Book Review: Marvels
Katelyn and I have been cleaning out the house lately, which, much to my dismay and her insistence, has to include our overcrowded bookshelf. I was going through a stack of graphic novels I acquired over the years, and came across Marvels, a Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross team-up that I bought and read only once several years ago.
I remembered almost nothing about it, probably because I read it first at a time when Marvel didn't mean much to me. I didn't grow up as a big comic book reader, but obviously through television and film knew about the big three: Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. I re-read Marvels this week to see if it was something I wanted to hold on to, and I was surprised by how much more the book resonated.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Marvel is on top of the world, all due to the strong showings of Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematics Universe. Since Iron Man debuted in 2008, Marvel has consistently shown that they are capable of taking B-side superheroes (forget Guardians of the Galaxy, did anyone ever seriously know anything about Iron Man before 2008?!) and turning them into box office champions.
Many of those now A-side heroes are in Marvels, so it was much more fun to read actually knowing, for instance, who Ant-Man and the Wasp are. Marvel's heavy-hitters are here too; Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four all make appearances, but only sporadically. That's because Marvels doesn't put the superheroes at the center. It tells the stories of several major events in Marvel comics history through the eyes of a normal, every day human being, a photojournalist named Phil Sheldon.
Marvels is what, if I am permitted to cross publishers here, I imagine Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman should have been. It is especially relevant post-Captain America: Civil War, as the marquee heroes struggle with the very real consequences of their actions. Since most of the non-super-powered characters in these films are either still 1). ridiculously skilled at something, 2). ridiculously rich, or 3). ridiculously smart, it's hard to imagine where the regular ol' human beings fit into this world. Do the existence of superheroes in the world make them feel safer? Scared? Confused? How do they react as they see the Human Torch leave a blazing trail in the sky on their way to the supermarket? What do they do if they see Spider-Man crawling up the side of their office building?
Marvels answers many of those questions. Phil Sheldon is a man grappling with what it means to be a man in a world in which superheroes exist. Phil watches and experiences the reactions of his fellow "normal" citizens as the emergence of "The Marvels" bring fear, then anger, then ultimately hope. Each episode, four in total, is painstakingly recreated from some actual story in Marvel comics history (all neatly annotated in the back for reference). In each, the Marvels bring Phil a new level of introspection. He observes as the world cries out for the Marvels' deliverance from Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, and then after they're saved, goes back to hating them because they are ashamed of their fear. He witnesses the death of Gwen Stacy on the Brooklyn Bridge, and is enraged that a world in which an innocent young girl can die at the hands of a supervillain can go on as if nothing happened.
It's a fascinating look at a world we are growing ever more embroiled in, from a perspective we rarely get to see. Busiek's excellent writing is great, but it's Alex Ross' beautiful photo-realistic paintings that really steal the show (as always).
The Marvel movies are doing just fine, but still, reading such a rich story made me yearn for even greater care in storytelling in the films we are being inundated with. The comics world is undeniably rich, and there are very real and very human stories in them that don't require millions of dollars or buildings falling down to be told.