Monday, February 23, 2015

A Time of Marvels: Marvels 1

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.


J.A. Morris said...

I started re-reading this last week in anticipation of this discussion. But I never realized until today (thanks to Karen and Doug) that Namor was supposed to be naked. It's is an add choice by Ross, since there are several Golden Age stories that show Namor in Atlantis and everyone wears clothes.
I agree that Phil's breakup with Doris is stupid. "I can't protect you,'re on your own."? It reads like Busiek just added drama for the sake of adding drama, when it was unnecessary and contributed nothing to the story.
I know Ross has his detractors, but I'll never forget the feeling of wonder I felt the first time I read 'Marvels'. Probably the last great story published by the company once known as "The House Of Ideas."

Doug said...

J.A. --

I recall having a similar epiphany the first time I read Kingdom Come, and it quickly became clear to me that Wonder Woman was either sans undergarments or wearing a thong. That took a while to settle in my mind. Just would never have been part of my Super Friends-inspired vision of the character.


Humanbelly said...

I can't believe I mentioned "naked ol' Namor" in passing yesterday-- although, y'know, I didn't actually mean "naked"-naked. . . (!!!).

It was only about a year or so ago that I finally, FINALLY purchased and read MARVELS-- so for me it had an unusually layered aura of being a story from an earlier era that was recounting a story from an era even earlier than that. It certainly made me somewhat melancholy, and possibly even moreso now that we're just a couple of months away from the utter end of any remnant of this Universe that was so dear to us for so long.

A couple of thoughts that did hit me when a read it:

It's truly Ross & Busiek's Valentine to the Marvel Universe as it stood in 1994. It's simply a beautiful, loving retrospective-- wonderfully realized and executed. It reminds me, of all things, of the classic days of NFL Films, where with great slo-mo footage, inspiring musical score, stentorian narration, and brilliant editing they could make a half-hour game re-cap into an epic & emotionally gripping experience.
It's the combination of deep affection and unabashed respect (even a bit of reverance) that shines through in the art and the words-- and those qualities are extremely infectious.

The other thing that occurred to me is that this may have been the veryveryvery last moment when it was still possible to have any sort of plausible single-character continuity spanning from the Golden Age into the Modern Age. And even then the timeline gets stretched, I think. J.Jonah is sort of our guidepost here. It's just possible that he could have been a very young, aggressive cub-reporter in the late 30's/early 40's, and still have been our own irrascible JJJ in his lively mid-70's in 1994. (Although I may be mis-remembering-- does the series eventually take us to the "current" day, or does it wrap up earlier than '94?) I do know that by '94 Marvel had long since given in to the sliding scale of Marvel Time, as Peter Parker would have to be in his early 40's at the very least otherwise, but I think we were still holding onto guys like the Howling Commando contingent at SHIELD having been WWII vets.
But I do think this story may have been the last hurrah for that convention, y'know?

I know we do have a fair share of Ross-detractors 'round here, and I'll be the first to admit that he's not the best kinetic/action-sequence comic artist out there. But for me his work always exemplifies an element that is so-often missing in comic art: his ability to capture the innate humanity of both heroes and folks. I haven't seen it as much in his recent huge explosion of output. . . but for a couple of decades there, he was breathing life into almost everyone he put in a frame or on a canvas-- and that is wonderfully on display in this series.


Doug said...

HB --

If I recall, and I've not read this to the end yet on this reread, the last scene in the book is of Phil Sheldon talking to his paperboy. The paperboy is a very young lad named Danny Ketch, who in 1994 was in his 20s and was the new Ghost Rider. For the most part, Marvels ends with the death of Gwen Stacy.


Humanbelly said...

Ah yes-- that rings a bell, thanks Doug. Which would make MARVELS' existence set in that perfect bubble of Marvel Time before they finally had to fully surrender to the convention of the perpetual Fountain of Character Youth.


Dr. Oyola said...

It bugs me out that Marvels is already over 20 years old! I still think of it as a recent series (and the series I am reviewing for my guest post is over 10 years old, I think of it as recent as well).

That said, I have not read Marvels in about 15 years or more, as I don't own it - but I really want to. If I have time today I may check and see if they have it at the NYU library. I teach in that building and they have a decent comics section!

Edo Bosnar said...

I'll readily admit that the art by Ross is not to my taste, although it seems to work well for a story like this.
Otherwise, though, I am really interested in reading Marvels just because I've read so many good things about it. And I'm already a fan of Busiek, so it's kind of a no-brainer.

Doug said...

