Marvels: Twenty Years On

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When it originally came out, Marvels was a ground-breaking achievement for all involved.

The early 1990s were some turbulent years in comics. Marvel had been bouncing back from some financial and creative troubles, but when some of their top creators left to form Image the House Of Ideas was in rough shape. Image dominated the market and both Marvel and DC had to regain ground. Gimmicks like alternative covers became the norm, Superman “died” and Ben Grimm had his face sliced by Wolverine and he had to wear a steel mask. The Modern Age of comics looked to be getting darker by the day.

Then Marvels arrived, and for four short issues the Golden and Silver Ages of comics lived again, teaching everyone who read it that just how important those good old days truly were. It propelled writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross to the top levels of comic book superstardom, and reminded us that a well-written story and good art trump silver foil covers and hype easily. In an industry that was being dominated by shock tactics as subtle as a sledgehammer, it was something elegant and graceful that caught people’s attention – and more importantly, their imagination.

Beginning in early 1939, the tale begins with Phineas Horton’s creation of the original Human Torch and the public’s terrified reaction to it. Amongst them are young photographer Phil Sheldon and journalist J. Jonah Jameson. Sheldon has mixed emotions about this Marvel, and becomes increasingly worried for humanity when Namor arrives on the scene later. As more Marvels appear, it’s only the appearance of Captain America that begins to quell his fears as he learns that they can help mankind instead of threaten it.

As the years go on, the superhero teams of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers have become established and Sheldon becomes convinced that the people of New York are witnesses to the greatest show on Earth, and that they’ll always be protected. The emergence of mutants creates doubts though, and like everyone else Phil initially feels intolerance towards them because they’re different, freakish. He’s taught a harsh lesson about prejudice and mankind’s hatred that lingers with him. putting him at odds with a majority of people.

The public’s fickle opinions sicken Phil as they switch from viewing the Marvels as a menace to praising them for saving them from threats like Galactus, before switching back to vilifying them once again. He takes it as his crusade to tell the public how the Marvels are heroes, to counter J. Jonah Jameson’s personal attacks on them in the Daily Bugle. He contacts Gwen Stacy, still grieving after her father’s death apparently at the hands of Spider-Man, and is surprised by her open-mindedness. She reminds him of the beauty the Marvels bring to the world and of how they risk their lives to save the innocent, regardless of the public’s opinions.

Marvels is the story of the Golden and Silver Ages of the Marvel Universe, weaving some of the most famous storylines they’ve told over those years in a seamless way, yet viewed from the standpoint of a normal man. The writing makes it feel real, as if this really is the way the world is. It reinforces the ideas that Stan Lee and others tried to make so many years ago but were hampered by the medium at the time, and the concept of the mutants being an allegory for the civil rights issues at the time strike home hard.

Alex Ross’s painted images practically leap off the page and inspire the awe in the reader that they’re supposed to. It took him over a year to complete Marvels, and it’s understandable. There’s a reason why he’s always a fan favourite, and his attention to detail along with small personal touches make every page worth studying. The heroes and villains on display never looked better, but it’s the facial expressions and gestures of the normal people who hold our attention and make us relate emotionally.

We’re in an age of reboots, where continuity gets rewritten every few years to avoid clutter and sell more comics. Yet within four issues a 35-year history of Marvel is laid out in a way that makes perfect sense and makes for fascinating reading. It may be twenty years old, but it’s timeless and as good now as it was then.

It’s not a superhero story; it’s a story about people, told for those of us who have made comic books a part of our daily way of life. Happy Birthday, Marvels. It’s an honour to know you.

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