The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 89 | Hello, Goodbye: Revisiting Kurt Busiek’s “Marvels”

Leaving Proof 89 | Hello, Goodbye: Revisiting Kurt Busiek’s “Marvels”
Published on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 by

Apropos of nothing, I recently re-read my beat-up, dog-eared, trade paperback of Marvels, the 1994 mini-series by writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross. Despite being something of a commercial and critical sensation at the time of its publication and even receiving a much-belated sequel (2008’s Marvels: Eye of the Camera that saw Busiek partnered with co-writer Roger Stern and Filipino artist Jay Anacleto standing in for Ross), it seems like Marvels never really found the type of longstanding acclaim that is somewhat indiscriminately accorded by readers and industry observers alike to superhero comics metafiction.

Part of the reason, I think, is that it was overshadowed by Kingdom Come in terms of both the art and the story premise. As good as his work was on Marvels, Alex Ross wouldn’t really hit his stride until he signed on with DC Comics for the 1996 collaboration with writer Mark Waid (Ross was still years away from descending into the spiral of unintentional self-parody that would characterize his later superhero work). DC’s response to Marvels was, in many ways, much more accessible to readers. For all its ham-fisted appropriation of Judeo-Christian imagery and self-serious moralizing, Kingdom Come revolves around the kind of grandiose, continuity-spanning, balls-to-the-wall, punch ‘em-up that young (and young at heart) superhero fans unremittingly go crazy over. Marvels, on the other hand, is a deliberately-paced retelling of landmark stories from Marvel’s Golden and Silver Ages, as viewed from the perspective of often-awed, always-crotchety, Daily Bugle photojournalist Phil Sheldon.

Mark originally told me, 'Make him look like everything we hate in modern superhero design.'

Kingdom Come’s Magog

In 1995 (a year after Marvels‘ publication and a year before Kingdom Come‘s), the average age of the comic book reader was 25. That would suggest that many comics readers at the time had little to no direct experience of the classic stories from the 1940s, 1960s, and early 1970s referenced in Marvels, or even if they did, a certain contextual emotional attachment would probably be missing. By contrast, Kingdom Come spoke to what were then more contemporary concerns. It was a statement against the rising tide of arbitrarily designed, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, “extreme” superheroes that were all the rage during the 1990s. If there were any doubts as to the stand Kingdom Come was taking and the moral stakes its heroes were playing for, one only need look at MagogKingdom Come antagonist and catalyst for Armageddon—to dispel them: the character’s violent streak, scarred right eye, banded metal arm, and oversized and asymmetrical shoulder armour mark him as a transparent send-up of Rob Liefeld‘s Cable and his costume’s horned and gold-hued motif, in accordance with the quasi-religious bent of the book, are meant to suggest the biblical golden calf, a double metaphor for superhero comics’ false idol.

But while elements of Kingdom Come‘s operatic bombast remain evergreen (the book’s climactic Superman vs. Captain Marvel battle has been adapted and reworked numerous times in subsequent comics and animation), its core conceit now appears distant and abstruse. It seems almost laughably absurd now that industry heavyweights like DC Comics, Mark Waid, and Alex Ross felt strongly enough about the threat posed to the comics medium by the perpetually grimacing creations of the Liefeld generation that it would spur them to do a fully painted, four-issue, quasi-religious allegory decrying their popularity.

I find that it is the story of Marvels‘ Phil Sheldon that resonates with my situation more as I grow older as a comics reader. When I first read the conclusion to Marvels as a 17 year-old still in the throes of an infatuation with superhero comics, I could not understand Sheldon’s decision to stop covering superheroes for the Daily Bugle. I couldn’t fathom what Busiek was trying to say in the following three-page sequence (spoilers ahead, by the way, if you have managed to avoid reading Marvels all these years)

  

“What do you mean you’ve ‘seen too much’!” my 17 year-old self railed, “We didn’t even get to see Alex Ross paint Wolverine you lazy, one-eyed bastard!”

It was only in recently re-reading Marvels that it all finally clicked for me. It took over a decade-and-a-half (and being approximately the same age Busiek was when he wrote Marvels), but I’m finally in a position to appreciate and understand Busiek’s message. Through Sheldon, Busiek was saying goodbye to the grind of conventional superhero comics, the stories nursed to go on indefinitely, the character deaths drained of all meaning, the bigger and bigger battles that were somehow of less and less consequence. Busiek/Sheldon had grown tired of the whole superhero affair, cynical even, and was giving up the task of detailing their exploits to somebody for whom they still held a genuine sense of wonder.

With 1995’s multiple Eisner and Harvey Award-winning Astro City (arguably the defining work of his career), Busiek successfully charted a new way of doing superhero comics for older readers without following the tired “grim and gritty” template established by Alan Moore’s Watchmen or resorting to quaint appeals to imagined nostalgia. His departure from the “typical” superhero exploits epitomized by Marvel and DC’s titles would prove to be all-too brief, however. For one reason or another, by 1997, he was back at Marvel, writing The Avengers. In 2004, he penned JLA/Avengers, a crossover “event” that, despite the relative restraint in its execution, perhaps epitomized everything that drove Phil Sheldon out of the superhero journalism business. Busiek returned to the world of Marvels in 2008 with a sequel whose very existence was, at least to me, in contravention of the spirit of the original mini-series’ conclusion. But no matter how short-lived his leave from DC and Marvel’s brand of spandex shenanigans, Marvels stands at once as the writer’s earnest and eloquent farewell to a fictional world that has given him so much, and a harbinger of the lofty heights he would reach once freed from the concerns of superhero convention and corporate commerce.

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5 Responses
    • I’ve never read Marvels or the sequel, suprisingly.  Subject matter just never appealed to me.  Might have had to do with how the golden/silver age stories never really appealed to me either.

      • Even if you’re not particularly interested in the re-telling of Golden and Silver Age stories, I think it’s worth picking up (the original, not so sure about the sequel) if you can find it below cover price. If you’re interested in exploring the notion of a Marvel Universe that didn’t exist in a “sliding timescale”, the world of Marvels gives a fair idea of how it would be like, at least up until 1973 or so.

    • Did you ever read Warren Ellis’ Bizarro-Marvels 2-parter, RUINS?

      • Can’t say that I have. It seems like an interesting read, judging by the summary on Wikipedia. Sort of like a What If? story on some serious steroids. Funny that it came out around the same time as Garth Ennis’ “The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe”. An emergent theme reflective of the thinking and mood at the publishing giant at the time, perhaps?

        •  I asked Ellis about it on a message board years ago. He said it was strictly a money job. Marvel came to him with with the proposal, he said yes because he needed the money, and he wrote it in a few days. I think it came out pretty good, for what it was. There were funny little details like T’Challa getting arrested with his fellow Black Panthers, Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, back in the 60’s.

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