The MARVELS PROJECT Project: Marvel History with Ed Brubaker

Epting on Drawing The Marvels Project

Beginning August 12the, The Marvels Project will tell the story of what happened behind the scenes when the Marvel Universe was first beginning.

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, who won critical and sales success with the "Death of Captain America" storyline, are uniting for the eight-issue mini-series that fleshes out the history of the Marvel Universe. While The Marvels Project will focus on well-known characters like Namor, Nick Fury, Human Torch, and Captain America, it will also touch upon characters like Angel, Fiery Mask, Phantom Bullet, Mr. "E," Electro the Robot, and more.

The title of the comic is reminiscent of "The Manhattan Project," and Brubaker told Newsarama when the comic was announced that the similarity is no coincidence. Much like our world was racing to make an atomic bomb during the turmoil of World War II, this story shows how the race to create super-human soldiers was behind the origins of the Marvel Universe.

Continuing a series of articles looking at the creators behind and characters in The Marvels Project, Newsarama talked to Brubaker about the story he's telling in the comic and why this project has been so enjoyable for the writer.

Newsarama: Ed, just to start, how would you describe The Marvels Project?

Ed BRUBAKER: It's this giant espionage story that really tells the story of the origin of Marvel. It's a story that has been touched upon here and there, especially in the first issue of Marvels, which showed things from an outsider's perspective. But this is an insider's point of view of how superheroes began in the Marvel world. I hesitate to use the term "universe" too much because, as yet, there hasn't been anything extra-terrestrial involved in it, but who's to say?

I keep describing it to people that it's sort of like The Right Stuff, but instead of it being about the race to space, it's the race to create superhumans. Back then, there really was the race to create the atomic bomb. But in this world, the governments are all at war and although America isn't involved yet, it knows it could be at any moment, and everyone's racing to create the first atomic person, basically, or the first artificial soldier. That's what the Marvel Universe grows out of, this time period.

NRAMA: You had told us you were hoping to integrate characters that haven't been seen since the Golden Age. Is that still happening?

BRUBAKER: Yeah. And it's really fun for me as a writer to look at all the characters that Marvel created back in 1939 and the early '40s. A lot of these characters would appear once or twice, or some would appear for six or seven issues and then some other character would take over that book. But there are a lot of characters that were introduced back then. And then you look at the characters that did last, and you've got the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, and the Human Torch. And a few others here and there that have stayed around.

So you take that and take the sort of modern retcons of Marvel continuity that we know about, and try to create something that makes sense. It's a big challenge, in a way, to integrate the modern take on how that world began with the actual stuff from back then. But it's a lot of fun. It's one of the most fun projects I've had at Marvel actually.

When I was a kid, around 5 years old, I got the origin of Marvel heroes one year for Christmas. And I never imagined I'd be sitting down writing the in-continuity origin of Marvel. It never even occurred to me that it was a job anybody could get. And Tom Brevoort just called me up and said, hey, for the 70th anniversary, we want you and Steve Epting to tell the story of the origin of Marvel. And I was just like, wow. What? [laughs] OK!

NRAMA: What's the biggest challenge of writing a story like this?

BRUBAKER: If there's anything that's challenging to me, it's how epic the story is. Once I figured what the story would be, it's incredibly epic. It's not doing one hero. It's very sprawling. Each issue so far has had four or five main characters that are each doing their own thing. So it's pretty big.

NRAMA: You know, I recently read the John Adams book that led to the mini-series on HBO, and it was amazing to read the inside stories behind the origin of America.

BRUBAKER: I know where you're going. And yes, this is exactly like that. [laughs]

NRAMA: That's what I was thinking. I always knew that they signed the Declaration of Independence, but I didn't know the stories and the intrigue and the people behind that document. And that's kind of what we're talking about here, right?

BRUBAKER: Yes. That's exactly what this is, except it's about the Marvel Universe. And that's been one of the things that has been the most fun, actually, is taking the real world history of that time and working it in with the Marvel history with all these characters.

NRAMA: Are you a history buff?

BRUBAKER: I'm a little bit of a history buff. I love history, and I'll often get caught up with specifics, like, "Oh, I'm going to be obsessed with Ancient Rome for a year!" You know? But I'm not one of those people who's constantly reading history. My reading habits are more obsession-related. Like when I was 25, I was apparently reading all the same Jack the Ripper books that Alan Moore was reading. But I love history, and that's one of the reasons I dug this project, was being able to take the Marvel world and inject real-world people and real things that were really happening.

