After seeing Inglourious Basterds twice in four days, I found I really had a hankering to write about something World War II related (I’d love to see a comic series that fills in some of the Basterds’ adventures in occupied France –after all, they were there for three years, and we only got a glimpse of their exploits!). I soon remembered that I had intended to discuss the new Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting miniseries The Marvels Project, but somehow got sidetracked. Now, the first issue of this eight-part mini takes place in the years leading up to America’s involvement in WWII, but it is about both sides in the coming conflict trying to beat the other in the race to create super-powered soldiers. Close enough for government work, right?
The Captain America team of Brubaker and Epting reunite for a story that, because of the title, seems to often get mistaken for some sort of prequel or follow-up to Marvels, which isn’t exactly right. The title is, I believe, meant to evoke the Manhattan Project, although the weapon being developed here is the superhuman, not the A-Bomb. If anything, The Marvels Project resembles Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, as it weaves several familiar origin stories—Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch, to name a few--together into a newly interconnected tapestry. However, the bulk of the story so far comes to us via a much more obscure character—Dr. Thomas Holloway, who will eventually be known as the Avenging Angel.
As the story begins, Holloway is working in a New York hospital, where he has befriended a dying old man named Matt Hawk, who longtime Marvel readers will know as the western hero Two-Gun Kid. Hawk tells Holloway of his journey to a future time filled with costumed, super-powered adventurers…stories that Holloway initially dismisses as senile delirium. Marvel aficionados know better, though; during an Avengers run in the late Seventies, the Two-Gun Kid was transported to the “present” for a run of several issues. So, in talking of the future to Holloway, Hawk plants the seeds of that very future, which is, to him, the past. Really, it’s not as confusing as it sounds, I promise. As to the somewhat confusing redesigns of the Marvel heroes in the above illustration...I assume that this is supposed to represent how Holloway pictures the people Hawk described in his adventure (presumably he didn't take snapshots).
Meanwhile, FDR is troubled to learn of a mysterious German scientific initiative known as Project Nietzsche. The President also hears about Professor Horton’s attempts to create a synthetic man who, unfortunately, bursts into flame when exposed to oxygen. In the Sargasso Sea, a Nazi battleship that is collecting dead Atlanteans for scientific research runs afoul of a very pissed-off Prince Namor, and in Germany, a scientist named Professor Erskine plans to defect to the United States with the help of an American G.I. named Nick Fury.
The fascinating alternate history Ed Brubaker posits in The Marvels Project doesn’t contradict the existing Marvel timeline so much as it nudges several details closer together. The result is a tale of military and scientific intrigue that, while utterly fantastical, seems almost plausible in its understated delivery. Steve Epting’s gritty, Buscema-esque art keeps the whole thing grounded in a recognizable reality, one that occasionally explodes with feats of superheroic unreality like Namor’s vengeance upon the Nazis or the Human Torch’s escape from his subterranean prison.
Colourist Dave Stewart really makes Epting’s work pop off the page in a way that regular Captain America colourist Frank D’Armata never quite seems to. The first issue may seem a bit slow-moving in today’s event-driven marketplace, but it lays the foundation for a pretty epic storyline. However, if you have any patience left over after all the Civil Wars and Secret Invasions, this is one Project that is most definitely worthy of further study.