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Marvels by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (Review)

In celebration of the 4th of July and the release of Captain America: The First Avenger this month, we’re jumping into Marvel’s comic book alternate history and taking a look at the star-spangled avenger every Wednesday this month.

I think it’s safe to say that Marvels, the four issue miniseries from Marvel released during the nineties revolutionised the industry. An attempt to create something akin to a social history of the Marvel Universe from the perspective of “everyman” reporter Phil Sheldon charted the course of history in the fictional Marvel Universe from its humble beginnings in the adventures of the Human Torch and the Submariner through to the death of Gwen Stacey, wondering what ideas and themes could be derived from the evolution of this world populated with the magnificent and the ridiculous, the epic and embarrassing, the big and the small.

Something stuck about this miniseries...

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the series has had since its initial publication. The most obvious effect of the series was to make Alex Ross an iconic talent. You can’t pick up any issue for any major comic book issue without an inevitable “Alex Ross variant.” He is literally everywhere, and has developed from an artist into a creative talent (co-plotting series like Kingdom Come and Justice at DC Comics). Similarly, it seems that Kurt Busiek has become the go-to guy for comic book continuity, scripting a long Avengers run and being trusted by both major companies to handle the Avengers/JLA crossover from a few years back.

However, the impact of the series was far greater than that. As others have pointed out, the comic book really shaped the way that the two major comic book companies looked at their major properties, and especially what they assumed that comic fans were looking for. “Nostalgia” became a watchword:

In the years since Marvels, DC and Marvel realized that they could tell stories about their characters that would fit into their already-established histories. They could fill in the blanks, in other words. And people who grew up with the characters would love that. This coincided with the slow graying of the audience over the past 20 years – comics audiences in the past famously turned over every four years, so the companies didn’t care about repeating themselves, but that’s no longer true, as fans stick with comics as they get older and older and remember precisely which nipple Ogre-Man lost in his fight with The Tabloid! in 1977. So Marvel and DC started to tap into that nostalgia of older fans, who remembered when comics were really awesome (as you all know, everything was the BEST when you were 12 – I of course agree with that, because that’s when MOTHER%^&*ING MANIMAL was on!!!!!) and wanted to relive those bygone days without actually re-reading the comics they already had. Marvels showed that there was an audience for this.

The writing is on the wall...

It’s frequently argued that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen inspired the “dark and edgy” period of comic books we got into the nineties (a period which saw the Punisher hold down three simultaneous titles). That said, there’s no doubting that the companies somewhat missed what the audience was responding to in those stories: the audience was looking for well-told stories with new and original concepts, rather than mindless brutality and violence. Either way, I’d argue that Marvels had the same sort of impact.

In recent years we’ve seen nostalgia dominate the comic book industry. We can argue all day if this is a cause of or a result of a shrinking and ageing audience, but there’s a big trend towards classic status quos, especially those dating from the Silver Age. Green Lantern: Rebirth restored the Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan to prominence, taking over from his replacement, Kyle Rayner. More recently, Flash: Rebirth saw Barry Allen take over the main Flash title from his successor, Wally West. It’s interesting to note that Allen held the title for about twenty-five years, and West for twenty-two – it isn’t fair to argue that West was a “temporary new direction” or anything like that.

... one giant leap...

There are similar trends elsewhere in the comic book world. In perhaps the most obvious example, Spider-Man was recently restored to his classic “single and a loser” status in Amazing Spider-Man by use of a controversial retcon. The X-Men were rebooted recently so that they could revert from the subtle prejudice that Morrison explored in New X-Men back to the rather blatant racism that Chris Claremont delivered back on Uncanny X-Men in the seventies.

Still, perhaps it isn’t fair to judge Busiek’s work with reference to those that it inspired, no more than one may judge Alan Moore’s magnum opus for the slew of pale imitations that flooded the market in its wake. On the other hand, it’s something that’s very consciously at the front of the reader’s mind as they tuck into this rather wonderful tenth anniversary edition, which comes with a slew of extras, including sketches, scripts, pitches and even newspaper articles. It’s a very well put together collection.

Busiek's outlook isn't especially rosy...

It’s interesting to read Marvels, as it starts out of something of a deconstruction. We’re treated to a unique perspective on the superhuman battles between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, but they aren’t as exciting as they might have seemed when originally published. To the citizens of the Marvel Universe, they are downright terrifying. “It must have seemed like a glorious aerial ballet,” Phil tells us of one such confrontation. “Dangerous, beautiful and thrilling. And maybe it was. But not for us. What we saw was carnage and destruction and confusion…”

Rather brilliantly, and cleverly, Busiek anchors in the irrational hatred that characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men seem to endure almost daily. He roots this firmly back in the Golden Age, in those initial appearances of superheroes, by filling out a backstory that the writers of those stories probably never even thought of – the devastation of Namor’s attacks and the indifference to human suffering or human justice (“Aw nuts!” one character declares of Namor, “The Torch just let him go, after all he did! That ain’t fair!”). It’s a smart move which justifies how people can hate Spider-Man, even if he’s never done anything especially wrong.

