Marvels by Kurt Busiek (writer) and Alex Ross (artist)
Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross have produced a masterpiece in Marvels. It is simply one of the best superhero comics ever written. As far as I’m concerned, people who say they don’t like superhero comics haven’t earned the right to that claim unless they’ve read this comic. And even if their tastes remain unchanged, I can’t imagine anyone arguing that the book doesn’t have great literary and artistic merit. Marvels itself is a Marvel.
The basic premise is a simple one: The story of Marvel comics is told from our perspective, the perspective of an everyday citizen. We are represented by the main character, Phil Sheldon, an up-and-coming photographer who labels these new super-powered heroes and villains, “Marvels.” The comic book traces his career from its start through his production of his own book called Marvels to his retirement in the final pages of the book. Marvels is Sheldon’s book all the way — it’s about his changing views of the Marvels, his maturing as a man, his raising a family, and his making a career through his pictures of Marvels.
But what of the Marvels themselves? The story follows the chronological progression of comic book characters throughout the 20th century from The Human Torch and Namor to Captain America and the Avengers; from the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer to X-Men and the Mutant threat; and from all the other characters we are familiar with like Spider-Man and Iron Man to slightly more obscure ones like Danny Ketch and Luke Cage. Marvels takes us through the Golden, Silver, and Modern ages of comics and does so in such a natural way, it doesn’t feel like a forced concept at all. Along the way, we get glimpses of great stories: The creation of the original Human Torch, the marriage of Reed Richards to Susan Storm, the coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the death of Gwen Stacy, and the threat of the Sentinels.
All these stories would overwhelm Marvels without Sheldon’s character holding the comic book together. The book needs a focus, and he is that focus. I think having Sheldon at the center of the book is also effective because it shows how human beings would naturally react if they actually lived in the real Marvel universe. One of my favorite aspects of Marvels is that Busiek, instead of ignoring how ridiculous the plot lines of early comics are, just makes it part of the story — Sheldon talks about how scared he and his fellow citizens are listening to events on the radio, never knowing if Namor and the original Human Torch are going to fight against each other or together. The human world, from Sheldon’s perspective, seems at the mercy of powerful beings who could help us one moment or dangerously knock down buildings or flood the city the next. As a representative example, Sheldon is permanently injured in one of these altercations. It’s significant that he is blinded in one eye, his perspective forever altered by these Marvels.
My perspective, too, has been forever altered by Marvels. It’s a rich book with more going on than I’ve managed to follow the four or five times I’ve read it. When I first started reading comics about five years ago, this book was recommended by almost every reference book I read and every comic book reader with whom I talked. So I read it early on, and I’m glad I did. Even though I didn’t catch all the details on my first read, it didn’t matter because I could easily follow Sheldon’s story and emotions — from mixed awe and fear of superheroes to extreme hatred of mutants to eventually defense of mutants and renewed awe of the Marvels. And since the comic refers to so many major Marvel story arcs and events, it also prepared me for other stories that I would eventually read on my own. In many ways, it acts as a great comic book primer for the uninitiated.
What makes Marvels even more amazing is that it gets better with every read — or at least it seems to get better since I know more about the Marvel universe every time I decide to return to it. And each time I read it, I discover new treasures and references, both in terms of the plot and art. In fact, the art itself is practically enough to make this comic a five-star book. Alex Ross uses a style that isn’t my favorite style in comics, but it is absolutely perfect for this story. It’s got enough realism to blur the line between citizens and superheroes and enough of the fantastic to convey to the reader a real sense of awe. The book is clearly created by two men who love the history of comics. And in writing about a man who conveys his own passion through writing, they produce a layered narrative that creates in readers a corresponding awe for superheroes, something I never had until I read this book.
I must say that Marvels convinced me to see superhero comics in a new light, and I have not lost that perspective yet thanks to Busiek and Ross. I enjoy superhero comics, and I owe these two artists for this unique joy. This week’s column is less a review than a sales pitch. Buy this book. You want to own it because you’ll need and want to read and look through it more than once.