This five-issue limited series first came to my attention via a posting on the AllPulp blog. That short review and interview with the writer, David Liss, piqued my interest enough that when I was next in the comic shop in my home town I picked up the third issue and asked the proprietor if he had the first two. Sure enough, he did, and I walked away with all three.
The story is definitely set within the Marvel Universe – New York City, the Daily Bugle is the newspaper whose headlines we see – but none of the familiar faces have appeared (so far). I thought I had heard somewhere that a very young J. Jonah Jameson makes his appearance, but so far not that I've seen. On the one hand, if he did that would make him about ninety years old or so, because this story is very specifically set in 1932 – but we are talking about comic book time here, and he does appear as a young man in the first chapter of Busiek and Ross's Marvels, which is set right at the end of the 1930s, beginning of the '40s, so it could have happened. But so far none other, although a Daily Bugle headline near the end of #3 announces, “Another Child Missing: Son of Stark Vanishes.” But I'm not terribly well steeped in Marvel lore so maybe I've missed something.
Anyway, I've really liked what I've seen so far. The story and the art evoke very well the mood of the 1930s pulp magazines, filtered into the Marvel Universe at a point in time just before the first wave of “Marvels” (to use Busiek and Ross's term) exploded onto the scene ca. 1940. Judging by the dimly shown figures appearing on the cover of issue #1, by the end of #3 I think we've been introduced to our main characters. They are, in order of appearance (as “mystery men”): The Operator, a “Robin Hood” character who, in the midst of the Great Depression, although he comes from the rich upper class steals from the rich to give to the poor; The Revenant, a white-cloaked and -hooded black man who appears and disappears in clouds of smoke; The Aviatrix, sort of a winged female “Rocketeer”; Achilles, a rather milquetoast young archaeologist who possesses an ancient amulet that gives him the skill and stamina of that greatest hero of the ancient Greeks; and The Surgeon, basically a horribly scarred doctor who teeters right on the edge of sanity, it seems, taking to using his scalpels and syringes to attack the ills of society.
Without giving too much away, the Big Bad of the story is a rather gruesome looking chap called The General, who has entered into a pact with some kind of demonic force (a “fear lord” – does it have anything to do with that current Marvel Event called “Fear Itself”? – I'm not reading it so I don't know) and who controls the city as well as seemingly the country and maybe even the world through a group of men called “The Board,” which meets in the Empire State Building. From issue #2: “If you turn to page 46 of the Prospectus, you will see that it remains in our best interest to maintain a climate of economic depression for another four to five years. These conditions will allow us the maximum potential to expand our holdings. At that time we can best alter the market dynamics by coaxing the nation into a large-scale military operation. Both Germany and Japan appear suited to our purposes. By 1937, this nation will be fully allied with those powers and ramping up our military by aiding them in their expansion.” Of course, The General has his own agenda along with the fear lord and I doubt things are going to turn out the way the members of the Board expect it to for them.
Whatever The General is going to have the demon do for him requires various human sacrifices, and that's where the story essentially begins – with the slaying of The Operator's lover, which results in The Operator being on the run because naturally he (in his civilian identity) is the prime suspect. And I'll leave off the summary there other than to say that in short order his search for her real killer has brought him into reluctant alliance with the other “mystery men,” has led to revelation of The Operator's own relationship with The General, and has brought us to the cliffhanger ending of #3 that bodes ill for a large number of abducted children (including Stark's son).
Each issue includes a text page along with development sketches for the characters, in which Liss discusses the genesis of the project and what he hopes to accomplish, mainly to build the story out of some of the central issues of the period – “race and gender inequality, poverty and greed, unfair labor practices, and many other gritty realities of the Depression” (#1). Those are are indeed present.
This has been a good read so far and I'm looking forward to the two concluding issues. Perhaps it will even become an ongoing and I might actually be buying a Marvel comic on a monthly basis.
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One interesting sidenote. “Serendipity”: “the occurrence or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way” (per the Google search “define serendipity”). In issue #2, the archaeologist who is going to end up becoming Achilles is picked up at Curtiss Airfield in Queens, NY. Soon after leaving the airfield, the car in which he is riding is stopped at a red-green traffic light. There's no middle yellow caution light – just stop-go. It was a happy coincidence that just before reading these, over the weekend I was looking at John Olsen's rather extensive commentary on the Shadow novel I blogged about recently, Partners of Peril, where he writes: “Another point of interest is that apparently in Theodore Tinsley's version of 1936 New York, the street lights had no yellow. It's mentioned that a taxi and a sedan pass a green traffic light which immediately turns to red. [However,] Manhattan had completed the switchover to three-color lights by the mid-1920s.” Ah-ha! I thought – I just caught the creators of Mystery Men in a goof! Not so, however ... a quick internet search found this: “A shot of the last remaining red-green traffic lights out in Rockaway, Queens, New York City ….”
The point is not that I caught the creators in any kind of error – I didn't, and that's fine – but rather that you can learn all kinds of cool things writing and researching for a blog! I never knew there was ever such a thing as red-green traffic lights.