Sunday, May 16, 2010

the Marvels project 1-8

This last Wednesday brought the conclusion to the eight part "the Marvels project" mini-series, by the celebrated "Captain America" creative team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. In commissioning the story, Marvel must have wanted to celebrate it's 70th anniversary by green lighting a more ambitious project centering around the Golden age heroes, than the oneshot Specials published throughout the year. In many ways, this was always a risky proposition, considering that the company's heyday was always in the 1960s revolution of superhero publishing, but charging Brubaker with the project, they were certainly counting on the continually solid writer to approach the assignment with serious intent.

In itself, it quickly became labeled as yet another mini-series retconning the carefree days of the late 30is days of first superhero comics, a territory recently touched upon by series such as "the Twelve", and even "Ultimate origins", all striving for the prestige of an effort such as Darwyn Cooke's "the New frontier".

"Marvel projects"' basic outline consists of covering a time span of roughly two years, detailing America's preparations to officially take part in World War II, from the fantastical point of Marvel's early superhero characters. In choosing a narrator to smoothen out the jumps between such a large cast, Marvel has chosen to spotlight it's first superhero, the little known Angel, who has recently surfaced in the "X-Men: Noir" line of books. He is the focal point through which the reader slowly gets a glimpse of the huge conspiracy, that ends up giving birth to the Marvel universe, by basically getting America to war with Germany.

Unfortunately, the Angel's heroism and background of both being a doctor, and a son of a prison warden, somehow translate to the page as bland and unconvincing, therefore making him perfect for the role of the narrator. The framing story pertains to the company's modern day universe relevance of the tale unintentionally confirms this, as the new take on familiar events ends up being designed to propel a new character altogether, introduced in it's closing pages.

Truthfully, this was always going to be be a problem considering that one of the main challenges of the whole book was spotlighting heroes other than Captain America, the only one of these Golden age masked men to have an ongoing series in the present day, alongside the perennial guest star Namor the Sub-Mariner.

Yet, by evoking the word Marvels, the company was also intent on drawing a parallel to the seminal graphic novel of the same name, whose first chapter centers around providing the most recognizable modern version of the origins of some of these characters. The original Human torch, who was on the cover of the first issue of "Marvel comics" from seventy years ago, is even rendered using Alex Ross' updated character design. And for all of the care used by penciller Steve Epting and colorist Dave Stewart to translate the painterly interpretation on the pages of the traditional comic, the effort cannot help but seem derivative.

And so it is with much of the story, presented in a dense and competent way, yet reserving most of it's emotion for the book's final scenes. Tying the story around Captain America's frequently retold origin seems sensible, considering his status as an important superhero archetype, but it somehow ends up diminishing all of the other characters that "Marvels project" wants to introduce to the modern audience. In opting for a single plot tying them all together, Brubaker has once again relegated them to bit players, whose garish costume designs jump off the page, but despite the lightness of touch they remain curiosities defined by little more than their overblown code names.

This is particularly obvious in a scene involving the Human torch and Namor's epic clash, and the Marvel comic books' first historical crossover, depicted skillfully, yet slighted due to the scope of the project dictating it be cut short. It ends up as an excuse for a telling scene, pulling back the focus to the previously unmentioned effort of the therefore unconnected superheroes helping save the ordinary people from the tidal wave. The many Golden age characters get but a cameo appearance, before the real conflict is resolved by once again featuring Captain America, thus diminishing the Human torch's finest hour for plot purposes.

Among the curiosities spotted in Epting and Stewart's murky debris are some of the characters given attention in JMS and Chris Weston's "the Twelve", driving a sharp comparison to that series. "the Marvels project" ends up seeming much more general and laborious when measured up to what was an exercise in reintroducing the long forgotten Golden age characters front and center, one that is still talked about by the audience, despite the prolonged delay in production.

The simple fact is that Marvel's Golden age staple of characters hasn't been a draw for the audiences for a long time, even with the recent Alex Ross' "Avengers/Invaders" maxi-series, which the company must have been well aware of before green lightening this newest project. And with such a broad focus, they seemed to want to lay a classic all time foundation to their modern universe, but such an effort would seem to need much more passion than the workman-like attitude exhibited by Brubaker and Epting. And truly, they cannot be blamed for having left the series without much in the way of a personal touch.

By commissioning a book so heavily reliant on research, both of the Golden age comic books and the real world events of the time in order to foster largely a retelling of well known stories, a true success would have called for needed nothing less than the passion of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' series of the same name, that seemingly ushered in a market for large scale nostalgic projects. And such originality is nowhere to be found in Brubaker and Epting's work, perhaps precisely becasue of the number of interpretations that have inspired it.

Somehow, the dusty beautiful pages depicting the 1940s New York end up being continually driven through by precisely the same high end automobiles of the time, as if by using the best recognized model of everything relating to the book would somehow make it a classic in it's own right. Such a calculated approach on what must have been a very expensive mini-series recalls a big budget Hollywood period piece that still falters at it's humblest - the basic idea at the heart of the well costumed recreation.

