Marvels

Hobgoblin by Alex Ross

Marvels is a four-issue limited series comic book written by Kurt Busiek, painted by Alex Ross and edited by Marcus McLaurin, and published by Marvel Comics in 1994. Set from 1939 to 1974; the series examines the Marvel Universe, the collective setting of most of Marvel’s superhero series, from the perspective of an Everyman character: news photographer Phil Sheldon.

The street-level series portrayed ordinary life in a world full of costumed supermen, with each issue featuring events well known to readers of Marvel comics as well as a variety of minute details and retelling the most famous events in the Marvel universe. Busiek and Ross returned to the ‘everyday life in a superhero universe’ theme in the Homage Comics series ‘Astro City.’

In the German edition of ‘Marvels,’ Ross and Busiek revealed that the whole concept was originally intended only as a collection of classic Marvel Comics stories, seen from the point of view of ordinary people. But as the project grew, the two creators felt that the social issues underlying the retold stories were too relevant to ignore. The first issue dealt with scientific progress while the Human Torch and Namor fight, the second issue showcased the fear of the unknown with the X-Men, and the third issue, featuring Galactus, was about powerlessness. The creators did not state the underlying theme of the final issue in the series. When the series was completed, a fifth ‘issue 0’ was printed, which included Alex Ross art and sketches and a reprinted Human Torch story from ‘Marvel Fanfare,’ featuring the Golden Age version’s thoughts during his creation.

The story begins in early 1939 with the origin of the Original Human Torch (‘Marvel Comics’ #1) from his point of view. After the android is created by scientist Phineas Horton, his project is considered a success until the android catches on fire when air is projected into its glass chamber, only to go out when the air is gone. Horton shows his creation to the public, only to be demanded by the terrified civilians to destroy it, so he decides to bury it. Learning all there is to know about humanity, the android describes it as ‘aware of everything, understanding nothing,’ when he thinks of his ‘father’ Horton and the people who saw the Torch for what he was. A crack in the chamber gives the android freedom as he is again engulfed in flames, and escapes. As he tells us, the Human Torch describes his appearance as the beginning of a ‘golden age.’

At the same time as this, young Phil Sheldon, complete with photography career ambitions, and young J. Jonah Jameson are shocked by these ‘Marvels,’ but Sheldon is more confused by the weight of the spectacle and worry, reaches toward his love and fiancée, Doris Jacquet. More costumed avengers begin to appear all over with Namor the Sub-Mariner (‘Marvel Mystery Comics’ #4), and his early fights with the Human Torch. This is enough for Sheldon to decide that it would be irresponsible for him to raise children in a world where these Marvels run rampant, and thus he breaks his engagement with Doris. It is only when Captain America is unveiled to the world (‘Captain America’ #1) that Sheldon begins to become less pensive about the Marvels.

When World War II begins, and Namor and the Human Torch join Captain America and the Allied Forces (as seen from a news reel by Sheldon, Doris, and many others) they all applaud, their suspicion allayed. After rekindling his romance with Doris, Sheldon hears that the Human Torch and Namor are fighting again (‘Human Torch’ #5), but the battle this time damages New York City’s landmarks from the flooding. During the fight, they approach but do not catch Sheldon, and he is knocked out by a small chunk of masonry and permanently loses the ability to see out of his left eye. Still, he has lost all fears of the Marvels and goes on to marry Doris. Later, he is in Europe where, as a war correspondent, reports on the Allied Forces and the Marvels as they fight the Nazis.

Much later, in the mid 1960s, Sheldon is now a husband and father of two; Beth and Jennie, and is preparing to write a book called ‘Marvels.’ At this point, New York now has two superhero teams, the Fantastic Four and The Avengers. With recent news of the return of Captain America a hero from his youth, he is excited. But not all is pleasant with the growing fear over the knowledge of the mutants, human beings who are born with superpowers and the so-called ‘next stage of human evolution,’ more importantly the mutant team known as ‘The X-Men.’ He joins a mob and comes face to face with the original incarnation of the X-Men; their leader, Cyclops, tells an enraged Iceman, ‘they’re not worth it’ they escape. Not knowing what he meant, the words stay on Sheldon’s mind.

