The (first?) eight issues of The Marvels Project appeared in 2009-2010 to celebrate the company’s anniversary. The collected graphic novel hit shelves this year. It takes a new yet familiar look at the early years of Timely Comics the Marvel Universe.

Titles:

Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Steve Epting

Available from Amazon.uk, Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

Premise:

In 1939, an old man dies, after having baffled his doctor with tales of past pulp adventures and future superheroes. Of course, he’s not delusional; he’s been keeping a secret. The doctor, soon to become the Golden Age superhero Angel, will witness the birth of the superheroes.

High Points

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 Kirbyesque contraptions simply didn’t hold up to serious, realistic treatment.

Epting understand this. We have comparatively realistic, evocative images of the actual 1940s, from Coney Island to concentration camps, but they remain 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.

Low Points

As in Marvels, we have less of a story than a loosely connected series of ivignettes, 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 understanding of these larger events. The Marvels Project gives us an insider’s perspective, that of an early superhero. 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.

The Scores

Originality: 1/6 Although Brubaker adds his own, often clever twists, we’re seeing a repeat of Timely/Marvel’s Golden Age, in a manner influenced heavily by Marvels. The introduction also recalls Kingdom Come and Watchmen, though the story goes in its own direction.

Artwork: 6/6

Story: 3/6. I addresss story under low points, but I do give the author considerable credit for his rethinking of two comic book conventions of Golden Age Comics. 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. More interesting, he rewrites Bucky’s origin into something a little more likely; he’s now a sixteen year old whose remarkable abilities made him the object of considerable training as a possible operative, before he was selected to be Cap’’ sidekick. The original origin, we learn, government propagandists fabricated to promote the heroic ideal among youngsters, or something to that effect.

He also avoids going too far with most of these reinterpretations. Let’s face it; attempts to give reasonable explanations for comic-book conventions frequently do little more than call attention to the conventions’ inherent ridiculousness.

Characterization: 4/6. The Angel, our narrator, should not be confused with the X-man of the same name. A Batman-style vigilante in a Superman-influenced costume, he has not lasted in the popular imagination, though he was fairly well-known in his day. Marvels ignores him almost entirely—save for a fleeting glimpse, designed more than a little as a clever nod to the landmark Golden Age hero, Superman. In many respects, this makes him an appropriate choice of narrator for The Marvels Project. He provides a perspective missing from Marvels. However, as a character, he’s not really developed.

Overall, the characters receive uneven development.

Emotional response: 4/6.

Flow 3/6.

Overall: 5/6. I’m setting this high, because it represents an impressive achievement, despite its low scores in several areas.

In total, the last three volumes of The Marvels Project receives 26/42