Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Steve Epting
Colours by Dave Stewart
It often feels like these tell-all histories are just a great excuse to retcon a bunch of stuff and make everything relevant and related to modern day continuity. Companies force their latest hot properties into the history just to make everything seem like it intertwines, even when it shouldn’t. This comic does not do that. These characters already existed back then and Brubaker is simply telling their cohesive story as effectively as he can. Wolverine does not appear in this comic, it’s not that sort of story, which I really like. Nor does Deadpool turn up as a lowly soldier . This is history, kids, Brubaker-style.
Ed Brubaker uses an old Timely Comics (the company that would become Atlas Comics and, later, Marvel Comics) character, The Angel, to be our guide. He’s just a doctor, a good man, who has an old man as a case. This old man used to be the Two-Gun Kid, but he’s time travelled and is now an old man in the late 1930’s and can remember the future. The age of heroes that looms in front of them fills his memory, and the Angel’s destiny. It’s a sweet yet very eloquently put introduction that shows us we are firmly planted in the 616 universe, which is the main Marvel Universe.
We go on to observe a discussion held by the President as he travels on a yacht. The second great war is just beginning to rumble across the Atlantic and it’s ripples are being felt. It’s a static scene that Brubaker handles with a deftness that drew me in easily and then he simply segues into a dramatic moment of a Nazi ship trawling through the Sargasso Sea and dredging up dead Atlanteans. Namor crests a wave and discovers such horror, and right then I can understand why he hates the surface dwellers so deeply. Brubaker, and Epting, easily show us a cold and remorseless Namor as he kills for the sins and atrocities committed during war.
The original Human Torch, a synthetic man who bursts into flame, is shown to us as an experiment that divides the city. A German scientist is presented as he struggles with his internal ethical code. A young Nick Fury is still a man who others want to know and the Angel steps up to be the hero that he has to become as his city burns. The story works well because it feels like an espionage tale of political intrigue that is affected by some two-fisted war action and then book ended by superheroics on a relatively real grand scale. This isn’t vigilantism as representation of a sexual fetish, as Watchmen and others portray the act of donning the costume, but rather patriotism represented by a higher power of thematic reaction. These men all want to do something better and this is the theme of the book. Every cast member strives to fulfil their duty upon Earth, at least once they figure out what that role is.
The Angel represents man as he watches the world around him change and wants to do better. He doesn’t quite believe that all around him will follow suit but if he can influence one man, one situation, then he’ll have influenced the world. This mindset is what makes it so hard for him to continue when fellow heroes start to end up left for dead in alleyways. There’s the concern that the first man ‘over the top’ will only lead other to their doom as well. The Angel has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and watching him work under it still is an impressive and inspiring thing.
The Human Torch represents the detached view of humanity, the idealised view that it is perfect and yet the ever-present undercurrent of knowledge that it will never be perfect. He desperately wants to be human and yet at times is completely glad that he is not. In the end he works to be something just more than human but fulfils this role with the help of other humans, either he is making them better or they make him better. Either way, the point is that all are made better through effective collaboration.
Nick Fury represents the youthful ability to make anything happen. Insurmountable odds and incalculable evil are no match for a mindset that knows it is always right. Fury is brash and pigheaded from the outset and it works completely because if you don’t believe the bullets will hit you on the battlefield, well then you’re as good as bulletproof.
Namor represents the hatred of others that can only eventually manifest in the hatred of one’s own kind as you realise that deep down we are all the same. The Atlanteans are still human, they still live on Earth, and to hate because of perceived differences of skin tone or arbitrary country lines will eventually make a mockery of your beliefs. Namor sees that Atlanteans can cause as much pain to themselves as man can and so he bends his will to a new hatred, that of evil. Sadly, Namor doesn’t seem to be able to let go of his hatred but rather to only vent it into a direction and hope he was true of aim.
Finally, we get Captain America. A man who represents an ideal, the ideal, and who knows he would not have gotten a chance with what he originally had and so he has to make the most of it at every turn. Once the scientist who creates the Super Solider Serum is killed, and thus Steve Rogers will be the only one instead of the first of many, he sees that much responsibility rests squarely on his shoulders. He cannot let anyone down and so he represents the burden it is to be man. The need to make the most of this one go that any of us get to complete our turn in this game of life.
Over eight issues, Brubaker and Steve Epting show us a dense character study that takes in the tone and style of the era. Much of the tale is inevitable, Steve Rogers will become the man he must become. The Invaders will slowly be assembled. The war will be fought and won, but this story isn’t about endings, not in the slightest. This tale is all about the beginning. This tale brings us the Marvel Universe, as we know it, and shows how it formed around the war that influenced the rest of the world as we see it today. And this is possibly the biggest downfall of this series. Though it is well written and gorgeously drawn (I could petition for an Epting mini on the Human Torch), I felt like the overall story arc lacked a finality to it. Sure, the moments work very well as they go but they don’t make an exact and finite whole in my eyes. This is much more a character study, and a very beautiful and erudite one, and I can appreciate it for that but there was a part of me hoping for just a bit more of a story, I will admit. The start kicks off defining these men but by the end we’re simply assembling pieces to get events in the right order. It doesn’t punch a second time as hard as it did the first.
There is one thing that Brubaker should be commended on and that is his portrayal of the Nazi agent who infiltrates the American system. Sure, the man does some terrible things but in his final moment we read the letter that he leaves his wife, and which will never reach her. He explains that he does this for his country, and that he hopes she will always remember him as her husband. It’s almost a sweet moment and I’m not sure if it’s meant to fool us into thinking that not everyone is completely bad, or if it is simply showing us how easily a man can fool those around him, and can even commit such an act upon himself. Either way, I was glad that Brubaker included it to show a more wholistic picture of the war that was raging.
I get the feeling that this story was directly in Brubaker’s wheelhouse and something he’d probably like to tackle once more. He does well with all of the characters involved and really makes you feel like you’re reading the absolute one-stop shop for this time period in the Marvel U.
Verdict – Check It. This is a solid series, and there are so many reasons to buy it (the long and slow-burning plot, the amazing pencil and colour work of Epting and Stewart, the definitive history of the Marvel U) but I don’t feel that’s the rating coming out of me. I enjoyed the title, and think many of you would as well, but it wasn’t all that I exactly hoped it would be. I really hope in the end you’ll go out and check it out for yourself and make up your mind. It might be just what you’re after, and I’m pretty sure you won’t walk away disappointed. This is far too grand to leave anyone thinking they didn’t get some value for the price of admission.
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