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Hot Ink — The Marvels Project, Blackest Night, The Unwritten

ComicsAlliance’s Chris Murphy reviews the biggest — and best — books coming out this week.

THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY GIFT IS ADAMANTIUM, RIGHT? “The Marvels Project” #1

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. It’s a concise piece of wisdom that was first uttered by none other than Albert Einstein. At least, if it wasn’t, Einstein’s not owning up to where he got it from, which is one of the many, many reasons he was a smarter man than I am. And I can’t help but be reminded of Einstein’s words as I read the “The Marvels Project.”

The comics publisher is celebrating its 70th anniversary this week, in this case with the first issue of an eight issue series re-telling the origins of its first heroes. Issue 1 features appearances by Human Torch, Namor and Dr. Thomas “The Angel” Halloway, all of whom appeared in the original “Marvel Comics” #1 back in 1939. Never mind the fact that we also saw a lot of these same characters have their origin stories retold in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ still widely available “Marvels” 15 years ago, or that we saw a version of Thomas Holloway on the streets of 1930s New York only this year in Fred Van Lente and Dennis Calero’s “X-Men Noir.”

These characters are lovingly brought forth again from Marvel’s frequently revisited early history, but it’s a classic misdirection, drawing your attention to the obvious inspiration so that maybe you won’t dig a little deeper to find the real source. “The Marvels Project” follows the progress of government science projects of the early Marvel Universe, undertakings that were responsible for creating the Human Torch and Captain America, powerful individuals created to save a nation that found itself heading into the middle of a war that stretched around the world. And both the title and the content have parallels in actual historical events, which as we all know are scientifically proven to be less exciting than any story involving men in tights who are on fire.This August is also the 70th anniversary of the writing of a certain letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt advocating the research of nuclear fission to be used in war. It led to a secret government science project that eventually changed our own world by creating a weapon that altered warfare forever, the atomic bomb. It was a device that didn’t empower a human being in the way Captain America’s super-soldier serum did, or humanize technology in the form of the android Human Torch. Instead it ushered in a world in which a faceless instrument of technology could bring about destruction on a scale so massive it made the efforts of any single human being, no matter how powerful, seem completely insignificant. The name of the program that created the bomb was The Manhattan Project. And the letter, though the work of several scientists, had only one signatory. Albert Einstein.

Okay, okay, enough with the impromptu history lesson (at least after I point out that if you’re interested in the story of the Manhattan Project and like to read comics, go check out G.T. Labs’ “Fallout”). Is “The Marvel Project” #1 any good? I can’t say that it floored me, but it does start a few interesting story threads. It’s easy to look back at the late 30s/early 40s with the advantage of hindsight and think that the better years that followed were a foregone conclusion. And if you’re looking at the period through the lens of the comics published at the times, then victory over the Nazis seemed like something that could easily be achieved with the generous use of fisticuffs as appropriate. Seeing those stories retold with uncertain, scared heroes thrown into a world that’s changing in ways they can’t predict is admittedly a little intriguing. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting make a good start with the characters they’re working with, and Dave Stewart’s art manages to feel new and nostalgic at the same time. Still, it’ll take a little more before I’m sold on this one.

AND TO THINK I ONCE LAUGHED AT A GUY WITH A RING POWERED BY HEART — “Blackest Night” # 2 / “Blackest Night Batman” #1

And now for your semi-regular zombie update. Issue 2 of DC’s big event of the moment released this week, and I’m pleased to report that it still hasn’t devolved into one giant melee between the good guys and bad guys that stretches from cover to cover. Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’ superhero zombie-fest continues to rip out your emotional guts while its undead former heroes continue to be content with ripping out actual guts. And this week also sees the release of the first of three issues of “Blackest Night: Batman,” by the creative team of Peter Tomasi, Ardian Syaf, John Dell and Vicente Cifuentes. This marks the first step outside of a Green Lantern-focused book for the event, and how well the rest of the DC Universe handles Johns’ beloved zombie baby is going to go some way in determining how successful it is.

