Marvel’s Rick Remender on ‘Captain America’s’ comic book future

(CBR) The “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” movie debuted in theaters this past weekend with the biggest April opening in history, taking in $95 million — and that's on top of the $207 million the movie's already made overseas.

But while the anticipated film sequel has only been out for a few days, both Captain America and The Winter Soldier have already had a busy 2014 on their home turf. Rick Remender currently writes both the “Captain America” ongoing series, illustrated by Nic Klein, and the five-issue “Winter Soldier: The Bitter March” miniseries, illustrated by Roland Boschi, for Marvel Comics. Though the former is set in the present day and the latter, in the '60s during Bucky's time as a brainwashed assassin, both connect to tell the greater story of Cap's latest foe, the Iron Nail. 

Having already taken “Captain America” to unconventional territory during his stint on the book — opening with the 10-issue “Castaway in Dimension Z” arc, a literally otherworldly experience for Steve Rogers — Remender spoke with CBR News about the “major status quo change” he has in the works, the current storyline featuring long-percolating psychedelic super-soldier Dr. Mindbubble, balancing creator-owned Image Comics books “Black Science” and “Deadly Class” with his busy Marvel slate and how the movie does — and doesn't — affect his long-term plans for the character.

CBR News: Rick, as the writer of both the “Captain America” ongoing series and a “Winter Soldier” miniseries, have you had a chance to see the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” movie yet?

Rick Remender: I was invited to go to the premiere, and had to decline, due to writing the “Captain America” and “Winter Soldier” comics that were due. [Laughs]

Marvel is always well-prepared for a movie release, often with overt tie-ins in the book — for example, Electro will in the relaunched “Amazing Spider-Man” comic the same month as the “Amazing Spider-Man 2” movie release. How much, if at all, did knowing that a “Captain America” movie was coming out influence your approach on these current issues?

I'm a long-term planner, so what I'm doing on “Cap” was written, at this point, in, like, 2011 — the outline, anyway. It's all just the story I was telling anyway. The “Winter Soldier” miniseries was scheduled to be out in time for the film, so there would be something out there. But really, the “Winter Soldier” miniseries is a sister title to “Captain America,” in that it fills in the gaps of who the Iron Nail is, what his motives are and why he's doing what he's doing in the “Captain America” series — and why Steve Rogers is going to have to pay such a price to stop him. While also telling a really interesting — I think it's interesting [Laughs] — self-contained story involving the Winter Soldier, using him as the Alien in “Alien.” I think that's a fun idea. It's something Tom Brevoort and I had cooked up when we were discussing how to approach this. I think Tom was the one who threw it out — let's not see it from [Bucky's] point of view.

As this thing built and took shape, that idea got me very excited, and it also pays some strange dividends in issue #4 and #5 when we twist it, and do some unexpected things — where we see that this story actually is unearthing some new rules about the Winter Soldier, and some interesting wrinkles in his past that we hadn't known about before, in terms of his programming and the Red Room.

For “Cap,” it's the same thing. It's a long-term story. I plan 25 issues out — that's normally what I do, because I can get to 25 issues. I've had success getting to 25 issues on books. Usually I get up to around 33 issues, and God comes down from the Heavens and says, “This series must end, and you must move on!” Because God's got nothing else to do but to worry about what series I'm working on. “I'm bored up here. There's a war, there's a famine — what comics are Rick Remender writing?”

I try to plan these things out in 25, 30-issue blocks, because I know I can get to those numbers normally, and just move through them. I think that leads to more satisfying payouts, and I think it leads to more intended goals. It can also lead to things seeming meander-ish or strange for a while, and then when they pay out, I think it's like, “Oh! All that was getting me something.” And that's definitely the case with “Cap” and “Winter Soldier.” So what's coming up in and around the time of the film's release will be a major status quo change in the “Captain America” comic, which we haven't seen in a long, long time.

It does seem that even if it's not “the plan,” there are elements in the current storyline that match up in a way with the movie — there's more S.H.I.E.L.D., Falcon's in the book. So it wouldn't be a completely foreign territory for people who may be coming in from the movie, especially compared to some of the stuff earlier in the book, which was deliberately doing something very different.

