I’m always one for innovation and difference when moving forward in a story, particular when a new writer comes aboard an existing franchise. After all, you’ve got two choices: either you establish your own take, your own particular flavour that’ll leave a mark on something long-lasting with enough other author marks to resemble Victor Zsasz after a particularly hectic night on the town, or you just ape the creativity of the guy before you, give a carbon copy of their much-beloved spin on things and end up living in the gutter alongside fellow creatively bankrupt sods like Michael Bay, P.C. Cast and the entirety of One Direction.
Thankfully, coming on the heels of the intensely thrilling and award-winning spy story penned by sterling scribe Ed Brubaker, Rick Remender has managed to take the former option of the above two and create a pulpy, sci-fi-cum-fantasy spin for everyone’s favourite walking flag Captain America. Taking some of the previous run’s character elements and throwing them up against Jack Kirby-esque space demons and utilising time jumps as a plot device the same way most of us use toothpaste, Remender has well and truly given the Captain his own flavour. It’s just a pity the flavour is made up of nothing much more than batsh*t craziness and way too much of John Romita’s artwork.
Following the harrowing events of Avengers vs. X-Men and its assorted paraphernalia, America’s top cop Steve Rogers is dealing with what he sees as impending old age and possible obsolescence in the face of the country’s changing security nature. He’s on his way to a rendezvous with girlfriend Sharon Carter when he’s suddenly and inexplicably plucked from our reality and dumped in the eponymous Dimension Z, a nightmare realm of sci-fi villainy that’s somewhere between Labyrinth and Avatar in terms of its visual weirdness. It turns out Dimension Z is run by old nemesis Arnim Zola, now in a robot body following his stint in his last Captain America appearance and hell-bent on the Star-Spangled Man’s destruction. It’s up to Captain America to escape Dimension Z and reunite with the real world whilst accompanied by a strange little boy who turns out to be…
Well, I can’t really say much more than that without arriving at the armed border-patrolled gates of Spoiler Territory. There’s a lot going on in this book that, for the sake of your own narrative enjoyment, I can’t elaborate on. Suffice it to say that there’s weirdness, cyborgs, a face-stomach virus and a significant amount of in-story time that passes from the book’s beginning to end. Make no mistake, while it may be only a few issues of comic book goodness for us, it’s years for the Captain.
I get the feeling Rick Remender is writing a large, sweeping saga for Cap with the first of his entries, and given the “Book 1” title it presupposes that more will follow. The shedding of his easily-called Avengers co-workers and removal of almost all recognisable status quo gives Cap a harrowing, intensely personal journey that seems more like something The Walking Dead or Savage Wolverine would do, augmented in tone by the almost Lovecraftian landscape and nightmarish feel. The personal aspect is also backed up by frequent flashbacks to Steve Rogers’ past as a young boy in Brooklyn, which does quite a lot for fleshing out his character in ways Ed Brubaker didn’t touch upon. In fact, it’s an almost polar opposite to Brubaker’s political intrigue and expansive cast of supporting players in the previous run, and to the story’s credit there seems to be an awful lot of creative thinking going on as a way of pioneering a different story and tone for a character who’s been through many well-worn plotlines over the last few decades.
Quite, simply, its a new trick for a very old dog. It’s just a pity the trick leaves the dog panting and heaving as it struggles to catch up and move on to the next act in the repertoire.
There’s an awful lot of story fatigue going on that is juxtaposed by brevity; given the frequent use time jumps in the narrative, there’s little time to dwell on particular portions of the plot as they’re introduced to us. What could be status quo in Issue 2 is almost completely rendered moot by the start of Issue 3, and with the limited exposition that borders on almost Grant Morrison-levels of inexplicability it leaves the reader tired and trying furiously to follow everything that’s going on. By the time we get used to a circumstance, character development or plot point, in the short space of a few pages no less, it’s been whipped away from us and made into something else. It’s particularly egregious in the case of the aforementioned young boy following Cap who, without wishing to spoil, has his entire raison d’etre completely changed between issues right after we figured out who he originally was. It’s like figuring out a particularly complex mystery at the conclusion of an episode of LOST, then having one of the characters in the next episode go “No, actually the polar bear wasn’t put on the island by Dharma Initiative submarines, he was actually sent by Jesus and his intergalactic Christian biker gang.”
Not really helping is the distinct lack of dialogue, especially compared to other Remender-penned works like Uncanny X-Force. The book relies on the old Uncanny Avengers trick of having an insane amount of introspection and little thought boxes, but even those don’t do much to elucidate the craziness going on in Captain America’s head in a satisfying way. We’re given Classic Morrison snippets of half-lines and hints at what’s transpiring, but on the whole there’s a lot of explanation left out. Plus, in a rather ignoble move by Remender, what little three-dimensionality Arnim Zola had during the Brubaker run is almost completely removed in this book. He’s only a real head and a bottle of facial Rogaine away from being a literal moustache-twirling Saturday morning cartoon villain, and the link established between him and his young lady minion (which is, as with Cap and his little boy scout, a bit of a spoiler) doesn’t do anywhere near as much as it should to give the villain some depth.
Finally, the very worst aspect of this story is the artwork. John Romita Jr., as you’ll remember from my oft-referenced Avengers vs. X-Men review, is an artist I’ve never gotten into because his drawings are at once far too heavily layered and, at the same time, childishly simplistic. His work here brings all the worst aspects of his doings in AvX and Kick-Ass, where blood looks more like tomato soup and there are way too many goddamn motherpusbucket lines on things. I know artistry is subjective to taste, but I just cannot get invested in almost any of his tableaus or scenes presented on page. The characters’ heads are boxy and rectangular, noses still look like an elongated > symbol, and all the hair looks like it was scribbled on after the fact with a Sharpie. I know Romita’s a much-beloved artist, I know he’s won awards and I know he and his father are basically comic book art royalty, but I hate his artwork. With fiery, burning passion do I hate it.
What I don’t hate, though, is this book. Despite the above paragraphs of petulant whinging, I loved Castaway in Dimension Z. It had a tough act to follow after Brubaker, and while I never envisioned I’d praise it far above things like Winter Soldier and The Death of Captain America I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. Is it perfect? Of course not. Could the problems be enough to permanently harm the series if they’re continued later? Possibly. Is this worth reading? Abso-flaming-lutely. It’s different, challenging and not fully explained, and for that reason it’s an original twist on an old hero that behooves you to experience it.
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “Where’s our breaking point? How many years will pass before we find some sign of hope? When will it become too much? The other way out…the other way out isn’t one you consider.” – Captain America