After conspicuous logos slowly crept their way across the cover of every Marvel comic last month, every comic book reader in America became at least a little aware that 2009 represented the 70th Anniversary of Marvel Comics. The anniversary is both figurative (as the corporate name of Marvel has only been used in the last 45 years or so) and literal (since it was 70 years ago when the first Marvel book, "Marvel Comics" #1, burned its way into the minds of comics historians forever).
Still, the "7-0" hanging in the corner of the covers also became prophetic, serving as advance warning for the eight-issue mini series announced today at New York Comic Con: Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's "The Marvels Project." Shipping to comic shops this June, the series spins what Brubaker called "basically the origin of the Marvel Universe. It's kind of like 'The Right Stuff' set in the Marvel Universe at the dawn of an era. If anybody is walking out of the Spider-Man movie or 'Iron Man' and thinking, 'How did the Marvel Universe all begin?' this is that story. It begins during the Depression and ends not long after Pearl Harbor with the formation of the Invaders. I compare it to 'The Right Stuff' a lot, because it's this big, sprawling epic story but it also has a real espionage bent to it...Imagine John LeCarre telling the story of the invention of superheroes in the Marvel Universe."
Centering in part on the interconnected lives of Marvel's original trio of superheroes – Captain America, the Human Torch and Namor, the Sub-Mariner – the series fell to Brubaker when Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort called to say "We want to do a thing that's sort of like what 'Ultimate Origins' was for the Ultimate Universe, but for the Marvel Universe." The writer jumped at the chance to delve into early Marvel history, of which he said, "While bits and pieces of this story have been seen – you've got 'The Invaders,' you've got 'Marvels,' you've got flashbacks in 'Captain America' and 'Avengers' and time travel stories. You've got all this stuff in bits and pieces, but there is no one thing that you can give to anybody to say, 'Here's the beginning of the Marvel Universe, and everything starts with this.'
"The thing that's cool about it is that everyone knows the story. Everyone knows that Steve Rogers is a skinny kid who wants to join the army and can't and becomes Captain America. Everyone knows Prince Namor was once from Atlantis and hates the surface worlders. Everyone knows the Human Torch is a robot who caught fire. But to take all those different stories and other characters and weave them into this whole espionage story and plot, really fuses that military project feel to it. That's the kind of stuff that was going on in the world, which was where we got the name for the project. 'The Marvels Project' is like a take on The Manhattan Project. A lot of the plot revolves around the various governments having this secret cold war pre-America's joining in World War II: the rush to create super soldiers. That's the twist of the Marvel Universe: instead of trying to create an atomic bomb, they were trying to create atomic people."
Brubaker's story plans involve tying the original comics' details into an origin story that enhances rather than undermines. "Mostly it's just trying to tell this really cool story that's not a crossover or anything. There's stuff that we're revealing that's never been seen before, but it's not, 'Oh yeah! Nick Fury is really the guy who shot Professor Reinstein!' It's nothing like that. It's cool stuff that won't make people think the original stories as they were sucked."
"The Marvels Project" will also delve into the lives of the older Timely Comics characters, many of which have been lost over the years. "One of the narrators in this book is one of the characters who was in the first Marvel comic – the Angel – who was actually a pulp character that Timely used to publish. They changed him around to make him into a superhero character," Brubaker explained, adding that even the well known stories often contain underdeveloped areas. "[Like with Captain America] there's cool little things that you can do to add to his stories that don't pull anything away from him. Just by putting him in certain situations and showing some unseen stuff from the early days of Captain America like the times he was undergoing the experiments, there are still pieces yet to be shown...One thing in doing the research, was that I discovered that we've never seen how Professor Reinstein, who discovered the Super Soldier Serum, defected to America. That was one of the germs for figuring out how to tell this story and the kind of structure to tell it within.
"In issue #1, you find out specifically why Namor hates surface worlders, which was something that in the old Namor comics was just, 'Yeah...mom said hate surface worlders! I'm going to start attacking them.' I've tied it into the whole plot line of our story. I want to tell the whole story of the Human Torch trying to decide if he's got humanity. Then there's this whole thing he actually did in the '40s in his first story, where he's basically used as a mobster and later is a cop for a while before he becomes an out and out superhero. And you look at that and go, 'That's actually a pretty interesting trajectory.'"
Overall, Brubaker has drawn much of his inspiration from the way comics were created in the Golden Age, and what those raw, original stories said about the times the characters lived in. "They do kind of feel like their era in a way. The first superhero was a guy who lit s--t on fire, and this is coming right out of the Great Depression. Prince Namor is a guy who is basically a terrorist at a time when people are turning towards communism and anarchy. And then Captain America, obviously in the pre-war era, was punching Hitler in the face, almost a year before we went into the war. But the thing about looking back at the Golden Age – and this was why this project was so attractive to me – is that the way we write and draw comics today is so much more sophisticated than what they did back then. They were telling stories in little six to eight-page chunks. A lot of it was written for five and six-year-old children. That's why the characters softened so much over the first year or two of their existence and why Superman and Batman weren't killing people. They realized, when there were pictures, it wasn't like a pulp magazine.
"I actually have a research assistant on this, just to make sure I have everything right. It's easy enough to do a lot of research on the internet, but conveniently, Jeff Nevins has been writing articles for 'Incognito,' and he's an expert on this time period for pulp fiction and comic books and Doc Savage and the Shadow and that whole time period. Early Marvel is one of his specialties."
Brubaker also expressed excitement to see his "Captain America" penciler coming along for such a high profile series, even though it means Epting will leave "Cap" for the foreseeable future. "Steve will still be doing covers on 'Cap,' I think, but he's going to be taking a break from 'Cap' to do this," the writer said. "This is Steve's dream project. When Tom first approached me about it, he said, 'This should be Steve's' and I was just about to say, 'We can't do this without Steve.' Whenever we do the flashback stuff in 'Cap' it's always Steve's favorite stuff, and in the issues where he hasn't been able to draw those parts because he's so tight on deadlines, it's been like pulling teeth because those are the scenes he lives to draw. The idea of getting to tell this story which is the centerpiece for Marvel's 70th Anniversary year is a really cool thing. And I think that Steve has been grinding away in the trenches for the last four years on 'Cap,' and to see Steve Epting telling that story is pretty amazing, so I don't feel too bad about losing Steve on 'Cap' for that period. We're keeping Luke Ross on, and we've got someone else stepping in who's great."
Until those plans finalize, Brubaker will be enjoying his opportunity to revel in the grittier possibilities of Marvel's first age. "This is a dirty story and much more like a spy story. This is the pre-war era where we knew we were going to be in a war eventually, but everybody was trying to stave it off for as long as possible, and bad things were done, and people looked the other way when bad things were done."