Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Marvelmen, Section Zero, and Me

Looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon these interesting comments Karl Kessel made a few years ago on something called Monster Blog Mailbox:
"Twice I've tried to interest Marvel in series that would feature these monsters and misfits. The first was the Marvelmen— a Challengers of the Unknown-type group who fought giant monsters. The second was a Giant-Man pitch that would have had him involved with adventures so out-there that even his fellow super-heroes didn't believe him— in other words, tall tales (appropriate for a giant, I thought) or Tales to Astonish— and a lot of the stories would have involved the Marvel monsters. I actually wrote and got paid for a plot to the Giant-Man story before Marvel decided it wasn't really their cup of tea.
And then, in response to another reader's comments, he goes on to say...
1) The Marvelmen would have had their origins in the early 60s, allowing me to do period stories, but would have also had a modern version of the team. I recycled this approach when Tom Grummett and I created “Section Zero.” As for art— hard to say. I think a lot of artists today would do killer versions of the classic Marvel monsters, and I'd love to see 'em, so maybe there would be some way to set up a comic with a lead story by one recurring artist and self-contained back-ups by a rotating roster. If there ever was a Marvelmen comic. Which there probably won't be.

2) I created the Marvelmen in 89 or 90. I was trying to ride the coat-tails of Marvel's Monster Masterworks trade paperback, and even pitched the idea to the editor of that book— Marc McLaurin. With the assumption that the only Marvel monster stories most readers would be familiar with would be the ones in that trade paperback, the Marvelmen were characters from stories reprinted there: Lewis Conrad from TABOO, the scientist from SPORR, and Chan Liuchow from FIN FANG FOOM. There was also one MarvelWOMAN, but I created her new since I didn't know of a Marvel monster story where a woman was the hero. (Are there any?)

This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, because it prefigures so much that I dig about Agents of Atlas, as well as covering much the same ground as Roger Stern's similar concept "Monster Hunters", which came in between. But second, and foremost, this Marvelmen pitch was clearly the precursor to Kesel's later Section Zero, which he created with Tom Grummett.

Section Zero was part of the abortive Gorilla Comics line, and only ran for three issues. At the time, Kesel described the book as "Jack Kirby does the X-Files," and had this to say about Section Zero itself:
The team is led by the smartest woman in the world. Her name is Doc Challenger. She belongs to a long lineage of adventurers. Her right hand man is Sam Wildman, who’s our loveable rogue character. Everything comes effortlessly to Doc Challenger and everything is a struggle for Sam. He can’t walk across the street without getting beat up by ninjas. That’s the sort of life he leads. Adding spice to the relationship is that they are ex-husband and wife. As the series progresses, we’ll learn more about the backstory there. There’s also a childlike alien being named Tesla who has vast, vast, vast powers but, thank God, he only has the mentality of a 6-year-old, otherwise he’d be running the world. We also have a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who has one of those cursed tattoos. You know all about those! If he rubs this bug tattoo on his arm, he becomes a bug boy character for exactly one day, so his name’s the 24 Hour Bug. He gets a big bug head and these big bug arms grow out of his back. Obviously, he’s not really thrilled with this power. It’s not a power that really wins the girls. That’s kinda where we start and we move off from there. There’s a few other members who’ll join the team as the 6-issue mini-series progresses. It’s one of those stories that starts out pretty small. There’s some sort of animal or creature killing sheep in the Australian Outback, and they go to investigate this. But as it often happens in comics, this is a small pebble that creates massive ripples. By the end of the mini-series, nothing is the same.
With someone as obsessed with Wold Newton-type stuff as I am, Challenger and Wildman were names to conjure with. The clear suggestion in Section Zero is that Doc Challenger is the grand-daughter of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger. And with that being the case, how much of a leap would it be to assume Sam Wildman is some relation to James Clarke Wildman, Jr. (better known as Doc Savage)? There were scattered references to challenging the "unknown", and facing the "fantastic," which served not only to evoke the Jack Kirby series Challengers of the Unknown and the Fantastic Four which served as the comic's inspiration, but also offered the tantalizing suggestion that the Section Zero teams in past decades might have themselves served as the "real world" inspirations for the "fictional" teams Kirby and collaborators depicted in the comics. (That makes sense in my head; does it make sense out in the world?)

In the end, unfortunately, the series only ran for three of the projected six issues, along with a five page preview that ran in another title. And while in those issues we only got the barest glimpse at the backstory Kesel and Grummett had worked up for the team, it was clear fairly quickly that I was reading too much into off-hand references, and that the series would have headed in very different directions than I'd originally anticipated.

So the comic in my head was nothing like the one that I ended up reading. So what? In a writer's world, nothing is wasted, not even idle thoughts. I had just started work on one of the early Bonaventure-Carmody stories, those featuring J.B. Carmody and the team at the Carmody Institute, and as those stories developed, bits and pieces of the thing I'd thought Kesel's book was going to develop into crept in, gradually. I liked the idea of making a character's figurative antecedents his literal ancestors, which is how J.B. Carmody ended up being the grandson of the very-James-Bondish Jake Carmody, the grandson of the somewhat Doc-Savage-like Rex "King" Carmody, and the great-nephew of the vaguely Tarzan-esque Lord John Carmody. The Bonaventure side of the family (the "B" in "J.B.") developed later on, along somewhat different lines. And in short order JB Carmody's story resembled not at all the idea I'd originally had in mind for it, either. And so it goes...

In any event, those few issues of Section Zero had a real influence on me, and I was sorry not to be able to see the rest of the story unfold. And now I'm just as sorry never to have seen Kesel's "Marvelmen" idea come to fruition, either. It sounds like it would have been right up my alley.

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