Super Life Through A Lens
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its seventy-second choice, Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross published by Marvel and reviewed by Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce…
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Letters: Richard Starkings with John Roshell
“It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s thrilling. All of it at once.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if superheroes were real? You’re mowing the lawn and suddenly the Human Torch comes streaking across the sky. Going for a jog and you suddenly see Spider-Man hanging from the side of skyscraper. You’re sat at your desk in your office, and there is the almighty shadow of Galactus making everything go that much darker. 1994’s Marvels, written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Alex Ross, takes this conceit and runs with it, examining the history of the Marvel universe through the perspective of Phil Sheldon, a photojournalist whose entire life becomes intertwined with that of those costumed gods that walk amongst the population.
The story begins in 1939 when young reporter Sheldon attends a presentation of a new android created by Phineas T. Horton. This creation catches fire on exposure to air creating a Human Torch, and a whole new world of fantastic beings, that seem to enthral and appal ordinary humans in equal measure, begins. Soon more meta-humans, such as Namor, appear on the scene and the world as it has been known changes forever. And all the time Sheldon is there to document these wonderful – and terrible – happenings. In the 60s he sees the Fantastic Four and the Avengers emerge to the awe of humanity. But – with the X-Men and mutantkind emerging – this awe turns to hatred and fear, partly magnified by the very newspapers he works for.
Even when Galactus is stopped from devouring the Earth by Reed Richards and his cohort, humanity begins to turn on our heroes much to the chagrin of Sheldon. But in the 80s, his faith is shaken when – in the midst of defending the honour of Spider-Man – he becomes friends with a young girl called Gwen Stacey whose story is destined to end in tragedy…
On a simplistic level Marvels is just a paean to Marvel Comics, a chance to revisit classic moments and battles throughout its history. But it’s reframing of numerous iconic moments in Marvel history, while certainly celebratory, is also an attempt to examine the role of ordinary humans within the Marvel universe. Comic book battles are usually there for visceral entertainment. But here, as Namor rampages through the streets, we have frightened residents being evacuated into hiding places by the US army. There’s a tangible sense of fear and the human cost of living in a world in which gods seems to walk amongst us.
Indeed, much of the book deals with just how humankind reacts with both joy and jealousy at the new normal they face. There’s relief that these super powered beings seem to be capable of dealing with any threat. But there’s also a sense of impotence, of ordinary humans feeling that they’ve been left behind by evolution. It gives rise to hatred and fear, with the persecution directed at mutants directly paralleling the racial tension in the United States during the 60s and 70s (rather appropriate given Stan Lee’s stated reason for why he and Jack Kirby created the X-Men). The book also gives some interesting insight into J Jonah Jameson and why he consistently seems to hate Spider-Man and his costumed brethren.
Throughout all this, we experience everything through the character of Phil Sheldon. The conceit of using an ordinary person to comment on the extraordinary – something Alex Ross would go on to use numerous times in such stories as Kingdom Come, Uncle Sam and Earth X – is well used here. Sheldon is a sympathetic and complex character, acting as both reader avatar and the moral conscience of humanity. His awe and fear at his constant interaction with superheroes is tempered by the everyday realities of life. As we follow him getting older, we’re also reminded of what is traditionally verboten in the world of comic books: the passing of time. As he gets older and wiser, his opinions and ideas change, his view of life alters. It makes for a marked counterpoint for – ‘event’ style reboots notwithstanding – the general stasis in which comics usually take place.
Aside from the emotional and human script from Busiek another reason for Marvel’s success is, unsurprisingly, Alex Ross’ now infamous photorealistic art. The comic book aesthetic of primary colours and eye popping visuals from the likes of Ditko and Kirby are given a realistic makeover. While the colour scheme is undoubtedly more muted than the original stories, everything is no less grandiose than it was before. Indeed, it inspires a certain amount of awe – and maybe even trepidation – when we see familiar scenes rendered with a sheen of realism. Often the action is framed from a POV where the superheroes battle above us – the gods fight in the heavens whilst we look fearfully upon them.
While Marvels is – in and of itself – a superlative piece of work that every fan should have on their shelf, you’d not do wrong to get your hands on the recently published 25th Anniversary edition of the book which is an absolutely amazing piece of work. With everything related to the work (such as the prologue, a later published epilogue and a myriad of alternative covers) it does the work of Busiek and Ross justice. There’s Busiek’s complete script, intros and interviews from Busiek and Ross (both new and reprinted from previous collections) which provide comprehensive information on the metamorphosis of the project and – best of all – a complete commentary on the entire thing. Pointing out many of the references to Marvel history it’s a wonderful accompaniment to the story. Also, in their commitment to realism (or their obsessiveness), Busiek and Ross made sure all the newspapers in the story – no matter how small – we’re fully written and realised. This edition now allows you to read them in all their glory.
With real life locations – New York instead of Metropolis – and characters who seemed slightly more in tune with real life events (especially in the 60s and 70s), the Marvel Universe always had their foot closer to the real world than their counterparts at DC. Marvels emphasises this reality while also creating a complex – and endlessly fascinating – treatise on the heroes and humans that makes up their universe.
Marvels – 25th Anniversary is available now in Hardback published by Marvel.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far