If you ask me period pieces aren’t explored enough in comics. There was Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Black Panther and Crew, but what about an all original cast of characters? You get that today in comic shops with Mystery Men, as
David Liss explores the 1930’s Marvel heroes you never knew existed.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
Meet Marvel’s never-before-seen heroes of the 1930s! With a new evil washing over an unsuspecting New York City, the Operative, the Aviatrix, the Surgeon, the Revenant and Achilles blast through dangers from blood-soaked mob warehouses to monster-infested mansions, and fight to blow the lid off a conspiracy that could bring the nation itself to its knees! Award-winning historical-thriller novelist David Liss (BLACK PANTHER: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR) weaves an edge-of-your-seat and in-continuity adventure intertwined with America’s most scandalous crimes! Plus: Liss takes on classic Golden Age hero the Phantom Reporter! By day, he’s a cub reporter — by night, he’s the relentless scourge of the underworld! But what is the Reporter’s uncanny origin?
Can I jump in easily?
This is a self contained collection so most definitely yes. This book doesn’t even reference newer characters so you don’t even need to know Marvel canon to get it. The villain does show up in Doctor Strange from time to time, but for the rest they’re all only appearing here.
Reason 1: The heroes capture that pulp fun.
You got a rocket backpack wearing hero, a guy in a black mask, a mysterious African American magician and more.
They go by the names The Aviatrix, The Operative, Achilles, The Revenant and The Surgeon. Much like the Phantom these characters don’t have otherworldly powers but instead must rely on their courage and god given abilities to enact justice. Even Achilles isn’t superpowered, though his Amulet of Achilles does give him increased endurance. David Liss has created quite a cool team between these five characters and their mix of personalities and abilities works quite well. There are remnants of many great pulp stories amongst these characters and together they make for an interesting group for a Marvel universe 1930’s team.
It’s always a war with you guys.
Reason 2: It’s real dark and that includes the villains.
Artist Patch Zircher’s best work in this collection is when monsters show up. We’re talking decaying children, werewolves, and a mysterious big bosomed woman named Nox. In a truly haunting scene, the General (the main baddy for the first half of the collection) is going to have sex with a little girl in a brothel only to discover her skin rotting away as she turns into the voice of Nox. Zircher draws this transformation in a very realistic and gross sort of way to send shivers down your spine. The fact that Nox lets this girl rot into dust once she’s done talking to the General gives you an idea of what sort of villains we’re dealing with here.
The heroes are also cast in shadow nearly every moment. They deal in a world of corruption and inequality amongst the poor and rich and have no reason to fight in the light. That includes corrupt cops chasing their every act and the nearly constant threat of a cocked gun in an alleyway.
Reason 3: Classic villainy carries the story forward.
In the first chapter, the Operative loses his beloved. He quickly learns of her death and gets a knock at the door. The police. They want to pin it on him and he can’t have it. This sets in motion his meeting other members of the Mystery Men as he gets embroiled in a mission to stop super-powered villains take over America. It has the sensibilities of 1930’s fears wrapped up in revenge for a dame lost and a country in need of heroes who just aren’t there.
The Surgeon knows his way around needles.
Reasons to be wary?
This is a slow read with a pace that’s more about relishing in the time and genre than delivering a fast-paced story. This will turn off many as it requires a concentrated read to really appreciate what the creators are doing.
It’s hard to shake the feeling these characters are more homages than original creations. The Surgeon seems to be something like Dark Man, the Revenant similar to Shadow, The Operative like some kind of Zorro hero, the Aviatrix similar to the Rocketeer, and finally, Achilles is similar to a classic superhero who is basic, but heroic. Don’t get me wrong, I like them, but they’re all a little less interesting because they seem to be respecting other creations. You also don’t get to know these characters right off the bat and instead must follow along until a flashback is in order. This gave me a similar impression to recent DC films where the characters could use an origin before getting thrown together like this.
Is there a rationale to the reasons?
I’m a big fan of noir in all types so I was a sucker for how good this comic was at pulling at those tropes. The pulp sensibilities are hard to deny too and one gets the impression Marvel was attempting to fill a gap where they had nothing else like it. They succeeded. Now whether or not you like it depends on your interests as I think this type of story won’t be loved by everyone. I can only hope Marvel releasing this collection now means we’re in for more 1930’s action from the Mystery Men.