Marvels

Fiziko noted that we have never reviewed Marvels, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s look at the Marvel Universe, late 30s to early 70s, from the point-of-view of the average, non-super-powered guy.

General Information

Title: Marvels
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Lettering/Interior Design: Richard Starkings and Comicraft

ISBN 0-7851-0049-0

Available from Amazon.com
or Amazon.ca.

Premise:

A reporter follows key events in the Marvel Universe or, rather, in Marvel’s terribly busy New York, from the creation of the original Human Torch to the death of Gwen Stacy and the engagement of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.

High Points

The Artwork. Does Ross have any peers? In addition to illustrating his comics with a beguiling realism, he also fills them with Easter Eggs. His work may be found at his website. Two images from Marvels appear at my Crossover Comix page. Ross’s take on the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm appears here, while a cameo by Popeye is featured here. (Superman also makes an appearance in Marvels, though the notes insist that the figure leaping a tall building at a single bound in red-and-blue tights is the Golden Age Angel).

For Busiek’s part, the EC-inspired story of Maggie the Mutant in Book Two is genuinely touching, and disturbingly open-ended.

Low Point

The artistic virtues of Ross and Busiek, to some degree, work against this story. Ross insists on photorealistic detail. Busiek researched Marvel’s history and organized events, as they happened, meticulously. At times, yes, the results are breathtaking.

Equally often, they illustrate just how ridiculous Marvel’s superhero universe is. The very realistic, serious approach forces you to wonder why Phineas Horton’s research wasn’t continued, how New York survived Namor’s tidal wave, and why Marvel-Earth even vaguely resembles ours.

By the time our intrepid reporter and Gwen Stacy stumble into an invading Army from Atlantis, I found myself laughing rather than being awed.

(Especially when the narrator notes, “There was hard science behind it all.”)

The Scores

Originality: 6/6 Other comics have attempted to show the everyday aspects of a superhero-filled world, but none, prior to Marvels, have undertaken so meticulous and thorough (some might say, “obsessive”) a presentation.

Artwork: 6/6 See High Points.

Story: 3/6 The story is fragmented and incomplete, because of the project’s nature. People unfamiliar with Marvel Comics may find it impenetrable at times. Busiek does link events through Phil Sheldon’s personal story.

Characterization: 3/6 The reporters have personalities of sort, and the heroes have been handled, at least, no worse than in typical comic books. The initial narration by the Torch intrigued me; I almost wish he had continued it.

It wasn’t the heroes, however, who presented the biggest problem for me. I found most of the average citizens unbelievable. Their attitudes towards the heroes changed too easily, too often. And given that we’ve adjusted to internal combustion engines, electricity, and the Internet, one imagines that we would, over a half-century, develop some perspective about metahumans, if they actually existed.

At the same time, we might be a trifle more shaken by frequent, planet-threatening alien invasions.

Emotional response: 4/6 Ross’s spectacular art evokes the gee whiz sense of wonder comics may have had for you when you were a kid. The story features some good moments, but the lack of characterization presents some problems. I can reread Ghost World or Watchmen. I look at Marvels again.

Flow 3/6

Overall: 5/6

In total, Marvels receives a score of 30/42.

6 replies on “Marvels”

  1. Babbster says:

    Loved Marvels – Inevitable “But”
    Marvels kept me collecting comics for an extra couple months when I was becoming more and more disenchanted with the direction of the industry. Between the concept (I’ve been a Marvel history buff since the first “Official Handbook…” which I all but memorized as a kid) and the art (there aren’t superlatives enough to describe it), it was like someone made a comic book just for me – and, it turns out, lots and lots of other comic book fans.

    My “but” comes from one of the points covered in the review: I don’t think there’s any way to enjoy the story without being a Marvel nerd, both reverent of the history and forgiving of the necessary resets after events which should have shattered Manhattan for years to come (see Avengers 233/FF 244 for the most memorable example of this from my own youth). However, I don’t think people who come along and try to read this without the history knowledge, even with character knowledge, could enjoy the story fully. I think the biggest reason is that there are events in the series, originally covered in multiple individual issues, that had to be compressed to fit into this [too] short series.

    Ross’ art, though, makes up for this fault, and any others one comes across. If you like comics and don’t own Marvels (and Kingdom Come, a Mark Waid/Alex Ross DC Elseworlds production, for that matter) I just don’t know what to do with you. :)

    • y42 says:

      Re: Loved Marvels – Inevitable “But”

      I don’t think there’s any way to enjoy the story without being a Marvel nerd,
      both reverent of the history and forgiving of the necessary resets after events
      which should have shattered Manhattan for years to come (see Avengers 233/
      FF 244 for the most memorable example of this from my own youth).

      Marvels could also turn you into a Marvel nerd…

      Lil’ known fact, there’s a superhero called The General Contractor who’s
      power is to rebuild New York after each cataclysism ;-)

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: Loved Marvels – Inevitable “But”

        Lil’ known fact, there’s a superhero called The General Contractor who’s
        power is to rebuild New York after each cataclysism ;-)

        Marvel had a short-lived comic in the 80s with a title like Damage, Inc., which revolved around a company that repaired metahuman damaged. I suspect they avoided the “entire city needs to be replaced and repopulated” incidents. Maybe Marvel-New York and Toho-Tokyo subscribe to the same kickass insurance company….

        • fiziko says:

          Re: Loved Marvels – Inevitable “But”

          Marvel had a short-lived comic in the 80s with a title like Damage, Inc., which revolved around a company that repaired metahuman damaged. I suspect they avoided the “entire city needs to be replaced and repopulated” incidents. Maybe Marvel-New York and Toho-Tokyo subscribe to the same kickass insurance company….

          Matt Murdock brokered Marvel-New York’s insurance policy to the tune of about $1 billion a year, if memory serves. I think that was established early in Kevin Smith’s run, but I’m at work so I can’t confirm that.

  2. hossman says:

    Ruins – the perfect Marvels Companion
    Once you buy and read "Marvels", if you really like it, take the time to try and find the two issue mini-series "Ruins" by writer Warren Ellis, artists Cliff Nielsen and Terese Nielsen and letterer Jonathan Babcock.

    It’s a much darker look at the same story, even featuring the same main character.

    It’s not nearly as good as Marvels, but it provides a stuning counter-point.

  3. fiziko says:

    Mostly agree

    I agree with most of what Timeshredder has to say. I’m just not sure how much of a problem it is that you don’t know what’s going on if you’re not a Marvel nut. The average schmuck on the street in the Marvel Universe doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, either. I think that’s a big part of the irrational fears they have. They know that there are these immensely powerful beings walking around, and fear that their own fate is out of their hands. They’re told that these battles are for the greater good, and saving human lives, but all they can verify is the destruction the fights cause. The average person would be terrified and skeptical. The Avengers and the Fantastic Four have the government support and the PR budgets to swing the general public to their side. The X-Men and Spider-Man do not have those things, so the public attacks and fears them.

    I think the “torches and pitchforks” sequence was over the top, yes, but I think that a lack of knowledge of the heroes’ perspectives on the reader makes it a little more effective when conveying what it would really be like to live in this world. I’ve got a friend just getting into comics I should loan this to, to see how she reacts. She loved Kingdom Come, but has had very limited exposure to most of the history of the Marvel Universe. (She’s primarily read Supreme Power and Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.)

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