Marvels


By Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4286-7 (TPB)       978-0-7851-1388-1(HC)

Every so often something comes along in mainstream comics which irrevocably alters the landscape of the art-form, if not the business. After each such event the medium is never quite the same again. One such work was 4-issue Prestige Format Limited Series Marvels by jobbing scripter Kurt Busiek and then just-breaking illustrative artist Alex Ross.

I’m usually quite reticent in suggesting people read stuff I know damn well they’ve probably already seen, but apparently every day is somebody’s first, and even certified bona fide unmissables get shuffled into touch and forgotten…

… And just for clarity’s sake my copy is the 1994 Deluxe, Signed and Numbered Limited Hardcover edition produced under license by Graphitti Designs (pretty spiffy with, I gather, a few little extras not included in other editions) whereas here I’m looking at a rather more recent digital re-issue.

Of course, these are far from the only versions available…

This tale is all about history and human perspective and follows the working life of photo-journalist Phil Sheldon, whose career closely parallels the dawn of the heroic era; when science, magic, courage and overwhelming super-nature give birth to an Age of Marvels…

The saga opens with Alex Ross’ brief, preliminary retelling of the origin of the Golden Age Human Torch as first seen in Marvels #0 before the story proper opens in ‘A Time of Marvels’.

In 1939 a gaggle of ambitious young newspapermen are discussing the War in Europe. Brash up-and-comer J. Jonah Jameson is trying to dissuade his shutterbug pal Phil from heading overseas, claiming there’s plenty of news to snap in New York…

Unconvinced, Sheldon heads to his next assignment: a press conference with scientific crackpot Professor Phineas T. Horton. The photographer’s head is filled with thoughts of journalistic fame and glory on distant battlefields and he almost misses the moment Horton unveils his artificial man: a creature that bursts into flame like a Human Torch…

From that moment on Sheldon’s life transforms forever. His love-hate fascination with the fantastic miracles which rapidly, unceasingly follow in the inflammatory inhumanoid’s fiery wake is used to trace the history of superhumanity and monstrous menace which comprises the entire canon of what we know as the Marvel Universe….

Soon the android is accepted as a bona fide hero, frequently battling aquatic invader Sub-Mariner like elemental gods in the skies above the city whilst seemingly-human vigilante supermen like The Angel constantly ignore the law and daily diminish Phil’s confidence and self-worth.

It’s as if by their well-meaning actions these creatures are showing that mere men are obsolete and insignificant…

The photographer’s feelings of ineffectuality and inadequacy having crushed his spirit, Phil turns down the War Correspondent assignment and descends into a funk. He even splits up with fiancée Doris Jaquet. After all, what kind of man brings children into a world with such inhuman horrors in it?

Nevertheless Sheldon cannot stop following the exploits of the singular human phenomenons he’s dubbed “Marvels”…

It all changes with the arrival of patriotic icon Captain America. With the Land of Liberty in World War II at long last, many once-terrifying titans have become the nation’s allies and secret weapons, turning their awesome power against the Axis foe and winning the fickle approval of a grateful public.

However, some were always less dutiful than others and when the tempestuous Sub-Mariner again battles the Torch, Prince Namor of Atlantis petulantly unleashes a tidal wave against New York. Phil is critically injured snapping the event…

Even after the loss of an eye, Phil’s newfound belief in the Marvels doesn’t waver and he rededicates himself to his job and Doris; happily going to Europe where his pictures of America’s superhuman Invaders crushing the Nazi threat become part of the fabric of history…

The second chapter jumps to the 1960s where Sheldon, wife Doris and daughters Jenny and Beth are – like most New Yorkers – at the epicentre of another outbreak of meta-humanity… a second Age of Marvels…

Two new bands of costumed heroes are operating openly: A Fantastic Foursome comprising famous scientist Reed Richards, test pilot Ben Grimm plus Sue and Johnny Storm. Another anonymous team who hide their identities call themselves the Avengers. There are also numerous independent costumed characters streaking across the skies and hogging the headlines, which Jonah Jameson – now owner/publisher of the newspaper he once wrote for – is none too happy about. After all, he has never trusted masks and is violently opposed to this new crop of masked mystery-men…

Phil is still an in-demand freelancer, but has had a novel idea and signs a deal for a book of his photos just as the first flush of popular fancy begins to wane and the increasing anxiety about humanoid mutants begins to choke and terrify the man in the street…

When the mysterious X-Men are spotted, Sheldon is caught up in a spontaneous anti-mutant race-riot: appalled to find himself throwing bricks with the rest of a deranged mob. He’s even close enough to hear their leader dismissively claim “They’re not worth it”…

Shocked and dazed, Sheldon goes home to his nice, normal family but the incident won’t leave him, even as he throws himself into his work and his book. He worries that his daughters seem to idolise Marvels. “Normal” people seemed bizarrely conflicted, dazzled and besotted by the celebrity status of the likes of Reed Richards and Sue Storm as they prepared for their upcoming wedding, yet prowl the streets in vigilante packs lest some ghastly “Homo Superior” abomination show its disgusting face…

Events come to a head when Phil finds his own children harbouring a mutant in the cellar. During WWII Phil photographed the liberation of Auschwitz and – looking into the huge deformed orbs of “Maggie” – he sees what he saw in the eyes of those pitiful survivors.

