Thursday, April 18, 2013

When Giants Walked The Earth


I hope that nice Alex Ross painting from an earlier post tempts you into taking a look at Marvels, the 1994 series that takes readers through a nostalgic tour of Marvel Comics' silver and bronze age stories from various titles, as seen from a man-on-the-street perspective. The series follows photographer Phil Sheldon, who decides to pass on an assignment in Europe and instead begins documenting the appearance of new super-beings, coming to terms with what their presence means for himself as well as others who are caught up in their lives and battles.

Phil, like his peers and fellow citizens, finds his opinions on the subject see-sawing as the years pass. In the beginning, he was like any other Joe who aspired to the American dream of having a wife, kids, "the little house in Queens, the white picket fence, the works!" And then the human race became virtual bystanders to the likes of the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and others who seemed to settle their differences and live their lives as if the world was theirs to build, or destroy.  In those early days, Phil wasn't at all happy with his sense of helplessness:

"Look at us--just sitting here, waiting! There isn't a thing we can do--and this our city! Our world! Who gave them the right to just come in and take it away from us?!"

Of course, there would be bona fide heroes who would emerge, who humanity would rally behind and regard as their own; and there were those like the Sub-Mariner, who would battle alongside the Americans against the Nazis, and then inexplicably declare war on the human race. Sometimes it was difficult to keep a scorecard. Sometimes the only thing you could do was to look out the window or walk down the street and speculate on whatever sight greeted your eyes:



But the gems of this series are numerous--brought into focus through Phil, our eyes and ears, whose life at times feels as if it were our own. His reactions could be our reactions--his frustrations, his feelings of helplessness, his confusion, but also his eagerness and sense of anticipation in following the story playing out before him. He and the rest of the human race are there when the "Marvels," as he calls them, come on the scene:



And through Phil's eyes, the little touches of Marvel history that are sprinkled throughout the pages feel brand new to us, as if we're right there with them seeing everything for the first time:



Through Phil we see how the human race aligns itself with Marvels who are almost treated as trends. The Fantastic Four, for instance, are glamorous celebrities who always seem to be in the thick of the most dramatic threats. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be headquartered in a skyscraper in New York City:



Through their adventures and their visibility, the public take an interest in the FF--though as we've seen over the years, their mood towards the team changes depending on how direct the threat is to them and how successful the FF are at defending those they fight for:






Other super-beings in their midst who have a high degree of visibility are treated with varying degrees of familiarity, depending on the information available.  Iron Man has the advantage of being associated with Tony Stark, a playboy celebrity if ever there was one--and with both Iron Man and Thor spearheading the Avengers, the super-group whose meeting place was Stark's townhouse on Fifth Avenue had a popular following, as well. Spider-Man, by contrast, was at the mercy of the Daily Bugle's constant and detrimental coverage of him. And the X-Men had the unfortunate distinction of being "mutants," not helping themselves with their appearances being so sporadic and usually shrouded in mystery:




Finally, as Phil is ready to retire, another invasion of New York by Namor as well as the death of Gwen Stacy have a profound effect on him and bring him full circle with those he's spent his adult life documenting with his camera.  All in all, Marvels is a genuinely satisfying read, taking a break from the introspective point of view of Peter Parker or the grandiose Victor von Doom and instead putting you and I on the scene as the unexpected happens--sort of like the remake of War Of The Worlds, where we only learn about the events through hearsay or as eyewitnesses to the incredible. It's a story with a combined sense of wonderment and uncertainty, where the human race is along for the ride as their world goes through an astonishing and often overwhelming change:



As a comics reader who's already used to the idea of super-beings, I think I'd find that thrilling. But, honestly, if I were one of Phil's neighbors, trying to understand just what the hell was happening to the world I lived in? It wouldn't be a brave new world to me--it would be an uncertain one.

Fortunately, in this case we know what we're getting into--a good series that you'll find to be a real page-turner.  You can find Marvels in its entirety in either TPB or hardcover.

3 comments:

Matt Celis said...

My eyes glaze over looking at Ross's sequential art. Everyone looks like a wax dummy in a stiff pose. There's no excitement. He is an excellent artist but his overreliance on models posing washes out any dynamism, and a superhero story without dynamic action just doesn't work for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry too, but I have to agree with Mr. Celis. Everything Ross does is beautifully rendered, but looks dead and frozen. Even the fire looks frozen. There's no kinetic energy there! I feel like I'm looking at the cover of the Saturday Evening Post from 1954. I guess I was waiting for somebody else to say it first.

Hube said...

I think the X-Men segment is one of the most touching stories ever in the history of comics. Busiek really knows how to pull at the heart strings!

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