Edo --

As we said in this post, and HB mentioned above, the graphic novel is a big hug to Marvel from Busiek and Ross. Let's face it - people of a certain age "get" this. It's sort of a read-it-with-a-smile-on-your-face type of book.


Ward Hill Terry said...

This sure is a favorite of mine. I remember seeing that first issue at a friend's house and being very impressed! I had already stopped my regular collecting then, but I had bought the PB collection within six or seven years. I want to address a couple of points in the review and in the comments. First, Namor. This is someone's point of view (Doris's?)She remembers him not wearing a suit and seeing all that skin. She couldn't take the time to look where she wouldn't look to see if he was wearing trunks. Ross did the scene as she tells it. (If she had been telling Bill Everett, he would have told her that Namor indeed was wearing trunks!)
The timeline in the story is 1939-c.1972. The clothing and car styles reflect this. One of the treats of this story is how Busiek compresses all those 60's era Marvel books into a single narrative. HB wrote it well, "a beautiful, loving retrospective."
Ross may not be for every taste, but he makes NYC seem so much realer than other comic book artists. The image of the tidal wave slamming into Manhattan, The Torch leaving melted fiery debris in his wake; these kind of images help to reinforce Phil's position of helpless everyman bystander. Oh yeah, don't be so quick to knock Phil! Sometimes we all make bad choices in life!
Finally, Jonah. I would love to know Busiek's thinking about Jonah's timeline. How does this reporter in 1940, as good and talented as he may be, end up as Editor and Publisher by 1962? Has Busiek ever addressed this in an interview? Was Goodman JJJ's uncle?
One of my very favorite lines to quote comes from a later book; "You people! What do you need? For the world to actually end?!"

Doug said...

Wardhill Terry --

As Jonah is never named in Marvels #1, I believe editorial has never admitted that the character was indeed JJJ. Now, that being said, no mention is made in #1 that Reed and Ben were fighting in WWII, but I don't know that editorial has ever backed off that notion in regard to their Silver Age appearances (of course it's all been "updated" now). Face it -- they would have been at least mid-30s in FF #1, maybe 40 depending on when they'd enlisted for the Big One.


Anonymous said...

Quite taken with the notion that Marvels was very 90s - I'd say its not just the covers, but also the way the whole thing is self referential, very much about Marvel universe continuity (or maybe that more 00s than 90s?)

Of course, Alex Ross is way more impressive than, say, Rob Liefeld (!) but for all that, his work is a bit conservative for my tastes; someone like Bill Sienkiewicz combines technique with style more ambitiously when doing the painted comics thing. A comparison I've made here before I think....

Btw HB - doesn't the sliding scale of Marvel time go back way before the early 90s? I seem to recall someone like Roy Thomas claiming in a mid-70s letters page that all the events since FF 1 had taken place over a five year period or something. Really doubt there weren't problems with continuity wide stories even then...


Doug said...

Sean --

Do you (or anyone else) think the Handbooks of the MU that were published in the 1980s were Marvel's first real attempt at establishing continuity?

When did the Companion books come out (probably not the name and I forget the company...)?


Humanbelly said...

That does ring a bell, Sean-- not sure if was Roy Thomas, though. I've heard that statement referenced, but never came across where it was originally published (FOOM, maybe??). But yeah, the deceleration of character-time was an issue long before '94. I never had quite the sense of there being an "official" policy or quantification of it, though. Or at least one that every writer adhered to consistently. I think the hardest historical landmark for Marvel to let go of (or retcon the characters away from) was WWII, just because that era did hold the roots of a lot of Marvel history. And those connections simply became unsupportable as the 80's and 90's passed.

Hmm-- maybe it was Shooter who declared the "offical" time-passage in the MU? That sounds kind of familiar. And that it was something like 7 to 10 years at the point he declared it. . .


Karen said...

I recall that Fantaco put out the Chronicles books -is that what you were thinking of, Doug?

I think of the Marvel Universe handbooks as an attempt more at quantification than continuity. Sure, there were histories provided, but the biggest takeaway seemed to be those wonderful yet terrible 'Strength limits' that put numbers on everyone. Now you couldn't argue if the Sub-Mariner was stronger than Wonder Man or whoever -the numbers were right there! AS much as it was fun for the readers in an extremely geeky way, I think it was limiting too.

Regarding aging in comics: no one thought the books and characters would continue so long -or that anyone would care about continuity (what's that?). I just read a Sub-Mariner story where the Thing refers to being duped by Orson Welles' Martians broadcast in 1938. Now I guess he'd refer to Blair Witch project or something like that. Oh Lord...In any case, it's a problem and the best perhaps that can be done is to just ignore it and soldier on. Although it gets more difficult to explain how some characters age (Kitty Pryde) and some don't (Franklin Richards). A topic for another day?