It's something I've done in Cap. In the origin of the Winter Soldier storyline, he's created by this thing called Department X. That's who programmed him and everything. And that was a real thing. Department X was the arm of the KGB that did those type of experimental things. And I just thought that was real funny that it was called Department X. It sounds like the X-Men's Russian counterpart would be.

But in researching espionage in the '30s, I was thinking, well, what was the president's daily bulletin like back in 1939 and did he get one? And I've been looking into that kind of stuff to find out the history of this world. I'm telling this story where clearly we're injecting a huge amount of fiction into it, with superheroes and men in tubes who catch fire and all sorts of crazy stuff going on in it. But you want it to feel like the way the world did at the tail end of the depression, when World War II is going on in Europe and America is a few years away from getting in but it's tense. So I actually found out that FDR had a secret intelligence group that he met with, so I put them in there. Being able to use bits and pieces of reality to sort of blend in with our fiction makes it feel a lot more real to me, even though it's fiction.

NRAMA: Have you discovered some characters as you've looked back at Marvel's history that are fairly unknown now but are being spotlighted in this story?

BRUBAKER: Yeah, there's one specific one who I hope ends up being a fairly big player. I think if the story goes the way I think it's going, because you can never tell until you get to the end, but if it goes the way I think it's going, there's a character who will hopefully be entering modern Marvel too. I found this weird old Marvel character who'd only appeared once or twice, and I figured out a way to fit him into the story, and it actually made a ton of sense. And he has some good links to a couple of modern Marvel characters. It's a lot of fun to do stuff like that.

NRAMA: You didn't say who it is!

BRUBAKER: I can't tell you! I don't want to ruin it! [laughs] He appears in Issue #2. But it's just a weird kind of cool soldier character who I thought fit the story.

And that's the interesting thing is figuring out what the overall story is and how it fits with what has already been established about the Marvel Universe. It's really an espionage story. It's really an espionage/thriller kind of story. It's got a lot of noir and mystery elements to it. Some of the characters are Nazi spies in the United States. Looking at Marvel history, we know of at least two significant Nazi spies – the guy who shoots Dr. Erskine right after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America or gets turned into what will be Captain America. The professor's been shot by a Nazi spy, and that guy's got to be a key player in this story. And there's another Nazi spy who is the guy who steals most of the Super Soldier formula that's later found by the guy who becomes the Captain America of the 1950s. So these are all in-continuity things that have been referred to in the modern Marvel world, but we've never met these characters. The only time we've seen that one guy who kills Dr. Erskine is that moment when he kills Dr. Erskine and we've seen that a million times. But it's like, who was that guy? And these, to me, are interesting stories.

NRAMA: Was that the idea that Tom suggested, to simply find characters and expand upon them within Marvel's history, or were you given guidelines on who should be the focus?

BRUBAKER: I wasn't really given guidelines. I think Tom and I talked about it early on and I don't know how we came up with it, but the idea was it would start in 1939 and end just after Pearl Harbor when the Invaders are formed. That does seem to be the end of the beginning. And the story we're telling is the beginning.

Tom offered it to me and I went back and looked at all the characters, and I actually have a bit of a research assistant on this that I'm using, my friend Jeff Nevins, who annotates all of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff. And he's an expert on just about everything as far as publishing goes. He knows all about the pulp era and does those articles for me. He's an expert on comics from the '30s and '40s. He's pretty amazing. So I just wrote to him immediately when I got the gig.

NRAMA: You had said, last time we talked, that you also wanted to tell the stories in a modern language. Is that something you think is important?

BRUBAKER: Yeah, because if you go back and look at all those old comics, there are some really cool stories, but they don't really hold up to modern standards in a lot of ways. They don't read the way modern comics read, where we take a lot longer to tell a story and take our time to get into all the psychological nuances and different characters and their personalities. But also, there's just a breadth to the way stories are drawn these days, those wide screens that we can use. They'd never heard of a double-page spread back then. Just being able to expand on these characters and find a way to tell that story in a modern way is something I'm really enjoying.

And I think this is the sort of book that will stay in print and be that sort of touchstone that everyone can refer to and read for a long time. Hopefully it'll be something that, 10 or 20 years from now, if someone says, 'What's the origin of Marvel?' then they can get this book. That's the kind of book I'm trying to write. And it's just been a lot of fun.

Look for more in the coming weeks about the characters who started the Marvel Universe as Newsarama looks closer at The Marvels Project.

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