Throughout its established history, the Marvel Universe has experienced periods of great conflict and turmoil. Usually when this happens a group of heroes comes forward to combat evil and fight injustice. When outlaws ran amok in the Old West they were confronted by heroic gunslingers such as the Two Gun Kid, the Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt. During World War II, when the tyranny of the Axis Powers threatened freedom, heroes like Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner stepped forward to take them on.
What about the ’20s and ’30s though? The time leading up to WWII was just as turbulent as the other heroic eras, perhaps even more so. Violent organized crime gangs waged war against each other in the streets and corruption ran rampant. It was definitely an era of the Marvel Universe that needed heroes and in 1932 it got them. Announced yesterday at C2E2, the five-issue “Mystery Men” miniseries from writer David Liss (“Black Panther: The Man Without Fear”) and artist Patrick Zircher (“Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without a Face”) introduces readers to the first masked crime fighters based out of the Marvel U’s New York. CBR News spoke with Liss about the June-debuting series, which features five all-new characters.
Fans of Liss’ work on “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear” know the writer is capable of telling a modern day pulp story, but he’s equally comfortable telling pulp stories set against a historical backdrop. His first comic work was the “Daring Mystery Comics 70th Anniversary Special” starring the World War II era costumed hero known as The Phantom Reporter. In addition to his comic work, Liss has penned a number of best-selling historical thriller novels, the latest of which, “The Devil’s Company,” was published to critical acclaim in 2010.
“This was something I got excited about doing as soon as [editor] Bill Rosemann approached me with the prospect of doing it,” Liss told CBR News. “Obviously I’m comfortable writing in a historical milieu and I had done so before with my Phantom Reporter one-shot. It was also a lot of fun to craft some of these new heroes from scratch and figure out how a first generation of costumed vigilantes would come about.”
In 2009, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting took readers back to 1939 with “The Marvels Project” and showed how the coming conflict of WWII gave birth to the Marvel Universe’s first generation of costumed super heroes. In “Mystery Men” Liss takes readers back several years and examines the origins of an earlier group of pulp-inspired heroes. “‘The Marvels’ Project’ was basically recounting the origin of the Marvel Universe from its traditional starting point,” Liss said. “What we did with this book was that we decided to set things a few years earlier and deal less with the first super heroes like Captain America, the Human Torch and Namor and deal with the first costumed vigilantes; the first people to put on masks and fight crime.”
In “Mystery Men” this initial wave of costumed crime fighters include The Operative, the Surgeon, the Revenant, the Aviatrix and Achilles. “Since it’s an ensemble piece, it’s hard to say exactly who the protagonist of ‘Mystery Men’ is, but the Operative is definitely [a] central figure in the story. “I don’t want to say too much about him because a lot of his life story — who he is and how he got to be who he is — is revealed over the course of the five issues,” Liss explained. “When we first meet him he’s not a vigilante in the traditional sense but he is already putting on a mask to accomplish certain kinds of things. So he’s already used to operating underground and hiding his identity. It was very important to me that at least some of the characters be people who were already wearing costumes before they became vigilantes.”
“Mystery Men” is a team book and the Operative will initially serve as the point of view character into the mysterious world of the Marvel Universe’s pulp-inspired heroes. “Some of the other issues will have other characters narrating. We definitely jump around a bit in perspective, but his is the opening and the closing narrative,” Liss said. “I think it’s fair to say he’s the center of the story, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that any of the other characters are of lesser importance.”
Like the Operative, the four other Mystery Men will have costumed identities that developed organically out of their backgrounds. “The Surgeon was previously a doctor. He’s someone who would be used to wearing a mask in ordinary life. The Revenant is a former stage magician and he uses that background to help create the illusion that he has mystical powers. Then we have the Aviatrix, and when Bill and Patrick and I first started talking about this project we thought it would be fun to have somebody who wears a jet pack. But we said, ‘Okay, let’s make it a woman,'” Liss elaborated. “We wanted to do things that were a little bit away from the mainstream of the pulp formula, while still adhering to it. We wanted to bring a more contemporary sensibility to some of the pulp motifs, so creating these new characters was a lot of fun.”
Liss’ creations in “Mystery Men” will find themselves embroiled in a story similar in tone to those featured in Pulp magazines such as “The Shadow” or “The Spider,” where gritty crime stories were mixed with elements of the fantastic. “‘Mystery Men’ begins as a traditional murder mystery. A beautiful Broadway starlet is found murdered. Her death is complicated and involves a nasty family dynamic and a much larger plot as well,” Liss told CBR. “There are two principal antagonists in the story. One is another new character and the other is somebody from the lower drawers of the Marvel Universe. I wanted to pick a character who I thought would fit in naturally with this pulp environment, but also add a good comic book element to it. I didn’t want to make this simply a noir story. I wanted a dynamic comic book element to it.”
Rounding out the cast of “Mystery Men” are a number of new and familiar characters. The familiar faces will include figures from both real world and Marvel Universe history.
Artist Patrick Zircher has been tasked with bringing to life the main and supporting cast of “Mystery Men.” Zircher’s covers for the recent “Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without a Face” mini-series showed his aptitude for drawing pulp inspired stories and Liss has been amazed by the work his collaborator is doing on “Mystery Men.” “I’ve seen some of Patrick’s art and it’s really hard for me to sufficiently express my enthusiasm for what he brings to this. There hasn’t been a time where I see a page of his art and don’t feel incredibly lucky to be involved with this project,” Liss remarked. “I think he’s an absolutely amazing artist. His style is incredibly crisp and vivid and detailed, but at the same time there’s all the elements that I think people will want from a pulp story. I think whatever success this book has it will be in large part due to what Patrick brings to it. It’s one of the best looking books I’ve ever seen.”