“Castaway in Dimension Z,” at its core, is really a character piece that really unearthed who Steve Rogers is — it's just in this very vibrant, insane setting that helps also to rebuild Arnim Zola into the A-level threat we think he deserves to be. I think coming out of that, starting around issue #11, Nuke and Dr. Mindbubble and Iron Nail — basically issues #11-#22 — is a very traditional, grounded Captain America story, dealing with political ideologies, and dealing with a lot of S.H.I.E.L.D, and a lot of Captain America dealing with the ramifications of Dimension Z. Issue #11 started a storyline that doesn't hit its conclusion until around issue #22. The Nuke thing was all, as we saw, part of the Iron Nail's machinations. The payout for that has always been intended to be something that unearths to the world that maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't something that we should all be super-comfortable with. Which are all classic Captain America themes, but I think we've got some fun new ways of examining it.

Your whole stint on “Captain America,” it definitely appears that you've been able to follow your vision and do your thing — with a company as big as Marvel, there's a tendency for an observer to guess that they'll be over your shoulder telling you to do certain things, especially with a movie on the way. But that hasn't been your experience, has it?

Not in the terms of the movie. Obviously, in the launch of the book, there were a few directions that I had really gotten excited about that I was shut down on, but there was not a phone call that said, “The film is coming out, can you add S.H.I.E.L.D. to the story?” S.H.I.E.L.D. was just always intended to be a part of the story as I was reverting to a more traditional status quo coming out of “Dimension Z” — and I had no idea S.H.I.E.L.D. was even in the film until the trailer came out. I'm not privy to any of that stuff. I'm off pushing Cap's comic book life, and that world, forward.

The only considerations with film are small things, like if I'm going to make a certain change to a certain character who they've got some big plans for, we have to discuss that. But I'll propose changes that are sweeping, huge and monumental in terms of their scope and the importance to the Marvel Universe, and Captain America in particular — on those, a lot of them have been approved. We see the price Steve has to pay to stop the Iron Nail, we get a payout from Jet Black and her relationship with Zola, we get a payout for The Falcon's activities throughout this, especially a quiet moment where he gave a reporter back her camera — all of these things that we've seen are events that were planned to pay out in something that's coming in issues #22, #23, #24 or #25.

It's an exciting time if you've been reading the book, and coming out of the big boom of the film, we'll have some big, climactic, fun stuff coming up in the comic for new readers.

Was the “Winter Soldier: Bitter March” cohesion with the main “Captain America” always the plan when you were developing the miniseries?

It was early enough in my planning of Cap that I realized that it would be a tremendous place to investigate and build up Ran Shen when he was a top-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. spook, and use him as the protagonist against the antagonist of the Winter Soldier, who I'm playing very much like the Predator. He's hunting you, and you don't see a lot of him, but when you do, it's a whole lot of bad.

At that point, I took the outline for “Cap,” and the outline for “Winter Soldier,” and planned them out to where I think that it perfectly aligns — when you get to the big Iron Nail vs. Cap fight, and you get to the big climax of the Iron Nail storyline we're in the middle of right now, you also then see what happened between Nick Fury, The Winter Soldier and Ran Shen that led to this guy becoming who he is. You get not only the origin of the villain, which I think is identifiable, you also see the repercussions of his long-term plan, in terms of how it affects Steve Rogers. It should all align perfectly, provided we don't ship books late. [Laughs]

Speaking of long-term plans, readers are currently seeing Dr. Mindbubble in “Captain America,” a character you've had in your pocket for years — at least since the “Uncanny X-Force” days. As the character is coming into full light, is this pretty much what your vision was all along, or did the idea evolve around the way?

I cooked the character up for a creator-owned book in 2001, and never got around to it, and then at a certain point realized that as a creator-owned character, the ideas I had were fun, but he really worked better in a superhero world, so I threw him into the Marvel soup. The character he was, and how his powers worked, and who he is and what he does, and his connection to the Weapon Minus program, and all of that stuff — that goes back to the first document I wrote in 2010, when he was going to be utilized in “X-Force.” We never got to him in “X-Force,” because I was then moved onto other books. Dr. Mindbubble was going to be up against Fantomex, because Dr. Mindbubble was created by the Weapon Minus program, and the Weapon Minus program was created to deal with the rogue agents from the Weapon Plus program. When I didn't get to do that, I thought, “Well, he's shelved” — until I realized that Captain America is also a creation of the Weapon Plus program. Not only that, but ideologically, a psychedelic super-soldier who is part of the beatnik and later hippie movement of the '60s, a sort of counter-culture, Timothy Leary guru, stands in a pretty glaring opposition to somebody like Steve Rogers. That that juxtaposition was actually far more interesting than Fantomex.

