So my superhero love is not limited to film. I’ve spoken before about my rather sporadic history with comic books. I read a few when I was younger, got really into them in college, and am returning to the medium now. I don’t have the kind of “grew up with these characters” mentality that a lot of comic readers my age have, but I’ve found the medium and the themes they explore interesting. It’s normally a highly collaborative art form and allows for intensely imaginative explorations – the budget to depict a character flying off to another dimension and fight and semi-divine being is much less for a comic than it is for a movie. And the juxtaposition of images allow for interesting temporal effects and thematic emphasis.
I like comics.
So my most recent read has been the first two volumes of Rick Remender’s Captain America. I’m a somewhat guilty fan of Remender. The man has a tendency to tear down his characters while working to build them up which makes for some powerful drama. Combine that with a fecund imagination and you get some great works like Black Science.
But my enjoyment of Remender is definitely a guilty pleasure. For all his great aspects, he tends toward lionizing liberty and choice over all else. It’s a species of liberalism with supreme optimism attached to it. Or benign sort of naivete. Specifically, if people are given choice in the direction of their life, they will choose goodness.
These first volumes of his Captain America run really drive home both these aspects. It’s got a real pulp sensibility in throwing Cap into the eponymous Dimension Z – a land of monsters and mutates with a cyborg overlord from Cap’s Nazi past. Cap grows a beard and spends 10 years there (time moves differently) raising a boy he rescued as a babe from his Nazi enemy. There’s a half-naked chick wielding “Tachyon Fu” seeking to reclaim her brother, the aforesaid boy, that Cap rescued from her Nazi father. And Cap is infected with the Nazi’s consciousness who appears like a giant television screen in his chest.
It’s madcap, and I love it. John Romita Jr gets a lot of hate for his style, but I’m actually a big fan of his. It fits really well with the different world vibe, utilizing powerful squares and straight lines in the same way most wield fragile curves to depict the alien. He can also depict violence with the best of them. His greatest weakness is close-ups on faces – his figure drawing is fun and interesting, but things get weird when he focuses on the face.
Remender also builds up a lot of potential for drama. Cap is taken out of his home for a whole decade, right when it appears he might tie the knot with longtime romance Sharon Carter. Flashbacks reveal an abusive father and a tough as nails mother. He is pushed into being father to his enemy’s infant son. Jet Black, the aforementioned half-naked chick, raised to despise mercy, is “tempted” by Cap’s goodness. Zola, the nazi, is seeking to copy Cap and ends up with mutants carrying screwed up memories from Cap’s past.
The whole time, Remender put Cap through the ringer physically and emotionally. I’ve a high tolerance for reading through this kind of “break your darlings” storytelling, but it could be a bit much for some. I mean, Cap’s a superhero, but one can only stomach so much “Ribs cracking, can’t breathe, but I have to go on” interior monologuing.
In the end, Remender doesn’t give much payoff for all this setup. While his run still has a goodly number of issues ahead of this, everything still tends to revolve around giving people choice. Cap’s greatest hope for his “son” is for him to choose his own way of life. Jet Black throws off most of her father’s influence by Cap appealing to her sense of choice. His understanding of his abusive father is as a fundamentally good man who broke when life took away all his choices.
Modern Americans will, in the abstract, laud this, but I find it weak in comparison to the potential. Jet Black becomes the most interesting character in the end, wanting to live up to her father’s twisted love – “I just wanted to give you the world” – while finding the “temptation” of Cap’s goodness as a way out of her inchoate guilt. The final scenes of volume 2 has her confronting both the failure and her own redemption.
Remender may do more with this in the rest of the run, but it could have been so much more if there wasn’t so much emphasis on choice.
A final critique is Remender’s depiction of Cap’s sense of self-sacrifice. Cap, traditionally, is a man who will die for the sake of his principles, but eschews killing for them – he will sacrifice himself, but not others. Remender comes dangerously close to breaking this, with Cap killing mutates (Zola’s enforcers) left and right. He even speaks of killing how many ever he needs to in order to save his son. Yes, there’s points where Remenders tries to say these things aren’t human, that they’re irredeemably monstrous, but there’s still some discomfort in Cap taking things too far.
So great potential, awesome and madcap ideas, great art, but a weak wrap-up (so far, we’ll see how the run comes to an end).