Monday, October 18, 2010

Marvels (comics)

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Collects: Marvels #0-4

I like Marvel just fine - and I'll follow some of their characters as closely as anything else - but I must admit that I'm not a huge fan. Part of it has to do with the universe itself. The whole thing is founded on a root concept of making the world around the superheroes as real as possible. Not only do I find this to be folly, but sometimes, things get a little too real. How could the populace be stupid enough to put Norman Osborn - whose Green Goblin shenanigans were a matter of public record - in a position of power regardless of whatever positive actions he may have done? Well, there's a certain "Tea Party" running around that's about as racist, misogynistic and hateful as any cackling comic villain; and they've got far more followers who want them in power than any sane world would permit. Shouldn't the mutant race have been accepted by now by any real world standards? Not really; ask a black, indian or so on how "accepted" they feel even in this modern era. How could the populace turn on the heroes at the drop of a hat? Pfft, look at how we turn on our heroes in real life to see just how plausible that one is.

Frankly, it gets depressing sometimes; and if I wanted that, I'd read a newspaper, not a comic book with gods and dudes in colorful tights punching each other. It's comforting to know that on the occasions that I do want to read a story like that, I know where to turn to. But typically, I'm more interested in other things, which is probably why I devour the Distinguished Competitions books on a bit more regular a basis.

What I'm trying to say is that a lot of the time it feels like Marvel takes itself way too seriously. I don't care for it. I'm pretty sure I'm not picking up a Thor book to read about his visit to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina several years after it happened.

So, having said this, it probably comes as little surprise that this story set off every warning bell that I had. The story is through the eyes of an "Everyman" sort of character, attempting to give a man on the street perspective. So we pretty much witness the birth of the Marvel universe as the common man might see it. I read a summary a long time ago and boy howdy, just from that I could tell they were running through the events and themes Marvel built its foundation on like checking boxes off a list. They may as well have put a neon sign on the book saying it just wasn't for me.

But, as usual, my curiosity got the better of me. It had won a hell of a lot of awards in its day and the praise for it just doesn't let up. It was kind of like Marvel's own version of Kingdom Come in that it was a seminal story regarded by fandom on the whole as a classic. Oh, and it was illustrated by Alex Ross, to shoot for another similarity (man, the 90's were like a Golden Age for that guy). So while I'd put it off for years on end - any story with as many of my turnoffs as this one has often leads to me putting it off - it caught up with me eventually to the point where I just said "screw it".

In all... well, it does hit most of the things I feared it would. It also takes itself - and in turn the Marvel Universe - a bit too seriously. But the thing about it - and the reason I went to the trouble of detailing all of the previous - is that it worked out well for me regardless. Which, considering my views, is pretty high praise from me.

On the whole, Marvel touches on specific periods in time, from the capes that arrived in World War II on through the eras. For the most part, this series restricts itself; it sticks largely to the early years of the Marvel Universe, dropping the curtain just after the death of Gwen Stacy in Marvel continuity. It seems like a short period of time, but it keeps the book focused, allowing it to stick to the building blocks of the Marvel Universe as we know it. This also keeps it removed from having to deal with what would come. This story was, after all, released in the mid-90's; we all know the kind of crap that was going on at the time.

Where the story excels is that it uses the foundation of the Marvel Universe to tell different sorts of "man on the street" stories within the context of the greater story. The first of these "stories within a story" - set during World War II - seems to settle on the swaying public opinion depending on the involvement of the capes in the war. The second is content to settle on fear; the first appearance of the mutants seems to instill in regular humans an all consuming dread, mainly of being replaced as a species. The third is partly about an example of one of the first apocalyptic scenarios in the coming of Galactus and how the regular people might take that. The fourth seems split between a Marvel Universe style reflection of how easily we turn on our heroes coupled with the ease we can gain and lose faith in something we perceive.