Anonymous said...

Doug - Depends what you mean, really. I'd say the first attempt at establishing a continuity would have been the early extended storylines like the Kree-Skrull War; basically, when younger writers started self consciously building on the Lee, Kirby and Ditko's stuff (which always seemed more ad-hoc). The Marvel universe proper began when Stan Lee gave Roy Thomas a job! Or something like that maybe...

That process continued with more fans going pro, complicating things... what Karen says about quantification sounds right to me.

HB - Yes, that sounds right about Shooter. Don't think the idea caught on much though....

Humanbelly said...

Ha! I can TOTALLY picture ol' Bashful Benjy barely able to peek through his rocky fingers while watching Blair Witch Project in a darkened Baxter Building (Four Freedoms Plaza?) screening room-! It's the best Lee/Kirby moment that they never did, I daresay---


Anonymous said...

During the Dark Phoenix storyline it's mentioned that Jean Grey arrived at Professor X's academy 5 years earlier - so in 1975.

Doug said...

Karen --

That's it!

Sean --

I was wondering if the Handbooks were the first attempt to put MU continuity under one roof. Shortly after they began publishing the Marvel Saga, which had to be a monumental undertaking. I am surprised that book lasted as long as it did!


Anonymous said...

Oh right, I get it Doug - now I think about it, it does seem odd that you'd think the MU might not have been a coherent thing til the early '80s. Doh! Must pay more attention before commenting in future!

Yeah, you're probably right; even Marvels wass only a partial view, a selection of hightlights, whereas by definition a complete summary like the Handbook will feature EVERY character. A bit dry though....

Before the Handbook, the best you'd get was something like
Claremont and Byrne's extended flashback history of the X-Men in that issue when Cyclops left. Can't think of anything else offhand, but there must have been others, maybe with more of a general overview. An issue of Avengers perhaps...?


Humanbelly said...

Well, in the early years of the MU the continuity-bible would simply have been all of the books themselves, right? I mean, it was several years before they were able to majorly expand their number of superhero titles, so it wasn't nearly so hard to keep track of. And even then, events and characters weren't anywhere near so intertwined between books. I'm pretty sure Stan was explaining in a very early Soapbox that one should just assume that books weren't happening concurrently, and that there was always plenty of time for Spidey to visit the Avengers even though he was being beaten to a pulp by the Vulture in his own book.

The continuity was there-- it just wasn't being obsessed over, y'know?


The Prowler said...

Two anecdotes to get my wheels spinning and supply a bit of context. In an episode of Leave It To Beaver, Ward and the Beav go to a baseball game. The episode ends with their return from the game to tell June all about their trip. Beav has his glove and both of them, father and son, are in suits. FOR A BASEBALL GAME!!!!

A webisode of Agent Carter has Howard and Dum Dum sitting poolside while two young ladies in bikinis are talking. Yes, the swimsuits are two pieces, so, yes, it is a bikini. No, you can't see a belly button and there is at most, an inch and a half between the two pieces.

So, what's the point? I think, to someone from '38 or '39, to see a man in swim trunks and swim trunks only, would appear to "have no clothes on" and for there to be "so much skin" (my quotes) that for us, present day, to read that description, would think Namor was naked.

A point about JJJ. To be a young man at the outbreak of WW2, just starting your career, young, fresh faced and raring to go, then to find oneself 2 decades later at the head of a publishing company, isn't that Stan Lee's story, in a nutshell?

Before I forget, my comments on Marvels numero uno. Its a retelling of all the stories familiar to us but done by those with talent and skill. They, Busiek and Ross, are not telling a story so much as picking moments and laying them out as reminders. Ross' contribution, in his images, was to remind us of these moments, while reminding us of other moments as well. Popeye at the docks, Lois and
Clark at Prof Horton's presentation. Billy Batson hawking papers. There are a few moments that I struggle with. Sheldon and Casey being there to witness the Invaders parachuting into the Nazi castle? As Cam Tucker would say, "Really, Phil, really?" But then again, someone has to be in the helicopter when the RPG hits.....

(My key don't fit your lock
When I come to your door
No, I said, my key won't fit your lock
When I try to put it in your door
You know I got a funny, funny feeling
You don't want me around no more

I left a message last Monday
Just like the Monday before
By the time I've got to Friday
Lord knows I had left five or six more
Now my key don't fit your lock
But I try to stick it in your door).

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