It’s no secret that companies can’t help but look backwards for new opportunities. Comics are weirdly obsessed with their past, pulling characters out of the dustbins of history for renewal or pasting their universes into older eras. Lately the trend has been the ’40s and before, with DC’s now-cancelled First Wave project taking on pulp and Marvel trying out everything from a “Noir” line of books featuring existing character to an attempt at showcasing their Timely Comics heroes in Project Marvels. Apparently that wasn’t enough, though, as now Marvel is looking back even further with their new Mystery Men mini.
Set in the Depression-era, Mystery Men is nonetheless a genetic match for Brubaker’s Project Marvels in tone and style. The problem is that David Liss’ writing is nowhere near strong enough to keep the series from falling into ridiculousness, despite the valiant efforts of artist Patrick Zircher to infuse the book with some kind of grace and poise. Ostensibly the story of a Robin Hood-like cat burglar named The Operative who gets caught up in an epic plot far beyond his talent or ambition, Mystery Men far too often mistakes the grim for the important.
Worse, when Mystery Men isn’t offering up blunt, artless depictions of murder, pedophilia and betrayals it’s providing heavy handed scenes of political correctness that stand out like sore thumbs. In one of the book’s most hilariously stupid examples of the villain’s evilness, we bare witness to his summary of what nefarious things he’s been up to for some nameless group of likeminded bad guys:
Yes, amongst all the other evildoing our villain is getting up to we learn he is also filling cigarettes with nicotine. GASP! It’s such a ridiculous scene that it winds up minimizing some of his other evil actions, like his attempt to visit a child prostitute and the gruesome fate that befalls her:
For Liss, it’s apparently not enough that the villain, only referred to as The General, is in league with a literal demon and has the ghastly appearance of a ghoul, or that he’s a pedophile, or has no qualms murdering those he’s close to — he has to be an idea man for Marlboro, too. That heavy handedness saturates the entirety of Mystery Men, filling it with clumsy dialogue where female characters utter things about not wanting to be a “burden” to their men. That the female character we spend the most time with is almost immediately killed off because she’s too trusting and needs to serve as an impetus for our protagonist to take this shit seriously should tell you all you need to know about how far Liss’ political correctness goes.
Even without all of the baggage of its misplaced morality, Mystery Men moves at an awkward pace as events unfold in an increasingly more excitable fashion with no style whatsoever. The Operative literally goes from dropping off a wad of cash for the impoverished tenants he’s protecting to seeing a headline about his girlfriend’s death to winding up right in the middle of a massive police trap. Liss obviously took the wrong lessons from Brubaker’s Project Marvels, ignoring all the little details in favor of the stakes and bombast. We know our protagonist is a hero because he doesn’t smoke or frequent child prostitutes, but he is thief who racks up a higher visible body count than the story’s villain by the time the issue closes, albeit accidentally. He also makes a guy wet himself. No, seriously:
There’s also the little problem of the series’ true hero, The Revenant, being a “colored” fellow who runs around in a costume that looks weirdly like a Klan outfit:
I would be far more inclined to give Liss the benefit of the doubt and assume that Revenant’s costume is a way of subverting the racial politics of the time but the problem is that this is a comic where bad guys brag about adding nicotine to cigarettes and the good guys shoot at people just to make them pee their pants. It is not artful, subtle stuff.
Which is too bad, because DC pretty much fucked up their attempts at resurrecting pulp comics on a grand scale and the field is wide open at the Big Two at the moment. In the right hands, Mystery Men could have been fascinating, a Mad Men-like glimpse into an era that remains little understood. The potential for a publisher to find fresh, exciting ideas in an unused time rather than muck around with current continuity holds a certain appeal as well. There is, of course, still time for Mystery Men to improve, but I won’t be holding my breath.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash’s Panel Panopticon.