BURIED TREASURE: Older books worth digging for

 

THE MARVELS PROJECT #1 – 8  (Marvel, 2009-2010)  Ed Brubaker, story.  Steve Epting, art.  Dave Stewart, color art.  VC’s Chris Eliopoulos, letters.

I’d forgotten what an absolute gem this series is until I pulled out my copies and read this again all in one sitting.  Brubaker is the perfect choice to write this re-imagining of the beginnings of so many of Marvel/Timely’s pre-WWWII heroes.

Back in August 2009, I wrote a review of Issue #1 and had this to say about THE MARVELS PROJECT“What better way to top off a year-long celebration of 70 years of Marvel Comics than with a limited series that details the beginning of it all?  What better writer to handle with care the heady task of plotting this event and treating these long=term characters properly than Ed Brubaker? What better artist to trust with maintaining accurate historical detail while creating some exciting visuals that Steve Epting?”

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Boy, do Brubaker and Epting ever deliver on that expectation!  In a highly entertaining narrative fashion THE MARVELS PROJECT explains the start of the Marvel Universe and reveals the hidden connection between the heroes.  Brubaker gets down to business in Issue #1 and starts laying out the groundwork and builds on his foundation in every succeeding issue.  (What a welcome relief from some current long-winded epics that are 50% padding/filler in order to stretch them out.)  The unifying theme that connects all these heroes is the beginnings of World War II.  Both the United States and Germany seem to be in a technological race to be the first country to develop a super-human.  The carefully detailed art of Steve Epting looks authentic, like it was taken from old photographs.  All the action takes place between 1938 – 1941 - - and Epting’s illustrations of cars, buildings, clothing, items of furnishing and street scenes look like the real thing.  It’s some of the best work from a highly under-rated artist.

The well-known characters are here in their early stages = the original Human Torch and Toro, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America and Bucky, and Nick Fury.  Brubacker enhances the proceedings with some creations of his own along with some second-tier Marvel/Timely characters that get a showcase here = Dr. Thomas Halloway (the Angel), John Steele (the first super-soldier), The Destroyer (with links to the original Union Jack), Red Hargrove (Nick Fury’s buddy who inspired the Howling Commandos battle cry), and the Two-Gun Kid (via time travel).  My favorite is The Ferret, a non super-powered detective who doesn’t get much panel time but plays an important role in the proceedings.

Copies of THE MARVELS PROJECT were made available in both hardcover and trade paperback so these shouldn’t be too difficult to track down . Highly recommended.

RED SKULL: INCARNATE #1-5  (Marvel limited series, 2011)  Greg Pak, writer.  Mirko Colak, artist.  Matthew Wilson, colorist.  VC’s Clayton Cowles, letters.  David Aja, cover art.

What grabs the attention immediately is the series of cover illustrations all done by David Aja.  Each one looks like a realistic German propaganda poster (that is, if the Red Skull were an actual character in history).  Speaking of realism, writer Greg Pak has done an incredible amount of research (which he shares some of in the post-notes) evident throughout the story = settings, events, portrayals etc.

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We first meet the Red Skull as young Johann Schmidt, one of several orphans (mother died in childbirth, father unknown) abused by a cruel taskmaster at the Munich Home For Wayward Boys in 1923 Germany.  The beginnings of his involvement with the upstart Nazi party and his personal development start to play out in Issue #1, and the picture is grim.  It’s hard not to feel sad and depressed/disgusted by the end of the issue.

As Greg Pak relates in the afterword: “I took on RED SKULL: INCARNATE because, like countless others who have learned a little about the Holocaust, I’d struggled to understand how a nation often described as the most cultured in Europe could descend into the unfathomable barbarism of the Nazi regime.  To avoid repeating the horrors of the past, we desperately need to tell the stories of heroes who resist.  But we also need to struggle with the question of how everyday people can so willingly embrace evil.”

Pak’s attempt to answer that question is represented through the trials and tribulations of orphan Schmidt, albeit a very extreme example.  Events occur each issue that further harden his heart, bring out his cruelty and let it nurture, flourish and grow.  We see the turning points in his life that led to his joining the Nazi party in 1933, one of the youngest recruits.  Young Johann is an extreme opportunist always looking to move forward and willing to sacrifice friends and allies to get there.  His path forward leaves a shadow of blood, and as he says “nobody hits me and gets away with it”.  This series covers his life right up until the moment he achieves what he wants - - he gets the attention of Adolph Hitler.

Will you understand the core values of the Red Skull after reading this?  Well, at least you will learn how he developed them.  Will you begin to sympathize with the character?  Hardly - - he is too ruthless and cold.  Empathy?  Perhaps a few readers may, but that is also doubtful.  Will reading this disturb you and leave an impression?  I sincerely hope so, for all our sakes.

The next book reviewed isn’t buried as deeply as the other two mentioned here. However, with so many releases coming out it could easily have slipped your notice. I aim to correct that . . . .

SHADOWMAN GRAPHIC NOVEL VOLUME 1: BIRTH RITES   (Valiant, release date April 24, 2013)  Reprints SHADOWMAN #1-4 from November 2012 through February 2013. Justin Jordan & Patrick Zircher: Writers.  Patrick Zircher: Art.  Brian Reber: Color Art. Rob Steen & Dave Lanphear: Letterers.

Valiant Entertainment has been hitting a home run with every book they have re-launched since 2012, and SHADOWMAN is no exception.  What sets it apart from the rest of the Valiant bunch is its’ darker nature and flirtation with H. P. Lovecraft-flavored themes.  With Valiant reprinting the first four-issue arc in trade paperback format for just $9.99, there is no better time than now to pick up a sample and see if you enjoy the taste.

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As a former fan of the original SHADOWMAN, I’m very pleased with what writer Justin Jordan and artist Patrick Zircher are creating and re-working here.  There are also some marvelous characters that I don’t recall from the original series; so they may be fresh from the brain of Jordan: The Abettors. The Brethren. Mr. Twist (a classic creation!).  I also welcome the return of Master Darque (the legendary Valiant villain).  I learned something new in that Darque is a former student (a very rebellious one) of the ethereal Universitas Divinum, eerily depicted in panels of primary red hues.

Jack Boniface is the main character, who learns of his inherited and unpredictable powers after discarding a protective amulet he had worn for years.  This updated version of Boniface seems to have an even tighter connection to the voodoo and mysticism that has a strong presence in New Orleans.  The supporting cast is fleshed out very well in the opening story arc, which leads into a soon-to-be classic confrontation once Jack gets a better handle on his powers.

This is by far the darkest of the new Valiant titles and has a different tone to it by comparison.  There is a Lovecraftian feel to it as it involves older and mysterious races and hidden secrets, and could easily become one of my favorite Valiant books for that reason.

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