J. Michael Straczynski must have mixed feelings right now.
First, dealing with his semi-public differences with Joe Quesada over the Spider-Man "One More Day" storyline. The current Hollywood writer's strike. Shifting (and I wish I could find the article) from doing monthly series to limited series' projects. I'm a middling fan when it comes to JMS - I liked Babylon 5, thought Jeremiah, despite studio interference, was relatively lackluster, but loved his work on the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.
So it was with that spirit that I approached The Twelve # 1, a limited series featuring little-known Marvel Golden Age heroes. As someone who loves DC for the way it integrates its earlier history into its current one - as well as loving the pulp/WW II era in general - I approached this book with curiosity, as well as some trepidation.
The verdict - a very intelligently written comic that builds upon the past in a unique way.
It would have been easy to do an Invaders/All Winners Squad-style book. Taking these little known characters and moving them to current times...also might have seemed a little cliche. But Straczynski attempts to really tell a tale about shifts in time, about readjusting to a world that thinks differently.
It begins in 1945, shortly before the fall of Berlin. In a final push, Marvel's Golden Age heroes seize the city, and help begin bringing about the end of the war. Twelve heroes (including super powered individuals as well as more pulp-influenced "tourists") find themselves trapped by the Nazis in an attempt to "prepare" for the inevitable return of the Third Reich. (Luckily, this involves cryogenics - Marvel has enough problems with time travel).
Thankfully, the cryogenic tubes are discovered during the course of construction...and that's when the story kicks into gear. Narrated by the Phantom Reporter, we soon learn how the heroes initially discover where - and when - they are revived (which is one of the best parts of this book), and in a post Civil War universe, become drafted in an attempt to provide a lost sense of heroism.
And it's in that approach that Straczynski succeeds - it would have been easy to use public domain characters - the fact that three current projects have done so demonstrates the ease. However, using owned-but-barely-recognizable characters gives the story a slight lift, much like Alan Moore using Charlton characters as the basis for Watchmen. In addition, the comic has a less manic, Mickey Spillane-esque quality to it - you can't wait to get to the last page (and the last page...without spoiling it, really begins to kick off the story proper).
The art by Chris Weston...is also quite good. It has a good, semi-realistic quality. Too cartoony, and the book would have been seen as campy. Too realistic, and it might have been seen as campy. Even given the slightly (self-admittedly) absurb nature of our 1940's heroes, Weston could have gone for easy emulation of 1940's art styles...but his pencils really give the characters some weight. There are a few narrative blips (repeated reading helped me differentiate between two main characters), but otherwise, this is a solid series.
The last Marvel book I enjoyed was Agents of Atlas, which took lesser known characters and cast them in an intelligent story. The Twelve, I think, may serve as a great companion piece...and tell another intelligent story in its own right.
And JMS can smile, because if losing the battle over Spider-Man means he has more time to tell this story...it will be worth it.