Comic Review: Marvels

Donny reviews a bunch of paintings put into comic book form.


Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (story and art)
Alex Ross (art)

Alex Ross had been doing painted covers, but he wanted to try and do an entirely painted comic like Dave McKean’s Black Orchid (1991). Originally, Ross wanted to do a series of unconnected books just re-telling classic stories about a handful of his favorite Marvel heroes in a direct, redux way, but editor Tom DeFalco suggested the idea of telling the stories through the eyes of a common, everyman character. This became photojournalist Phil Sheldon. DeFalco also paired Ross with Kurt Busiek. Busiek was a childhood friend of Scott McCloud, and those two had practiced making comics together in college. (Marvels #3, p. 17 has a cameo of Buisek and his wife; she’s the one saying to him, “Maybe it’s the Avengers.”) Busiek and Ross were united in their love of the heroes of Golden and Silver Ages of comics… and their mutual dislike of the bloody, gritty anti-heroes that were so popular in the early ‘90’s (e.g. Spawn, Wolverine, Deadpool, Venom, etc.). Marvels became their love letter to Golden and Silver Age Marvel.

It’s both more and less than a greatest hits compellation. “More” because you have this whole story about Phil Sheldon and how the public is trying to deal with being alternately dwarfed and inspired by these marvels. “Less” because you often don’t get to see how these big events begin or resolve. But that’s the point. You catch glimpses of these things happening, as an ordinary man on the street would in the Marvel Universe. What makes this book work is Phil. It weaves through the history of the Marvel Universe, but it’s really the story of Phil’s career and his personal and professional relationship with the superhumans.

Once the idea of Phil Sheldon was introduced, the comic became about the ordinary people caught in the cross-fire of these superhumans, about people looking up to gods walking among them. The cover of issue #1 depicts the Golden Age Human Torch – not as a high flying superhero but as a terrifying vision of a man engulfed in flames running down the street and panicking onlookers. (The covers to issues 3 and 4 don’t work nearly as well as the first two. 1 and 2 show you the heroes through the eyes of normal people – which is the point of the story – but 3 and 4 inexplicably break that convention.) The brilliance of Marvels is that it’s really about how the public reacts to the godlike beings among them: with fear, hero-worship, celebrity gossip, distrust, and yearning need. At times, Phil almost worships the “marvels” (as he calls them), but then his feelings seem to suddenly swing towards fear or envy. Issue #3 opens with the line, “It’s amazing how fickle the public is.”

(One more quick note about the cover art. Marvels was originally published with the logo printed in black on a clear, acetate cover, so you could lift that and see Ross’s beautiful cover paintings unblemished. It was an idea Art Spiegelman originally used for one of the covers of Raw.)

The first issue deals with Golden Age Marvel and is set in 1939 to 1942. Parts 2-4 cover the Silver Age. One of the cool things Busiek and Ross did was to set their stories in the real calendar month and year that the original comics were published, so their history of the Marvel Universe actually maps onto real timeline: Captain America first appears in 1939. The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men first appear in the ‘60’s, and Peter Parker was a college student in the early ‘70’s. Busiek carefully researched this book to get the timeline correct. When the FF were fighting Galactus for the first time what were the Avengers doing? The month that Reed and Sue got married, what was happening in Uncanny X-Men? It’s also great fun in these books to see Ross paint all the period fashions, hairstyles, and cars. (There is one very bizarre, unintended anachronism of sorts: Ross’s Reed Richards looks uncannily like 40-something Joe Biden, which can’t be intentional since he painted these books in ’94, but once I saw it I couldn’t un-see it.)

The first Marvel superhero was the original Human Torch (1939) followed closely by Namor, so that’s where Marvels begins. The painting in issue #1 of Namor throwing the police car is really cool, and it demonstrates the difference between National (later DC) and Timely (later Marvel). The first Superman cover showed him lifting up a car of crooks. Here’s Namor doing the same but with a police car. Jim Steranko: “DC comics were certainly better drawn and better written, but Timely comics embraced more mavericks and wilder ideas,” (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked).

