Week 16 – April 24th t0 May 1st
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Kurt Busiek teamed up with Alex Ross to bring a whole new perspective to the comic world through Marvels. Everyone has seen the many historic moments that have occurred throughout Marvel’s history through the eyes of the superheroes who have experienced these events. But how often do you see one of these major, game changing moments through the eyes of a civilian? That’s exactly what Busiek did with Marvels, changing the comic landscape with a story from a civilian perspective unlike any other story done in comics up to that point. The story was only enhanced by the enamored artwork done by Alex Ross during this critically acclaimed miniseries.
Set in the early years of the Mavel Universe, Marvels follows photographer Phil Sheldon over forty years of his life. The age of superheroes kicks into high gear as Sheldon begins to try and make headway in his career as a photographer. All around him, the world reacts and revolts to these new “Marvels”, something modern mankind has never seen or even heard of before. From beautiful moments of saving citizens to natural disasters, the Marvels bring just as much woe as they do joy to the world. Through Sheldon’s lens he captures how the general population reacts to the highs and lows of having a superhero driven world, using the images he gets to create a best selling book. But at what point does Sheldon have to stop before he sacrifices his family for his career?
Marvels does a magnificent job of humanizing superheroes whilst still placing them on a pedestal. This is a raw and authentic story from Kurt Busiek who taps into something that hadn’t really been done to this degree before in comics at the time of its release. Using the point of view of Phil Sheldon, a regular human, isn’t anything woefully unique but it’s Busiek’s approach to the character, and as such the characters approach to superheroes, that sets this story out as an instant classic. Marvels is a winner through and through. Obviously the story is more enjoyable if you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe but even on it’s own, ignoring all the history associated with Marvel, the story stands up on its own two feet beautifully. The history of this world and characters is important to the story and is largely the reason it all works in such a magnificent fashion but that doesn’t mean you need to be a Marvel historian to get what Kurt Busiek is laying the foundation for.
In my mind, the main point of this story is to show that these “Marvels”, these incredible things and people, can still have human qualities and be easy to relate to. It’s likely part of the reason that the story opens with a tale about the first Human Torch. A normal man who is driven by scientific curiosity turns his son into the Human Torch. He is lush with excitement over this amazing development only to be rejected for creating something unnatural. The story becomes told through the Human Torch’s point of view and you’re consumed by this saddening anxiety from this man who was changed and rejected. The effect is similar to something like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with man rejecting what they believe to be a beast. Furthermore, you see more of this theme in every part of the story. Whether it is the prejudice towards the mutants, the horror of a hero like The Thing, or the tantalizing sorrow that creeps in surrounding Spider-Man’s greatest defeat, all these real emotions creep into these fictional characters.
In telling the story through someone like Phil Sheldon, Busiek taps into the sense of humanity necessary to pull off a story like Marvels. You watch a young and hopeful Phil grow into a bitter old man, hardened by a life that has left him fickle. Through the story you ride the waves of the time period, watching as Phil, a man who wouldn’t harm a fly, gets caught up in things like mob mentality and actually tries to harm mutants even though it is outside of his usual characteristics. Then, a few scenes later, Phil is forced to help hide a young girl who is a mutant, taking upon his duty as a father to set a good example for his daughters who have actually been harboring the mutant. It’s all believably human for Phil to be conflicted at several sharp turns in the story where he has the option to go left or right and chooses to go with the flowing of how things are unfolding instead of just reacting repeatedly. The wonder of what’s happening around him is never lost, as there are so many pages where Phil is left in awe that you’ll lose count of them all by the end.
To give a character like Phil a job as a photographer is simply brilliant as it makes him the reader’s eyes to the entire story. We see these beautiful images through his lens and his perspective, getting swept up in the sheer beauty of everything that unfolds. How Busiek manages to inject so much humanity into one character is astounding as he manages to actually project Sheldon’s emotions on to you as a reader. The perfect example of this is a scene late in the book where Sheldon captures a fateful fight unfolding between Spider-Man and The Green Goblin for Gwen Stacey’s life. The fight isn’t what’s important about the scene. What makes this scene important is how closely it places a hero under the microscope of a normal man. We all know how that scene ends but Busiek does something incredible with the way he writes the scene, distilling a sense of hopefulness into Sheldon to convince the reader that Spider-Man might actually save the day, only to snatch it away in gut wrenching fashion. Everyone knows the story of Spider-Man and how Gwen Stacey dies but watching it play out through the eyes of a bystander who is heavily invested in the situation shines a whole new light on the scene. That is largely what you can expect from Marvels, as this new perspective will change the way you’ll look at plenty of classic Marvel stories. Marvels isn’t a story about superheroes, it’s a story about superheroes as seen through the eyes of regular people.
Collects: Marvels #0-4
Best Character: Phil Sheldon
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “But there was something in her–in its eyes–and I couldn’t help thinking of the liberation of Auschwitz–and the look in her eyes–” – Phil Sheldon
Best Scene/Moment: Gwen Stacey’s euphoria in the midst of chaos – Issue 4
Best Issue: Issue 4. It feels a little unfair to just pick one issue that stands out from the pack for this one since the story works best in a flowing motion where you read one issue after another. With that said, it’s still an absolute pleasure to break up your reading and watch how much things change from issue to issue. To me, issue 4 perfectly captures the central themes and moods that Busiek was striving to accomplish and it serves as an excellent final chapter to the entire story. All that plus it features that scene with Spider-Man, Green Goblin, and Gwen Stacey that I gushed about above.
Why You Should Read It: Busiek does something marvelous here as he makes a great superhero story that isn’t about the superheroes so much as it is about how they effect the lives of regular people like you or I. For a work of fiction this feels incredibly humanizing. Every page feels real, dragging you further into the life and times of Phil Sheldon. To a further point, this book takes some of the biggest classic moments from Marvel Comics’ history and enhances them to a point where they might be better portrayed here than they were decades ago when they first occurred. All this AND the artwork is breathtakingly done by Alex Ross. How can you say no?