I built that up, and then I also recognized that the Ran Shen story takes place in the '60s, and that they were all at S.H.I.E.L.D. at the same time, and it just kind of takes shape at this point — you start connecting the dots when you're doing your outlining, and you're like, “Oh, this is perfect!” Then, I also realized that Nuke was a big part of the Weapon Plus program in the '60s, and what a perfect connection that was, that Ran Shen and Dr. Mindbubble would have known, or had connection with, Nuke. That's where the Nuke idea came from. It all was born as I was putting together their backstories.

That definitely seems to have worked out, which has to be relief, as it could have been another idea that you weren't able to get to.

Yeah, and there are so many of these things that you don't get to. If you look at that same “X-Force” issue where you see Dr. Mindbubble's statue, next to it is Madame Worm. I got to use her in the “Winter Soldier” series as an agent of Hydra, and have plans for her coming up. There's a whole chapter of Hydra we meet in the “Winter Soldier” series that were put on ice after the '60s, basically, that I'll be reexamining and bringing back.

The “Winter Soldier” mini is the starting point for like five different ideas that I've had that will all bleed out into things that will affect Captain America moving forward.

You're working on a lot of books right now, a lot of very different stuff, and have had success with the launch of two creator-owned books over the past few months — plus, you have a third Image book in the works. Are you enjoying that balance between the work-for-hire and the creator-owned? You're doing quite a bit of both right now, rather than leaning towards one or the other.

Every single book scratches a different itch for me right now. Marvel allows me to do different kinds of things — I don't know if I ever would have taken it upon myself to do a 1965 James Bond-style story like “Winter Soldier” if I hadn't put it together on a Marvel [series]. “Uncanny Avengers,” I've been allowed to just do my thing. I'm moving forward, and telling the kinds of stories that I like to tell, the kind of structure that I do in things like “X-Force” or “Fear Agent” — and I get to do it with X-Men and Avengers, and cross-pollinate these two things. And I'm left alone. When it's all said and done, there will be consequences — the characters will come out very changed, and the Marvel Universe will look a little different in the corner that I'm writing. But ultimately, I'm not hamstrung, nor am I given any sort of mandates in terms of how I have to structure these, or what I have to do. I can do it my way, and some people like that, and some people don't, but in the end it was at the least the way I wanted to do it. It's gratifying.

Conversely, the years that I wasn't doing creator-owned comic books, my soul was dying. I've dumped a lot of my personal life into a lot of these characters. I dumped a lot of myself into Fantomex, I dumped a lot of myself into Flash Thompson, various characters on the “Uncanny Avengers” team — but I don't think that it's ever quite the same as like a Heath Huston [from “Fear Agent”], or a Bethany Black in “Strange Girl.” A character that you create whole cloth and own naturally just takes on a different level of your character. Of course, they're not in any way, shape or form all you, but you find ways through the spectrum of these characters to say more about yourself and life, and it feels a little bit more connective, because there's absolutely no history — it's all you and your creation with your collaborators.

Last year, all I was doing was “Cap” and “Uncanny Avengers” for 12 months — that's all that was coming out. But at the same time, I was also producing “Deadly Class” and “Black Science,” and I've been working on “Low” for like four and a half years now with Greg [Tocchini]. It's going to look like a whole lot of books, but in reality, it's stuff that I've been working on for years now; some of it's just finally coming together and coming out. But I think that one helps the other, for me, at least. Having my creator-owned books, and having that playful freedom — it's what I did for so many years. Getting back to it, and building from ground up, has reignited my passion for making comics, and I think that carries over into my Marvel work.

“Winter Soldier: The Bitter March” #3 is on sale April 16.