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Waiting for the Trade - Captain America

Waiting for the Trade

 Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z (1)
by Rick Remender & John Romita Jr.
collects Captain America (2012) volume 1-5.

Why I Bought This: Of all the Marvel Now comics this is the one I was most curious about. Yes, of course I love Captain America but also I really like JRJr’s artwork from ASM so just to see him draw Cap had me intrigued. On top of that the concept is really different particularly compared to Brubaker’s realism-based espionage run the past 10 years so I was curious how the change in tone was going to work.

The Plot: Captain America is kidnapped by Arnim Zola and stranded in another dimension filled with alien life-forms.

(spoilers below)

Chapter 1 – A flashback of Steve’s childhood shows his father was an abusive alcoholic but his mother refused to back down when he would hit her telling Steve “you always stand up.” In the present Cap is taking down would-be terrorist the Green Skull. Afterwards he meets Sharon for a date as it is Cap’s birthday (and Independence Day). Sharon apparently proposed to Cap recently and he is mulling it over as he boards a train. Suddenly the train speeds up into another dimension and springs a trap injecting Cap with a sedative. When Cap awakens he is strapped into a Frankenstein-style laboratory with his blood being transfused into an infant. Zola injects an enormous needle into Cap’s heart but Cap fights through the pain, burst his bonds and escapes blowing up the lab in the process. Zola believes the infant (his son) dead in the explosion but in the cliffhanger we see Cap has taken the boy with him.

Chapter 2 – One year has passed. Cap is raising the boy, whom he has named Ian, in a wasteland where every day is a fight for survival. Cap is also still sick from whatever Zola injected into his chest. One day an airship with two of Zola’s mutate servants spot Cap and Ian but the creatures do not recognize them, they just want something to eat. Cap KO’s one of them but the other’s weapons are too strong so Cap awakens a huge monster that lives under the sand (think Dune) and it eats the attacker. It then attempts to eat Cap but he slays it with the energy weapon. Cap and Ian are then ambushed from behind by some rock men. The rock men (actually biological but they have rocky plates covering much of their exterior) have an underground civilization. They execute the Zola servant Cap had KO’d and intend to do the same to Cap thinking he is also a servant of Zola. He shouts that he is not but Ian is seemingly decapitated in the cliffhanger.

Chapter 3 – A flashback shows how when Zola was a human in Germany in 1929 he kidnapped his maid and her dog and then sewed her head onto the dog. In the present Zola has a young daughter whom he has given super powers. Zola locks her in an arena filled with monsters so she can hone her combat skills. Back at our cliffhanger, Cap breaks his hand in order to break his chains and save Ian at the last minute. One of the rock-people who found Cap convinces the king rock man that Cap is an enemy of Zola too as he saw them fighting as Cap activates a universal translator Pym put in his costume. We see flashbacks of tween-Cap fighting bullies and refusing to back down despite being scrawny and outnumbered. Cap is talking with the rock-man (the species is called the Phrox) who saved his life and learns their leader is a despot. Cap gives one of his rah-freedom speeches but said despot overhears them and shoots the Phrox Cap was talking to in the face. Cap manages to take the despot down in a hard fight as Cap is severely wounded by a lightsaber to the chest in the process. Cap goes to check on his wound and discovers he has a talking Zola face inside his chest.

Chapter 4 – It is now 11 years later. Every day Cap has to work to stop the Zola Virus from possessing him but he regrets nothing because Ian has become his son. They are training outside when one of Zola’s mutates comes across them and Ian is forced to kill it. Cap accesses the computer on its hover bike accessing a map of Zola’s fortress and the location of the portal back to Earth. Ian is not keen to go to a new planet and demands answers from Cap on his birth parents which gives the Zola Virus a chance to flood Cap with memories of Zola’s wife and he passes out. This leads to a flashback to 1933 wherein Cap’s mom is deathly ill and the rent is due so Cap commits a burglary. After he pays the rent his mom reproaches him and Cap ends up confessing to the shopkeeper and working off the debt. Cap awakens to find the Zola Virus in his chest telling Ian that Zola is his father. Cap explains to Ian he needs to get home to the Avengers or the virus will possess him. Zola’s daughter is now grown and goes by the name Jet Black. She has captured the Phrox despot whom we learn had been exiled after Cap defeated him. The exile tells Jet and Zola that Cap is alive though they still think he killed Ian. Jet wants revenge for her brother and is a given a squadron of Cap-clone gamma irradiated mutates (so a cross between Cap and Hulk whom Zola cloned in the 80s) for the assault.

