Writer: Kurt Busiek
Quality: 5.0 out of 5
Important for Current Continuity: Yay, Nay, or Ehh?
At the vivacious age of 22, I have come to the realization that I am a giant nerd. A huge one. Since you are reading my comic book blog, you probably already realize this, and probably also now want to know why I am wasting your time with these obvious, self-referential statements. Well, initially, the idea was to tie a little riff on being a nerd into this review of Kurt Busiek’s Marvels. But now that you’ve gone and derailed the thing with your unwillingness to play along, I hardly even see the point anymore. Oh, now you’re sorry? I don’t know why I even get lucky enough to have you stumble across invite you to my blog. Seriously, all this negativity. Sheesh, where’d you come from? The Negative Zone?
Heh. Negative Zone. Heheheheee. Get it? Negative Zone? HAHAHAH!!!
So as I was saying, I am a giant nerd. I make Negative Zone references in polite company, make near nightly visits to my local library, and consider season one Star Trek episodes an evening treat. Yet, somehow, I have never really spent any of my time contemplating what life would be like if the Marvel Universe were real. I mean, what if Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men were all out in civilization right now? What impact would this have on the life of an ordinary person like myself?
I’ve never really pondered these questions in depth, partially because I immediately decide that instead of fantasizing about Katy Perry, I would fantasize about Sue Storm. And then I am just lost in a frenetic field of fantasy that is mostly shameful and occasionally even bestial.
But the other reason thoughts of a “real” Marvel Universe never resonated is that they seemed kind of boring. Kurt Busiek’s Marvels has changed that in absolutely incredible ways.
In Marvels, Busiek takes the fantastic, metaphysical world of Marvel lore and filters it through the lens – quite literally – of Phil Sheldon, an American photojournalist. Instead of tracking a particular superhuman, Busiek pours out pages of brilliance, portraying a poignant glimpse into Sheldon’s ordinary world and the marvelous influences comic book heroes have on it.
The real triumph of Marvels is that it cuts deeply into the humanity of Sheldon’s character as he adapts to a world in which Captain America’s WWII exploits make for front page news. Instead of trying to overemphasize the real possibility of a world with Spider-Man (a tough sell even for his most loyal admirers), Busiek emphasizes the real possibility of a man like Phil Sheldon. As we read Sheldon’s responses to various Marvels, it is all too apparent that Sheldon could easily be any of us. He’s as human as they come – and that doesn’t change with the likes of the Inhumans sharing his Earth.
Over the course of Marvels, Busiek runs through a gamut of emotional responses, beginning with an insidious inferiority complex. In a world where the (original) Human Torch and Atlantean prince Namor can decide the outcome of World War Two, or the fate of New York City, Sheldon is left wondering, “How can a man truly protect his family.” The parallels here – to nuclear warfare, violent religious extremism, etc. – are what make the question so compelling and connective. When you really peal back the usual layers of cynicism and willful ignorance, it’s a question that very few can answer with anything other than: “He can’t.”
It’s through these sort of concise and immediate “real world” connections, that Busiek transforms Marvels into an absolute masterpiece that has honestly altered the way I will read comic books. I think most everyone reads comics as distant fictional worlds. This is normal. But when you annihilate this distance, entirely new angles and emotional reactions are made possible.
For example, in Marvels, Phil Sheldon displays (for a time) what I suppose we would call extreme discriminatory behavior toward mutants. In short, Sheldon’s character is a frightened racist. Mutants scare him in a way a working class, suburban white man might be scared by a young black male sitting on a city corner. Without any sort of information about the individual’s character, prejudices take over and assumptions are made. And violent fear seems like the only option.
This perspective has genuinely enlightened my X-Men reading. Almost every X-Men comic you will read mentions the general public’s fear and hatred towards mutants, but that hatred seems like a fleeting, peripheral element without the human character attached. Without a Phil Sheldon acting as Everyman, the hatred towards the X-Men shares virtually none of the same vitriol and panicked rage.
Naturally, there are other effective humanisms within Marvels, and each is similarly effective. As I’ve said, Marvels is simply a masterpiece absolutely worth your time and money.
Since Odin’s Thunderbolts, is all about the importance selected works may have on current comic book continuity, I suppose here is where I answer who this book is for. While Marvels does not require a great deal of previous Marvel comics reading to enjoy, it is going to be a better experience if you are already familiar with the Marvel Universe. There are several Easter Eggs throughout Marvels – name-dropping of popular Marvel icons – that may be lost on the inexperienced reader. Likewise, with the exception of one – maybe two – the heroes mentioned in Marvels are not the focus of Busiek’s character development. It is largely assumed that you know who these characters are, and in several instances that you are familiar with iconic Marvel scenes.
As such, I would not recommend starting your Marvel journey with Marvels. It’s advisable to dive into a handful of series first. If you’re just getting started with Marvel’s current continuity as outlined here at OTB (this is forthcoming, I swear), then there’s no rush to read Marvels. It doesn’t add anything to current continuity – written in 1994 it simply provides an excellent backdrop in Marvel history. And few comics can enhance your reading perspective the way Busiek and Marvels do here. I can’t recommend it enough.