Cool as it is, that painting of Namor throwing the car is, a few pages later, dwarfed by the awesome double splash page (pun unavoidable) of the tsunami engulfing Manhattan. This was the lead in to something else that set Timely apart from National: the Human Torch vs. Namor fight. All of National heroes got along with one-another, and here were two Timely “heroes” trashing the city as they went at one-another. It was Marvel Mystery Comics #9 (1940), and it was comics’ first hero-vs.-hero fight. Bill Everett (the creator of Namor) and Carl Burgos (the creator of the Human Torch) wanted to have their characters meet in a “giant slugfest.” Publisher Martin Goodman heard their idea on a Thursday and told them to have it on his desk on Monday. Everett and Burgos called every writer and cartoonist they knew and threw a weekend-long jam session. Guys were drawing pages as they were being written, people were shouting out ideas, one guy turned the bathroom into his workplace and put a drawing board across the bathtub, arguments ensued, a neighbor called the cops… but by Monday they had completed a 64 page comic book.

Marvels actually doesn’t tell the story of Namor and the Torch fighting. It tells the story of Phil and his fellow reporters trying to cover their fight as it ping-pongs around New York.

There are many delightful cameos in this book: Nick Fury, Willie Lumpkin, Matt Murdock, Karen Page, Foggy Nelson… even Lois, Clark, and Jimmy Olsen. The chief of the Bugle before J. Johan Jamison is “Mr. Goodman”: a nod to Martin Goodman, the publisher of Timely and then Marvel Comics. The cameo by Popeye is funny but appropriate since he was, in many ways, the first Golden Age “superhero.” The one cameo I wasn’t crazy about was Danny Ketch, the Iron Age Ghost Rider appearing as a young boy in 1973. That one felt somehow forced to me – maybe because Ghost Rider was Marvel’s most popular character in ’94, so they felt like they had to stick him in…


A lot of why I love Marvels is for the way it makes evident how the heroes (and the public’s relationship to them) echo the changing times from 1939 to 1973. In ’39, the public was uncertain and untrusting of the marvels, but then, after Pear Harbor, they became patriotic idols to worship. Most of issue #2 takes place in 1965, and the X-Men are clearly about America’s uncertainty over the civil right movement… while the Fantastic Four have a lot to do with the growing cult of celebrity that was in American pop culture in the early ‘60’s. One can forget how big a deal the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm was in the comics. Superman and Lois never got married (at least by 1965). This was yet another groundbreaking move at early-Marvel. In the crowed at reed and Sue’s wedding, Ross has included the Beatles – because, of course, if there were a real FF in ’65 and they had a big, celebrity wedding, that would really happen.

The celebrity worship of the FF I contrasted with the fear and hatred of mutants. Phil himself gets caught-up in a mob and throws a brick at the X-Men’s Iceman. There’s a nice symmetry here: Phil lost an eye when he got hit in the face with a brick hurled (indiscriminately) by Namor; now he throws a brick at Iceman’s head. It’s a great lesson in the madness of crowds. Phil is a good man and, as a journalist, he’s been around marvels a lot, but still he gets swept up in the crowd’s hysteria. This is very realistic and very human – and it’s incredibly rare to see this in fiction. Fiction writing usually demands a consistency of character that doesn’t really exist. In real life, human behavior is very situational.

One thing I love about this book is that, for me, as a long-time X-Men fan, this was the first book that really explained why humans hate and fear mutants. It never really made sense: why are the Fantastic Four and the Avengers loved but the X-Men hated? Well, this book takes that dichotomy head-on, and the answer is given by Phil (who, remember, mostly loves and admires the marvels). Phil convincingly expresses that mutants, as the next step in human evolution, are inherently antithetical to humans – because they are going to replace us. They aren’t here to save us and inspire us and protect us; they are here to take the Earth away from us and “kick dirt on our graves.”

