A Marvelous Debut

Even today’s casual comic-book readers are familiar with the work of painter Alex Ross. Between the numerous series he’s created for Marvel and DC, not to mention the hundreds of covers, paintings and prints he’s produced for Dynamite in recent years, the Alex Ross style has become an easily recognized and even somewhat taken-for-granted commodity on the comics scene. It’s easy to forget, then, just how revolutionary Ross’ work appeared when it first came on the scene back in 1994. Similarly, although Kurt Busiek had been working as a comics writer for years on books like JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, back then his was just another name on a long list of rather unremarkable and unheralded comics scribes. However, both Busiek and Ross’ fortunes would change permanently with the publication of MARVELS, a 4-issue miniseries that would win both the Eisner and Harvey Awards for 1994, and make both the writer and artist household names in the comics biz. Let’s take a look now at this remarkable series, almost 20 years later.

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Originally proposed by Ross as a series of fully painted short stories from throughout the history of the Marvel Universe, the addition of Kurt Busiek as the writer of the project brought the concept a focus and historical insight, as well as an ingenious story “hook”: the idea of looking at the Marvel Universe from the perspective of the regular guy on the street; specifically, news photographer Phil Sheldon, whose career is just beginning when the first of the super-powered mystery men (or “marvels,” as Sheldon refers to them) make their debut in 1939.

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The series follows Sheldon through his career, during both the Golden and Silver Ages of Marvel Comics, managing to touch on most of the historical highpoints along the way, while examining the larger theme of the regular guy’s love/hate relationship with the demigods suddenly in their midst. While Busiek’s painstakingly researched story deftly jumps between the larger-than-life superhero clashes and the smaller moments of living in a superhero’s world, Ross’s photorealistic painting juxtaposes the very mortal civilian New Yorkers with the godlike super-types, while at the same time using his remarkable facility for likenesses and facial expressions to make the Marvel superheroes seem more real, more human, than they ever have before. Ross is occasionally criticized for an overreliance on models, and while it’s true that some of his characters can occasionally look a little too familiar, (his Tony Stark is a little too Timothy Dalton-like for my tastes, and Reed Richards is a dead ringer for Russell Johnson, a.k.a. “The Professor” from Gilligan’s Island) the Norman Rockwell-influenced style was (and is to this day) like nothing else in comics, and gave the overall work a sense of realism, freshness and unfamiliarity that fit the themes of the story perfectly.

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Just as Phil Sheldon and his fellow New Yorkers were struggling to adjust to these fantastic new beings popping up all around them, Ross’ art allowed the reader to see such familiar figures through new eyes, as if for the first time.

Chapter One of the series, “A Time of Marvels,” introduces us to young Phil Sheldon and his contemporaries (including an amusingly young J. Jonah Jameson) all looking to make a name for themselves in the newspaper business. Sheldon is one of the photographers present at the unveiling of the original android Human Torch, and finds himself on the scene when the confused android escapes.

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Not long after, the Sub-Mariner makes his arrival known as well (and in an interesting and logical bit of detail, Ross always renders Namor as completely naked, assuming that a being accustomed to living underwater would have no need for clothing of any kind), and soon Jameson and Sheldon are finding themselves unnerved by the new arrivals.

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Intrigued by the development, Sheldon turns down an assignment in Europe covering the war, choosing instead to stay in New York to follow the actions of the “marvels,” as the battles between the Torch and the Sub-Mariner grow increasingly destructive. Even as he’s caught up in the activity, he finds himself feeling more and more powerless, even calling off his engagement to his fiancee Doris. Sheldon’s mood lifts with the first appearance of Captain America, as well as the revelation that the Torch and Namor were now working together against the Nazis. The alliance is a short-lived one, and soon Sheldon is in the middle of things once more as Namor declares war on humanity, and again focuses his attacks on New York. Determined to face his growing feelings of inadequacy head-on, Sheldon heads for the rooftop to capture on film Namor’s enormous tsunami overwhelming the city.

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As Namor and the Torch battle overhead, a chunk of debris knocked loose in the combat strikes Sheldon in the face, costing him his left eye. Sheldon recovers, and takes his previously rejected European assignment, having accepted that the “marvels” were here to stay. It’s an interesting little bit of symbolism, in that it’s only after Sheldon loses an eye that he properly gains perspective, on what’s important to him: his career and relationship, and while he gets the war correspondent position he had wanted to begin with, even there he can’t escape the fact that the world has forever changed.

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The series really kicks it up in Chapter Two, “Monsters Among Us.” In a bold decision, Busiek and Ross decide to have the story take place at the same time chronologically as the comics originally appeared, in the 1960s. (Although they never distinctly place it in a given year, only referring to it as “a different time,” Ross’ visuals regarding wardrobe, automobiles, etc., clearly place it in the 1960s.) Since traditionally comic characters don’t age, and having Spider-Man debut in the ’60s would necessarily make him a man in his 60s by now, you don’t see any reference in most Marvel Comics to characters having been around since then. However, the decision was without a doubt the right one, as it infused the book with the proper flavor of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko originals, and allowed it to retain the sense of pop funkiness that made the original Marvel comics so unique.

Here we see the initial infatuation New Yorkers have for the Marvels, and Busiek and Ross portray it in direct counterpoint to the blind paranoia and racism found in the general population’s fear and hatred of mutants. Ross’ art really springs to life in this chapter, with paintings like this one of Sheldon capturing Giant-Man in mid-stride across a city block, followed by a panel showing the same image reflected in the lenses of Sheldon’s eyeglasses.

