I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
Among the many innovations to superhero storytelling in the foundational Marvel comics of the nineteen-sixties was a commitment to making the adventures more realistic than those offered up by the distinguished competition. Now, there was only so far the creators could venture into verisimilitude since we’re talking about costumed grapplers who blast attacks out of various unlikely body parts. Even so, installing a little anguish and anxiety into the characterizations gave the stories the snap of recognizable inner life. If readers had never before seen a comic mag superhero take his troubles to a psychiatrist, they sure did then.
Most of this added psychological acuity was applied to the colorful crusaders cavorting among the clouds while bystanders were empty figures gawking at the rubble, maybe expressing brief dismay or fandom. Decades later, writer Kurt Busiek took a different approach to the early Marvel prompt of imagining how superheroes would operate in the real world. In the miniseries Marvels, Busiek teamed with artist Alex Ross for a depiction of the emergence and progression of super-powered beings from the perspective of the average person on the street.
The central character of Marvels is Phil Sheldon, a photojournalist who often trains his lens on the superheroes and the menaces they battle. It’s Phil’s job to be where the superheroes are, snapping pictures of their exploits to help fill the pages of the daily newspaper. He’s as naturally attuned to the heroes and a political beat reporter is to the push and pull of Washington lawmakers. Busiek uses him to trace the projected public evolution to having such titanic figures in their midst, from awestruck to fearful to jaded and all the nuanced stages in between.
Because Busiek has the whole of Marvel history to draw upon, and he’s enraptured by continuity, he doesn’t explore the reaction to the superheroes and supervillains in some vague way. He ties the different storytelling beats to milestone moments across the long arc of the interwoven saga spun by a legion of creators. When Busiek wants to demonstrate what might rouse the populace from their slowly developed complacency over green goliaths and wall-crawler, the three-issue epic that first pitted the Fantastic Four against Galactus is right there in the battered bin of back issues.
Interestingly, Busiek doesn’t let his premise succumb to nostalgia, presenting events with the same romanticized fondness a comic reader would have. He’s frank about human nature, which means he lets realistic cynicism guide the narrative. By the time Galactus comes within moments of eradicated the entire planet, stopped only by Marvel’s first family and timely turnabout by his herald the Silver Surfer, the general public has splintered into factions, some of the determined opinion that superheroes are hucksters and cads, their every action further indication of a grand hoax. Marvels was published more than fifteen years ago, but its depiction of a callous, delusional citizenry couldn’t be more pertinent now, an era when the admirable work of public health officials is met with scorn and death threats.
Phil Sheldon is largely dumbfounded by the erosion of support for superheroes, but he has his own moment of disillusionment. Phil befriends a young woman named Gwen Stacy. He’s engaged in some investigative journalism, trying to determined who is responsible for the recent death of her father, a police captain named George Stacy. Although Gwen has every reason to feel defeated by the tragedy that’s touched her family, she is still filled appreciation for life and the little wonders around her.
As longtime readers, a terrible outcome for Gwen is on the horizon. Shrewdly and sympathetically, Busiek takes this significant milepost in the Marvel journey and reinvested it with humanity and poignancy. It’s not a collector’s-item issue any longer. It’s a tender tragedy, as rough and honest as any sad turn in serious fiction. For Phil, it’s upsetting proof that heroes won’t always swoop in and save the day. There is no cosmic justice. Innocent people can be punished, and the guilty can roar away freely into the night. Marvel started with a goal of treated young readers with enough respect to make superhero stories a little realer. Marvels takes thesis that a few step further. You can almost believe it to be true.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.