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The Marvels Project (Review/Retrospective)

hIn celebration of the 4th of July and the release of Captain America: The First Avenger later this month, we’re jumping into Marvel’s comic book alternate history and taking a look at the star-spangled avenger every Wednesday this month.

Truth be told, I’m not sure what to make of The Marvels Project, a miniseries from Ed Brubaker. Brubaker has been doing acclaimed work on Captain America for some years now, so I guess I almost figured that The Marvels Project would be an extension of that – a period piece set during the Second World War which would allow perhaps the definitive Captain America author to put his own stamp on that iconic comic book origin. For better or worse, this isn’t really that story – sure, Steve Rogers’ early career is covered, but as one small section of a much larger puzzle. Far more than the origin of Captain America, The Marvels Project is the origin of the Marvel Universe.

Carryin' the torch...

There are, of course, political reasons why Marvel are so focused on establishing a long line of continuity. DC, Marvel’s prime business rival, have a history which stretches back to before the outbreak of warfare. Superman and Batman can trace their origins back to the thirties. By way of contrast, Marvel only really emerged as its own brand with the publication of The Fantastic Four in the sixties. Sure, they’ve rolled on since then with countless iconic heroes and movie properties – but the mainstays of their fictional universe still significantly younger than their closest competitor.

So there’s the impression that the longevity somehow grants the stories a more epic sense of importance, or that it gives the company a greater sense of continuity – since comics pride themselves on continuity far more than eny other medium, it’s quite a coup. Marvel had evolved from Timely Comics, a publisher working during the Second World War, and with significantly older intellectual property. With varying degrees of success, Marvel attempted to incorporate these older generation of heroes into their modern comic books.

Ridin' the wave...

Perhaps the most successful Timely property to be transposed is Captain America himself. He was actually published during the Second World War and was revived by Stan Lee and his creator Jack Kirby to become a modern-day superhero. Other notable classic characters who modern audiences should be familiar with include the Human Torch (the android one, not the Fantastic Four one) and Namor (the Submariner). Marvel has tried to strengthen these ties over the years with varying rates of success (for example, J. Michael Straczynski has been updating The Twelve, a bunch of classic Timely heroes, for the modern day; Namor has been retroactively classified as “the first mutant” to tie into the X-Men).

So it’s safe to say that these old properties are important to Marvel, both in nostalgic and corporate terms. The clear objective of The Marvels Project is to tell the origin story of the entire Marvel Universe, using these classic Timely Comics characters, and thus establishing a rather strong line of narrative continuity which stretches back over seventy years.It’s a very clear and obvious manipulation, very clearly tying today to back then. It’s a little bit cheeky that Marvel had to write a miniseries today to clarify to everyone the historical context which didn’t necessarily exist before they wrote it. Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four were more influenced by the Justice League of America than any Timely comic that came before.

"Batman's not the only one who can ride his bike into the night through atmospheric shots..."

It’s somewhat telling that Brubaker throws in a bit of low-level self-perpetuating time travel into the story – tying the present day to the past and vice versa – because that’s exactly what this feels like. It feels like a retelling of an old story to suit a modern agenda. “So, I inspired his grandfather?” Matt Hawkins (a young man) asks as he walks with Steve Rogers. “When I’m older, in the past… what a strange world we live in…”

It is a strange world, and Brubaker acknowledges the strange co-existence of past, present and future in modern comic books. Due to the screwy way that time works, every issue is relative to the present, no matter how long ago it was. Though the book’s been published since 1961, The Fantastic Four haven’t been active in the Marvel Universe for more than ten years. The Dark Knight Returns told the story of a future of Batman, but was written twenty-odd years ago. Although Superman has been published since the thirties, his latest official origin story was only told last year – and the events in it didn’t exist until they were written down.

The story is somewhat caged in by continuity...

It’s a weird balance and a unique way of looking at time, one which only really affects comic books. Movies, books and television have a much more concrete chronology – as a rule, there are of course exceptions. So Brubaker is playing with that. The past is written in the future. The hero, the Angel, active in the forties was inspired by a friend of Steve Rogers in the naughties. It’s a good idea, and a clever one.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t too much going on here. As a story, The Marvel Projects doesn’t really work. There isn’t one central character who guides us through the series of historical vignettes that we see. Instead, it seems like the story is far more interested in giving us a history lesson of a fictional universe than in granting us any particular insight. There’s nothing which explains anything about Steve Rogers’ character. Nor is there any particular exploration of the Red Skull. You know there’s something wrong with a miniseries which offers us the origin of “the world’s second chemically-created super-soldier” in the second-to-last issue and doesn’t bother to visit him again.

Steve Rogers crashes the scene...

As a general rule, I believe that origin stories should be entirely accessible. You should be able to hand a person a comic book origin of any random superhero and give them a chance to understand them. Batman: Year One is, in my experience, a graphic novel you can just hand out to anyone who has never read a comic book story in their life – and they’ll love it. Similarly, Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern: Secret Origin is a richly accessible work. This isn’t, unfortunately.

