Monday, June 13, 2011

Comic books you should be reading: Mystery Men

In a summer of mindless crossover events, I have found my escape. And so should you.

I’ve been complaining for months now that I don’t care about the latest universe-altering crossover that requires me to buy twenty comic books a month just to follow one mediocre story. I want good stories, good characters, a few surprises, and a little fun. So it’s ironic that I almost didn’t pick up Mystery Men, a new miniseries from thriller writer David Liss and stalwart artist Patrick Zircher, out of sheer first-issue fatigue. “Oh, great,” I muttered, looking at it on the new-comics rack, “another overhyped issue one. What godawful tripe are they foisting on us now?”

I picked up the comic and flipped through it, mostly because there was a character on the cover who looked vaguely like my own Black Mask, and because I didn’t recognize anybody else, which suggested the Marvel miniseries had nothing to do with the latest Marvel crossover, Fear Itself. It fell open to this two-page spread:

The first thing that caught my attention was the woman fixing her earring on the right-hand page. Her hair and the drape of her pearls reminded me of Margo Lane in the old issues of The Shadow Strikes! I used to love as a kid. Then my eye traveled to the two wordless panels on the left-hand page, and I knew the comic was worth my three bucks.

Yes. Silence is worth money.

It’s rare to find completely wordless illustrations in comics today. There’s always a sound effect or dialogue, probably because it seems like cheating to just let the pictures speak. And as a writer and word nerd, I usually support that standpoint. But most of the wordless panels that do make it into comics are either a single facial expression—most often shock or fury—or a full-page splash illustration of some dramatic action, like Superman punching somebody. Here instead we have two very distinctive, human faces, with individual features and lines suggesting the beginnings of (gasp!) wrinkles, exchanging wry, complicated looks. I fell in love with those two characters on the spot and plunked down my $2.99.

Short version: It was worth it.

Mystery Men is an anomaly—a Big Two comic book that contains no big-name characters. Set in the early years of the Great Depression, it’s peopled with pulp-style heroes and villains, many of them seemingly lacking in superpowers (hence the name “mystery men”). The story initially focuses on Dennis Piper, a.k.a. The Operative, a gentleman cat burglar and Robin Hood wannabe who robs his fellow socialites and uses the proceeds to help the destitute. When his rags-to-riches girlfriend, Broadway actress Alice Starr, is brutally murdered, Piper is framed for the crime and goes on the run. The story builds from there, enfolding corrupt cops, black magic, a bullet-catching vigilante, and a brilliant aviatrix with a penchant for highly explosive experiments. They’re all mysteries, in their ways, and rich in the promise of surprises to come. Liss is a dab hand with dialogue, and Zircher strikes a perfect balance between period color and pulp-style action. The result is a delightful ride.

There are lingering mysteries to be solved, of course. Who is the zombie-like General, and what is he doing with the demonic fear lord Nox? How does Piper’s wealthy and influential father, who has suddenly stopped covering for his son’s shenanigans, fit into the puzzle? Is Sarah the aviatrix Alice’s twin or what? And what the hell is the deal with the Revenant (yes, there’s that name again), a vigilante who shifts back and forth between a ghostly mist and a very solid-looking black man in an elegant white three-piece suit? Is that a girasol ring on his finger like the Shadow’s? What’s going on here?

And since Mystery Men is capped at five issues, and unlikely to be reprinted (what with the lack of crossover potential and all), I can’t advise you strongly enough to check this one out before it’s gone. I have recently discovered that Liss wrote a tie-in story to J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve that I enjoyed a few months back, making him the only writer other than JMS to get those World War II-era characters right. The man knows his pulp, and I’m sure there are good things to come.

Hold onto your fedoras …

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