2:47PM EST November 19. 2012 - Captain America hasn't always been that star-spangled Avenger the mainstream sees on the movie screen.
Rick Remender has noticed this. In almost every comic-book run since Cap first debuted in 1941, he has seen Cap change costumes, give the mantle over to someone else, become a werewolf, switch identities, get killed or put on a super-suit of armor.
All these superficial aspects are simply a symptom of never wholly developing the man under the mask, Steve Rogers, outside of a war setting, and that's what Remender aims to do with his all-new, all-different Captain America book for Marvel Comics debuting Wednesday.
"All comic nerds, we all have an idea of who Steve is and who Captain America is for sure," the writer says. "But you don't see how he grew up, you don't see his parents, you don't see the life that gave birth to a 98-pound weakling who refused to not go fight the Nazis. And that's the thing that really felt was missing from being able to connect and identify with him as a human being."
Part of the "Marvel NOW!" initiative, Remender's relaunched series with artist John Romita Jr. follows a very popular run by writer Ed Brubaker by going in "a high-adventure, high-octane, crazy pulp science-fiction" direction that's a cinematic tonal mix of The Road and Cast Away, says the new scribe.
In setting up Cap's new status quo in his initial 10-part story arc, Remender is juxtaposing scenes of Rogers growing up as a Lower East Side kid in Manhattan in 1926 — some years before getting a physical boost from super-soldier serum — with high-stakes drama in the present day.
Cap investigates mysterious goings-on with a subway train, and finds himself tossed into the strange and horrific Dimension Z, where he meets an old foe in Arnim Zola, a Nazi biofanatic and supervillain whom Remender intends on making Cap's top nemesis.
The writer hopes to show how the strength and weakness of the hero's childhood affected him and how he responds in a similar fashion when faced with being a father figure to a young ward in Dimension Z.
"I wanted to really explore how far you can take things and what kind of nightmare you could put Steve through and still see that tenacity shine through," Remender says. "It's a real test for him, and that's where you find the true fiber of a character. And it's not going to be a test he passes on all fronts."
Remender is a huge fan of the sci-fi eras of EC Comics, Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta, and he and Romita are using that sort of aesthetic and imagination — as well as designs with a European heavy metal slant — to create the "very interesting and visually spectacular" wasteland of Dimension Z, Remender says.
Pulp sci-fi is a hallmark of Remender's creator-owned series Fear Agent, but he also found a lot of the genre in the Captain America comics of the mid-1970s, when Jack Kirby — who originally created the character with Joe Simon — returned as writer, artist and overseer of the title.
"It was 100% Jack Kirby at one of the most imaginative and inspiredly insane eras of his career. And he took back Captain America," says Remender, who re-read those issues doing research for his run.
"What's great about that stuff is that it feels like classic Captain America — here's a character that Jack co-created (with Joe Simon) and had such a hand with in perpetuating, but it's also that Jack Kirby who's experimenting and just going hog wild with whole new ideas."
Kirby created the evil Arnim Zola in 1977's Captain America No. 208, but the more Remender looked at what came after that with the character, the more he realized no one's really tapped into the true horrific potential of a mad genius "who sees all life as clay for him to manipulate and experiment with, no matter the pain it causes to the subjects," he says.
"He's both a horror character and he's a science-fiction character, and I loved mixing those two."
Of course, the science fiction of the 1970s is more like science fact of today, especially with bioengineering. That's not something Remender has overlooked.
His Zola is "somebody who carelessly tinkers with biology and life, and it's all just a canvas in his mind that he should be able to do whatever he wants with," Remender explains. "He's got more goals beyond that as well — Zola need to be humanized a bit so he is taking his DNA and creating children.
"It's twisted and we start to see the crazy ugly behind it, but the best way to write a villain is to find an identifiable human trait and then take their particular insanity and skew it so that the psychopath is mixed with a few attempts at humanity."
Upcoming issues will unveil "a whole slew of crazy family business going on with Zola" that Remender will dig into, he says, and by the end of the first 10 issues, there will be some more familiar faces for Cap fans plus new folks "who will have a lasting effect on Steve's life."
There will be many scenes, too, of Steve Rogers being a normal dude, such as flirting with his girlfriend Sharon Carter. Like Superman at times, Cap is such an icon and the ultimate representation of the American dream of truth, liberty and justice for all that he stops being a regular guy, according to Remender.
"That's the thing I'm out to fight," he says. "When you as an initiated reader hop into my Captain America, I want you to understand Steve, the man behind the uniform and the man behind that icon because that's where the heart is, and the beating heart is the thing that's going to make you identify and care to see how he overcomes the struggles we put him through.
"And we are definitely putting him through some struggles."