On the bright side; the Marvels are treated as celebrities, as seen by Sheldon at the gala opening of Alicia Masters’ sculptures, in which some are of Marvels, and gossip spreads over the upcoming marriage between Reed Richards and Sue Storm. However, Sheldon runs home hearing an anti-mutant mob in the area and finds that his daughters are hiding their friend: a mutant girl with a skull-like head. Sheldon sees the importance of hiding this girl, but is worried for the sake of his family. Following the wedding of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, Sentinels are unleashed during a television debate with Professor Xavier but instead malfunction and begin rampaging throughout the city. A mob forms, attacking and destroying everything in sight, with only Sheldon helping the injured. Hastily repaired Sentinels stop the mob, but Sheldon runs home to find that the mutant girl is gone. Though Sheldon does not know if she will be alright, he prays for her safety.

As the 1960s continue, Sheldon is preoccupied with his work, to the detriment of his family. But after the news from the Avengers being declared menaces, the law going after Tony Stark, Spider-Man sightings, and possible comings of Judgement Day; the Silver Surfer appears to the world, and defeats the Fantastic Four. This leads to the appearance of a greater threat who plans to consume Earth: Galactus. With the city in panic, Sheldon believes in his heart that Earth will end and goes home, to spend time with his family. Suddenly, news comes that the Fantastic Four have managed to defeat Galactus, thus saving the Earth. In the wake of the Fantastic Four’s victory, Sheldon promises that he will spend more time with his family. However, he is later disgusted by the way the public has turned on their heroes, with one newspaper claiming that the Galactus threat was a hoax. He finally rages at a crowd carrying on an anti-mutant conversation.

Finally in the 1970s, Sheldon releases his book ‘Marvels,’ an instant best-seller. He is still dismayed at the public’s reaction to the Marvels, and is particularly disgusted by J. Jonah Jameson laying into Spider-Man, who has been framed for the death of NYPD Captain George Stacy. He resolves to investigate the murder, and clear Spider-Man’s name. Whilst talking to a witness with Luke Cage, he learns that not only do the police not suspect Spider-Man for Stacy’s death, but that they suspect Doctor Octopus. It is revealed that Spider-Man is being blamed due to Jameson, who reveals the true reason why people hate the Marvels: a mixture of jealousy and insecurity, the belief that humans cannot compete with the selfless heroism and nobility of the Marvels.

It is also by befriending Gwen Stacy, Captain Stacy’s daughter, that he learns from her, during a brief Atlantean invasion of Manhattan led by Namor, that the Marvels exist to help the innocent, beyond petty human jealousies and spite. This revelation leads to Spider-Man being cleared, but not soon after Gwen is kidnapped by the Green Goblin and pushed off the Brooklyn Bridge despite (or because) of Spider-Man’s attempt to save her. The police forensic report reveals that Gwen died from the shock of the fall. Sheldon’s faith in the Marvels has been irreparably shattered, as Sheldon cannot reconcile Spider-Man’s failure to save Gwen with what he sees as the hero’s purpose in life. In the end, he decides that he has had enough, and plans to retire. Before he can hang up his camera, a final photo is taken of Phil, his wife, and a ‘nice, normal boy.’ Unbeknownst to him, the boy is Danny Ketch, who will eventually becomes the demonic hero Ghost Rider.

Marvel later published similar limited series under the ‘Marvels’ header, with other writers and painters, though none of these titles were as successful as the original. In 1995, Marvel released the darker ‘Ruins’ by writer Warren Ellis and painters Cliff and Terese Nielsen, a two-issue parallel world series in which Sheldon explored a dystopian Marvel Universe. In 2008, the long promised direct sequel, ‘Marvels: Eye of the Camera,’ a 6-part limited series, began. It returns to Sheldon’s perspective, after his retirement. Alex Ross did not return for this sequel, however Kurt Busiek returned as writer with Roger Stern as co-writer for issues 3-6, with artwork by Jay Anacleto. Alex Ross also did the artwork for the DC Comics mini-series ‘Kingdom Come.’ Phil Sheldon makes a cameo at the superhero press conference held at the UN building in ‘Kingdom Come’ #2. He also makes an appearance in the last page of the epilogue in the ‘Kingdom Come’ trade paperback. He is seated next to the Spectre in his civilian guise of Jim Corrigan and Norman McCay.

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