Marvels #1 (January 1994)
"A Time of Marvels"
Kurt Busiek-Alex Ross
Doug: What's this? A comic book review that's not in our "Arc of Triumph?" series? Yep -- we told you that in our revised "anything goes at any time" schedule we'd try to get back to doing our famous (shoot, world-renowned!) partner reviews. So here you go. And no, we didn't pick this just to rile the Alex Ross haters among our regulars... Although we'd lie if we didn't say we joked about it back in the planning meeting! We don't know how long it will take us to get through these four issues, but we can tell you we're looking forward to taking another look at this landmark series.
Doug: As I was getting myself mentally prepared for this write-up -- you know, brain calisthenics and such -- I was struck with the notion that this series may have been every bit a part of the 1990s and all that was wrong with it. I don't mean that in the sense that this was a sub-standard story (as much of the 90s was filled) or that the creators were "trendy". Instead, I was thinking about the format. You'll peek back to the top of the post and see the cover date was the very beginning of '94 and I'm wondering if this book was the first to sport a "premium" cover (not a variant, but a fancier material)? If you've never owned the periodical version of this story, you may not know that each issue featured a full-page painting by Ross (in today's case, of the Original Human Torch) layered over by an acetate cover that featured a black printed border with the appearance of die-cut lettering at the top. Of course numerous knock-offs ensued -- lots of painted books, and Marvel copied itself with the acetate overlays for a couple of issues in the big "Atlantis Attacks" annuals cross-over.
Karen: I'm using the hardback edition from 2008, which includes Marvels #0 as well as numerous sketches, promo art, and photo references. I nearly forgot about the goofy acetate covers! Before I started reading I tried to recall my mindset at this particular time. I was only buying comics occasionally, having a hard time getting back into regular series. Like many other people, my mind was completely blown by Alex Ross' art. I couldn't believe he was painting comics! The absolute realism of it all sucked me right in. And Kurt Busiek's history wrapped up in an everyman tale was handled masterfully.
Doug: I am reading from the trade paperback that has Giant-Man on the cover -- not sure of the year, but it also includes the Torch story from Marvels #0 (which I just love). Hey, how exciting was it when the Torch was spied in one of the early scenes of Captain America: The First Avenger? Anyway, I really don't remember how or why I bought the first issue, but I do recall meeting Alex Ross at a small comic show near O'Hare right after the first issue came out. In fact, he was giving away the promo poster for the series, which featured the cover of Marvels #2 (the Angel taking flight). I had a nice chat with him, and he autographed the poster; it still hangs on the wall of my comic room. I agree about Busiek's script -- there is just so much detail! No way this was done "Marvel method" -- Ross must have received exhaustive notes from Busiek. Of course, knowing Alex's appreciation for comics history, I am sure he had a mighty hand in the plot and execution of this story.
Karen: There are so many things we could talk about here, just with the first issue. Of course, through-out the series we are peppered with cameos, of both celebrities and sort of displaced comic book characters. I just love getting to see a very young J. Jonah Jameson as a beat reporter back in 1939, already annoying everyone around him.
Doug: I am pretty certain that ol' JJJ is never named in this story. I can check again, but I made a conscious effort when reading this last week to see (because my memory told me that on previous readings he had not been identified). But of course we all know who he is. I thought it was a nice homage to Marvel in general to make Martin Goodman the publisher of the Daily Bugle. And Ross's depiction of Goodman was spot-on. I also enjoyed the cameos in this first issue, including Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and what looks to be a very young Billy Batson peddling newspapers. Those sorts of "Easter eggs" really made this a visual treat on top of your aforementioned praise of Ross's realistic paintings.
Karen: You're right, JJJ is never named as such, but that haircut, the mannerisms, little phrases ('when I run the Bugle') -it's pretty much obvious, and delicious. But Busiek makes him more than a caricature; JJJ earns his stripes, chasing down stories and facing the catastrophes these 'Marvels' bring. It actually provides some depth to his later hatred of Spider-Man and other super-heroes, if you consider he saw Namor nearly drown all of New York! Two other notable cameo appearances are Popeye (why?) and a young Nick Fury, not in the war yet. I like how Ross draws him with a shadow over his left eye. Another great Easter egg of a sort is Ross' homage to Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' painting when Sheldon and JJJ have a run-in with the Torch late one night.
Doug: Of course the story also had a few "weirdities", such as Namor prancing around in his birthday suit. I have a reprint of Marvel Comics #1 (which actually reprinted the Crown Prince's first appearance from Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly) and the Sub-Mariner was wearing his trademark trunks throughout. So in spite of a heaping helping of his naked butt, I did enjoy the way Ross drew his ankle wings. They were huge! And c'mon -- if they actually were going to be used for flight, they'd have to be larger than the way we've generally seen them depicted. The panel where the Torch engages Namor and they wrangle over a steel girder is a lot of fun, and I've always loved the 2-page spread of the tidal wave crashing onto New York with a tiny Human Torch streaking across the top of the image.
Karen: Yeah, naked Namor...I did a little research and came back empty handed, so to speak. I couldn't find anything from Ross that indicates why he chose to do that. I suppose the logical conclusion would be that someone living underwater wouldn't wear clothes. But it did surprise me when I first saw it. Interestingly, in the back of my book, hand-written next to some of the sketches for Namor it says 'Freddie Mercury' but I don't think he wound up looking much like Queen's lead singer in the finished product.