It seems that it exists to serve an editorial mandate rather than to tell a story that needed to be told. With the obvious exceptions of characters like Steve Rogers and Namor and Nick Fury, and their supporting casts, the book spends a great deal of time setting up the origins of characters that even I (a relatively hardcore comic nerd) couldn’t pick out of a line-up… and never will. Who is the Angel? Who is the Destroyer? Brubaker has used John Steele in Secret Avengers lately, but he’s still a bit of a black horse. The book feels like an ensemble piece with a supporting cast that don’t really matter – who simply exist to serve as answers to trivial pursuits questions.

Fury-ous...

In fairness, despite the disjointed narrative, it establishes the mood of the Marvel Universe almost immediately. The fear and prejudice that the Human Torch provokes seems to call to mind the sort of panic that mutants would find themselves facing. And Brubaker covers the “big” moments in Timely chronology quite well. For example, the escape of the Human Torch from his captivity (which Brubaker suggests represents the true start of the Marvel Universe – “nothing would ever be the same again”) or comic books’ first crossover, the fight between Namor and the Human Torch.

Similarly, the story truly embraces an alternate history of America in the forties. Rather than embracing verisimilitude (the idea that the fictional universe must resemble ours completely in order to be relatable), Brubaker crafts a very different version of the Second World War than the one we read about in our history books. It’s a brave move, but arguably much smarter than trying to keep things like the Human Torch or Captain America operating “behind the scenes.” Sadly, Captain America doesn’t punch Hitler in the face in this version of his history, but events do have consequences – Franklin D. Roosevelt makes an appearance discussing the Human Torch and it’s suggested that the defection of Professor Erskine “may have hastened the Nazi invasion of Luxemburg, France and Belgium.” Indeed, the story climaxes with an alternate version of Pearl Harbour, featuring Nazi Frog Men.

Um... they kinda left this out of my history class on Pearl Harbour...

In a way, I suppose, The Marvels Project feels like a belated response to Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen. It’s the story of a world where a bunch of men take to wearing tights and fighting crime, but the two miniseries are remarkably different in outlook. Watchmen focuses on how ineffective these ordinary guys in capes are – and how pointless it all is. Most of its cast (even those who aren’t borderline sociopathic) are seriously flawed. By way of contrast, The Marvels Project portrays these heroes as consciously heroic do-gooders hoping to make the world a better place and (arguably) succeeding. The heroes are even “starting to feel like we were making a difference.”

Perhaps it’s a sign of the nostalgia creeping into the genre, but Brubaker’s take on these historic superheroes is positively optimistic. There’s not one costumed hero who ever goes too far and – even in the face of impossible super-human combat (such as the Namor/Submariner conflict) – they still manage to be heroes (protecting people and pulling them from wreckage). These were “the early, innocent days.” There’s no hint that anything was more complex than it seemed or that anything was in anyway less wholesome than suggested. “It truly was the greatest of times,” our narrator assures us.

A sidekick? Gee willickers!

Indeed, of course, the events of the story – while grounded consciously in the real historical and political context – all seem intent to build towards the types of comic book tropes that we have come to take for granted. We witness, for example, the first supervillain team-up between the Red Skull and Merrano. The heroes are united together at Pearl Harbour, “our first true call to arms.” It also represents the first true superteam (“the Invaders” as they’d come to be known). Although Brubaker doesn’t spare us the horrors of the real world (concentration camps, warfare and mob executions show up), he does seem to believe that these iconic heroes are elevated above it somehow.

As such, it marks an interesting contrast to Watchmen. Watchmen was among the first in the wave of “deconstructions” which hit the comic book industry in the eighties, picking all the basic assumptions of the genre apart and watching it collapse under its own weight. In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of nostalgic retro fetishism sweep the market – this is clear from the way that long-dead heroes like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are returning from the dead to claim back their mantles, for example. The Marvels Project perhaps represents this school of thought – and, as such, sets it up as an interesting counterpoint to Moore’s opus. I’m not suggesting The Marvels Project is nearly as good, but it’s just something that came to mind.

Goin' commando...

Steve Epting provides the wonderful artwork for the collection. Much like his work on Captain America with Brubaker, it’s stunning. It looks great. I honestly wouldn’t have chosen Epting to do the art for a historical series like this, but he pulls it off. Seriously, look at the screenshots.

The Marvels Project is a bit disappointing. It’s just too unfocused. It reads like a conscious attempt to justify the company’s history rather than to do anything interesting with it. Had Brubaker picked a single character arc to serve as the backbone of the miniseries (with the vignettes jutting off it), it might have worked better. As it stands, it’s just a bit of a mess. There are some interesting ideas in here, but I can’t help but feel that it just could have been so much more.

One Response

  1. This whole arc seems pretty pointless after the much better marvels was already made and did look at the ramifications of the heroes and had reactions of regular citizens and they’re general distrust of these “marvels.” Marvel’s world, it’s citizens have always been pretty bad and reactionary (for examples see like any x men comic) so I think it’s pretty lame that someone as good as Brubaker would write something so white washed.

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