Monday, June 13, 2011
PULPTACULAR | Marvel's Mystery Men #1
Mystery Men #1
Written by David Liss; Illustrated by Patrick Zircher
It’s a crazy idea: telling a story about all-new, pulp-era characters set in the Marvel Universe. Not pulped-up versions of classic Marvel characters as in Marvel Noir. Nor new versions of classic pulp characters a la The Twelve. Just good, old-fashioned, completely original, pulp storytelling set in a world where the Daily Bugle is the biggest paper in New York City. It’s so crazy it just might work.
And on every level that really matters, it does work. David Liss has written an exciting story about a masked Robin Hood who calls himself The Operative. By day, he’s wealthy socialite Dennis Piper. Wealthy, but under the thumb of his father, who’s got the real power and influence in New York. Which means that by night Dennis Piper is robbing from his own kind to help feed starving families affected by the Great Depression.
I almost described him as a playboy, because that’s the archetype, but he’s not. Piper’s in love with a beautiful stage actress named Alice Starr, and she with him. There’s a beautiful sequence early on when the couple are at a society party and Patrick Zircher draws the crowd melting away so that only Piper and Alice inhabit their world for a couple of wordless panels. That and Zircher’s gift for drawing real people with real facial expressions and body language instantly makes this a couple to cheer for. They have a lot working against them: Piper’s double-life and lack of real friendship in his social circle; Alice’s friends all encouraging her to keep her eyes on the next rung of the ladder they think she’s climbing. In a very short time, Liss and Zircher create a lot of empathy for these poor kids in this crazy town.
Unfortunately, it’s not meant to last. It happens early enough in the story not to be a spoiler, but Alice is brutally murdered by a mysterious figure in service to an entity called a Fear Lord. I’m not reading Marvel’s current Fear Itself event, so I can only speculate that this villain is somehow tied to that, but it’s not important. It’s a horrible pair of bad guys (“horrible” in a good way, I mean) and because I liked Alice so much, I immediately wanted to see them pay for what they did. Of course I’m going to have to wait.
In the meantime, someone’s framing Piper for Alice’s death and he’s on the run from crooked cops and his own father as he tries to figure out what happened. Toss in Alice’s twin sister (an adventuresome aviatrix named Sarah) and rumors of a masked vigilante called the Revenant and you’ve got a mystery with emotional depth and enough weird twists to keep things interesting. Liss also makes sure that his 1930s aren’t just “speakeasies, dirigibles, and awesome hats,” as he says in his afterword. The ‘30s were also about “issues of race and gender inequity, poverty and greed.” He includes enough of that to weight down his world, so when his heroes fly into action against it, I felt it and was lifted up with them.
Though Mystery Men works – and works extremely well – I’m fearful that it’s still a crazy idea. Will pulp fans who don’t currently read Marvel comics be put off by its setting in the Marvel Universe? Will Marvel fans buy it without Spider-Man? Is there a big enough crossover between Marvel fans and pulp fans to support a mini-series like this? To that last question: I certainly hope so. Because only one issue in, I want many more than just the promised five issues.