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IN A WORLD… Part Two: Marvel 1985

Pat Shand here, back with the second installment of In a World…, a series of articles about stories you know and characters you love, but where things may not be what they seem. We’re traveling to strange, alternate realities where familiar faces have been placed in different timelines, places, and maybe even worlds. This time, we’re going… well, nowhere, really. The world of Marvel 1985 is meant to be our world on the fateful day that it is invaded by the villains of the Marvel Universe.

First up, a personal anecdote. A few days ago, I finished watching The Leftovers, a series that ended with one of the finest finales I’ve ever seen. Unable to shake the feelings and lingering thoughts the series left me with, I spent much of the day watching interviews with co-creator Damon Lindelof before I was able to move on and start working on my projects for the night. Finally, I picked up Marvel 1985, my next assignment for Blastoff, and opened it to find a foreword written by Damon freakin’ Lindelof. The Leftovers fan in me felt that it might have been fate… so let’s see if the book lived up to that quirk of chance.

Marvel 1985 was originally announced as a photo comic, but the final book we have here is illustrated by Tommy Lee Edwards and written by Mark Millar, with letters by John Workman. I know Millar’s work is polarizing these days, but I’ve always been a fan. Millar has written some of the best superhero and creator-owned comics of the last two decades and when he’s on, he’s on. Civil War set the standard for Marvel events to come, Kick-Ass speaks for itself in all of its over-the-top glory, and he’s crossed over to major financial success with independent properties in a way that makes brokeass freelancer writers such as myself hopeful that passion-driven, original works can be the building blocks of long and fruitful careers. In short, I think Millar is an inspiration and a model for what a forward-thinking creator can do.

That said, Marvel 1985 is not for me. It might be for you, though, so check out the breakdown.

The story is built around Toby Goodman, a young comics fan whose parents are getting divorced. Toby’s dad is the cool guy who never did much with his life professionally and is still trying to make it in a band (also a comics fan, hence a big connection with Toby), and Toby’s mom is written as… well, as a mom who hates everything. Even though, realistically, the circumstances of the story should make us sympathize with her, as we would in real life, she is written as if she’s the villain of the piece and Toby’s dad is the hero. Every word out of Toby’s mom is one-dimensional and painted to make her look bad and the dad look good, which completely took me out of the story. That’s probably the weakest aspect of the book, and it’s less of a focus once the Marvel villains invade Toby’s town – but it’s present on every page it’s on, this feeling that Millar hates this character and has an agenda with her, which I’ve never felt in his writing before. I don’t know if there’s anything personal there or if the character was just rendered with broad strokes, but it felt more than a little weird.

Overall, though, meshing the Marvel universe with the real world has potential as a cool concept – and, granted, most of Millar’s work has a high concept, but I’m usually much more into the execution. Take his other Marvel work – like Civil War, no matter what you think about the series, it’s firmly rooted in character. It’s about decisions and it’s about people and it’s about consequence. Marvel 1985 is framed as if it’s going to be an emotional story, and the very last two pages almost get us there, but it feels like it could’ve been a twenty-page one-shot instead of six issues. One of the major issues I have with the book is that if you take out the sequences that just list every single Marvel villain and the messed up stuff they’re doing, and every scene where Toby goes through a long sequence with narration like, “You think you know these characters? You think you know the comics? You wouldn’t believe how they really are in real life!” then you’d have a much shorter concept. With splash pages of characters we already know are invading the world every few pages, it feels a lot more like a nostalgic stroll through the 80s than an actual story.

And that’s where I land. If you were a comic book collector in the 1980s, this might be the story for you. There is a lot of page time given to conversation about collecting and comic book culture in the series, and those are by far the most interesting sequences. I wish there were more of that but, as it is, this series might just hit the right keys of nostalgia for fans of that era. My problem with it might be because, to me, this doesn’t feel like the Marvel characters in context of the real world, so those scenes don’t excite me. Millar’s writing on his normal Marvel titles is realistic, grounded, and character-driven – which makes this feel like it’s the same exact world as his other Marvel work, only with a focus on characters we don’t know well who don’t get to develop much outside of being shocked/excited/scared at the prospect of interacting with comics characters.

The one issue I enjoyed most, though, which embraced the weirdness much more than most of the story, was when Toby went into the Marvel Universe for help. His role in all of this is later undercut by a twist that takes the air out of the emotional stakes, making me wonder why Toby was the protagonist of this story that is only tangentially about him, but seeing a Marvel fan on a frustrated romp through the comics looking for help from his favorite characters was exactly what I thought we were signing up for with this one. With that scene and some of the interesting build-up, it’s not a total loss and it would certainly hit the nostalgia note for some readers, but Mark Millar has written some of the best comics of this generation – I’ll cape for Civil War any day of the week – so they’re not all going to connect with everyone. Like I said, Marvel 1985 isn’t for me, but hey… maybe it’s for you.

NEXT UP: Age of Ultron #1

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