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Sheldon is looking to sell a book of his “marvels” photographs, and is counting on the public adulation of the heroes to sell copies; however, the public’s fear and loathing of mutant heroes like the X-Men has him reconsidering. A sequence in which Sheldon covers a gallery showing by the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters allows Ross to really have some fun, with cameos by the Fantastic Four, Norman Osborn, Tony Stark, Hank and Janet Pym, Matt Murdock, Donald Blake, Professor Xavier, Scott Summers and Jean Grey and plenty more (including, curiously enough, Bea Arthur…), as Sheldon further struggles with the public’s love/hate relationship with the “marvels,” personified here in the crowd’s distancing from Ben Grimm.

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The “mutant menace” issue is brought right to Sheldon’s doorstep when his young children bring home an orphaned mutant girl whose parents have abandoned her. Sheldon’s inability to decide what to do with the child is brought into sharp relief when, on the eve of Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s wedding, the appearance of the mutant-hunting robots known as the Sentinels set off a series of anti-mutant riots all over New York. (Interestingly, Busiek explains in his commentary for the MARVELS trade paperback that, when doing the research for the story’s timeline and matching up all of the Marvel comics for this particular time period, he was hoping to find a way to connect the Richards wedding and the Sentinels debut, only to find that the only way the timeline lined up was if the two events happened on the same night! Synchronicity, Marvel-style…) Here again, Ross’ art sets the perfect mood for both events, the bright and optimistic wedding of Reed and Sue, and the dark and ominous invasion of the Sentinels.

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Chapter Three, “Judgment Day,” only further cements Sheldon’s resentment of his fellow New Yorkers, after the Fantastic Four somehow manage to turn away Galactus, a godlike alien apparently bent on consuming the planet itself, only to be accused of staging the entire affair themselves as a hoax. While Sheldon rediscovers his priorities during the FF’s battle with Galactus, abandoning his duties to be home with his frightened wife and children, his disenfranchisement from those around him only increases, finally boiling over at the sound of bystanders badmouthing the “marvels” only days after the Fantastic Four’s defeat of Galactus.

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The art here is probably the most striking in the entire book, as Ross takes the bombastic, cataclysmic concepts first realized by Jack Kirby in the landmark FANTASTIC FOUR #48-50, retains all of their grandeur, but replaces Kirby’s trademark exaggerated style with his own photorealist paintings.

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The result is a bit cold, compared to the dynamic quality of the Kirby original, but has a breathtaking scope and sense of verisimilitude, particularly in the shots of Galactus from a ground’s eye view, or this painting of a momentarily overturned Galactus clambering to his feet.

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Sheldon’s conflict comes to a tragic climax in Chapter 4, “The Day She Died.” Still consumed with the sense that humanity didn’t show the “marvels” the proper gratitude, Sheldon becomes fixated on how to remedy it, and thinks he’s found a way: clearing Spider-Man of the murder of Police Captain George Stacy, which Jameson and the Bugle have loudly and stridently accused him of. A chat with the NYPD reveals that they themselves don’t suspect Spidey of the murder; they just want to bring him in for questioning. Further pursuing the story, Sheldon talks to the witnesses, Jameson, even Doc Ock himself (the real murderer) before finally talking with Stacy’s daughter, Gwen.

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Busiek and Ross’ portrayal of Gwen is a heartbreaking one, as her eventual fate is never far from the reader’s mind. As Sheldon and Gwen talk amongst the chaos of yet another Atlantean invasion, Sheldon realizes the error of his crusade, that the “marvels” weren’t there for approval or gratitude, but to save the innocent:

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Revitalized by his revelation, Sheldon hurries to Gwen’s apartment to pick up a journal her father had written, which might reveal his feelings about Spider-Man. Instead, Sheldon is met with a horrific sight: The Green Goblin flying away with Gwen’s unconscious body.

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Sheldon follows to the George Washington Bridge, where he sees the tragedy so familiar to Spider-Man fans, as Gwen is knocked from the bridge, with Spider-Man unable to save her.

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Interestingly, the perspective from which the story is told, in which Sheldon has no idea that Gwen is the love of Spider-Man’s life, actually makes the murder seem ever more tragic and brutal in its random pointlessness. Ross’s painted art also gives the story a more chilling effect, seeing such a familiar sequence rendered so realistically.

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It’s a smart moment to end the book on, as many people place the end of the “Silver Age of Comics” at the death of Gwen Stacy in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121. Accordingly, it’s the end of Phil Sheldon’s career as well, as he goes into retirement after Gwen’s murder, feeling he’s lost his objectivity. In an irresistible ironic detail from Busiek, the last scene in MARVELS is Phil Sheldon having his picture taken to mark his retirement, posing with is wife and the local paperboy, Daniel Ketch, whom Sheldon refers to as “a nice, normal, ordinary boy.” Ketch, naturally, would wind up becoming the Ghost Rider in the 1990s.

The success of MARVELS would wind up spawning a retro movement in comics in the mid-’90s, counterpointing the “grim and gritty” movement that had to that point been the primary theme. Even better, it paved the way for Busiek’s signature series, ASTRO CITY, which would take the style Busiek first employed here and carry it one step further, telling human stories in a superhero world, and which only recently returned to stores after far too long an absence. But that’s a discussion for another column…

MARVELS is currently available in both trade paperback and hardcover, and a must-have for anyone with any affection for Marvel Comics.

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In the end, MARVELS provided an interesting irony in that what made Marvel Comics so unique at their debut was the human factor: unlike the flawless, perfect heroes like Superman that DC Comics had been publishing for years, Marvel’s heroes felt like real people; they were human, and had realistic, approachable problems. They couldn’t pay the rent, they didn’t always get the girl, they made mistakes. Only by focusing on how they looked to the outside world, to the common man on the street, were Busiek and Ross able to give us a brand-new perspective on the characters, all while Ross’ hyper-detailed paintings made them look more human, more real, than ever before.

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