Monday, 21 May 2012

Books: The Marvels Project


The Marvels Project
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Steve Epting

Available now from Islington Libraries
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That Mitchell and Webb look (which is like Peep Show - only not as clever, dark or funny) had this sketch where one Nazi - noticing the skull emblazoned across his hat - asks another Nazi: "Hans - are we the baddies?" To which the answer (obviously) is: yes. Yes. Yes. And yes again. For if there's one thing that our culture has taught us since the start of World War II all the way to the current moment it's that: the Nazi's are baddies. The ultimate baddies. The baddies to beat all other baddies. None more baddie. The baddies to rule them all etc. If you're looking for a quickest and easiest shortcut to make someone look evil just make them a Nazi, get to proclaim their love of Hitler and draw them with a swastika (just ask Charles Manson): you don't even have to bother with any other sort of characterisation or distinguishing marks or anything like that - it's like the way that the bad cowboys in old films used to wear black hats - being a Nazi clearly and simply and totally marks you out as a bad guy [1].

And for those very reasons - (and as strange as this may sound to say) Nazi's have been a bit of blessing for stories of action and adventures and - particulary - superheros. Because not only are an easy shortcut to badness - but they also have the whole evil image thing down pat: those skull on the hats for one thing, not to mention the thigh-length boots, all the the facist-style marching and that intimating salute (designed - apparently to show the underside of your hand to whoever you give it to). Which is why they've been utilized  in films from everyone from Marathon Man to Indiana Jones and in comics - well - everywhere.

There is a down-side to the use of Nazis-as-bad-guys tho - one which The Marvels Project seems unaware of. Namely - that while it's alright to use the Nazi's as your antagonists - things get a little more fraught when you start to refer to the actual atrocities they commited. For this reader mixing elements as cartoony as a villian whose head looks like red skull with references to the holocaust is like mixing ice cream with dog poo: at the very least - it's distasteful [2].

But - let's back up a second: what is The Marvels Project about anyway?

Well - set in the late 1930s and early 1940s it's a period peice that takes all the early Marvel stories featuring the likes of The Human Torch, Namor and Captain America and retells them to make them a little more realistic and gritty. I don't know if there's anyone who read those comics when they first came out who'd still be bothered to read this book now (they'd have to be - at the very least - 90 years ago) - so it's a little bit nostalgia-by-proxy - it isn't anything that anyone can be geninuely nostalgic for - but you can kinda squint your brain and pretend.

For me - the only way that I really know about any of this kinda early-days-of-Marvel stuff is by reading Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels book (and there's even a few points where the cross-over directly - isn't that image of New York being hit by a tidal wave the same in both?): and it's the one book that I was most reminded of when reading The Marvels Project. However - whilst Marvels manages to make it's superheroes seem more realistic by hiding their exploits under a veil that the reader doesn't really get access to - The Marvels Project by letting the reader into every nook and cranny of it's superheros lives just makes those same superheroes seem less and less believable [3].  

Yeah - maybe it's just time that I stop reading superhero comics. I didn't much enjoying reading this book - and by the end just felt kinda demoralised and sorta spiritually exhasuted and I could ask myself was: "what's the point?" There have been lots of worthwhile books that I have discovered my making my way through lots of pages of men in tights - but at this point it's starting to feel that the well has run dry and there's nothing much more to wow or thrill me. About the only thing I did like with The Marvels Project was the background appearances of some of the characters from The Twelve (does that mean that The Twelve has reused old Marvel characters? Or is The Marvels Project referencing The Twelve directly? Altho on second thoughts - who cares?)

[1] My pitch for a film (if anyone's listening) would be set sometime during the World War II and have a bunch of Allied troops and Nazi troops getting stuck in some dingy place together - coming up against some evil Lovecraftian monster - and being forced to join forces in order to fight it (because - hey - if something is even worse than Nazis then you know that it's got to be really really really bad).

[2] Altho - it's not impossible to get that sort of high/low combination right: see Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Uniforms book (link below) - which manages (somehow) to mix "war is hell" with wizards and dragons and make the whole concept sing.

[3] I call this "The Batman Problem": as in Christopher Nolan's Batman films where the more effort he expends into making Gotham City seem like somewhere that could exist in the real world - the more you start to feel the ridiculousness of the fact that the hero is a man dressed like a bat.  

Links: Pop Dose ReviewEspinasse's Super-Read-Of-The-Week Review,

Further reading: MarvelsThe ShadowThe Twelve, DC: The New Frontier, Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms.

Profiles: Ed Brubaker.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

Hmmm, you probably don't want to read that magnificently tasteless Captain America comic from a few years back when he rescues a load of concentration camp prisoners and leads a rebellion against the camp guards then!

Islington Comic Forum said...

Wow. Just... wow. I mean I know I shouldn't be surprised - but that still sounds appalling. - what's it called? (Ha!)

In the same vein (and thanks for jogging my memory) I'm fairly certain that I read a Wolverine comic once about how Wolverine ended up in a concentration camp and kept being killed by the concentration camp guard - only to (obviously) keep reappearing afterwards.

Obviously this is the way forward for comics. (Coming soon: Captain Marvel visits Abu Ghraib!)

Tam said...

It's never been collected. I think someone at Marvel must have belatedly realised that a charmingly irreverent take on Cap's world war Two adventures isn't really the most appropriate way of addressing the Holocaust and quietly 'forgotten' about the book. Which is actually a bit of a shame, because the first three issues were a great and beautifully drawn 'indiana jones' take on the character...

Islington Comic Forum said...

Hmmmm. I'm almost tempted to check it out.

Did you read Jason Aaron's Ultimate Captain America? It 's the only thing I've read that kinda gets close to confronting Captain America with the kinda of stuff that - erm - well - Amercia itself tends to get up to (eg "Vietnam" - to use the most obvious and most blatant example): and then it all kinda fluffs it in the last part.

Also: just to say - have no objection to superhero comics getting political and taking things more seriously (like - say - The Authority I guess): it's just when it's used as a sorta icing to make the books seem more "grown up" or whatever - that I get the whole ice cream/dog poo feeling.

Tam said...

Flicked through the Aaron thing. It was alright as far as it went but the problem is that I finished the story really disliking that version of Cap. I think the way Captain America's defining characteristic has apparently changed from decency (when I was a kid) to being a super soldier these days is a bit depressing somehow.

Thinking about it, the one really politically interesting Captain America story was that one by Kyle Baker, (Truth : Red, White and Blue) which touched on the real life Tuskegee study in which lots of black men in the 30s were unknowingly infected with Syphilis.