Note how Busiek treats the "mutant menace"...

More than that, Busiek also tries to explain how a nation can fear and distrust mutants, even if they worship and respect heroes like Captain America, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. It isn’t merely the fact that mutants are different, it’s the fact that they are effectively mankind’s replacement. The next logical step. A lot of the resentment that Busiek portrays among the inhabitants of this fictional universe derives from a sense of being completely powerless. “Who gave them the right to just come in and take it all away from us?” Phil asks, as he observes that mutants “were here to kick the dirt onto our graves.”

On the other hand, Busiek has a bit of fun – suggesting that perhaps one can easily over-analyse comic books, or try to read meaning where there clearly isn’t any. At one point, after Phil has outlined his own carefully thought-out pseudo-philosophical musings on the nature of these strange superpowered folk, one of his colleagues simply observes, “I think you’ve been thinking about this waaay too much, Phil.” And, to be honest, perhaps we do. Still, that’s part of the fun.

The mutant menace...

In fairness, Busiek is very self-aware. As the years move on and the Marvel heroes move closer and closer towards the era of deconstruction, when writers would dare to allow the main characters to fail spectacularly or to develop severe personality flaws, Phil seems almost shocked and personally offended. “The Marvels were supposed to be pure,” he insists. “Glorious… Not sordid.” In many ways, Phil’s response mirrors that of many fans who grew up with a particular iteration of a given character – only to be shocked when characterisation or circumstance radically change. There’s that sense of personal betrayal which is almost unique to comic book fandom. Times and tastes change, which is inevitable.

Which makes this whole exercise pretty ironic. Phil eventually decides to distance himself from the heroes, following the death of Gwen Stacey, which was something of a defining moment for Marvel Comics. Disillusioned and broken, Phil is devastated by the failure of Spider-Man, even though he never knew Gwen Stacey. Similarly, fans were equally shocked, despite the fact that she was never real. Wounded and hurt, Phil accepts that he has made it all too personal (“I’ve seen too much,” he confesses, “and I’m inside now”), and leaves it to a new and younger generation.

In the eye of the beholder...

It’s a very considered and mature point, and one which I think seems quite clear. Comics are a medium where the average age of readers has been rising for quite some time now. Younger fans simply aren’t coming in for any number of reasons (I have my own theories), and that means that comics are fighting to hold on to the readers they have. This means that the average fan of comic books feels more ownership of their story than the average film or television fan. Busiek seems to be suggesting that this sort of obsessive love can be devastating – both for the fans and for the stories. Comics need to attract new audiences, much as any other medium does, but it’s something that hasn’t really be happening too much for the last few decades. In a way, Busiek’s central point seems at odds with the sort of pandering to fanboy nostalgia that the series ended up provoking.

That ending is a happy one, this idea that Phil can now retire and move on with his life – happy for the joy that the characters brought him, but finally ready to disengage from the continuity and the drama and the heartbreak to get on with living his life. It’s a bit much to describe this as akin to William Shatner’s famous “Get a life!” moment, but it’s a clear observation that obsession is never really a good thing, even when it concerns those things that we harbour deep and genuine affection towards.

Making headlines...

Of course, some of Busiek’s writing is more than a bit heavy handed at points. I could have done without, for example, the scene of Phil throwing a brick at Iceman as part of a mob, or the awkward story of the little mutant girl which helped to make Phil a decent human being. Still, I suppose that’s part of the appeal. It’s a four-issue series, so there isn’t necessarily a lot of room to be especially subtle.

Alex Ross’ artwork is especially beautiful here. Again, this is one of those things you either love our you don’t, but Ross and Busiek perfectly capture an epic style which helps recount some of those great moments from Marvel history. I like a lot of the subtle smaller touches, for example, the decision to make Tony Stark look like Timothy Dalton. This might be down to the fact that Dalton played the villain in The Rocketeer, a Disney film just a little similar to Iron Man (and from the director of Captain America: The First Avenger), or it might be an attempt to tie Tony Stark to James Bond, with his suave demeanor and wonderful gadgets.

Marvel-ou-s...

I’m not normally a stickler for continuity, subscribing to the view that every comic is somebody’s first and that obscure references to what came before will only serve to alienate potential fans, but Busiek and Ross nail it. The story flows quite well, feeling like things are happening organically, rather than in reference to a slew of carefully-researched comic book issues. I haven’t read too many of the storylines references, but I never feel excluded or left out. The story works either way, and the fact that Busiek and Ross can tie their story to particular issues is just icing on the cake. If you don’t believe how carefully the story is crafted, there’s a bunch of material in the back of the book for you to peruse.

Marvels is a great little story. Perhaps it’s tarnished a bit by what it inspired, and how it influenced what was to come (as, though imitation is the highest form of flattery, it’s also the strongest diluting agent). Still, if you want a brief history of the Marvel Universe, you can’t go too far wrong.

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