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Marvels is a superhero comic with an intelligent edge, managing to embrace the genre and come up with a story that is simultaneously original and traditional. The tradition comes from the fact that it celebrates the history of Marvel Comics' superhero universe in an ultra-faithful manner, spanning its major events from the formation of the Fantastic Four to the death of Spider-Man's first girlfriend, many years later. Yet it's simultaneously unorthodox in that its main protagonist is not a costumed hero but a photojournalist, covering the actions of these Marvels (as he calls them) for newspapers like the Daily Bugle.

Alex Ross' painted artwork is a phenomenal achievement, refreshing Marvel's characters and history with a sweep of colour and realism. It seemed to us that he was more comfortable with the human characters than some of the more exotic ones though. Trying to create a realistic looking Thing, who has a rocky outer skin, was obviously tricky and might be better left to the traditional comics style that requires more suspension of disbelief.

The story, written by Kurt Busiek, takes you through Marvel's history from a very human perspective. Imagine going about your everyday business when a supervillain turns up and starts creating havoc. A superhero is never going to be too far away - they'll fight, a few buildings might get flattened, and it's all over. This inevitably causes frictions with the civilian populace, who prefer their buildings the way they were. The back-stories of the heroes, that provided them with their human characteristics, are largely ignored in this version, presumed to take place behind closed doors (except for a celebrity romance or two). This leaves the powerless populace feeling threatened from all angles by these seemingly alien beings with amazing abilities.

Busiek has done a fair job of creating a realistic playground for the superpowers to do their stuff in, but it raises as many questions as it answers. For example, New York is the centre of superhero attention but you can't help wondering what's going on in the rest of the world, beyond Marvel's 'universe', especially since the reader is given a taster of superheroes fighting in World War II. Having said that, it's a well-researched and enjoyable read, showing superheroes from a perspective you don't often see.



Marvels Annotations


Reviews from Comic Book Nexus at http://www.geocities.com/titmus_77/index.html

Marvels revisits Marvel Universe history through the eyes of photojournalist Phil Sheldon. The first chapter is set during the '40s, as these so-called Marvels start appearing, and young Phil struggles with his own ambivalence about a world suddenly filled with Gods, particularly the (to him) unfathomable battles between the Human Torch and the sometimes hero/sometimes villain Sub-Mariner that devastate the city. Then we jump to the '60s/early'70s where the next three chapters are set, as Phil chronicles and reflects on a world peopled by super-beings and the public's fluctuating attitude toward them.

Marvels is an interesting concept, revisiting classic Marvel stories but from the point of view of a man on the sidelines -- not even that close often. The problem is, of course, that it can make for unsatisfying storytelling. The point is to see glimpses of battles, hear snippets of news reports, while to Phil the full story remains unknown. That makes it problematic for casual readers -- even incoherent in spots. In one scene a character makes a disparaging remark about mutants, while the mutant superheroes, the X-Men, glare at her in the background...but the X-Men are out of costume, and not identified as such. I have no idea how many in-jokes and nuances I may have missed...such as a final scene involving a paperboy, the true significance of which I could only confirm after the fact (he would grow up to be a superhero).

The heroes and their adventures take place mainly off-camera -- really. If you go into this half-thinkking the heroes will be, at least, supporting characters (as I did), you'll be disappointed. The star of the show is Phil -- more on that in a moment.

This was Alex Ross' first major work, he of the fully-painted, almost photo-realist style (utilizing models) that has taken the industry by storm. At times, it's like coming across stills from an unknown, big-budget motion picture -- suddenly comic book drawings become real 3-D people. He's also known for his visual gags, such as non-Marvel characters appearing in the backgrounds (like Billy Batson and Jimmy Olsen) to pop-cultural figures like the Dick Van Dyke and the Monkees appearing in crowd scenes.

I had first seen his work on Kingdom Come, his later (in some ways thematically similar) mini-series for DC, but whereas his depiction of Superman and Wonder Woman made me long for him to tackle them again and again, on Marvels I felt more ambivalence. Marvels is stunning to look at, but sometimes I found myself flashing back to the work of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and John Romita, Sr. with Ross actually coming out the loser in the comparison. I love Ross' work, but there are other, equally valid -- and sometimes more kinetic -- styles.

