The Comic Cave is a bi-weekly feature where we spin the Wheel of Comics and see what graphic novel story it brings up for us to deep dive into! This week we take a look at Marvels, a book often held up as one of the finest examples of the medium, and a great celebration of the Marvel Universe.
There a few names in comics art that are instantly recognisable for people who read comics, even if they’ve never read a book that they’ve worked on. People like John Romita, Jim Lee, and Todd McFarlane usually bring pretty clear images into your mind. But one artist whose work stands apart from even some of the most recognisable comic art, an artist whose work gets those who don’t care about comics to pause for a moment and take a long look at it, is Alex Ross. Ross’ hand painted work has gone on to produce some truly iconic pieces in comics history, and his style is instantly recognisable; no one questions if his work is another artist. Having worked on the biggest characters to ever exist in comics it can be hard to imagine a time when the name Alex Ross meant nothing, and that his work was unknown. That was the landscape into which Marvels was released in 1994; a book that was seen as something of a gamble before release.
Marvels was conceived to be a history piece, a celebratory look back at the history of the Marvel Universe, focusing on several key events from the publisher’s early years. The project was initially pitched by Ross, who wanted to create an anthology series, one that would follow ten different characters that he considered to be some of the best in Marvel. There was no real connective tissue for the project, nothing that would tie these moments together; and this is where writer Kurt Busiek came in. Busiek has said in interviews that growing up reading comics it was the interconnected world of Marvel that tended to interest him the most. He’d spend time looking for the connective dots in the various books, and would try to make everything fit the best he could. As such, when Ross showed him the idea for the book he was excited to be able to explore the Marvel Universe as a whole.
With help from editor Marcus McLaurin, the idea was scaled down and given a more human figure to follow. Instead of looking at several different heroes across decades the book would follow one man, a photo-journalist, who would encounter the heroes of the Marvel Universe at key moments taken from existing comics, giving readers an alternative, human, perspective on some memorable issues. Ross’ art helped with this too, with its more photo-realistic painted style not only looking unlike anything else in comics at the time, but giving the world created within the pages of Marvels a very grounded feel.
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Marvels begins in 1941, where we meet young photo-journalist Phil Sheldon, a man looking to make a name for himself in the business, and hoping to be sent across to Europe to cover the events of the war. He’s one of the journalists sent to cover the unveiling of a new project from scientist Phineas T. Horton, who reveals to the world his synthetic man, an android that when exposed to oxygen sets on fire and becomes The Human Torch. Thanks to the press coverage of the event, the android is seen as a danger, and is buried beneath the Earth. However, an accident occurs that allows him to escape out into the world. As time goes on The Human Torch begins tackling crime across the city, making a name for himself; but he’s not alone.
Over the coming months another Marvel, as Phil names them, appears: Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Something of a frightening figure, Namor spends time as both a hero and a villain, even battling the Human Torch. And Phil is there every step of the way, taking photos of them. It’s not until America enters World War II, however, and the two Marvels join the fight against the Nazis that the world begins to see them as potential heroes. Public support rallies behind them, and even Phil comes to admire them. His belief in the Marvels is cemented when Captain America joins them. Not even losing an eye taking photos of one of their battles can dissuade him of that.
The second issue of Marvels jumps forward in time to the 1960s, where Phil is now a married man with two young daughters. It’s also a time of great wonder in New York, as the Avengers and the Fantastic Four protect the city. Celebrities in their own right, the costumed heroes are on the covers of magazines, and have their own clothing lines in shops. Despite these wonders, the world has started to turn against one group of Marvel, the mutants. Treated as a danger, anti-mutant propaganda is everywhere, and Phil even ends up joining in with a mob to attack the X-Men. As the mutant hate increases, Phil discovers that his daughters are hiding a young mutant girl named Maggie in their basement.
Having been surrounded by mutant hate for so long, Phil initially worries that the girl might have somehow contaminated his daughters, and keeps thinking of Maggie as an ‘it’. But then he stares into her strange features, her large eyes, her sunken face, and he sees the victims of the concentration camps he saw as a war photographer and the reality hits home for him. She’s a girl, just a little girl lost and afraid and hated by everyone, and he’s wrong to fear and hate her. This is easily the most moving and impactful part of the entire Marvels series, and it hammers home a more grounded and realistic version of mutant bigotry.
The rest of that issue depicts two starkly different events in Marvel that happened at the same time, the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, and the activation of the Sentinels. The city is mad with Fantastic Four fever, and the wedding is a huge party for everyone, but then the mutant killer robots are unleashed and the city plunges into riots, violence, and hate. The scene in which Phil is standing amidst the chaos, taking photos of people as proof of ‘what we did in our nightmare’ is perhaps one of the best for showing the human reality to these big comic moments.
