Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Overlooked Importance of Marvels

On the train yesterday morning, Rickey and I got to talking about the first issue of Marvels: Eye of the Camera, which came out last week, which segued into a discussion about the original Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. I guess we had never really talked about the book at length before as he was a bit surprised by just how highly I regard it (and when it comes to comics, he knows me pretty well). His reaction was actually kinda fitting, because in general I think Marvels is one of the most underappreciated yet seminal comics of all time.

That's not to say Marvels is not appreciated at all. It's generally held in pretty high esteem and I've never heard it panned, but you don't often hear it mentioned in the same breath as the big guns. A big part of that may be the period during which it came out (the dreaded mid-90's), but I think Marvels was in many ways the start of comics turning things around after those dark ages.

For those not familiar with Marvels, here's the abbreviated version: over the course of four issues, we witness the Golden Age and Silver Age of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of everyman photographer Phil Sheldon. As Phil ages, he witnesses and chronicles events like the birth of the Human Torch, the rise of anti-mutant intolerance, the coming of Galactus, the death of Gwen Stacy and much more. Via the incredible painted art of Alex Ross, we literally see the Marvel U and all its early players come to life.

Marvels was a game-changer because it came at a time when comics were all about style over substance and events over characterization. Marvels had incredible heart and brought the characters and that sense of awe back to the the forefront. In an era where seemingly everything about comics had become commonplace, Marvels reminded you through a combination of great writing and amazing visuals that holy crap super heroes look cool! If Giant Man walked over the city it would look insane! If Galactus came to New York it would be terrifying! It was unlike anything else on the stands at the times and hearkened back to a time and a feeling that comics desperately needed.

See, the thing isn't just that Marvels was good, it was that it was important, which is pretty much the point I was trying to make in the last paragraph. When Wizard was doing their "Most Important Comics of the Wizard Years" last year for issue #200 and I was asked my opinion by my former colleagues in an unofficial capacity, I said Marvels should not be underestimated because so much of the good stuff we got out of the late 90's on into the present sprang out of it.

Marvels wasn't the first series to do the whole "man on the street" perspective thing, but in 1994, it was the first to do it and do it well in quite some time. Nowadays, you see that all the time. And as I said, 1994 was a time when most super hero stories were bleak and mired in Generation X cynicism. Marvels made it cool to like super heroes again. Something like Grant Morrison's JLA, where super heroes were awesome, was the natural progression of what Marvels started. Also at the time, the Marvel Universe in particular was a very fragmented place, with Spider-Man doing his own thing, the X-Men not interacting with the Avengers, the Fantastic Four being off on their own, etc. Marvels reminded everybody how rad the Marvel Universe was as a shared concept, and all the best stories since have played off that strength.

But of course the series most people think of when they think of what Marvels begat is Kingdom Come, it's spiritual sequel over at DC with which it shares Alex Ross and an average man of the people doing the narration. I love Kingdom Come too, but I think a big reason Marvels remains so overlooked is because of all the accolades KC has received, which has led many to label it the unquestionably superior of the two. I disagree. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison. The quality of Kingdom Come in no way diminishes Marvels because they are two very different stories. If anything, they're two sides of the same coin.

Where Marvels is about the common man discovering and embracing the incredible, Kingdom Come is about the incredible becoming commonplace and the superman needing to rediscover his humanity. They are excellent bookends, but they are not two stories telling the same thing. For all its trappings of wonder, Marvels is about a normal world struggling to adjust to the bizarre incursion of the fantastic. Even when Galactus is creating a doomsday machine, Marvels remains a very street-level tale. Kingdom Come is a larger-than-life parable with big explosions and shiny costumes where it's the normal guy who seems out of place.

Most of the first issue of Marvels is devoted to just how crazy it is to see a man on fire running down the street and then how crazy turned up to the next level it is for him to be fighting a naked sea king. Seriously, that one Torch vs Namor fight is the only thing like it that the people of Marvel's New York have ever and it blows their collective mind. By way of contrast, there are super-powered miscreants fighting literally in the backgrounds of every issue of Kingdom Come and passerbys pay them little mind because that's just the way things are; it's business as usual.

You can certainly compare and contrast the shared element of Alex Ross' work in Marvels vs his work in Kingdom Come, and KC is likely to win, because he was a bit older, wiser and more talented. However, making any sort of claim that Kingdom Come does everything Marvels does but better or vice versa is silly to me. Both are awesome, but for reasons as different as the stories they are telling.

I am that rare breed who probably loves the DC and Marvel Universes about as equally as you can (rarer when you consider who signs my paychecks), but I love them for completely different reasons that are actually embodied pretty well in Kingdom Come and in Marvels. I love the DC Universe because it's an amazing place where everything is larger than life and just when you think the scale of things can't get any larger, it does. I dig that the general DC populace is fairly accepting of the crazy world they live in, flying aliens, giant robots and all; it would be a pretty awesome place to live, bordering on utopian. On the other hand, I love the Marvel Universe because when done right, like in Marvels, it can seem like right outside your window but, hey, what if there were flying aliens and giant robots outside your window! It would probably be pretty scary and not everybody would be terribly welcoming to the martians, but it sure is fun to read about.

And that's as good a place as any to end, because as much as I feel like Marvels is an important piece of work, it's also just a comic that I really enjoy. I feel like if you want a pure injection of why the Marvel Universe is fun at its finest, Marvels is a good place to start.

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