Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Marvels Project: The Birth of Superheroes by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

Dr. Thomas Halloway was a psychiatrist in an old age home when he first encountered his patient, Matt Hawk, who was old and dying. But he had a story to tell, of being taken to the future, and being a superhero there, and of the many other heroes and villains, men and monsters that he encountered.

Dr. Halloway should have recognized the name, for he grew up in a prison, his father one of the guards, and the adventures of "The Two-Gun Kid" were something he'd been familliar with as a young boy. It's only when Matt Hawk dies and leaves Dr. Holloway his old mask and guns that the Doctor remembers, and wonders if the story he's been told, which he had dismissed as a senile fantasy, but at the same time been fascinated by, could really be true.

He starts to realize it is only months later, when Professor Phineas Horton shows off his creation, a synthetic man who bursts into flame at the touch of oxygen. Horton had hoped to create artificial human life, but people are shocked and horrified at his creation, which they consider a monster. He is forced to bury his creation by public opinion, and the synthetic man is buried in a concrete tomb inside a capsule bereft of air.

But this news reaches Germany, as the American secret agencies knew it would. It disheartens them, as the CIA and OSS hoped it would, but it also impels them to try and duplicate the process, or find another one, to make similar creations of their own to fight against America.

As two Americans, former military men,are sent to Germany to meet up with a defecting German scientist, back in America, Professor Horton's creation breaks loose from its supposed tomb and flies off, setting part of New York on fire and creating panic and chaos in the streets. Horton, who is now convinced he is on the cusp living in the age of heroes that Matt Hawk told him about, does his best to help those in the streets and decides to take up the cause of heroism by becoming a masked hero himself.

Meanwhile, the Nazis plant agents into America with the intention of killing off Professor Erskine, the man who is starting a program to make Super Soldiers to fight for America in the war. As the Americans settle on the perfect subject, a sickly artist named Steve Rogers who is too weak and thin to fight in a war he desperately wants to be in, the Germans plan to stop the project the best way they can- assassinating Professor Erskine, while at the same time stealing the formula and the product of his research.

But while their agent makes it into the test and manages to kill Professor Erskine, they don't get the complete formula, which Erskine kept only in his head and never wrote down, and they also don't manage to scotch the test. Instead, the sickly young man who was its test subject, Steve Rogers, becomes the pinnacle of human perfection, and is retained by the Government and military to fight the Nazis as Captain America. But the assassination of Professor Erskine doesn't stop Superhumans from appearing. The Human Torch, helped by its creator, escapes the airless tomb he was held in, and slowly learns to control his powers. When he aids a police detective kidnapped by mobsters, he decides to learn more about humanity by becoming a police officer himself.

And when the undersea ruler, Namor the Sub-Mariner, blaming the Nazis (and the entire surface world, which he believes is all the same thing) for the deaths of his people in bomb-testing by the Germans, he comes to America to take his revenge on the surface-worlders, only to be defeated by the Human Torch. In a moment, the public's opinion of the Torch changes, and he goes from being a menace to being a hero. For Namor, who has never been defeated, it is a bitter pill to swallow, and he will attack again, but hopefully next time, he will learn the difference between those who have killed his people, and the Americans.

But as Thomas Halloway attempts to track down the killers of several costumed crimefighters like himself, he comes into contact with Captain America and they must team up to take down the killers, and the menace of Nazi spies that still lurk inside the USA. But can they do so before the Germans perfect the formula of Professor Erskine and use it to make all their soldiers into Perfect Soldiers like Captain America? And can Cap check the menace of the Nazi Scientist known as the Red Skull before he succeeds in an Ubermensch project of his own?

I really enjoyed this graphic novel. It's been the best one I enjoyed in a long while from Marvel or DC, and it's kind of sad that the writers had to go back into the past to find such wonderful characters. That being said, instead of the graphic novel focussing on just one hero, it tells a history of a lot of heroes, otherwise normal costumed heroes and Superheroes like Captain America and the first Human Torch, but makes each equal in time and coverage, so that you never quite feel like any one hero hogs the entire book.

And the best part is that the narrator, Thomas Halloway, who fights crime as the Angel, was an actual hero from the predecessor to Marvel, Timely Comics, and so are several other of the normal (non-super) costumed heroes mentioned in the book. It's an overview of the early Marvel universe, and is very well-told, weaving several different comic lines and stories into a coherent and well-told narrative. When reading this series, the scattered and sometimes chaotic stories really make sense, and the end of the story wraps well into the beginning, with Holloway's grandson being given his father's writings and some of his possessions by Cap himself, who confirms that the Angel was a real hero.

This is one of the very best series I have ever read put into graphic novel form. I can't overstate how good and satisfying it was to read, and I'd like to see a continuation of the series, perhaps involving other characters from different lines and showing how their stories wove together in the 50's and 60's. Maybe that's too ambitious, but you know a series is good when you are dying to see and read more, and that is definitely how I felt after reading this book. Highly recommended.

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