Chapter 5 – Cap makes Ian promise to kill him if the virus takes over. They are flying towards the portal home when they see black smoke rising over the Phrox outpost they had been living in; and Steve being who he is can’t go home to save himself when others are in danger. Despite the impossible odds Cap is winning until Jet attacks from behind. She outfights him with ease as her powers are tachyon (faster than light) based. However when she sees Ian she realizes who he is and while she is surprised Ian takes her down with a punch to the throat. Cap refuses to kill her when she is helpless and she manages to get a message to Zola. Zola then withdraws his army and attacks Cap on his own in a giant-sized battle-suit. After Zola wins he orders Jet to kill Cap but she is conflicted because of Steve’s earlier mercy towards her. Zola then throws Steve from a cliff himself. Zola orders his army to kill all of the Phrox men and children but to take the women for breeding experiments. Cap wakes up on the cliff and to stop the Zola virus from possessing him cuts it out his chest with a sharp stick then staggers to his feat and vows to save his son.

Critical Thoughts: I enjoyed this quite a bit. Look would I want to see Cap fighting space aliens every single month? Absolutely not. But for a one year story arc, radical change from the norm is a good thing to try for a character with a 75 year publication history. I think this story is clicking really well. Romita’s art is perfect for the alien landscapes. Using Zola for this story arc is a good idea. He has always been a really unusual science fiction looking character so this milieu fit him fine and I think the story is better served by making the big bad a traditional Cap villain then it would be if our big bad was just some new alien warlord character ruling this dimension with no history or prior connection to the hero.

What really makes this story work beyond the bells and whistles of the new concept is Remender has Steve’s voice down and so in that sense this is a classic Cap story even if the exterior is completely different. Look that first flashback of Steve’s father being an abusive alcoholic had me rolling my eyes because isn’t that everyone’s parents in comic flashbacks lately? But the pay off of Steve’s mom teaching him to always stand up for what is right fits in with everything we know about Cap and his actions in decades of great stories. Overall I found I liked the flashbacks quite a bit as they both give us insight to Cap and serve as nice setup for how Cap would raise Ian.

I love the idea of Cap raising Ian as a son. I’ve always felt Cap is character who Marvel should let marry and have children. Conceptually it would allow Cap to explore stories about the traditional American Dream and have more of a civilian supporting cast; while from a character perspective of course Captain America would want to have a family: he came of age in World War II so one presumes had he not been frozen in ice he would have come home and contributed to the Baby Boom just like every other GI of his era. Thus the narration in this story where Cap does not regret being stranded in an alien wasteland for 14 years because it gave him a son feels spot on. It certainly makes for a powerful ending. You’re damn right that Captain America, who always fights on despite the odds in a normal battle, is going to climb up a mountain with a gaping chest wound if that is what it takes to save his son.

Of course by making Ian be Zola’s biological son and not just one of Zola’s many clone warrior experiments, it really ups the stakes of the story and gives our villains Zola and Jet just as much of a reason as Cap to fight this to the end no matter the outcome so kudos to Remender on creating a strong character-driven conflict to carry the heart of this story. I think a hook like that was needed to make the pulp science fiction on the periphery more palpable. JRJr’s rendition of Zola’s rage when he learns Cap has stolen and raised his son is also one of many fantastic splash pages in this book.

If I do have a criticism it is that Cap gets his ass handed to him an awful lot in this story. Hey I’m all for building adversity against the hero, especially since the intention here is to create an epic; but I don’t think Cap wins a single fight in this entire trade. He walks into a trap on the train, then he can’t beat two mutates without using a monster because of their tech—Cap has fought Ultron and AIM he knows how to fight hi-tech, then he’s captured by the Phrox, then the king Phrox nearly guts him with a lightsaber, then he loses to Jet and then he loses to Zola. That is a lot of losing especially for arguably Marvel’s greatest hand to hand fighter. I don’t mind some of the losses: Jet for example is a new character with a unique power set and you need to establish her but some of those lesser fights with mutates and Phrox seem like things Cap could handle normally. There is too much good going on with the overall story, art and characterization for this to bother me too much but it is noticeable.

Grade: A – This is a hell of a set up for a daring new concept and it really makes you want to read the second trade to see the conclusion.