When Marvel debuted the initial teaser image for Mystery Men back in early February, most fans concluded that it had something to do with the 1940s series Daring Mystery Comics published by Marvel predecessor Timely Comics; some even going as far as linking up the shadowy figures in the teasers to specific characters from Marvel’s World War II past.
Well, silver medal try. As first announced Sunday during Marvel’s “Next Big Thing” panel at C2E2 in Chicago, Mystery Men stars all-new characters, hailing from the pulp era of fiction — specifically 1932, years before guys like Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, or even the Daring Mystery Comics folks showed up.
Mystery Men is a five-issue miniseries, written by David Liss (Black Panther: The Man Without Fear) and illustrated by Patrick Zircher, a comics veteran who has showed his range in titles from Terror Inc. to Nightwing to Cable & Deadpool. The comic starts in June, with two issues scheduled to ship that month.“The characters in Mystery Men aren't based on specific pulp heroes, but they are certainly inspired and influenced by lots of characters and the whole pulp aesthetic,” Liss wrote in an email interview with Newsarama. “So, I would describe these characters as being entirely new, but also existing firmly within both the pulp and the Marvel traditions.” Back in 2009, Liss made his comic book writing debut with a Daring Mystery Comics Special one-shot set in Marvel’s early days and starring the Phantom Reporter, but don’t expect any overt ties between that and Mystery Men. “The characters in Mystery Men predate most pulp comic book characters, including the Phantom Reporter — who would have been phatomishly reporting for his junior high school newspaper around this time,” Liss wrote. “This story is set in 1932, so a good seven years before the major — and minor — figures in the Marvel universe emerge.” The opportunity to work on characters entirely new to the Marvel Universe was a vital part of what attracted Zircher to the project. “Mystery Men came across the table at a time when I really wanted to do something new and the appeal of introducing Marvel readers to these heretofore unseen characters in an unusual setting was irresistible,” Zircher wrote in an email interview with Newsarama. “Being there with David and Bill to breathe life into their personalities and histories really put the creativity in comic creator in focus.”
The five main characters of Mystery Men — Marvel’s first (of many) New York City-based costumed crimefighters — are The Surgeon, The Operative, Achilles, The Revenant and The Aviatrix. Liss said that it’s more of an “ensemble story” than a team book.“Some of these characters get along with each other, some don't, and some have very complicated issues with each other,” Liss wrote. “Circumstances and necessity force them to take up a common cause, however.
“The central figure in this book is The Operative, a former cat burglar who comes from wealth and power and a very messed up family. He's been using his skills to rob from the rich and ease the plight of the poor during the Depression, but when the woman he loves is murdered, he is drawn into a dark and dangerous pulp world.”That murder is inspired by (but not “based on,” Liss clarifies) an actual event from the time period.
“We wanted to do something that combined gritty realism, pulp goodness, and an early emergence of the Marvel U,” Liss wrote.
Though the comic definitely takes place in the Marvel Universe, Liss said the connections won’t necessarily be explicit, given the early year the comic is set in — though at the C2E2 panel, he did state that Baron Heinrich Zemo (the current Zemo's dad and the first in the family to glue a hood to his face) would be old enough in 1932 to play a role in Mystery Men; hinting that the popular Captain American nemesis and Masters of Evil founder might make an appearance.“I'd say the continuity offers some Easter eggs, but if you don't know some of the references we drop, I can't imagine it would disrupt the reading experience,” Liss wrote. “We wanted to include enough continuity to remind readers that this is part of a dynamic universe, but we didn't want to lay it on too thick. We wanted it to feel natural, informative and interesting. “
Liss, who made his name in the publishing industry with historical fiction novels like A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels, finds the 1930s to be an especially inspiring decade.
“The 1930s offer so much rich material for story telling — the Depression, corruption incredible poverty and incredible wealth, prohibition, crime, snappy clothes, you name it,” Liss wrote. “I love the stylized characters and storytelling of the period, and I love the crime and pulp stories that emerged in the '30s. There are so many great tools to play around with.”
Zircher has a similar affection for the period.
“The pulp era and early Golden Age setting is rich territory,” the artist wrote. “We could touch on actual history and some of its fascinating characters. Then there's the fedoras, suits, sexy dresses, the planes, trains, and automobiles.“At the same time, we wanted to make a book that had an exciting Marvel 'feel.’ Fans who haunt the message boards know I love that era's characters and the men and women who made them (I once posted bios for dozens of Golden Age characters) — but also love seeing pulp characters written and drawn by modern comic creators.”
This is Zircher's first time working with Liss, and the artist said that collaborating with someone with a background outside of comics has definite advantages.
“I've worked with David Liss and Daniel Knauf, a novelist and a television writer,” wrote Zircher, who worked with Knauf on Iron Man. “Both saw page space differently than long-time comic readers who had transitioned to comic writers. They were apt to put more on a page than I'm usually comfortable with. That does make for more work (though these gents quickly and adeptly perceived the rhythm of comics). In any event, there's a plus, writers from other backgrounds bring those skills and sensibilities with them and often take interesting approaches uncommon to other comics.
“David's stories are full of ideas and make incredibly satisfying reads. There's a lot of meat on the bone!”