Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review - Marvels

Written by Kurt Busiek; Art by Alex Ross
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Painter
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

When you have fifty years of near continuously published comics things can get a bit awkward. Current events become ancient history and what was in style twenty years before becomes embarrassing. So when Busiek and Ross created Marvels as an everyman's view of the Marvel comics golden and silver age I was expecting them to quietly gloss over the fact that they were depicting stories that were written thirty years before their story. Instead of taking that route they make a point of maintaining the look of the era. It emphasizes nostalgia for that period which is the entire point of Marvels.

Phil Sheldon is just starting as a news photographer in 1939 when he goes to a press conference held by a Professor Horton. The professor has created an artificial man with the minor defect that it bursts into flames. Witnessing the debut of the Human Torch kicks off a career of pursuing superheroes for Sheldon. He chases the big stories irregardless of the personal cost to his family who cringe every time that he chases after them.

It's obvious that Marvels is a direct precursor to Busiek's Astro City (which Ross provided covers for). They're all about seeing a superhero universe from the perspective of the civilians. While Astro City has the room to explore the concept more deeply Marvels sticks strictly to the shifting perspective people of the Marvel universe have regarding super powers. It opens with horrified reactions to the first superhero which transform to cheers as that hero takes the fight to Germany in World War 2. Later sections have the division in reactions between mutants and other superheroes and how the people respond to heroes failing.

I found that Phil Sheldon as a character wasn't that interesting. He seems to react to many aspects of the Marvel universe more as a comic book fan than someone actually living in it. I think that's from trying to push together a "realistic reaction" with silver age comics and trying to justify the predetermined reaction. Sheldon has to wind up admiring the heroes and cheering for them in order for comic readers to identify with him and it winds up feeling like his arc is constructed backward. It makes a kind of cognitive dissonance that bothered me as I read the story.

On the other hand one of the fun things about Marvels is that it is a smash up of so many old Marvel comics. Busiek peppers the book with references to stories and events from the silver age which make the book an indulgence of nostalgia. It seems that every page something gets interrupted by a supervillain attack or a hero stumbling through on their way to a story that could have been purchased from a drug store spinner rack..

There's a bit of synchronicity in talking about Alex Ross on Norman Rockwell's birthday. Ross's paintings owe a lot to Rockwell's style; the lighting and texture of the images are very similar. In a way that brings the art in the book back to the nostalgic tone. I do find that Ross's snap shots of action tend to look a bit stiff so that while the image looks nice they feel natural.

If you're familiar with Marvel comics from before 1972 then Marvels is a fun romp down memory lane. If you're not it's a decent attempt to look at the insanity of the Marvel universe through normal eyes. The end result is entertaining but something that I think won't be interesting to anyone other than fans of the old comics.