Marvels (Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross)
I went into Marvels with a lot of excitement. It is one of those books that has been on my To Read… list since I first saw an oversized release of it propped up against a wall in Waterstone’s on Deansgate in Manchester when I was youngling. It is a comic that always stands out when compared to everything else out there. Alex Ross’s realistic painted art is something else and it fits the concept of telling the history of the Marvel Universe from the point of view of a regular guy perfectly. You feel like you are there in the moment as it is all happening. It has an epic quality to it that shows the key moments it focuses on in a grand scale while still managing to keep it all grounded in the very human story of Phil Sheldon’s career of following superheroes emphatically.
Also out of all the books that make up the Marvel Ultimate Graphic Novel Collection that I have read this is by far the best volume that has been compiled. It is packed full of extra features! The back section usually dedicated to writer and artist profiles is full of images and the details of Ross’ workflow. Then during the reading itself you have commentary from the key creators of the book and of course a wonderful forward from the man himself, Stan Lee. It is a selection of features that puts the rest of the collection to shame.
It is a true gem to experience.
While I was reading the book I often found that I had a big beaming smile on my face not just because I was really enjoying the story being told but because you can tell it is a story crafted with love and attention. Lots and lots of attention to the little details. Marvels is an attempt to take the long history of the Marvel Universe that had up to this point been told in weekly and monthly instalments with some regard for continuity and knit it into a cohesive whole. Everything on every page and panel of this book happens for a reason. From things in shop windows to the headlines of the many, many newspapers that are featured in the book. All of it has a wink and nudge to things that were happening in the endless adventures of Marvel’s cast of characters at that particular point in time. The big Earth shaking moments are what frame the book but the rest is all in the little moments and background. I have a feeling that each time you read this book you are going to find something new to bring that knowing smile across your face.
Due to the “historical” focus of the book you would think it was going to be a mess of a thing too wrapped up in the complex continuity of the Marvel Universe to be an enjoyable read. Thankfully it is all laid out and presented in an easy to understand way. This is mainly down to the protagonist of the story, Phil Sheldon taking the role of audience representative and his constant processing of the events, both big and small make it all make sense in a wonderful way. For example, we see him succumb to mob mentality when the X-Men and mutants come on the scene colouring that particular aspect of the X-Men franchise in the most realistic way I have ever seen. Then we get the reversal of it all when Phil’s family finds and takes in a young mutant runaway. It hits you in the gut and tugs on your emotions. You finally see it explained perfectly. The usual way of things is that everyone is afraid of the mutants because…. [fill in plot point here]. In Marvels we get everyone being afraid of mutants because of mass hysteria on the levels of The Red Scare from the 40s and 50s. Anyone could be a mutant that hates you because you are human. They could be the man in the local shop, your best friend or even your wife/husband!
It is an idea that runs throughout the book. All the colourful Marvel Superheroes are treated by the public with a mixture of wonder, fear, excitement and scepticism. The flip-flopping of public opinion is something that frustrates both Phil and the reader to no end because we know and love these characters. It is something that still has a lot of weight today with the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, the constant shifting of opinons of everyone involved in it and how that in turn effects the public’s opinion. Just look at the crazy spectrum of reports on video games. One week games are amazing because Angry Birds is a money making machine and everyone plays it, the next week all games are evil and need to be banned. Kurt Busiek uses the big events from the history of the Marvel Universe and how in the end everything just keeps on ticking to make his argument on the dangers of en masse opinons and news’ responsibility to report on it in a balanced way rather than the one that will sell the most papers.
Sadly however a lot of the book does not make much sense in the modern sensibilities of Marvel’s current more malleable continuity. Things are slowly being brought forward and changed to make them make sense to the world of the 21st Century. This runs counter to the way Marvels is setup because it relies on historic details and information to help set the scene (like The Beatles being among the wedding guests for Reed and Sue’s nuptials or Jonny Storm dating Elizabeth Taylor). Also if the various superheroes featured in Marvels aged correctly then they would be pushing into old age and retirement at this point, hell Magneto should be in his 90s by now! It does say a lot about the book though that its only major fault is out of its control. It is a brilliant look at the old Marvel Style of doing things along with the stories and interconnectedness that it ushered in.
Honestly it is one of the best comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading.