Comic Book: Marvels

"As I have learned since, I was not the first anomaly to exist... but on that day of my freedom in 1939, this world had its first confrontation with the fantastic. The Golden Age of miracles would begin, and in the years to come, the world would know the presence of the unnatural and extraordinary as part of reality."
The Human Torch, Marvels #0

Marvels is a 4-issue mini-series, running from January to April, 1994. An exploration of the history of the Marvel Universe from the perspective of an Everyman, written by Kurt Busiek and beautifully illustrated by Alex Ross.

Warning: Spoilers follow

It's 1939 and Phil Sheldon is a young freelance photojournalist. He's interested in going over to Europe, where he knows trouble is brewing, and he has a young fiance, Doris. This all changes, however, when he's at the press conference where Phineas Horton announces his newest creation — the robot known as the Human Torch. Soon, other "marvels" appear, the Sub-Mariner and Captain America among them, and Phil can only watch on the sidelines, both awed and fearful. He hopes that they will leave, that this will all pass... but he knows better.

It's the 1960s and Phil Sheldon has two daughters and a thriving career. With the Fantastic Four and the Avengers dominating the headlines, this seems to be an era of prosperity, where superheroes are the new celebrities. But even now, there's a dark side: mutants, homo superior. Even Phil seems afraid of them, but soon comes to realize his own prejudices when he finds his daughters have helped and hidden a little mutant girl from an angry mob. Soon, the public even turns against the other superheroes. Even after the FF save the world from Galactus, the public seems to both love and hate the heroes.

Even after Phil's book Marvels comes out, he can't help seeing the story in the public's reaction. In his efforts to write another book and clear Spider-Man's name of Captain Stacy's murder, he meets and interviews Gwen Stacy. But what happens when superheroes fail? Where do you go when you start being within the story instead of outside?

Marvels was published in 1994. Soon afterwards, several followups with a roughly similar format came out:
  • Tales of the Marvels: Blockbuster (April 1995)
  • Ruins (Aug-Sep 1995), a Crapsack World version by Warren Ellis
  • Tales of the Marvels: The Wonder Years (Aug-Sep 1996)
  • Tales of the Marvels: Inner Demons (1996)

Busiek would explore similar themes in Astro City, which started in 1995. The direct sequel to Marvels, Marvels: Eye of the Camera, also written by Busiek, came out as a six issue series from 2008 to 2010.

Marvels provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All of the Other Reindeer: Spider-Man and the X-Men, especially in the second part where Phil speculates that the mutants are here to replace us and kick the dirt over our graves. A key theme of the story is Phil's increasing disgust at how much dirt and ingratitude the heroes constantly have to put up with despite selflessly saving the people, the city and even the entire world over and over again.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gwen Stacy dies. Phil can't believe people would simply forget about her and go on, eventually realizing that he's inside the story now instead of outside and he can't be objective. So he retires with his wife and daughters.
  • Censor Steam: Namor's nudity is cleverly disguised by waves and careful placement.
  • Comic Book Fantasy Casting: Alex Ross used models for certain characters, such as Freddie Mercury for Namor, Timothy Dalton for Tony Stark, Russel Johnson for Reed Richards, and, most notably, Patrick Stewart for Professor Xavier, years before the actor would be cast for that same character. Don Knotts also appears as an extra.
  • Comic-Book Time: Mostly averted; Busiek chose to set his story at the times when the characters involved were first published, before this trope was really an issue.
  • Covers Always Lie: Some editions of the book just show Spiderman front and center on the cover, even though he has little if anything to do with the story.
  • Dawn of an Era: The beginning of The Golden Age of Comic Books, the beginning of The Silver Age of Comic Books.
  • Dramatic Irony
    • Phil briefly encounters Peter Parker, who he pretty much hates because of the way he profits off of giving Spider-Man pictures to the Daily Bugle, which are then used to slander him.
    • Phil at the end says he's through with superheroes and never wants to be around one. He tells his daughter to take a picture of him with a nice normal kid, a newspaper delivery boy by the name of Danny Ketch.
  • The Everyman: Phil Sheldon
  • Fantastic Racism / Fantastic Slur: As is common with works relating to the X-Men. Complete with ridiculous claims of mutants enslaving humanity, paranoid riots, and more. The Fantastic Slur in question is, of course, mutie.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Even if you know a bit of the Marvel Universe history, you know Reed Richards defeats Galactus or that Gwen Stacy dies. But even knowing that, it's still interesting to see it all from a new perspective.
  • For Want of a Nail: Warren Ellis's alternate universe Ruins, where everything that could go wrong did.
  • Innocent Bystander Series
  • Lampshade Hanging: When Galactus "visits" a second time, Phil's apathy (he's just sitting there fishing) may reflect just how insignificant and little-known the story was in Real Life.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: You can see Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane in the background in one panel.
  • The Merch: Partially subverted, as Wolverine (the foremost Marvel Comics vehicle) is completely absent, (as he was not yet featured in the Marvel comics canon -he does show up in the sequel-) yet the X-Men are not; other huge Marvel vehicles such as Spider-Man, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk do show up.
  • Metafictional Title: Near the end, Phil publishes his book, Marvels, that the graphic novel is named for.
  • Mythology Gag: Lots, particularly single panels or pages referencing old Marvel comics/issues/fights. There's a page in the back of the paperback dedicated to listing all of them.
    • One of Phil's friends when he was young was Nick Fury.
    • When he was a cub reporter in World War 2, he worked alongside a buzz-cut cigar-chomping cynic named J. Jonah Jameson.
    • At the end, Phil states he'll have nothing to do with superheroes ever again, and has his picture taken when a young paperboy — who is Danny Ketch.
  • Name's the Same:invoked Acknowledged with Phil Sheldon and Ben Urich's wives, who are both named Doris.
  • Only Sane Man: Apparently, Phil Sheldon is the only person outside of the Marvel superhero community who actually notices that superheroes take a lot of crap despite everything they do. In a further note, Sheldon realizes that Gwen Stacy is the only person that can see beauty and experience a tremendous joy through all the apparent chaos that the Marvels cause, even when she is still mourning for her father. This makes her death pack a punch from an entirely different angle, though not less painful altogether.
  • Reconstruction / Deconstruction: It's a deconstruction in showing how scary it would really be if a bunch of masked men with godlike powers started showing up, but then reconstructs it to show how awesome and heroic it would be too, especially when they save the day.
  • Shaming the Mob
    • Only works once, where Phil overcomes his fear of a little mutant girl (although he wasn't part of a mob at the time, he previously was part of one where he threw a brick at Iceman's head. Cyclops keeps Iceman from retaliating by telling him that his attackers "aren't worth it," which doesn't shame the mob but shakes Phil up).
    • Arguably when Phil blasts a group of New Yorkers for their constant need to tear down heroes, following him walking into another anti-mutant diatribe.
    • He's also upset when people doubt the Galactus incident was real.
  • Shout-Out: As with Ross' other painted opus, Kingdom Come, many, many, many.
    • Maggie, the skull-faced mutant girl, is based on an identical character from an issue of EC Comics' Weird Science.
    • The Silk Spectre and Nite Owl from Watchmen appear in a machine similar to Archie.
    • The Beatles appear at Reed and Sue's wedding.
    • Phil has a cameo in the last panel of Kingdom Come.
    • A sailor heavily modelled on Popeye also appears in a brief cameo for a panel.
    • At a press conference, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen can be seen chatting.
  • Wolverine Publicity: The original trade paperback cover, used in the page image, is a photo of Giant-Man that made Phil's career. Later covers have put Spider-Man on the cover to emphasize a more marketable character.