Rick Remender's wild science fiction take on Captain America has been criticized for being too much too soon after Ed Brubaker's much-beloved run by my esteemed colleague Iann Robinson, suggesting it's a cool story that just doesn't feel like a Cap story. This is certainly a legitimate observation. It isn't so much a Cap story as it is an Arnim Zola story, one of his long-standing villains, and that's why it seems so jarringly crazy.
Because Arnim Zola is a nasty Nazi scientist in a robot body with a camera for a head and his actual head in a video screen in his chest, and stories about a guy like that have to be crazy.
Admittedly, I'm a sucker for the really weird villains like Zola or MODOK or the Bi-Beast, so I'm perhaps predisoposed to like Remender's attempt to elevate Zola's profile (and hopefully that's a sign that Toby Jones will reprise his role in the second Captain America film and have the crazy robo-body, too). While I do completely understand the desire to see Cap more in his element – everybody likes World War II stories and seeing Cap engaging in his brand of inspiring ass-kickery and being the moral conscience of Marvel's superhero community – it's also really interesting to see him thrown into an alternate dimension full of weird creatures and forced to protect a child for an indeterminate amount of time that could be years. It's Zola's world – he controls it. That's why it's nuts.
In Captain America #3, we see flashbacks to Zola's evil human past, and we see a weary, bearded Steve Rogers try to fight back against a tribe of big red warriors called the Phrox, whose leader Zofjor believes he's one of Zola's minions and is trying to execute him. Only the timely intervention of Ksul saves his life. It seems the Phrox hate Zola but try not to be noticed by him so they can survive. Cap's conversations with Ksul make him realize how much fear Zola inspires – not to mention how much the tyrannical Zofjor enforces that fear by choosing flight over fight – so he tries to latch onto this and do what he tends to do best back home: inspire people to fight for what's right. However, this talk is uncovered, and Zofjor immediately kills Ksul for the treachery, and it's the fight of Steve's life to try to survive Zofjor's wrath. He thinks perhaps he's won, at great personal cost to himself, only to have a really freaky twist at the end that reveals Zola's well aware of Cap's shenanigans in the creepiest of ways.
It's a Zola story. It's creepy, it's weird, it's kind of batshit. So to balance that out, Remender has also been giving us flashbacks to Steve Rogers' childhood interspersed throughout. Some of the lessons learned in these sequences directly inform what he's calling on to survive Dimension Z. The revelation in the first issue that his dad was an abusive drunk (and I reiterate that the ultimate act of villainy in the Marvel Universe would apparently be to bring everybody's abusive drunk fathers back from the dead to destroy all the superheroes they created by being abusive drunks) felt a bit trite, but it's still exploring an area we haven't seen a lot. about – the stuff that really defined him enough to become that skinny kid who would volunteer for anything, including genetic modification, just to serve his country and do his duty and pay his fair share. They also serve as memories he can cling to in order to retain any sense of normalcy in this twisted alien environment he's been suffering through for so long.
John Romita Jr. is good at the funky aliens, too. His style is very specific and blocky, and sometimes that really works well – as it should for making Zola's world as freaky as it has to be – and other times it's a bit iffy, particularly with the proportions of the kids in the flashback sections.
Brubaker had eight years on the book, and had come to define what we expect when we read a Captain America comic. Remender's take is very much NOT that, and it HAD to not be that. It may seem strange to throw Captain America into situations where America doesn't matter in the least and there's no political intrigue to maneuver through, but it's just different enough to have a decent kind of cognitive dissonance about it. Plus, it's about Arnim Zola, and the only way he was going to make a splash is by doing horrible things to Captain America. And it seems like the worst is yet to come, and one can only imagine how weird Remender and Romita are going to get with this. I'm certainly down to find out.