I rather enjoyed reading through the trade collection of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s eight-part series The Marvels Project, although the farther I got into it, the less and less it seemed like a story so much as a summary of other stories.
I suppose there was a degree of inevitably to that aspect of the series, as it is a summary of other stories, with Brubaker and Epting retelling scenes from various Golden Age classics, checking in on various Golden Age characters big and small and contextualizing some historical events within the Marvel Universe. It’s more an exercise in connecting various dots and giving a consistent viewpoint to those connections than a proper story. As such, it’s very interesting, if never quite compelling.
The framing sequence is kind of oblique, with Marvel Western hero The Two-Gun Kid, who was shunted from his own era into the modern Marvel Universe, dying back in the period between the World Wars—apparently, when he got old, he was sent back to die close to the time he would actually die? Brubaker sort of assumes some basic knowledge on the part of his readers regarding this complicated nonsense—lucky for me I read Dan Slott’s She-Hulk or I woulda been lost right out of the gate (If you click on that link, don’t look the horse in the eye, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life).
Conceptually, the idea is showing the passing of the torch from one sort of hero—the cowboys of the Wild West—to a new kind of hero, guys in capes and masks like The Angel, our point-of-view character for the story of how the Marvel Universe first became populated with Marvels.
The Angel is a vigilante hero of the normal-guy-who-dresses-weird-and-punches-bad-guys-really-hard and, as a New Yorker, he’s around to witness the birth and evolution of the android Human Torch (Marvel’s first “Marvel”), the emergence of Namor (there’s a pretty weirdly affective scene early on, wherein Nazis are shown depth charging the sea and collecting the Atlantean corpses that float to the service) and his conflicts with the Torch and the surface world, the emerging crop of heroes like those who starred in The Twelve and those awesome 70th anniversary specials Marvel was publishing in 2009 (Did they ever trade-collect those? I bought ‘em all, but they were among the comics stolen when my last apartment was burgularized), and, eventually, the appearance of Captain America.
Brubaker imagines a sort of superhero-arms race between America and the Nazis, which ties a lot of the various plot-points together, and eventually unites heroes as diverse as Namor, The Torch and Captain America against the Nazis. It also allows The Angel and some smaller characters (The Ferret, The Phantom Bullet, etc.) to get involved in a more direct way.
The plot works, and it all hangs together quite well, but because of the huge span of time being covered—it opens in 1938 and ends in 1941, with an epilogue set in the present—and because of the fact that The Angel is telling the story (often resorting to saying things like, “I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but…”), far too much of it feels like being told a story about a story, instead of a story.
Epting is a hell of an artist, and he pencils and inks here, with Dave Stewart handling the colors. I don’t care for this style of art at all, as the coloring (or perhaps the way Epting produced the art) gives it the comic book equivalent of soft, soap opera-like lighting. The blacks and lines just don’t look like they were drawn with ink pens or brushes, so it all looks several degrees removed from drawing.
Within this style, which is pretty much Marvel’s house style at this point, and obviously more popular with more folks, it’s nice art, but my eyes slid over it without ever really appreciating it—the photos-as-reference, computers-used-somehow approach is a lot less lifeless and annoying in a historical setting, however. Like, having New York skylines plopped in as background isn’t quite as lazy-looking when it’s the New York of the late-30s and early-40s than that of the early 21st century.
You know what’s really weird, though? The climax of the book features the big heroes of the period splitting up to deal with a two-pronged Axis attack on the allies—Cap, Bucky and Namor intervene to protect President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill from Nazi super-soldier U-Man and an evil Atlantean assassination squad, while The Human Torch and Toro head off the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. I was kind of confused by the latter, as it implies foreknowledge of the attack within the U.S. government—if Roosevelt and Captain America knew the attack was coming, why didn’t they warn the folks at Pearl Harobor, who could have at least defended themselves better? And why did they just send The Human Torch and Toro, instead of rallying a conventional military counterattack?
It implies a complicity among the Roosevelt administration, a realization of the conspiracy theory that he let Pearl Harbor happen in order to provide political cover to the U.S. entry into the war. Which, I don’t know, is that what happened? I haven’t read much about it in a long, long time, and assume Brubaker’s more up on this stuff than I am.
Or did it go down differently in the Marvel Universe? (Well, even more different than two flying, flaming dudes throwing fireballs at Japanese Zeros?) Did Roosevelt, Cap, Torch and others know ahead of time that the Japanese were about to attack Peak Harbor in past Marvel stories about the era, or is that an original idea of Brubaker’s?
I don’t know.
The narrator, The Angel, implies that the Japanese force was much, much larger than the one we know about, and that the Torches greatly reduced the damage that would have been done, but, I don't know, it seems like getting the word out and responding militarily might have staved off the attack complete.
"They saved many lives, stopped many of the Japanese bombs and blew up many more of their fighters... But they couldn't hold back the storm no matter how hard they tried."
It's made clear that the Cap and company vs. U-Man fight was kept secret, although I'm not sure if the Torches activities were or not: "That fight would remain secret," Angel says of that battle, "because Captain America didn't want to diminish the sacrifice of the men at Pearl Harbor, he told me later. They were the real heroes...the soldiers who bled and died. The ones who didn't have science on their side like he did."
Speaking of things I don't know about, there's a character wandering around Europe that the Nazi scientists kept in some sort of stasis named Private John Steele. He's apparently invulnerable, super-strong and was caught during the first World War. He awakens and starts wandering around killing Nazis in Europe, hooking up with Nick Fury for a while.
I have no idea who he is or where he came from, but he's presented as someone I should know.
I haven’t played a Marvel-related video game since…a Street Fighter vs. Marvel heroes arcade came before turn of the century, maybe? But I’d play the hell out of a game that was basically 1942 where you played The Human Torch instead of a plane…