Before I leave 1965 and issue #2, let me point out another one of Alex Ross’s best paintings: The painting of the Sentinels flying overhead is a singularly creepy image.

Issue #3 is only a year later, 1966, and focuses on the coming of Galactus. I see this issue as largely about the Cold War climate of the mid-60’s, with the apocalyptic Galactus as the stand in for the Cuban Missile Crisis. This chapter has most of the best visuals in the series: the worm’s-eye-view looking up at Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and the FF. Ross’s Silver Surfer is, I think, the best looking Surfer in comics, and his full page paintings of Galactus are some of the best work he’s ever done.

Ross makes Galactus, the Surfer, the Human Torch, and Giant Man look awe inspiring. The flip side is that I can’t stand his Spider-man. I know he’s trying to paint them how they would realistically look, so his Spidey has a spandex suit some kid sewed together in his aunt’s basement… but it looks dumb. I’ve seen cos players with better looking Spidey suits!

The final part deals with the death of Gwen Stacy – but really it’s about how the public, by the early ‘70’s has turned very cynical about the marvels – just as the America by the early ‘70’s had turned cynical about everything. It made me think of something Presidential historian Rick Shenkman once said. To paraphrase: Before Watergate there were less than 100 reporters whose full time job was to cover the President. Now there are over 1000, and the all want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein – and that’s why, today, even George Washington couldn’t be George Washington. Post-‘73, we live in a climate that doesn’t allow any public figure to be a hero, at least not for very long, before the werewolf media tear them to shreds.

The death of Gwen Stacy is, like all the action in Marvels, seen at a distance: across the river through Phil’s telephoto lens… but that makes it even more poignant. Gwen’s death was one of the most shocking moments in the history of comics because characters in comics don’t die. Superman always catches Lois Lane. This moment, when Gwen dies, was the moment comics shifted from being about fantasy to being about reality (through a fantastical colored glass). It was 1973. Gwen died. The Watergate scandal broke. Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon. This was the end of the Silver Age, the beginning of a new era of darker and grittier comics, and the melancholy stopping point for Busiek and Ross’s masterpiece, Marvels.

Marvels spawned a sequel called Ruins, written by Warren Ellis. It took Phil Sheldon’s story into the Bronze Age with darker antiheroes like the Punisher and Wolverine, but it had a different tone and style (and art not by Ross), so it doesn’t 100% work as a continuation. Years later, Kurt Busiek returned to do a final piece called Eye of the Camera, which features Phil on his death bed. It’s a nice denouement, but necessarily lacks the power and originality of the initial series (and, again, lacked Alex Ross’s artwork). Busiek and Ross separately went on to do other great things, but this was their break-out book, and in many ways it still holds up as their finest work.

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2 Responses to Comic Review: Marvels

  1. Levi says:

    Awesome review, thanks for the full overview. I love what you said about consistency of character, and human behavior being situational. I also need to read up more on the origin of Human Torch. I didn’t know he was such an early character, and I was confused when in this book he was introduced entirely separately from what I thought was the FF origin story.

    Regardless, great book. Here is my (less knowledgeable) review if you are interested:

    Take care!

  2. Donny says:

    Thanks, Levi.

    The Marvel Universe is a long and complex spaghetti-tangle of story threads. Just imagine what it was like for those of us who got into it before the days of wikipedia!

    There have been at least two Marvel characters who have used the name “Human Torch.” The first appeared in the 30’s. He was an android built by a scientist. Later he appeared to return as the android member of the Avengers now known as Vision… however, at some point, they re-did Vision’s origin and revealed that he was actually a different android built by the villain Ultron and not the original Human Torch after all. Confused yet?

    In the 1960’s a completely different character called the Human Torch appeared. This was Johnny Storm, a 16-year-old kid that (for no apparent reason) Reed Richards takes into space and get’s mutated by cosmic rays, giving him his powers. This is the more famous Human Torch of the Fantastic Four.

    Glad you enjoyed the book. “Marvels” is a good one!
    – Donny

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