Collects: Marvels #0, 1-4
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
By Doran Murphy
When you consider the seemingly innumerable amount of superpowered characters in the Marvel Universe, you start to wonder why they don't interact more. At least see each other in passing. Then, when you think about it, you begin to wonder what sort of relationships they have with each other. Like, do Spider-Man and Daredevil help each other out? Does the Fantastic Four call on the X-Men for assistance? Do the Sentinels attempt to kill Spider-Man? You know, things like that. With such a vast array of characters in such a confined space (usually the American eastern seaboard — more specifically New York City) you'd think that if comics were real, the heroes and villains would be bumping into each other with astonishing regularity — and not just the typical pairings, either. I mean, maybe you'd see the Hulk take down the Kingpin, or the Punisher would put Carnage out of commission once and for all.
That's the basic premise behind Marvels. More or less, anyway. Marvels is set in between 1939 (the birth of the Golden Age) and the mid-sixties (the end of the Golden Age, and birth of the Silver Age), and is centered around the life of the decidedly non-superpowered photographer named Phil Sheldon, whose job it is (or has become) to photograph superheroes on a seemingly daily basis. His relationship with them, who he's dubbed 'marvels,' is just that, however — no comparisons to the freckle-faced Jimmy Olsen and his best friend Superman please.
Phil's opinion of these marvels is constantly shifting. From silently gawking them from behind his lens to a vocal hatred, and from respecting the heroes to defending the innocent — he runs the gamut of reactions to their exploits. Each of which is set off by key events that longtime Marvel readers will recall. (The first appearances of the X-Men and the Sentinels, Galactus' attack on Earth, Gwen Stacy's involvement with Spider-Man and subsequent death are all brought up in chronological order — and in strict adherence to Marvel lore.) As I've previously hinted at — this is not a Spider-Man book, or a Daredevil book, or an X-Men book (although all of the major superheroes and villains make appearances). It's a book about one man coping with the ever-changing world — and his marvels.
Marvels does a wonderful job of capturing the thoughts and reactions of the average American citizen to these marvels. The story is told in such an innovative way — it's sort of like being transported right into Phil's mind. The dialogue might not be so prevalent, but Phil's inner monologue is almost always at work and is fairly subtle. While the monologue is subtly placed throughout the book, it's very powerfully worded and reflects Phil's current feelings on the marvels and mutants — and the people who hate and fear them, as well as those who love them very much. Phil's thoughts are a functional mirror to the heart of the world.
As Phil is a photographer, Alex Ross' photorealistic art is a perfect fit. A lot of the images in the book are Phil's photographs, and the art Ross has given us looks much like it should — like photographs. While I find that Ross' style does not always work with the story that is being told, that is not the case here. In fact, in this case, it is exemplary. In particular, the scenes (mostly full page spreads) of Galactus and the Silver Surfer are beautiful. And his cover of the Angel (the coolest looking Marvel character) carrying a small mutant girl is quite brilliant.
Overall, Marvels is a wonderful look at the Marvel Universe through the eyes of a normal human being. You learn of the ups and downs of the marvels in the human community, which is something not generally portrayed in comics. (At least, not to the extent that it is in Marvels).