It didn't accrue out of a single consistent vision.
The early 1940s comic books that introduced characters like Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch were the product of people who were making things up as they went along, who stumbled into the concept of a shared continuity as those characters and others began to show up in one another's books.
Two decades later, as Marvel Comics began to incorporate those old tales into their new line of '60s superheroes, those old stories were referenced and incorporated—but again, detail just accrued, like lint. With a few notable exceptions, like the Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross miniseries Marvels and the Roy Thomas/Frank Robbins series Invaders, nobody attempted to go back and fill in the gaps.
But now we have The Marvels Project #1 (Marvel, $3.99), first installment of an eight-issue series by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, which details the state of the Marvel world starting in 1938, just as the super-people started showing up in it.
It begins with a prologue at the deathbed of Matt Hawk, once the western hero known as the Two-Gun Kid, now just another decrepit old man telling stories of a life that his chief listener, a Dr. Halloway, believes to be nothing but the creations of a demented patient's imagination; stories about how he once traveled to the future and witnessed a strange age of superpowered heroes. Hawk dies knowing that this age is only a few months in the doctor's future ... and that the doctor will be part of it.
Subsequent events hint at greater developments, among them an attack on a Nazi vessel by an enraged Prince Namor, the prewar activities of Nick Fury and the escape of the flaming android who will soon become known as the original Human Torch.
As always with Brubaker's work, the familiar superheroics achieve additional immediacy thanks to the absolute persuasiveness of the surrounding detail. Stewart's art functions at a similar level. This is not yet a universe defined by primary colors. It's cloaked in shadows and populated by men whose suits have lapels and ties, not masks and capes. Though it has some surprises, it will probably be appreciated best by readers who already know these events backward and forward, and who'll appreciate a take with this documentary feel.