Amidst all the high-stakes action and stunning revelations that occur every month across the Marvel Comics line, it is perhaps easy to forget that someone had to design all those brightly colored costumes for heroes and villains alike. In our heroes' universe, this task may be handled by Reed Richards or custom crafted with a given adventurer's own needs in mind. Outside the fictional universe, the costumes are designed by the likes of Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, or, more recently, John Cassaday and Alex Ross. An exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum even featured comics-inspired couture from major designers.
In August, comics and high fashion will join forces once again in "Models Inc.," a four-issue miniseries written by Paul Tobin ("Marvel Adventures Avengers") and illustrated by Vicenc Villagrassa. The first issue will also feature an eight-page backup story starring Project Runway's fashion mentor Tim Gunn, which will be written by Marc Sumerak with an artist yet to be announced.
CBR News caught up with Tobin and Sumerak to discuss the series, which stars Mary Jane Watson, Patsy "Hellcat" Walker, Jill Jerold, Chili Storm and Millicent (a.k.a. Millie the Model) Collins as they try to solve a Fashion Week murder.
"Models Inc." is somewhat unusual for modern American comic book, even though it has precedents going back some fifty years. The project might go so far as to defy reader expectation with its style and tone - though the concept appears fairly lighthearted, there is, after all, the matter of a dead body.
"At heart, it's a murder mystery, so it has some dark elements," Paul Tobin told CBR. "I tried to stay away from making it 'noir,' though, because I think that can become a crutch for a writer, and if a writer starts out on a crutch, that means the reader will be hobbling along as well. It's almost Agatha Christie/Nancy Drew, but with very pretty ladies, and set in the Marvel Universe. Johnny Storm plays a large role, for instance. Overall, it's a tense thriller, but within those parameters I tried to remain true to the models' characters, which are fairly whimsical."
As to what special abilities -- or superpowers -- each of the models might bring to solving the crime, Tobin said that the strength of this team is in the personalities. "The main thing they bring is that they're all there for each other. That's the number one thing a friend needs in a crisis, and it is a crisis, here, because evidence is pointing to Millie as the murderer. So the models have to delve into the crisis, band together, track down the real bad guys, and crack some heads," Tobin said. "Pasty 'Hellcat' Walker is righteously skilled at kicking butt when it needs to be kicked. Chili Storm is the stalwart anchor, because she has a fire that never quits. And Toni Turner and Jill Jerold know how to put things together, see the puzzle, and match up the pieces. I have to say, one of the great joys of working on this title is moving these women out of their comfort zones and seeing how they react."
Bringing something new to the table was incentive enough for Tobin to work on "Models, Inc.", but that there is more to the series than mere novelty. "I love watching the Hulk beat up Thor (which he can totally do) but every writer loves to work on unusual projects precisely because it stretches the writing muscles," he said. "I've been mentally writing Iron Man fights since I was five years old, but this is something new, and that makes it a different kind of exciting.
"Beyond that, when I was young, I was reading every comic I could get my hands on, and a lot of those comics were from garage sales. Because of that, the Marvel 'model' comics were as much a part of Marvel to me as any other genre, but when I started writing for Marvel the models were really nowhere to be seen. I began putting them into comics, lots of guest appearances, and that was noticed. Then... boom. 'Models Inc.' was born, and beauty returned to the Marvel Universe."
Along with announcing the Tim Gunn guest appearance in issue #1, New York Times bloggers also suggested that Marvel is hoping to give away copies of "Models Inc." at New York's Fashion Week in September. With this in mind, CBR asked what fashionistas, or non-comics readers who enjoy "Project Runway" and the like, will enjoy about this book. "Story. Characters. I think pretty much all readers, whether regular readers, or fashionistas new to the medium, really have the same bottom line when looking for reading material," Tobin said. "Do the characters speak to them, and is the story solid? I've put a lot of work into the story, and made the characters as human as possible. That's what always speaks to me in a character, no matter what genre I'm into at any given time. Doctor Doom's noble rage, Spider-Man's sense of responsibility, the way the Hulk tries to fit into society, or Millie the Model's zest for life; these are all things that speak to me, and if I can believe in a character, then I think that gives a reader the chance to do the same."