Short answer? It remains off to a good start. What really impresses me about both books is that despite the fact that the dead are coming back to life with superpowers across the galaxy, the stories are all intensely personal. The sense of horror is individual, not global. As I turn every page and see new characters enter the story, there are moments when my heart seizes up and I find myself gripped with a dread that says, “Oh no, not him/her, don’t turn them into a Black Lantern.”

Now, I won’t spoil it by telling you which characters in particular evoked that response in me (SPOILER: Yes I will, it was Commissioner Gordon). Or tell you who is or isn’t a zombie now (SPOILER: Gordon’s still okay. DOUBLE BONUS SPOILER: Crispus Allen has now picked up the trifecta by officially becoming a three-time DC crossover event punching bag). Or go into detail about what I’d do to Geoff Johns if some of the characters I’m suddenly discovering I have a real attachment to end up wearing black rings (SPOILER: It involves barbed wire and squirrels). But there’s enough damage done that I continue to be plagued with a feeling that no one’s safe, and that dread’s making it difficult to turn away.

As for the Batman book in particular, it’s a good indication that Johns and DC have selected a canvas wide enough that everyone can find a good space to work with. And Batman’s a great character to lead off with, because even though there’s a new man behind the mask that doesn’t make Batman’s parents any less brutally murdered in front of his own eyes. All that’s changed are the names and details. And if two undead murdered acrobats aren’t enough for you, there’s also a scene-stealing guest appearance by Deadman, who’s suddenly everywhere in the DC universe. And he’s actually one of the most interesting characters across the two “Blackest Night” books this week, so if you only picked up the main title and his cameo there piqued your interest make sure to check out the Batman book.

ARE WE THERE YET? “The Unwritten” #4

When I read the first issue of “The Unwritten,” my jaw dropped. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d put down the first issue of a new ongoing series feeling that impressed. I couldn’t wait to see where this one was going. Then issue 2 came along. The story edged forward a little bit, adding not very much. Then issue 3. It budged the narrative a bit more, still
no real reveals on who the mysterious forces at work were. So now issue 4 is here. Is it as good as issue 1 again? Am I finally thankful for sticking with this one and feeling as if it’s everything the first issue gave me the hope it was going to become?

Sadly, still no.

I really, really want to like this series. “The Unwritten” is the story of Tom Taylor, a young man famous because his father wrote an internationally acclaimed series of children’s novel about a boy wizard character who he named after his own son. The fictional Tommy Taylor, along with his two best friends, a boy and a girl wizard who all attend the same wizard school, fought against an evil undead lord. Which should sound familiar unless you’ve been in a coma underneath a rock somewhere for the past twelve years or so, and even in that case I’d be astounded if you managed to get here before developing a basic familiarity with the source material of which I speak.

The real world Tom Taylor is now a grown man making a living off the celebrity status left him by his father, who’s mysteriously disappeared. Although tired of the lifestyle, it pays the bills and doesn’t cause much trouble, at least until people start showing up with unwelcome evidence that there may be something in some way real about the stories, and that Tom Taylor is either an impostor or may have much, much more in common with the fictional boy wizard than a name. Then there’s the small matter of other people making attempts on his life.

So that’s issue one for you. And since then? Well, not much. Ominous figures start appearing and dropping hushed references to people and groups whose significance or backstory we can’t yet know. New characters appear and then get killed off. A big deal is made of how Tom’s father taught him all about the history of the great stories created by people throughout the world’s history and that Tom knowing this would be somehow important. Still don’t have the slightest hint of why, though. In the three issues since the stellar introduction, none of the initial questions have been even slightly answered and no new ones have been brought up that would keep pushing me forward.

The fact that the title of the book is “The Unwritten” is starting to seem like a cruel joke being played on the reader, but I’m going to keep buying it, because 1) the first issue was good enough that if it ever lives up to that initial promise, it’ll be worth it and, 2) I am a sucker. But if I learned anything from watching “The X-Files,” it was that there comes a time when you have to look a story in the face and say “Look, I know what we had seemed special at first, but it’s clear that you have no idea where any of this is going, and I’m just not looking for that right now.” “The Unwritten” is headed in that direction, and unless that changes sometime in the next few issues I’m going to have to put it down and walk away.

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