender’s narration and dialogue has quite a few soft softs throughout, prone to fits of overly operatic scripting that feel dated and sometimes cheesy. The artwork suffered from some inconsistencies on Romita’s part in the first few issues, especially with the cartoonish anatomy of Steve and the other neighborhood children in the flashbacks sequences. There are also a few missteps in Jet’s addition to the main plot that fail to fully explain her powers until after the conclusion of the arc, leaving the reader with a few puzzling moments through issue #11. However, given the strength of the art and storytelling, these are just a few qualms that fortunately don’t detract from an overall enjoyable reading experience.
Pledging to change the status quo of Captain America forever, The Odd War of Dimension Z lives up to its promises. This storyline offers some unique insights into the Steve Rogers we know and love, and changes his characterization in bold and heartbreaking ways. This certainly isn’t your parents’ Cap, but I’m fascinated to see where he goes from here.