All this relates to the problem that Alex Ross can be a bit of an obfuscation when considering the story. His style is so incredible, it's easy to be swept along without asking whether the story it's illustrating works on any deeper level.

You see, in all the praise I've seen of Marvels, people cite Ross' art, they praise Kurt Busiek's writing, they comment on this reinterpretation of Marvel history, but people rarely comment on...Phil Sheldon. Y'know, the main character for some 180 pages?

Phil's not a bad character, but in many ways, he's the only character, and too often he seems like the story needs are pushing him, not the other way around -- one moment he's a committed family man, the next he's a workaholic neglecting his family. In one scene, caught up in anti-mutant hysteria, he throws a brick at the Iceman...did anyone really buy into his actions in that scene? By the end of the series we don't really know Phil, outside of his ruminations on the Marvels.

Marvels is made up of four, semi-independent chapters. By far the strongest is Chapter Two, "Monsters Among Us", where the public's feel-good hysteria generated by the wedding of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl is contrasted with the anti-mutant bigotry directed at the X-Men. The themes and contrasts work pretty well, and there's a real-world allegory at work, not just in the mutants-as- persecuted-minority, but as a metaphor for the late '50s/early '60s and the Pollyanna romanticism of "Leave it to Beaver" and JFK's Camelot (with Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl substituting for Jack and Jackie) contrasted with the gritty reality of race riots and the Vietnam War. And Phil actually has his own story, removed from the superheroes (while thematically connected) involving a little mutant girl. At times, "Monsters Among Us" works surprisingly, and disturbingly, well.

The other chapters often seem too much like collections of ill-defined vignettes, not quite coming together as a story. Chapter three is the opposite, though, as we get a retelling of the first appearance of Galactus. Here Busiek and Ross lose their own raison d'etre, giving us close-up splash pages of the F.F.'s battles with Galactus when Phil's not even around. And the emotional arc, of Phil realizing he needs to spend more time with his family, is just too simple and obviously handled for a 45 page story.

The final chapter builds to the death of Spider-Man's girl friend, Gwen Stacy, using it to highlight how the individual can be devalued and forgotten among the colourful heroics -- but it doesn't quite gell. For whatever reason, Gwen's death has remained a surprisingly potent touchstone in comicdom all these decades later (heck, Marvel has just released a "Death of Gwen Stacy" TPB collection). That's why Busiek and Ross knew they could use it as an effective climax instead of something more flashy and "cosmic" like the Galactus story...'cause Gwen's death, instead of being devalued and forgotten, still resonates for a lot of people. Including Stan Lee. In one of the editorials it's said that even today Lee has misgivings about the death of Gwen. The idea that Lee, the business man, the mover-and-shaker, still feels affinity for his long ago creations is oddly touching.

The ultimate problem when reading, and interpreting, something like Marvels (or Kingdom Come, or the Watchmen) is you're not sure, really, what it's about. Is it just a fun romp down memory lane, or a serious look at super-heroes? How much are the super-heroes a metaphor for other things? With its denouement, it can be seen as, ultimately, a rejection of comic book superheroes, with Phil "growing up" in the end. Conversely, an earlier scene with J. Jonah Jameson explaining people hate superheroes because altruism in others makes us feel small, can be seen as a rejection of precisely those people who feel we should "out grow" a genre -- perhaps the only genre -- about basically decent people trying to do the right thing for no other reason than because it's right.

In other words, is Marvels popular because it's sharp and penetrating, or because it's vague and mushy, playing all sides at once? And it was popular, there's no doubt about it. Not only in and of itself, but in the subsequent imitations, like the follow up Tales of the Marvels and Code of Honor.

Marvels is probably more effective nostalgically for older readers who remember the stories, but no longer have them in their collection. At times it's very good (it's hard to read the end of "Monsters Among Us" and not feel something well-up in your eyes), but it's a long way from being as clever, as gripping, or as innovative, as we're supposed to believe it is. Marvels is also awfully pricey for something which, in the end, falls short of being...a marvel.