I’m kind of amazed at how much of Marvel’s Golden Age roots are lost to the past. Thanks to Roy Thomas’s 1980-era efforts like All Star Squadron and the miniseries America Versus the JSA, DC’s Golden Age characters could hardly be forgotten. In the pages of All Star Squadron alone, Thomas included appearances by some of the most obscure DC characters. DC writers James Robinson and Geoff Johns continued to keep DC’s Golden Age alive in titles like The Golden Age, Starman and JSA. Over at Marvel, outside of a handful of more famous Golden Age characters like Captain America, Namor and the Human Torch, the Golden Age never seemed as vibrant or important as DC’s. For as many times as Marvel has tried to resuscitate its own team of Golden Age heroes in The Invaders (which was actually a 1970s era Roy Thomas creation,) Marvel never strayed too far out of its readers own modern-day comfort zone. Recent projects like The Twelve and the series of one shots celebrating Marvel’s 70th anniversary have seen Marvel beginning to embrace its Golden Age heritage.
Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting take a half-step towards celebrating Marvel’s past with The Marvels Project, an “untold” tale about the pre- World War II origins of the Marvel super heroes. In Brubaker’s story, we see the early days of the familiar Golden Age heroes but he also sprinkles in appearances by many far less known heroes like The Ferret, Thin Man, John Steele and even uses the original Angel as the narrator of the story. In a neat bit of continuity trickery, Brubaker makes the story of the Marvel Age circular, practically creating it with the time traveling Two-Gun Kid. It’s a pretty neat trick Brubaker and Epting pull off, using the Two Gun Kid and a story originally told in the 1970s to re-write the origins of the 1939 heroes.
After Brubaker uses that narrative sleight of hand to get this story going, it lumbers along, trying to chronologically show us what happened between 1939 and 1941, culminating in an odd mingling of fantasy and history as the story of the heroes is contrasted to the days and years leading up to World War II. For his story, Brubaker has a large canvas but it’s not completely blank. There are points that he needs to hit; the first battle between Namor and the Human Torch, Captain America’s origin and Bucky, and the formation of the Invaders. Those stories are familiar ground that have told repeatedly over the years so all Brubaker is really doing here is just putting those stories into a larger context. We’ve seen them before but Brubaker draws the connection between them, giving us a good timeline of events in those pre-war years. It’s interesting to see how these separate events could connect and influence one another.
The story becomes far more fascinating when he steps away from those familiar characters and show us some of the heroes who are not as well known. The Golden Age Angel in this book is a far more interesting and unexplored character, a doctor who turns to crime fighting at the nudging of a crazy, old gunfighter. Brubaker uses him to tie the story together. As the narrator, the Angel is the character who somehow sees and knows everything. He pulls the story together but unfortunately gets little story himself. There’s a lot that could be done with this character, a link between these more famous heroes and the forgotten Marvel heroes, but he exists in this book to move the story along but to never really be part of the story. The book starts out with the hope of being about the “birth of super heroes” but ends like it is the origin of the Invaders with only a passing reference to so many other fascinating but obscure characters.
In Captain America, Steve Epting’s art never felt quite whole. It showed off his strong storytelling but the over-reliance that book had on Frank D’Armata’s coloring softened up Epting’s artwork and didn’t do much to show off his skill with pen and ink. In The Marvels Project, Epting’s artwork stands out more than any fancy coloring could ever allow it to. You can see how Epting is heavily influenced by the classic photo-realist comic strip artists of the past like Alex Raymond and Al WIlliamson. He can do a very realistic style without falling into the trap of losing all of the energy in the art. While he can draw the super-hero stuff nicely, it is when he gets to draw the more human adventures of Nick Fury, John Steele and even the detective called the Ferret that his photo-realistic style looks best. Epting is a great modern artist who can perfectly capture the look and energy of great old comic strip and comic book artists.
There are small, subtle things that Epting does in this book that makes it feel appropriately retro. One of my favorite tricks of his is to use a circular panel to highlight a character in a thoughtful moment. Like most modern superhero books, The Marvels Project is filled with its share of “widescreen” action but when he gets away from the action, fills in the page nicely, shifting up his pages and simply just doesn’t make everything look the same.
The Marvels Project reminds me a lot of how James Robinson used to be able to draw connections between DC’s Silver Age and Modern Age. In The Golden Age and Starman, he approached those old and sometimes ridiculous characters with a contemporary touch and, like Roy Thomas in the 1980s, showed us how much those characters still mattered even if we didn’t know about them. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting reach for the same heights that Robinson achieved then but they stumble along the way. There’s too much plot but too little actual story in The Marvels Project as Brubaker and Epting cram a lot of events into the book but never allow us to get to know the Marvel superheroes that have been forgotten and lost to time.