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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Remember that Ben Stiller superhero spoof from 1999 called Mystery Men? Or the Bob Burden comic book it was based on?

Well, those aren’t the mystery men I’m talking about. Keep rewinding. To the 1930’s.

Before there were superheroes, there were mystery men. In fact, superheroes WERE mystery men. Look at Action Comics No. 6: “Dedicated to assisting the helpless and oppressed, is a Mystery-Man named Superman!” Victor Fox (Will Eisner’s boss) started publishing Mystery Men Comics in 1939. After its first issue, Marvel Comics switched its name to Marvel Mystery Comics.

And starting last year, mystery men are back at Marvel. There’s no comic shop in my town (I know, shocking), so I waited for the first reprint binding (did it really have to be hardback?) of David Liss and Patrick Zircher’s Mystery Men to appear in my mail box last month. The duo were tasked to create “all-new characters that evoke the pulp aesthetic but also felt like real Marvel characters.”

So as the U.S. reboots from the Great Recession, Marvel decides to rewrite its history to the start of the Great Depression. And like any look backwards to an imagined golden age (see Rick Santorum’s Presidential campaign), the results are a mash-up of fuzzy nostalgia and cold-blooded invention.

Mystery Men is set in 1932. A nightmare moment for the American economy, but a dream one for superheroes. The Shadow had premiered the previous Spring, and Doc Savage, the Depression’s second mightiest pulp phenomenon, would appear the following year, alongside runner-ups the Spider, the Phantom Detective, and (on radio) the Lone Ranger. Liss appropriately calls this “the murky pre-WW2 years of Marvel’s history.” Future Marvel publisher Martin Goodman hadn’t even broken into the market. Western Supernovel Magazine, his first pulp magazine, hit newsstands in 1933.

Liss dubs the first in his cast of “time-honored archetypes” the Operative. Aside from the baklava Zircher draws over his face, he’s L. Frank Packard’s 1914 Jimmie Dale, AKA the Gray Seal. A modern day gentleman thief employing his safe-picking skills against members of his social class in acts of Robin Hood do-goodery (what Republicans keep accusing  Obama of). The Op even leaves a calling card—like the dozen other Packard imitations of the teens and twenties and thirties.

He’s joined by the seemingly supernatural Revenant—a fancy word for “phantom,” the most overused name  in pulpdom (as in Fantômas, Grey Phantom, Phantom Crook, Phantom Detective, and, oh yeah, the Phantom). Lots of pulp heroes had occult (or at least hypnotic) powers, notably Chandu the Magician, the influential radio serial that premiered in, you guessed it, 1932.

But by issue two, Liss downgrades the Rev’s magic to Broadway gimmicks (like Mitt Romney after all the Primary debunking). Revenent is just a magician’s assistant rolling out stage tricks (“Crap. Not that fog again”) to battle police corruption. That seats him in the same casting call as the Shadow, Phantom Detective, and Doctor Coffin—a Hollywood actor who fakes his death to assume a crime-fighting alias. (What year? 1932.)

Third up: the Aviatrix. Despite the (intentional?) echo of dominatrix in her name, Zircher keeps this heroine admirably clothed. And so not a gesture toward the scantily-clad Domino Lady of 1930’s softporn fame. Which is a shame, because we get some misplaced “modern sensibilities” inserted into the series instead.

The Aviatrix is a female twist on The Rocketeer, who, in fact, was not a 1930’s character but David Stevens’ retro-creation for his 1982 comic book (better known for the 1991 Walt Disney film). Stevens was inspired by the Rocket Man film serials of the early 1950’s.  So Liss and Zircher only missed their target by two decades—or five or six depending how you do the math. (There’s probably a Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin joke in there, but I’m resisting.)

The Surgeon echoes another not-really-an-archetype type. Anyone remember Liam Neeson in the 1990 Darkman? I hope not. But Neeson’s character was another early example of a retro-pulping. Which for some reason includes horrific burn disfigurement, a trope I can’t find till the comic book-influenced Black Bat of 1939 (the hero gets a face full of acid, which in turn, spills back into other comic book origins). Liss’ Surgeon also flings a lot hypodermic needles, a visual motif of early comics I’m happy to see retconned.

Liss is back on target with the Surgeon’s murder streak. Forget Dexter and the Punisher. Homicidal heroes thrived best in the 30’s. Mister Death was first, a Gray Seal variant who instead of calling cards leaves corpses. (Go ahead, guess what year.) But no one can match the Spider’s body count, a blood trail dripping from 1933 to 1943. Though Liss’ Achilles comes close. The guy has to kill to prevent his magic amulet from killing him instead. (Which might explain a lot of Newt Gingrich’s behavior too.)

So instead of repeating more Rocketeer or Darkman anachronisms, Liss does effectively inject “modern Marvel sensibilities into older pulp archetypes.” Mimicking Stan Lee’s Silver Age pantheon of sad-luck mutations, we have a hero whose powers are as much curse as blessing. Liss also dips into another venerable Golden Age trope: archeologist discovers power-bestowing relic. (Achilles is the “A” from “SHAZAM,” Captain Marvel’s magic word, but that’s the wrong kind of Marvel.)

Liss also studied up on mystery men motivation. Unlike Golden Agers’ selfless philanthropy (why exactly does Superman care about truth and justice?), or Silver Agers’ struggle for redemption (with great powers come yada yada), these Mystery Men are all small-a avengers. They’ve been wronged. Batman was just a throwback. Alleys in the 30’s were stacked with the mission-inducing corpses of murdered loved ones. Those blood-spattered pearls spilling from the neck of the Operative’s girlfriend are Zircher’s visual homage to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. And since the Op’s girl is also the Aviatrix’s sister and the Revenant’s best friend, her death is a motivational grand slam. (The Surgeon has to settle for the massacre of his hometown, and Achilles is just pissed off because his girlfriend dumped him.)

Liss also stirs up “some of the real issues of the period” (including Nazis, union-busters, and Charles Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby), but he’s even more careful to inject “modern sensibilities” into the period’s “race and gender inequality.” Did I mention Revenant was African American? Zircher plays with the motif well, framing the character’s dark face with the hood of his white costume, a kind of reverse image Shadow. Unlike Rev. Herman Cain, he looks good in a white towel too. Liss pairs Rev off with the Aviatrix, despite the Operative’s romantic competition—and the array of state laws prohibiting interracial marriages. Costumed vigilantes (not the comic book kind) made those laws superfluous. The Klan was alive and kicking in 1932.

So Liss only dips his creative toe into the inequality cesspool swirling through the 30’s. Which is fine. He and Zircher just want us to have a friendly romp through their retro-theme park. Mystery Men is as much about reverse-sprinkling Marvel minutia (Baron Zemo, the Daily Bugle) into the time period as it is about the period itself. No complaint there.

Though with all the forgotten pulp heroes languishing in public domain limbo, couldn’t Marvel resurrect a few originals instead of cloning them? Or better, perform a minor retcon on some of those abandoned Timely characters from the early 40’s—the Angel, Black Widow, Miss Furry. The idea for Mystery Men originated not with Liss but his editor Bill Rosemann, so from a corporate perspective there are probably some very good reasons for minting all-new knock-offs. Which is perhaps the series’ loudest fun and its quiet failure.

(The GOP is rebooting itself with a cast of all-new knock-offs too. From a corporate perspective, there are probably some very good reasons to vote for them. If it were 1932, Republicans would have to settle for Herbert Hoover. And then watch FDR sweep all but six states in November.)

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