Using John Steele as an example, the reader is treated to a very obscure Golden age hero, as he awakens to his potential, and starts combating the Nazi threat behind enemy lines. Yet, he does it in such a way as to appear utterly generic and hard to provoke any sympathy with the readers. Even his design is such a stock action hero look that he ends up being distinguished by name only, yet another player in a huge cast, whose plot relevance would determine the importance of his addition to the story. There is no real excuse for such a treatment, considering that John Steele is a completely new face to the modern audiences, and Brubaker and Epting had every right, perhaps even an obligation, to change him into a much more interesting character, no matter the inconsistencies with the original simplistic idea.

The duo are somewhat better at redeeming their inclusion of the less propaganda-inclined characters such as Phantom bullet, whose background ends up adding some dimension to his over the top unappealing costume. Unfortunately, such characterization is mostly implied via the Angel's caption boxes, as they typically set up a scene shift for another part of the planet, sometimes to further elaborate the role young Nick Fury is needed to play in his heretofore unmentioned having helped liberate doctor Erskine, the scientist behind the process that created Captain America.

As for the immediate plot, it sets to humanize the German spies playing the role of their masters in New York's suburban neighborhoods, replacing the typical prohibition gangsters as the standard Golden age comics foes. By having such strong motivations for trying to smother the superhuman boom in America, and eventually reverse engineer it in their own laboratories, the story gains some pace as a legitimate thriller, when not switching back to provide the origin of even such minor characters, as Human torch's sidekick Toro. Even when these scenes are somewhat integrated in the shady proceedings, they still break form by subverting the hard won 1940s atmosphere. It's very hard to get into the history/science-fiction mash up when faced with Golden age minutiae of the Torch enlisting as a police officer to get a better perspective on the humanity. In this aspect, DC's more fantastical "the New frontier" was much easier to consider, which, Kennedy's speech aside, didn't really consider itself with reality, beyond what was needed to retell the origins of Silver age superheroes, before uniting them to fight on the Dinosaur island.

"The Marvels project" employs a much more naturalistic art style, and the many panels illustrated with every brick in the wall visible, or a typical rooftop water tower in the background seem determined to drive home the subjectively more realistic Marvel universe. This shaky balance is especially the problem in later chapters, as the somewhat more sympathetic German spies get replaced by the much more fanatical supervillain foes. The problem is that there is no real conspiracy for any reader familiar with the broad strokes of Marvel's past, without even brining the real world events into play. The story Brubaker supplants as the connective tissue between the bevy of superhero origins works almost too well, as it seamlessly connects them to play out their familiar tales, with most of the surprises relegated to the very last chapter. It itself, the scope once again ends up becoming the problem, forcing the villains to act through the proxies, while the page count gets eaten up with Captain America, Namor and the Human torch reenacting the most iconic events of their Golden age past.

This is to be understood at some level, considering that with their elimination, the creative team would likely end up constructing a story that could have been done using any of the rival publishers' staple of superheroes, at a time when they were new and mass produced for the hungry audiences. Still, the lack of an actual new element, to act as a secret at the heart of the plot of the conspiracy, does rob the book of some much needed innovation. Brubaker and Epting are careful to try and pace the dense story in a way that it doesn't overpower a new reader, but they leave out a simple idea that was present in a project such as Brian Bendis and Jackson "Butch" Guice's "Ultimate origins" mini-series.

Leaving aside the tie-in to the "Ultimatum" line wide event, Bendis was constructing a story that still centered around the company's most famous characters, and not their Golden age predecessors. Captain America and Nick Fury (himself a Silver age character) notwithstanding, the story centered around Spider-Man and the Hulk, with the chief revelation concerning Wolverine and the X-Men. In such a way, the writer managed to both tie the Captain America's and Wolverine's origins into a story that provided direct foundation for the line, without getting bogged down in watered down history and underdeveloped obscure character revamps.

But then, "the Marvels project" seemingly never had such a clear set of goals, existing as it does to map out a history of the superhero universe, that was more or less created wholesale twenty years later by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, working for a company that but inherited the rights to the previous publisher's back catalog. As such, they made rare references to the period despite propelling Captain America as the leader of the Avengers, while recreating Human torch as a completely different character. And when you have him recognizing Namor as a staple of Golden age comic books, before he goes to fight the rest of the Fantastic Four, it's easy to recognize the inherent discontinuity behind the late 1930s original "universe".

And even Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting at their professional best couldn't do justice to a time period more famous for it's subsequent retcons. In retrospect, Marvel is best to try and negotiate the completion of "the Twelve" series, which is justifiably becoming recognized as a rare successful effort in revisiting their Golden age past. Both Brubaker and Epting known to continue working on a serial such as Captain America, that is at least concerned with something of a current grasp of politics, while being rightly considered the publisher's premier superhero solo title, the irony of it's Golden age origins aside.

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