by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
1994 • 248 pages • Marvel
After my brother went off to college, his room, despite still having all of his stuff in it, was up for grabs. My dad seized upon it as an office without telling anyone or even taking the bed out, while I was finally able to rifle through my brother’s books to my heart’s content. (Madame McBride did not participate in this land grab.) Without my brother to kick me out or stop me from getting my grubby preteen paws on his lovingly curated collection of French comics (direct from the motherland!), I was unstoppable.
And that’s how I, at around the age of nine or ten, discovered the difference between Marvel and DC. I’d only been familiar with DC before, having watched Batman: The Animated Series and the odd episode of The Adventures of Lois and Clark, but I had only the vaguest idea that Spider-Man existed. In my brother’s library, there were two graphic novels from each company, alone among the Asterixes, Tintin, and Largo Winch. DC was represented by Kingdom Come, an epic and fairly dark Elseworlds end game story featuring roughly everyone in the DC universe. Ross was inspired to pitch Kingdom Come to DC because he was just coming off illustrating the only Marvel book in my brother’s collection—Marvels.
As a proper introduction to Marvel and DC, it was perfect. DC is about aspirational heroes (pre-reboot, of course; all bets are off in Grimdark Canyon!); Kingdom Come features larger than life heroes locked in mortal and moral combat. Marvel is about relatable superheroes; Marvels tells the story of the Marvel universe through the eyes of a photographer trying to understand just how humanity is meant to relate to these superheroic beings. At the time, I spent a lot of time trying to identify the characters in Kingdom Come, amazed at the fact that I could. But it was Marvels that stuck with me through the years, cementing my mental image of Gwen Stacy and New York’s integral role in Marvels.
Revisiting Marvels twenty years on, during Marvel’s pop cultural ascendency, is an interesting experience. In 1994, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Spider-Man were the company’s biggest names—now, they’re the comic book film franchises lagging behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which just finished up its usual victory lap at San Diego Comic-Con. It’s a delight to see those characters, now forever transformed by their iconic films, in an earlier context. And that’s in both senses—earlier in Marvel’s history, and earlier in the comics’ internal continuity.
Marvels spans from 1939 to 1974, following Phil Sheldon’s career from the emergence of Namor and the Human Torch to the anti-mutant riots of the sixties to his disillusionment with heroes after the death of Gwen Stacy. Phil rarely interacts directly with these heroes; he’s a photographer, not a journalist. When he does start thinking about writing about the Marvels, as he calls superheroes, it’s largely to rebut J. Jonah Jameson’s obsession with tearing Spider-Man apart. (Wonderfully, Sheldon despises Peter Parker, because he thinks he’s a hack ruining Spider-Man’s reputation for a quick buck.) He does briefly interacts with Luke Cage, before peeling off to try and exonerate Spider-Man from the murder of George Stacy.
Largely, the focus is on how people—specifically, New Yorkers—interact with the Marvels. Sheldon almost has a breakdown after Namor and the Human Torch appear, canceling his engagement because he feels like he has to wait until this all blows over. Once he realizes that it won’t and the Marvels begin fighting for the Allies in World War II, he—and the rest of America—adopt them as their own. It’s the rise of mutants that splits public opinion.
There’s a joke in the Honest Trailers for the original X-Men trilogy about how odd it is that people fear mutants and yet celebrate superheroes who have similar powers. Marvels does not explain that in-depth, but does point that people are afraid of mutants because they’re the next step in human evolution. Other heroes have explanations for their powers—Super Soldier Serum, Iron Man suit, cosmic rays—but mutants do not. Other heroes are usually attractive, white, and able-bodied, while mutants are not. While passing for human isn’t brought up here as it is more in the aughts and teens treatments of the X-Men, it is pointed out that the Thing cannot pass for human and it’s only the fact that his origin story is known that he’s not lumped in with the “muties.” Phil, horrified at his own participation in anti-mutant riots, begins to champion the Marvels, even as the press begins to drag them through the muck.
This is what makes the fourth issue—which explores Gwen Stacy’s death through Phil’s eyes—so heartbreaking. Phil believes in the Marvels, perhaps more than anyone. He finally understands what their place in the universe is and what his place in the universe is—and then it’s shattered. Living in this kind of world, Kurt Busiek argues, is complicated, even when things are going well. Even when there are heroes and villains, things are never black and white.
And that’s the beating heart of the Marvel universe in any continuity. Captain America might be a pillar of morality, but that’s only because Bucky does the dirty work for him. Spider-Man may save the day, but he still has to sell his superhero alter ego out to pay the bills. The X-Men protect humanity, but a humanity that hates them for what they are. It’s that emotional complexity that’s made the Marvel Cinematic Universe such a success.
(And, DC, no amount of unnecessary grimdark is going to give you the same success. I’m waiting for you on the other side of Grimdark Canyon, friend.)
I rented this book from the public library.