Though free of Marvel’s requisite Post-Crossover Sadness Time, the latest Captain America #1 never makes for anything more than mild curiosity. A comic that delights in its own anachronism, but it’s only an ironic pose. Overeager to show off its own cleverness, but limiting its ambition to precisely that.
If nothing else, Rick Remender takes great pride in how this comic book is very comic book-ish. Many of the scenes for the issue, titled Castaway in Dimension Z, are over-the-top, intentionally drawing on Jack Kirby’s playfulness. John Romita, Jr. designs a crazy, complicated-looking machine designed by Arnim Zola to torture Captain America with a big needle. There’s a bit of perverse humor in knowing its actual function is very mundane (drawing blood). Because, of course, a Nazi with a TV for a face would go to such lengths for something so simple, right? Courtesy of Joe Caramagna’s lettering, Remender and Romita’s reveal has a fractured poetry to it as the narration trails down, diagonally from where the eye is initially drawn. “Guts lurch–fire in my heart–pumped outward.” It’s not Maya Angelou, but the combined eloquence, the trail of captions, and Romita’s painful imagery combine to paint a picture of Captain America’s potential demise. Their craft is similar to Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham’s Never Forever (from Peter Parker: Spider-Man #32). Both make the rise of their heroes visually exciting, rather than inevitable.
Pairing this creative team up was a smart move by Marvel. Even though Romita missteps here or there – it’s obvious the panels had to be shrunk down, leading to scrunched up characters – he never loses the script’s rhythm. He’s a meat-and-potatoes superhero artist, knowing how to emphasize setpiece moments (an airborne fight with a hippie supervillain named, naturally, “Green Skull”) without losing sight of the downtime. When Captain America and Sharon Carter meet, they barely ever touch each other (Cap pecking her on the cheek, Sharon putting her arm around his in one panel), but their relaxed body language and knowing smirks give intimacy. Even for a comic devoted to fights and high-concept sci-fi conceits, that commitment to an emotional core remains vital to making the action pop. All things considered, Romita’s the best collaborator Remender’s had since Jerome Opeña on Uncanny X-Force.
At this point, I’m damning Captain America with praise. Much of the comic is so good on a technical level, but its biggest failing has nothing to do with skill. Rather, it’s a problem of point. Specifically, that Remender doesn’t seem to have one. His Cap is a good old-fashioned pulp hero on good old-fashioned pulp adventures. What he misses, though, is pulp’s ability to express reality through metaphor. Remender cites Kirby as an influence, but doesn’t take in his political or racial scope. Captain America’s interactions with his parents (in the flashback/prologue), Green Skull, Sharon, or Zola never complement one another, even when Remender posits his hero having commitment issues (Cap being nervous about marrying Sharon). The closest he comes is Rogers awakening to see a baby in a test tube, but this becomes just another freaky Remender sequence like Uncanny Avengers #1‘s brain surgery. Another moment – a callback to the prologue – offers nothing but surface-level heroics. It misses the beauty of the Jenkins/Buckingham Spider-Man, who would worry about feeding a neighbor’s dog or other trivial tasks during a fight. Like Matt Fraction or Jason Aaron, Remender avoids this idiosyncratic approach to emotion in favor of literalism. Romita, in this instance, is too perfect a match, his flourishes more suited to ass-kicking than introspection. Instead of balancing each other out, as Esad Ribic did with Jason Aaron in their triumphant Thor, Remender and Romita make slick product. This might be all Marvel wants out of its “Now” line, but I can’t help but think they can do better.