Thankfully, Marvels isn't content with rehashing the events of the Marvel Universe and telling punchy, contained little "man on the street" stories - as it was originally intended to, which the project thankfully moved away from - instead working them into the overarching story of one man living through those it all. The main character is a photojournalist fascinated with the superheroes, watching them from the birth of that age up until his later days as an old man. This, I believe, is why it works; if it took these same themes, focused on different people in each one and separated them all like an anthology, this book might not have worked as well as it did. This also helps it avoid the pitfall of being a mere side story to the larger events going on; for the most part, there isn't a true retelling of any referenced comic. The events serve as more of a backdrop; even the recognizable heroes are less characters and more "super", which is not something a Marvel comic does often.

On the same token, there are some pitfalls with this approach, some of them really the sort that's impossible to get around when you're filtering a lot of early events through the lens of one character. As is to be expected, Marvels revolves around more than a few coincidences to get the title character in a position to witness some key events. For the most part, it's navigated by making the main character a photojournalist; after all, such a person is going to go chasing these sorts of stories, which makes it more believable that he might happen to be around when Namor or Hulk throw a tantrum. But there comes a point where even that doesn't help. So the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner just happened to slam into the same building Phil was on, causing his injury? He was in the same neighborhood when the original X-Men were cornered and managed to nail Iceman with a brick? It turned out to be his particular kids out of a whole neighborhood who sheltered a homeless mutant? When he just so happened to be there when the Green Goblin exited the apartment - Gwen Stacy saddled over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes - so he could follow Gobby to the bridge for the pivotal "death of Gwen Stacy" scene, I just kind of sighed. By the time we hit the last page cameo, credibility has long since gone out the window.

Eventually, it all adds up until you begin to have a hard time buying what they're selling. I'm used to the "amazing coincidence" in my comics. Normally, I'm not bothered. But a story like Marvels - which strives to give as much of a realistic, regular person view of things as it possibly can in a universe where Thor chills out with Hercules - has less room to get away with it by it's very nature. Unless Phil has the power of "Super Coincidence", it's hard to roll with it by about the fourth or fifth time he finds himself wrapped in a key event that his choice of job does not logically bring him to.

That said, on the whole the story is well written and engaging. The protagonist in particular is quite likable; while he does have a ridiculous knack for being at the right place at the right time, his reaction to said events is believable. When he feels sorrow at being swept up in mob mentality, it feels genuine. When he blows his top at civilians disparaging mutants late in the story, it feels earned. By the time he has become disillusioned with the public and its reaction to the heroes, we've seen how and why he has come to that. If your protagonist in this sort of story isn't good enough to invest in, the whole thing is going to fall apart; Kurt Busiek doesn't allow that to happen and deserves some props for keeping Phil Sheldon as an interesting lead in a universe where dudes get nuked and only suffer the side effect of becoming a massive green monster that smashes things. Given the choice, a lot of the time we'd probably prefer to read about the second guy.

Alex Ross manages to hold up his end of the bargain with the art. It's no secret that he uses models for his art, which has a tendency to ground some poses in reality. At the very least, it tends to keep anatomy proper. But I'm really not a big fan; hell, a lot of the time I don't feel like his style gels with the material. When he does pieces for DC, for example, he has a habit of making characters look way too old; not to mention a little out of shape, which would get some of them killed. His art doesn't have the same problem here, however. If anything, it's to the stories benefit; I suspect his work with models, for instance, is part of why the facial expressions in this story are very vivid. Not to mention the book has sort of an old fashioned painterly look, which helps sell the setting of the story in a different time.

One other thing worth noting is that this trade has some nice extras on the whole. Between each "chapter", or single issue of the mini, is a text piece by the creators and some others that were influential in regards to shaping the Marvel Universe. In the back are small interviews, along with a general list of the stories referenced throughout the story, the issue numbers included. That, in particular, was probably the most handy; I am, after all, a more casual fan of Marvel, so without it about half the references that didn't involve Galactus would have sailed clear over my head. Add in all the original covers and you have a pretty nice package.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

There were a few things that bothered me with this story - and honestly, in any other instance the very concept would probably not have worked for me - but on the whole this is a very nice piece of work. I can see why it's hailed by some as a classic; at the very least, I'm willing to say that it's definitely one of the diamonds in the rough that was the 90's in comics. It definitely deserves a spot on the bookshelf.

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