The third issue of Marvels does this again, though in a different manner. By now the world has begun to sour towards its heroes. Spider-Man has been labelled a menace, the world still hates the X-Men, and even its beloved Avengers have changed. The amazing has started to become the banal. And then Galactus comes from the heavens. A towering, world-ending horror, the people of Earth are on the brink of extinction, unable to do anything, forced to watch without any context for what’s happening. Eventually the Fantastic Four save the day, Galactus leaves, and the world goes on. And then the world begins to call it a hoax, it begins to question what Reed Richards did to get rid of a god, and people become bitter again.
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It’s interesting to see the final page of the issue, where Phil loses it with a group of people who are complaining about the heroes, yelling at them to actually just be grateful for once, to be happy that the world is still there and to not dismiss it because the press are cruel. This is perhaps a scene that lands differently now, whilst we’re living in the middle of Covid, where we’ve all seen people call it a hoax as others die, where the press has downplayed things, and where those who were true heroes during that are treated with disdain. This is perhaps the most realistic moment in Marvels, and one that I think most of us will admit we’ve seen.
The final chapter of Marvels focuses on Phil as he comes closer to retirement. His book of photos and writing about the Marvels is a best seller, and he’s got himself an assistant to help out with his ageing hands. This chapter focuses on Phil looking into the death of police captain George Stacy, who died whilst Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus were fighting, with the press labelling Spider-Man as the culprit. Phil is sure that Spidey had nothing to do with the murder, and sets out to find the truth. This journey leads him to taking to Doc Ock in prison, and eventually to him becoming friends with Gwen Stacy. The two of them talk about her father, and Spider-Man, and Gwen even admits that she doesn’t think Spider-Man is responsible. It’s in their times together that Phil begins to see the wonder in their fantastical world again, by seeing how much wonder Gwen sees in it all.
Phil is going to meet Gwen to get her father’s journal to help with his investigation when he sees Gwen taken by the Green Goblin, snatched into the sky. Phil follows behind in a cab, chasing the villain to the Brooklyn Bridge, where Spider-Man battles against the Goblin. During the fight Gwen is thrown from the top of the bridge, and Spider-Man webs her to try and save her. Phil is there to see it, and even hears the snap as Gwen dies. He watches in stunned silence during the aftermath, as the police arrive, as Gwen’s body is loaded into the ambulance, standing alone as the crowd leaves. The next day Phil sees that Gwen’s death barely made the paper, and then his belief in the Marvels dies. Phil hands his camera over to his assistant, and leaves the world of the Marvels behind.
Marvels is a book that was unlike anything else when it was released, and its mission to take a look at the history of these characters and the world they live in from a different point of view was one that hadn’t really been done until that point. The book was, unsurprisingly, a hit upon release, and would win three Eisner Awards. Most notable for the book, however, is that it immediately made Alex Ross a star artist. It’s not hard to see that coming, thanks to Ross’ hand painted art and unique style, he brought a level of reality and gravitas to the book, and the events that they depicted. Ross would spend a year working on Marvels, with each issue taking close to four months to complete.
Ross would go on to work on many other books over the years, mostly providing cover art, though would also provide the interiors for the DC book Kingdom Come, which is similar to Marvels in a number of ways. Both books use an older regular human character as their main point of view, interacting with the world of heroes as major events happen (though Kingdom Come focuses its narrative on an alternate future and tells an original story). This wouldn’t be the only time that Marvels‘ formula would be emulated, however, as even in Marvel they tried to do more of the same. A year after the release of Marvels a dark, cracked mirror version of the book would be produced in the form of Ruins, a two issue story with a different creative team. In this book readers would follow Phil Sheldon in another version of the Marvel Universe, one where everything goes wrong. Ruins would take the concept of Marvels but completely miss the point of it, revelling in nastiness and moments designed to upset.
Despite multiple imitators Marvels has never really been topped for the kind of story that it told. Even as recently as 2021 when Busiek returned with a year long series The Marvels the book just wasn’t as close to being as well received. Much like books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Marvels is a book that has been much copied, but never bettered. It’s a book that came out at the right time with the right concept and made big waves in the comic world. It might not be a perfect book, and you might have others that you find more enjoyable, but you’d be in the wrong if you didn’t consider Marvels one of the all time greats just for what it did.
Marvels was first published from January 1994 to April 1994 by Marvel Comics.
Next time on The Comic Cave – Batman: Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham.