Good day, everyone! For this week’s loose review, I’m going to be switching things up a little bit and looking at a Marvel classic. This particular selection is 1994’s Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.
Marvels is an interesting accomplishment for a number of reasons. The closest analogue I can draw in other comics would be Kingdom Come, but that’s not just because of Alex Ross’s artwork. The book is also a sort of love letter to older comics continuity. Whereas Kingdom Come was an ode to DC’s Golden Age, Marvels is a love letter to Marvel’s Golden and Silver Ages.
I have to say that I was greatly impressed with the book. I’ve heard wonderful things about Marvels for years and have only recently been able to give it a shot. The story is unique (at least in the time that it was written) in that it is told from the perspective of average people. The main character whose point of view the reader shares is a photojournalist named Phil Sheldon, who makes it his life’s work to document the rise of the beings he terms “Marvels.”
The story begins in 1939 when Phil is young and still trying to make a name for himself among the various fictional newspapers in Marvel’s New York City. The earliest stories in Marvels deal with Marvel’s first Golden Age characters, namely the original Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America. Busiek and Ross really capture the helplessness and the ignorance of people witnessing superheroes from the outside for the first time, and this theme is carried throughout the book. From the Human Torch and Namor duking it out across the rooftops of New York, to Captain America’s adventures in World War II, to Galactus‘s invasion of the earth in the 1960s, everything is mysterious to the common onlooker and nothing is explained to them.
Perhaps the most powerful portion of the book is the common person’s viewpoint on mutants entering the public eye during the 1960s. Much as was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original intention with the X-Men, parallels between these stories and the Civil Rights Movement cannot be denied. I must say that it was a bold move on the creative team’s part to present hatred of mutants as a sort of bandwagon sport that even Phil Sheldon gets pulled into. Mutant sighting reports go out over the radio like the country is at war with them, and armed mobs hunt them in the streets.
Phil’s own perspective changes when he is forced to interact with a mutant face to face. During all of this mob violence, Phil’s daughters secretly take in a little mutant girl named Maggie who was abandoned by her family because of her appearance. Upon meeting her, Phil looks into her eyes and flashes back to his time as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II and the horrors he saw in the concentration camps the Allies liberated. From this moment forward in the story, Phil is a changed man. I do not wish to spoil what happens after this, but I will tell you that I am not ashamed to admit it left me a bit weepy. That said, the issue’s cover image still gives me hope.
Despite the fact I love period superhero stories like this one (X-Men: First Class, anyone?), I’ll admit that I did expect a bit more from it. Marvels wraps rather suddenly, and we are left at the end with very little aside from scenes of not really understanding what’s going on in the world and an almost self-destructive fascination with the superhero concept.
While these are done rather well, I think they may have lost some of their thunder since the original publication of this book in 1994. I feel that these themes have become a regular part of superhero stories over the past two decades—questioning the superhero and its appeal, and insisting on greater inclusiveness in the perspectives presented in superhero stories, to clarify.
Marvels is my reading recommendation for this week, if you haven’t already experienced it. If you have, let’s have a chat in the comments below. Before I leave you to begin working on my A to Z posts for next month, here’s a bit of hope from the late, great Leonard Nimoy, whose passing I have not yet had the chance to comment on in these blogs. Hang in there, everyone. I’ll see you next time.