Doug: Busiek did a solid job of making Phil Sheldon an interesting protagonist. I think his point-of-view is very believable, as an ordinary man who has come through the Great Depression with a renewed optimism, yet distressed at the coming events in Europe. But the arrival of the "Marvels" makes him feel small, and insecure as a man. His worry about being able to protect his loved ones, and whether it is wise to even consider bringing children into such an unsettled future drew me in. But his reverence for Captain America was noteworthy. As remarked in the story, he was "one of ours", and that set him apart from the Torch and Namor.
Karen: The American public, ever fickle. It was completely believable to me that the crowd was swayed by the newsreels to suddenly accept the Torch and Namor as "our" boys. And then Captain America come on the scene -so big and strong, perfect chin, wrapped in the red, white and blue -well, he was manufactured to be The American Hero. Don't get me wrong, from childhood to now, I've loved Cap and that sense of honor, justice, morality, all the qualities that made Steve Rogers a hero regardless of the Super-Soldier formula. But let's face it, he was a pre-fab hero, before there was even a Madison Ave marketing racket to push him out.
Doug: I think in Busiek playing up the hot/cold aspect of the crowd he was playing along with a trope Stan Lee had used throughout the Silver Age.
Doug: So you're saying Cap was a forerunner of the Monkees?
Karen: Ha! You and I have been doing this so long, we're so in synch -I almost said "like the Monkees!" But yes, the way Cap is built up for the public, it's PR at least, propaganda at worst. Phil Sheldon's concern over both the war in Europe and the rise of the super-beings is understandable. But his decision to delay marrying his girlfriend Doris -I don't know, maybe because I'm a woman, it all seemed rather foolish. The idea of having to "protect" her, and not being able to do that in the face of these new beings, diminishing him, making him unworthy -he really had an inferiority complex going on here! Not that it's an impossible reaction but it seemed a bit like he was running away to me.
Doug: I agree that Sheldon seemed off base with his line of thinking. Why wouldn't he feel better about protecting Doris if he had married her and could be around her more? You know, above you talked about how quickly the crowd turned, but Busiek does a nicely subtle job of showing really how their world turned. At the beginning of this first issue Sheldon remarked how they'd beaten the Depression and how everyone's spirits were up -- they were invincible. Yet just a few months later Hitler had become a serious focal point in all their lives, and the advent of the Marvels complicated life even more. I think Steve Martin's album "Let's Get Small" could have been a mantra. But hey -- if Phil hadn't decided to abandon Doris, we'd have not had the pleasure of being introduced to Willie Lumpkin!
Karen: I did smile when I saw Willie Lumpkin -or 'Bill.' And hey, Mickey Rooney was in the theater audience too.
Doug: Alex Ross flirted with racism just enough to really give some of the war scenes a bit of Golden Age authenticity. His depiction of the Japanese soldier bordered on caricature, but stopped short of crossing that line. Busiek did include the term "Japanazi", which again was a nice throwback to a different time.
Karen: Was "Japanazi" a term that people actually used back during the war years? I've often wondered if it was something made up in the comics... I don't know if I've seen it anywhere else. ...OK, I looked it up and apparently it was a term used on war posters of the time period (I saw a few, including one with Popeye), so I suppose it's legit.
Doug: I have all of the Fleischer Superman cartoons on DVD, and I think the term is used somewhere in those. But I could be misremembering (that's so Brian Williams...). So what did you think of that last scene -- the assault on the Nazi stronghold? Sort of made the Invaders look like the minor leagues!
Karen: It's a breath-taking scene! I love the high, overhead angle -I know we've talked about Ross overdoing it recently on some covers with the odd angles but this one really works for me. I could identify eight of the ten heroes but had trouble with two of them. The ones I recognized were Cap and Bucky (and this Bucky is quite obviously a kid, being carried by Cap the way he is), Namor, the Vision, the Destroyer, and the Black Widow (none of these three related to the later Marvel versions), the Blazing Skull, and the two Torches. From the reference section in the back of my book, I found the identities of the other two: the Thunderer and the Black Marvel. These are some pretty cool-looking cats. More appealing than most of the Liberty Legion! I know some of these characters have been brought into current or recent books, like the Skull and original Vision.
Doug: Yes, Ross's depiction of the very young James Buchanan Barnes does fly in the face of Ed Brubaker's thoughts on the character's age during the war. Personally, I always thought of him as Ross does. However, I fully accepted that he must have been closer to 16 in the Liberty Legion story that ran through Invaders #s 5-6 and Marvel Premiere #s 29-30. And in regard to the coolness of those Golden Age heroes: I have so tried to get into that material but it's just so difficult. The art and the stories are so crude as compared to the stuff we focus on (late 1960s-mid 1980s) that I just can't do it. I've several times been ready to pull the trigger on the Golden Age volume in the Marvel Firsts series but have always talked myself out of it.
Doug: In our next installment, we'll delve into Marvels #2 and the dawn of the Silver Age! No promises when that will be, but this has been fun getting back into the "what we do around here" of comic reviews.