The (first?) eight issues of The Marvels Project appeared in 2009-2010 to celebrate Marvel Comics anniversary. The collected graphic novel hit shelves in 2011. It takes a new yet familiar look at the early years of the company's early, Golden Age days as Timely Comics, when the Human Torch was an android, America trembled in fear at Prince Namor, and Captain America helped the Allies achieve victory.
Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Steve Epting
In 1939, an old man dies, after having baffled his doctor with tales of past pulp adventures and future heroes. Of course, he's not delusional; he's been keeping a secret. In days past, he was the Two-Gun Kid, scourge of villains in the old west. He also spent some time in the future, working alongside characters such as Spider-man and The Avengers. He knows from history that his doctor, soon to become the Golden Age superhero Angel1, will witness the birth of the superheroes.
The Angel, a largely forgotten character, narrates The Marvel Project, and he certainly suits the material. A Batman-style vigilante with Mandrake the Magician's head, he wears a costume as close to Superman's as copyright permits. In short, he's as entirely derivative as most of the material in this graphic novel.
In reinterpreting the Timely stories, The Marvels Project most resembles Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross's landmark series Marvels, which retold the history of the Marvel Universe from the birth of the Human Torch to the death of Gwen Stacy. As in Marvels, we have less of a story here than a loosely connected series of vignettes, portions of which will make no sense unless you've read the relevant comics. With Marvels, that was partially the point: we saw from the perspective of a Marvel-Earth New Yorker, who has an incomplete grasp of the larger events. The Marvels Project gives us an insider's perspective, that of an early superhero.2 We learn a web of hitherto connections among the comic-book science projects that created these characters, as the Americans and the Nazis race to produce superchampions. Brubaker provides answers to a few questions that linger, given that Timely is supposed to be in continuity with Marvel's current comics. However, The Marvels Project never really engages me as a story. We see bits and pieces of potentially interesting material—in particular, a rethinking of Bucky Barnes and Toro's origins— and some graphic real-world 1940s material. What we don't get are reasons to care about the major characters.
I give the author considerable credit for his rethinking of some comic book conventions inherited from the genre's Golden Age. In old comics (and many new ones), science works the way children and conspiracy theorists imagine: lone individuals, sometimes with government funding, develop impossible innovations from thin air—without existing prior work by anyone on anything resembling the new discovery, and without leaving coherent notes (death of the Scientist means the discovery is lost). They then immediately put their discovery to work but, save for the hero or villain or weapon it creates, society changes not at all as a result. Brubaker at least attempts to provide some context for these discoveries. He also draws connections among the various Timely characters and real-world events.
He also rewrites Bucky's origin3 into something a little more likely. Originally, Barnes was a military base mascot, an orphan, perhaps twelve, who stumbled onto Captain America's identity and became his sidekick. Somehow, he was able to more-or-less keep up with his super-powered mentor, and even lead a team of kid heroes against the Axis powers. In this version he's a sixteen year old orphaned wonderkid whose remarkable abilities made him the object of considerable training as a possible operative, before he was selected to assist the army's superhero. The original origin, we learn, government propagandists fabricated to promote the heroic ideal among youngsters. It suggests that any dedicated American boy or girl could be a junior Captain America.
Brubaker uses these reinterpretations, but generally avoids taking them too far. Let's face it; attempts to give reasonable explanations for comic-book conventions frequently call undue attention to the genre's inherent ridiculousness. The same could be said for overly realistic comic-book art.
In many ways, I prefer Epting's art to Alex Ross's. Yes, Ross creates photorealist visions unlike anything else in comic books, and his work remains untouchable. However, its very realism can create problems, given the bizarre and fantastic nature of his subjects. The drawing of the invading Atlantean army in Marvels, for example, reduced me to laughter; the crazed Kirbyesque contraptions simply don't hold up to serious, realistic treatment.
Epting understand this. He creates comparatively realistic, evocative images of the actual 1940s, from Coney Island to concentration camps. The heroes play against New York City's actual skyline, and the lights of Broadway and automobiles spot everyday people in awe. These remain, however, comic-book images. We're still in a world where people take men in masks and leotards seriously, and clever scientists armed with test tubes and Tesla coils can make supersoldiers and flaming androids.
The Marvels Project breaks little new ground, but it features some impressive art and interesting reinterpretation. I can recommend it to current fans or one-time readers of Marvel Comics looking for a nostalgic fix, or to people examining comix as an artistic medium. Others, I suspect, will not find it worth their time.
1.This Angel should not be confused with the X-Men character of that name.
2.Marvels ignores the Angel almost entirely, save for a fleeting glimpse, designed more than a little as a clever nod to the Man of Steel, who inaugurated the the age of four-colour heroes, but belongs to Marvel's chief rival.
3. He rewrote this origin sometime earlier and referenced it in comics, before developing it in The Marvels Project.