a KC Column by KC Carlson
The Marvels Project was an eight-issue miniseries originally published in 2009 and collected in 2010. It was written by Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Daredevil, Gotham Central) and illustrated by Steve Epting (Avengers, Captain America (w/Brubaker), Fantastic Four). Apparently, it was “the centerpiece of Marvel’s 70th Anniversary celebration”, according to somebody in their marketing department.
Actually, it is really good! Here’s why…
The series is set in the late 1930s/early 1940s of the Marvel Universe in the pre-WWII days where costumed characters (“Masked Men” in the vernacular of the day) first started making both clandestine and in-your-face appearances — mostly in the New York City area. Marvel fans who know their pre-history are aware of the Big Three characters of the era (the original Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America), so much of the action revolves around them, but The Marvels Project also focuses on some of the lesser-known characters from that time. Most notably, they are the Angel (the central character of the piece), professor Phineas Horton (the creator of the android Human Torch), a pre-Sgt. Nick Fury and his best friend/partner Red Hargrove, the Super-Soldier Serum creator Professor Erskine, and a few others who should remain a surprise. Not all of them make it to the end of the story.
The most fascinating thing about the series is that Brubaker weaves a lot of characters and seemingly random events into what readers will eventually discover is the birth of the modern-day pre-WWII Marvel Universe.
IT STARTS AT THE BEGINNING
One of the best bits that Brubaker brought to the story (as well as a fitting, poignant moment) is that the Prologue to the story features one of the most interesting time-displaced characters in the Marvel Universe, who just happened to have a loose end that needed to be addressed. The mystery time traveler is none other than Matt Hawk (AKA the Two-Gun Kid).
Avengers fans recall that Two-Gun started time-hopping to the present-day Marvel Universe and palled around with Hawkeye for a while after an Avengers time-visit to the old west. And, well, Hawk joined up with Hawk for a series of adventures together in the present-day MU. (One of their adventures appeared as a new short story in an otherwise Marvel reprint mag. Wish I could remember which one…)
If you ever wondered how that little long-forgotten storyline resolved, you’ll find out in the least likely place ever — the opening pages of The Marvels Project. Plus, Brubaker put a little twist (actually, a couple) on it as well. One of the best and most subtle ways of establishing that this story is not set in “our” time. And also, bring a hanky.
For an added treat, after you read the whole book, go back and re-read the Prologue one more time. You’ll probably pick up on something else you may have missed the first time. You gotta love comics this smart.
THE NEAR-ANONYMOUS NARRATOR
Instead of using a better-known character as the series narrator, Brubaker uses one of the more obscure: The Angel. In an interview with Comic Book Resources in 2009, Brubaker explained: “Superheroes grew out of the pulp magazines, especially the character of the Angel. One of the reasons the Angel is the narrator of this series is that he and Ka-Zar were the only characters to make the leap from Martin Goodman’s pulp publishing line of the ’30s to Marvel Comics. And the Angel had such a cool origin. I can’t think of a lot of heroes that were raised in a prison by their father, who was the warden, and made to read every book in the prison library.”
From the same interview: “The premise of the story is that you’re reading something written by the Angel at some point in time,” Brubaker explained. “In the first issue he says, ‘Namor wouldn’t talk about this till years later.’ So it’s clear the Angel is giving you his version of the story, and it’s being written after the fact.”
Brubaker continues, explaining his take on the Sub-Mariner. “With Namor, the coolest thing about his earliest appearances was that he was the first antihero in comics. He shows up, and he’s pretty much the bad guy in the story, and we’ll see more of that in upcoming issues, but I wanted to link that story to the fact that the Nazis had the edge on the super soldier project. That’s because Doctor Erskine, the guy who created Captain America, was an escaped German scientist. So I thought, ‘That’s a story right there!’ Like a light bulb going off, it occurred to me to link Erskine’s reasons for escaping Germany to Namor’s hatred of the surface people. According to early Namor comics, the surface people from Europe had discovered pockets of Atlanteans here and there, so I thought, what if the Nazis are basically fishing for them and then experimenting on them? I thought it would be a really evocative way to introduce Namor and give him a stronger motive for hating surface people.”
Steve Epting is the perfect artist for this kind of story. Equally proficient with both action and quiet narrative scenes, his artwork is amazingly modern, yet extremely evocative of the often pulp-like crudity of the Golden Age superhero style, except that Epting has absorbed its power, rounded it off, and smoothed it down to its finest elements. It very much serves the story rather than detracts from it. His covers for the series (some slightly experimental) are exemplary.
Brubaker also had great things to say about Epting’s artwork: “I think this is just what Steve needed after working with him for four years on Captain America. He gets to go off and do this project where he gets to show his versions of all these great characters. He’s so faithful to them but manages to make them look realistic even when they have the goofiest of costumes on. Steve is also trying to do some different things with his art on the book. It’s incredibly hyper researched. All the period detail is extremely accurate.”
DETAILS: NO DEVILS
Another major factor in the presentation of this story is that “real” events are also depicted — as it should be when using real-life characters like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Other historical elements depicted include Vincent Astor and his secret intelligence group, The Room, which also had ties to FDR.
Also, watch for fun cameos like “Happy” Sam Sawyer and even Steve Rogers in one panel of issue #1 — three issues before Captain America debuts in #4. (There’s also at least one future “Captain America” lurking about here — they don’t actually “debut” until after Cap’s “death” at the hands of Baron Zemo, but before the Avengers find him in suspended animation.) It’s also interesting to note that Brubaker did his research on Nick Fury. It may look like he and his friend Red Hargrove are performing actual military missions throughout the story. But they’re not. Fury does not actually enter the military proper until after the events at Pearl Harbor. Here, he and Red are just tough guys willing to do the right thing.
EXTRAS! EXTRAS! READ ALL ABOUT IT!
Extras include all of the variant covers (some by these folks: Gerald Parel, Phil Jimenez, and Alan Davis) ALL printed at full-size (none of that four-to-a-page nonsense). There’s also an eight-page reproduction of a 1939 Daily Bugle supplement (originally published as an actual newsprint promotional item for the event) headlined “Who Are The Marvels?” It contains short articles about most of the super-characters in this book, plus a couple who were “kinda” around but not included — like a pre-fame Wolverine and Kang the Conqueror, plus articles about flying saucers, Rawhide Kid, Blaine and Amelia van Dyne, the Hanover Modeling Agency, and Little Miss Brisket: Patsy Walker. (Also, don’t forget to check out the Birth Notices!) All the articles were written by the folks who wrote articles for Marvel’s promotional magazines at the time, with research provided by Westfield’s own “Robert” Bob Greenberger!
The Marvels Project was first collected into a hardcover (which I wholeheartedly recommend — although it’s now out of print, copies may still be available at your local comic shop, or elsewhere on the secondary book market). This version is slightly larger than your standard comic, which I appreciated to better enjoy the art. The standard paperback version, comic-sized, is still in print and easily found (ask at your LCS!).
KC CARLSON really enjoys reading about comic book stories that happened before he was born. He’s weird that way.
BTW, as promised earlier, he’s still looking for all the Dominic Fortune pieces. There are a lot of boxes to look through, and not all of them properly labeled. This would be so much easier if Marvel just produced an Omnibus of all the Dominic Fortune stuff. And since I’m dreaming, maybe they’ll license the Scorpion material from Atlas/Seaboard (or whoever, these days) to boot!
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. So sad, the Phantom Bullet…
The Marvels Project #3 cover from the Grand Comics Database.