Book Club / It Was Never Meant to Be for Those People

Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Alex Ross

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Marvels was released 25 years ago all the way back in 1994. Back then if you told someone that this stuff was going to be the basis of the most successful “Cinematic Universe” of all time you probably would have got some pretty strange looks (“What the hell is a cinematic universe?”). Back then of course Alex Ross’s fully painted stylings were as close as you could possibly get to superheroes looking “realistic.” If you want to know what it looks like to see superheroes for real nowadays all you need to do is turn on Netflix – but back then: this little gap under the door was as much as the world could give you. And everything about it – the artwork, the story, the man-on-the-street POV made it feel like the freshest thing you could ever imagine.

Looking back at it now tho and reading the first issue today I’ve gotta say: time has not been kind to poor old Marvels. I realise that this might sound overly harsh (and maybe this is just me mixing up my own associations or whatever) but there’s this dry, pungent odor that hangs over the whole book (and not in a good way) and well yeah: I’m sorry to say this: but it kinda smells like mid-90s comic book store (and not in a good way). It smells of middle-aged men with too much time on their hands and that myopic obsession that seems to afflict those of my gender more than most. Knowing which character first appeared in which issue. The date it was released. And which artist did what thing and coloured with character wrong and what sandwich they ate that day. I mean – I know shouldn’t be throwing any stones seeing how I’m in the middle of a glasshouse but reading Marvels just makes me feel… uncomfortable.And it’s interesting – because yeah even the background characters in this book have gone on to open movies that have made MILLIONS OF $$$ so it’s fun to try and trace the lines and see how point a ended up at point z although if there’s any lessons to be learned with Marvels it kinda feels like they’re negative ones (the things not to do). This book feels like a dead-end. I’d love to see a Marvel movie fan pick this up and try to make head or tail of it. In the edition I’ve got there’s a Stan Lee introduction and towards the end he makes a crack about how this is a book that shows that comic books can be literature which is basically the whole problem right there. No one wants to see the Easter Bunny arguing with his wife and contemplating the fraught nature of existence – if the Marvel Movie Machine has taught as anything it’s this: they just want lots and lots of chocolate.

(And come on: who doesn’t like chocolate?).

Plus well yeah: what I saying about the smell of man thing. I mean: most of the time my toes curl up at what passes for Proper Serious Adult Discourse about the topics of diversity and representation: but reading Marvels the thought of reading something less insular and more open to a worldwide that wasn’t so white bread / vanilla sounds fucking amazing. I mean god bless Alex Ross and all that – but eventually I think too much exposure to his artwork just gives me a headache (sorry / not sorry).

But whoops – I’ve said all this stuff and run my mouth and said nothing but mean things: but maybe some people feel different? Like I said: I wonder what it must be like to read this book after experiencing the rush and the thrill of the likes of Avengers: Endgame? And gosh who knows – maybe in 10 or 20 films time when Marvel gets to Phase 7 or whatever we’ll finally get the Phil Sheldon we didn’t even knew we wanted?

Stranger things have happened.

What do you think?

Islington Comic Forum

I really enjoyed Marvels when it came out although I haven’t read it for years. But it’s probably worth mentioning that much of the appeal was the ‘photorealistic’ retelling of all those classic 1960s Lee Kirby comics that I’d grown up reading (via those British B+W marvel reprints) pulling all the separate comics together into one overarching story. At that level it works really well in the same way as Ed Piskor’s recent X Men:Grand Designs. As you point out though all the meta stuff is far less interesting for those people who are mostly familiar with the characters from the loosely adapted films. But so what? it was never meant to be for those people!

That said, I coincidentally stumbled across this very affectionate review of Marvels yesterday which makes me wonder if we’re underestimating it here

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Another strange coincidence = on the day we started this thread Birth Movies Death published this here article called: The MCU Needs Its Own MARVELS. Where the basic gist is that well – the next big Marvel movie should be a Marvels one…

With a Marvels movie, Disney doesn’t have to hire big name actors to play the superheroes. In Busiek and Ross’ series, most of the heroes are only seen in costume with their faces obscured, or off in the distance fighting their battles beyond the scope of mere humans. Instead, Disney can put the money into a great actor to play Phil Sheldon, a visionary director able to translate the beauty of Alex Ross’ paintings to the big screen and really play up the iconography of the characters we have grown to know and love. They can make their own Forrest Gump.

This kinda perspective is a bit of a strange one although it’s one that I guess it’s one I used to share. Part of it I think is about trying to find new wrinkles to play with in a genre that you’ve already formed a deep and abiding attachment to (which – judging from the box office reciepts of Avengers: Endgame seems like it’s probably about half the world at this point). And now that you’ve had an epic climax that’s taken (OMG) 22 frigging movies to build up to: it’s sensible to ask: well – how you gonna top that?

grand opera.jpg

And yeah: telling a superhero story from the point of view of the man on the street opens up lots of interesting possibilities: because – well – isn’t that how stories tend to work? Combing familiar elements into strange new shapes? Alien is a horror film dressed up with science-fiction. Django Unchainedis a western crossed with blaxploitation. Cloverfield is Godzilla mixed up with The Blair Witch Project and etc and so on. You take different ingredients and combine them in new ways: and that’s how the new things are made…

But then like it says in that Too Busy Thinking About My Comics that Tam linked to:

How might an endless – and endlessly lengthening – procession of remarkably powerful individuals and groups impact upon the likes of you and I? Sometimes the consequences in Marvels are salutary, and, more often than not, they’re unsettling and even flat-out depressing.

Which I guess is where I get a little tripped up? Because isn’t there a bit of a irresolvable tension between superhero heroics and telling a grounded realistic story in that: do you really wanna go and see something with Iron Man and Spider-Man and then leave feeling bummed out? Like I already said – no one wants to go and see the Easter Bunny film and discover that on his days off he’s an unemployed jazz musician with a heroin addiction (or do they?).

I mean: all that being said: the first three volumes of Gotham Central are *chef kissing fingers good* – so maybe it’s about being more picky with the elements: not superheroes and real life but superheroes and crime / police procedurals.

Lofi Space

Isn’t detective pikachu basically the same as the hardboiled bunny idea?

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