His basic humanity wins out and Phil lets her stay, but he can’t help dreading what friends and neighbours might do if they find such a creature mere yards from their own precious families…

The hysteria keeps on growing and the showbiz glitz of the Richards/Storm wedding is almost immediately overshadowed by the catastrophic launch of anthropologist Bolivar Trask’s Sentinels. At first the mutant-hunting robots seem like humanity’s boon but when they override their programming and attempt to take over Earth, it is the despised and dreaded mutants who save mankind.

Naturally, the man in the street knows nothing of this and all Phil sees is more panicked mobs rioting and destroying their own homes…

In fear for his family he rushes back to Doris and the girls, only to find that Maggie has vanished: the unlovely little child had realised how much her presence had endangered her benefactors. They never see her again…

The third chapter focuses on the global trauma of ‘Judgement Day’ as the shine truly starts coming off the apple. Even though crises come thick and fast and are as quickly dealt with, vapid, venal humanity becomes jaded with the ever-expanding costumed community and once-revered heroes are plagued by scandal after scandal.

Exhausted, disappointed and dejected, Phil shelves his book project, but fate takes a hand when the skies catch fire and an incredible shiny alien on a sky-borne surfboard announces the end of life on Earth…

Planet-devouring Galactus seems unstoppable and the valiant, rapidly-responding Fantastic Four are humiliatingly defeated. Phil, along with the rest of the world, embraces the end and wearily walks home to be with his loved ones, repeatedly encountering humanity at its best and nauseating, petty, defeated worst.

However, with the last-minute assistance of the Silver Surfer – who betrays his puissant master and endures an horrific fate – Richards saves the world, but within days is accused of faking the entire episode. Sheldon, disgusted with his fellow men, explodes in moral revulsion…

Some time later, Phil’s photo-book is finally released in concluding instalment ‘The Day She Died’. Now an avowed and passionate proponent of masked heroes, humanity’s hair-trigger ambivalence and institutionalised rushes to judgement constantly aggravate Sheldon even as he meets the public and signs countless copies of “Marvels”.

The average American’s ungrateful, ingracious attitudes rankle particularly since the mighty Avengers are currently lost in another galaxy defending Earth from collateral destruction in a war between rival galactic empires – the Kree and the Skrulls – but the most constant bugbear is old associate Jameson’s obsessive pillorying of Spider-Man.

Phil particularly despises a grovelling, ethically-deprived young freelance photographer named Peter Parker who constantly curries favour with the Daily Bugle’s boss by selling pictures that deliberately make the wallcrawler look bad…

Phil’s book brings a measure of success, and when the aging photographer hires young Marcia Hardesty as a PA/assistant whilst he works on a follow-up, he finds a passionate kindred spirit.

Still, everywhere Sheldon looks costumed champions are being harried, harassed and hunted by two-faced citizens and corrupt demagogues, although even he has to admit some of the newer heroes are hard to like…

Ex-Russian spy Black Widow is being tried for murder, protesting students are wounded by a Stark Industries super-armoured thug and in Times Square a guy with a shady past is touting himself as a Hero for Hire

When respected Police Captain George Stacy is killed during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, Jameson is frantic to pin the death on the webspinner but hero-worshipping Phil digs deeper. He interviews many witnesses, including the murderously malign, multi-limed loon himself, and consequently strikes up a friendship with Stacy’s daughter Gwen, a truly sublime young lady who is inexplicably dating that unscrupulous weasel Parker…

One evening, hoping for another innocuous chat with the vivacious lass, Phil sees her being abducted by the Green Goblin and, desperately giving chase, watches as his vaunted hero Spider-Man utterly fails to save her from death. Her murder doesn’t even rate a headline; that’s saved for industrialist Norman Osborn who is found mysteriously slain that same night…

Gutted, worn out and somehow betrayed, Sheldon chucks it all in, but seeing that Marcia still has the fire in her belly and wonder in her eyes, leaves her his camera and his mission…

Although this titanic tale traces the history of Marvel continuity, the sensitive and evocative journey of Phil Sheldon is crafted in such a way that no knowledge of the mythology is necessary to follow the plot; and would indeed be a hindrance to sharing the feelings of an ordinary man in extraordinary times.

One of Marvel’s – and indeed the genre’s – greatest.

But you probably already know that and if you don’t what are you waiting for…?
© 1994, 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.