Mystery Men

I grew up loving comics, so I was thrilled when, 2000, shortly after my first novel was published, to be contacted by an editor at Marvel.  He had read my book, A Conspiracy of Paper, and there was something in it that made him think I ought to be writing comics – I seem to recall being quite pleased by his saying the main character reminded him of an 18th century Luke Cage.

I loved the idea of writing for Marvel, but I’d spent much of the previous decade working on a Ph.D. in English (which I never finished!), and I hadn’t read comics in a several years.  Marvel left the ball in my court, and I never pursued it.  The truth was, I was writing my second book – always the hardest one to write – and I was too busy trying to figure out how to write novels to take the time to figure out how to write comics.

Eight years later, the same editor, Bill Rosemann, got in touch again.  This time he had a project in mind, and it was perfect.  For Marvel’s 70th anniversary, they were putting together a series of single issue stories about some of the earliest Marvel heroes.  In my case, Bill asked if I would an issue about the Phantom Reporter – cub reporter by day, scourge of the underworld by night.   I loved the idea, and it was comics writing with training wheels.  There was only one issue, no continuity worries, and the Phantom Reporter had only appeared a few times back in the early comics, so I was free to make up as much as I needed to.

I loved the project, but I didn’t want to learn how to write comics and then never get another crack at the medium, so Bill promised me he’d look for more work.  About the time we were finishing up with the Phantom Reporter, I received another call from Bill.  Would I have any interest in writing a comic with five original characters, set in the early 1930s that pushed back the origins of the Marvel Universe by several years?  I’m pretty sure there’s only one answer to that question.

Bill and I got to work, and over several phone calls we discussed what kinds of characters they should be.  We both felt strongly that since this was to be a book about the first generation of urban vigilantes to put on costumes, they ought to have a reason for doing so, and we tossed around a lot of ideas for heroes who would already be in costume.  The slot that ended up being filled by the Surgeon almost went to a clown.  The important thing was that Bill wanted the characters to have both a pulp feel and a modern Marvel sensibility – that is, they had to seem like real people and have real problems holding them back.  Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Perfect characters are boring, but troubled characters are much more fun to both read and write.  I got to working putting together my concept and populating it with misfits, trouble-makers, and the mildly deranged.

Once I wrote up a pitch and it safely ran the editorial gauntlet, I had to get down to the work of actual scripting.  I soon discovered the difficulties of writing an ensemble book with new characters who needed to be introduced and have their own stories.  Bill and Senior Editor Tom Brevoort read though and commented on three completely different (and differently terrible) first scripts before I finally got the hang of it.  I like to think I learned a great deal from both of these terrific editors, but it is also equally possible I simply ran out of mistakes to make.  In the end, it was the best comics-writing education I could imagine.

Meanwhile, Bill was searching for an artist, and he floated several possible names.  When he ran Patrick Zircher’s work past me, I immediately knew he was the guy I wanted.  Patrick’s art is clean, precise, beautiful and detailed – exactly what I thought our story needed.  As a writer, I’ve had few experiences as much fun as receiving Patrick’s concept drawings of the five principle characters in Mystery Men.  These were people who came out of my imagination, but it was Patrick who first made them seem real.  It is no exaggeration to say that his take on the characters ended up shaping the way they developed over the course of the series.  It’s also no exaggeration to say that Patrick’s art is a major reason this book received so much critical attention.  Mystery Men is simply one of the best looking books around. This was my first experience with working with an artist on an on-going project, I it was very exciting to experience the give and take of collaboration.  With each script I wrote more with Patrick’s style in mind, and I could look forward to seeing where his imagination would flesh out the initial concepts.

When Bill first ran the idea by me, I thought it sounded like a great idea, but I was new enough to comics that I didn’t appreciate what a rare opportunity it was as well.  When you write stories in a continuity, you want them to count.  Mystery Men gave me an opportunity to write about period in the history of the Marvel Universe that was relatively untouched, the period just before characters like Namor, the Human Torch and Captain America emerged.  Now those five damaged vigilantes are a part of the Marvel Universe forever.  It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

David Liss is the author of The Devil’s Company, The Whiskey Rebels, The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children. Visit him at