Back Issue Bin: Marvels

Superhero comics are traditionally told from the point of view of the beings of great power. From time to time we glimpse the man on the street reacting to the “gods” battling above his head. In 1994, writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross united to create a ground breaking mini-series that would influence comics books still today. If you know anything about comic books in the 1990s, you know that it was the boom and bust period. X-Men #1 sold a million copies, a group of upstart creators left Marvel to form Image, DC gimmicked the hell out of the Death of Superman. There was a cynicism that underlined the majority of material being released. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns had really colored everything that came after them, but were interpreted for all the wrong elements. It appeared the average comic creator saw those texts and thought “higher levels of violence and sexuality”, instead of “tightly crafted storytelling and manipulation of the genre tropes”. Busiek and Ross decided to take readers back to a time when heroes were objects of wonder, not agents of destruction.

Marvels was originally released as four prestige format books. Each book focused on an era of Marvel Comics history, not paying attention to any sort of real time continuity. Issue one is the story of the World War II era heroes (Captain America, Human Torch, The Submariner). Issue two was a look at the beginnings of the Silver Age in the early 1960s as well as the anti-mutant sentiments beginning. Issue three was the invasion of Earth by Galactus. And issue four was the story of the Death of Gwen Stacy, a moment that marked the end of innocence for the Marvel Universe. All four issues are told from the perspective of photographer Phil Sheldon. Sheldon works for The Daily Bugle, and is even a casual acquaintance with young upstart Peter Parker. Sheldon lives in New York City with his family and is front stage for the rise and fall of the “gods” of his lifetime. This human perspective adds so much and the events being revisited even if you are a long time Marvel Zombie or someone totally unfamiliar with the key moments in the universe.

In many ways Marvels is the story of why people have faith and how they lose it. In the Marvel Universe, World War II is much different due to the participation of superheroes. Captain America in particular is a Messianic figure, saving the world from the Nazis, and “dying” while in battle with his arch-nemesis. His subsequent “resurrection” by the Avengers in the 1960s is the Second Coming for people like Phil. Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl are like a royal couple when they get hitched atop the Baxter Building, an event Phil gets to cover for the Bugle. There’s definite parallels between this couple and the Kennedys, as well  as the optimistic Camelot atmosphere around them both. There’s also a story about anti-mutant hatred that is an obvious metaphor for the civil rights issues that were ongoing during the 1960s, and Phil even brings up the strange contradiction between a people that so easily accept The Avengers yet revile The X-Men.

Marvels is one of the first comics I read that elicited a strong emotional response from me. Its a story told by men who were children when they first read the original stories, and are now retelling them with a mixture of childhood nostalgia and tempered adult reality. The mix is what makes Marvels such a poignant story. Phil’s daughters grow up in a world of wonder, where men and women really can fly, and the good guys defeat the bad guys. Phil came of age during The Great Depression so this is the dream he always wanted for his family, the opposite of the cards he was dealt. When the moment comes that the Silver Age ends, and the Marvel Universe begins to head down a darker path, Phil is worried. Where the mini-series ends is a beautiful moment, Phil choosing to hope that the goodness he has come to believe in will always be there. If you are looking for a superhero comic that works as a perfect counterpoint to stories like Watchmen, this is definitely it.