On the other side, comics readers who don't have any idea about fashion can take heart that "Models Inc." is a story that takes place in the fashion world, but is not necessarily about fashion. "I promise there will be no quiz of top designers at any point, and readers will not have to dress up before reading," Tobin said. "I'm having a surprising amount of fun flipping through 'Vogue' and studying the fashion world myself, and the hardcore fashion world will enjoy a few dropped in tidbits, but the heart of this story is a murder within the Marvel Universe. All readers need to bring is a love of reading."
The artist on the series, Vicenc Villagrassa, may not be familiar to many superhero readers, but Tobin said that Villagrassa was chosen with the particular needs of "Models Inc." in mind. "We popped around some names in the beginning, everyone from a couple legends to some relative unknowns like Vicenc. It came down to the usual decisions in comics -- can he make the pages look nice, and can he do it on time? Beyond that, of course, we had to go into the project with the models in mind. No matter how talented an individual artist might be, this work called for not only the ability to draw very beautiful women, but to make each of the models a strong individual, rather than simple variations of type. We believed (and still strongly believe) that we found those qualities in Vicenc."
Though the entire Marvel Universe is currently enmeshed in the Norman Osborn-orchestrated Dark Reign, Tobin revealed that "Models Inc." will tie-in only "softly." "There's one moment when Millie goes toe-to-toe with the Sentry (I'm kidding!) but other than that what we tried to do is not have it interfere too much. There was early talk of having Tony Stark be a character, seeing as how he seems like a natural sponsor for Fashion Week, but Norman Osborn and Matt Fraction are teaming up to make life hard (and really interesting) for Tony right now, so Kyle Richmond had to step in with the sponsorship. Poor guy... it's tough to hang out with all those supermodels."
The issue #1 backup story starring Tim Gunn, a fashion consultant most famous for his role on the Bravo reality series "Project Runway," will be written by Marc Sumerak, who said the idea to bring in a real-life icon arose from the attention that "Models Inc." received when it was first announced. "From what I understand, when Marvel was originally putting together the 'Models Inc.' limited series, they discovered that there was a lot of unexpected buzz about the series from media outlets outside the comic book world," Sumerak told CBR. "Since the book had a very obvious connection to the world of fashion, the folks in charge were looking for some interesting ways to bring the Marvel Universe and the fashion universe even closer together. Someone on the Marvel staff happened to be friends with a producer on one of Tim Gunn's TV projects, calls were made, and the ball began to roll!"
Sumerak was then approached to write Mr. Gunn's first comic book appearance. "I had the great honor of working with editorial whiz-kid Charlie Beckerman on a few projects in [editor] Mark Paniccia's office, including 'Weapon X: First Class.' One day, Charlie dropped me a line to see whether or not I was familiar with fashion guru Tim Gunn. Having been a big fan of 'Project Runway' since its first season, I was well aware of Tim and his impeccable sense of style, so I obviously jumped at the chance to be involved in a project featuring him," Sumerak recalled. "After writing up a few possible takes on how to bring Tim into the Marvel Universe, we found a story that everyone was happy with and, as Tim would say, we made it work!"
The "New York Times" article revealed that Tim Gunn will be donning the Iron Man armor, and Sumerak was reluctant to reveal details beyond this intriguing teaser. "I don't want to give away too much of the story, but Tim is on hand to help celebrate the life of a fashion icon who has been a major part of the Marvel Universe for decades. That celebration quickly turns into complete chaos, though, and someone has to step up to play the role of Fashion's Greatest Defender! And who better than the man that plays that role everyday in the real world (and on TV)?"
As to Gunn's thoughts on Tony Stark's design for the Iron Man armor, Sumerak said that this and other memorable costumes would be addressed in "Models, Inc." #1. "Readers will get to see Tim's opinions on a number of Marvelous fashion statements in this story -- from the tres chic to the just plain weak!" Sumerak revealed. "As for his opinion on the Iron Man armor? Wait and see! But anyone who knows Tim is already aware of how he feels about a well-made suit..."