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Graphic Novel Review: The Marvels Project

The Marvels Project: Birth of the Superheroes
Written by Ed Brubaker, Drawn by Steve Epting
Marvel Comics, 2011

In 1994, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross collaborated to produce the Marvel Comics four-issue mini-series Marvels, which featured a man-on-the-street perspective on roughly four decades of Marvel superheroes, starting (in issue #1) with the appearance of the Human Torch, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America in the late 1930s. Busiek’s scripting concentrated on the ominous potential dangers these new super-beings posed to the ordinary men and women caught in the midst of their battles and adventures (this is underscored when the main character is injured during an epic fight between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner).

Marvels was an enormous hit with comics readers and fans; it greatly boosted the careers of both Busiek and Ross, and it spawned many imitations. Perhaps the most painstaking of these was The Marvels Project, a 2011 mini-series written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Steve Epting. The Marvels Project was recently collected into a single-volume egregiously overpriced paperback with an appealingly simple cover by Steve McNiven. This graphic novel has every visible hope of being dubbed Marvels 2 by those same readers and fans who made the original such a success.

It’s unlikely to happen, despite the fact that Epting is in almost every technical category a far better artist than Ross. Throughout The Marvels Project, he uses subdued colors and blurred outlines to create a newsreel atmosphere to his Depression-era Manhattan, and although he spends far too much energy in these pages evoking, alluding to, and aping Ross’ earlier work, his own natural originality asserts itself on virtually every page. At one point he tries the same visual gimmick Ross does in Marvels, accentuating how small both the Torch and the Sub-Mariner appear when seen from a distance over the buildings of New York, but his panels are more brooding, less anthem-like, and it works.

He’s also got a wonderful feel for filling static panels with implied drama, seen nowhere better than in the shot we get of Prince Namor slowly emerging from the waters off Coney Island; we see the last remnants of a sunset, and we can virtually feel the homicidal resentment Namor feels while watching the bright lights and the sporting frivolity of the humans he believes destroyed his undersea kingdom.

All this is effective enough, but it’s enlisted in a cause that’s ultimately derivative, so it loses a great deal of power. The blame for this goes to Brubaker’s writing, which is flat, distracted, and almost entirely without dramatic tension. It’s an odd thing: despite being a ‘fan favorite’ writer, Brubaker has always shown this kind of laziness, as though the job of crafting a compelling comics story can be accomplished mainly be simply showing up.

In The Marvels Project, he begins things by using as his framing device the origin and viewpoint of the original crime-fighting Angel (not to be confused with the mutant X-Man of the same name who came along twenty-five years later), a wealthy doctor who decides to fight crime in blue tights and a billowing red cape. We’re given no real insight into this character’s motivations, and that insight wouldn’t matter anyway, since he’s almost immediately relegated to the background by the appearance of Marvel’s first ‘Big Three.’ No separate or pointed drama involves the Angel alone (as was done so expertly by Karl Kesel regarding the character of the Patriot in Marvel’s mini-series Captain America: Patriot), and even his legacy is passed on by Captain America, not the Angel himself. That and a muddled plot involving renegade members of the Sub-Mariner’s race in a secret alliance with the Nazis only add to the prevalent feeling in The Marvels Project that what’s being served up here is simply a slightly bloated standard comic book plot.

To put it mildly, most readers didn’t have that feeling about Marvels fifteen years ago. Nostalgia should be made of better stuff than this.

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