Retrospective Review: Marvels - Book One

"Book One"
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Letterer: Richard Starkings


Review by Kendra Hale

A Date With Mary Shelley

Do you remember what first drew you to your favorite comic? Was it the art on the cover? Was it the artist, or writer themselves? Maybe it was the characters, or even the story you were intrigued by. Did you ponder over it before buying? Maybe you flipped gently through to see the interior art, before making the final purchase decision. Or was it a library book, or something borrowed from a family member, or friends, from their private collection?

In any of those cases, I'm sure one or more memories sprang to mind. From the title of this article, you can also gather what the answer to my question would be, and you'd also be correct. When I think of the stories that made me a fan of all things comics, Alex Ross has a very heavy hand in many of them.

For Marvels, I remember how different and striking the cover art for the individual covers were. How they had these unique two-part images, one a near clear over the top of brilliantly executed cover art. Moments in time that were captured and not just on the first, but on each one. This was before I even cracked the cover open, and devoured the deep and enthralling story inside.  Because I'm so wordy, and felt so deeply connected to these issues, I have broken my review into parts and this one will deal with Book One.

It all begins with a Mary Shelley Quote.

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being.
That quote, paired with artwork that still stops me in my tracks, was the beginning of a comic that haunts me to this day, and remains number 2 in my list of greatest books I've ever read.

Let's get started.
In The Beginning, There Was Man

Marvels starts us off in the year 1939. Scientist Phineas Thomas Horton has done the impossible. He has created artificial life. Not only has he animated a machine, but he's also created a marvel of a man. One who, when air comes into contact with his form, becomes ablaze. It's from his creation's point of view that we get this part of the story. He tells of the people fearing his presence, and forcing Horton to make a choice.

Phineas seals his "Human Torch" in a concrete bunker, but gives him ways to learn while he's entombed. The creature, in his quiet repose, yearns for freedom, and to be able to join mankind. His mind's able to understand being feared, but he still craves the freedom of choice.


Luckily, he gets his chance.
Enter Phil Sheldon

Now, and for the remainder of the book, we switch to the narrator; the witness Phil Sheldon. Phil, who's a newspaper photographer, and his colleagues, are talking about the times. We get a nice moment of recognition with a young J. Jonah Jameson before he runs the bugle. Phil's one of the media there to capture Phineas Horton unveiling his synthetic man. Through Sheldon's eyes, we meet him. The Human Torch.

We understand through Sheldon's words, and the beautiful art, as not only does the Human Torch appear again, as he escapes the container, but we also meet another curiosity, Prince Namor of Atlantis, also called the Sub-Mariner The people around Phil deny these being's existence, but as more and more emerge, it's harder to close their eyes to. Phil's just trying to live his life as normal, but normal is changing as, every day, more Marvels appear.

A Brief Pause

I won't lie and say that while reading the book again, it didn't dawn on me how much it still resonates, and how the story's still entirely relevant to today. How change, and the effect and role that the media plays can shift views. This, like the books of its time and other media, like Watchmen, show us not only how important past events are, but also signal how the present or future can be.

Phil remarks several times throughout this story how the media dictates things, and also shows unique and equally relatable scenarios that still echo today. The part of this book that always haunted me was the voice. The Witness. Phil Sheldon showing us heroes in a way I'd never seen or dreamed of. Showing them from, not only an onlooker's point of view, but also from that of a media standpoint, of someone as part of the chaos, and sometimes even center stage.

Kurt Busiek genius writing gave Phil a very real and human voice. Watching these superhumans in their infancy, from the view of a normal man, realistically showed the struggles he would have for that time period. This gave me an insight that I never had before, and changed my entire outlook, as I read through Marvels.
Cap And Bucky

The story moves forward through the years and we find ourselves in 1941; the year that gave us Captain America, and his sidekick Bucky. Phil remarks on how Cap is the same as the other marvels, but no one seems to fear him. He postures that it is because the others were seen as "Outsiders" while Cap was "Our own personal American Champion."

All at once, and all around Phil, we see things change. A simple night out to the movies shows him two things. As the newsreel plays it shows The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner, not only working together, but opposing the Japanese and German Forces. He also learns that his relationship with Doris could affect far more than his pride.

Phil finds absolute clarity in his purpose one day, as something happens and the Sub-Mariner declares war... on the world. When Prince Namor comes to New York, and The Human Torch goes to challenge him, Phil rushes to capture it on film. As he watches the two titans battle above him, he realizes that this is not only where he wants to be, but where he NEEDS to be.

There are many moments like this throughout the book. Alex Ross' passion for bringing life into his art is jaw-droppingly stunning. Honestly, neither of these words actually do his work justice. The reality that he brings gives an entirely different feel to the books he works on, and it further draws you into the world that he and the writer are creating.

During the fight, Phil gets hit by what he later learns must have been a bit of rubble. It's this that changes his life and how he sees the world, quite literally.

That same day sees the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Life and focuses change, yet again. Unable to join the military due to the loss of an eye, Phil joins as a news correspondent, and watches as more and more of these marvels join the fray. This is where Book One ends and I believe it's a good place to pause for this review.

Awe-Struck

This series means so much to me, and I genuinely want this review to do it justice. I don't want to rush through, and then regret not taking the time to go through and enjoy the emotions this book still fires in me. 
Fantastic Universes gives me a platform to share my thoughts on everything, and I want to honor that.

So, until next time, this is me signing off. Drop me a line, and tell what your favorite part of Marvels is, or tell me what book had an impact on you. I wish you well, and look forward to our next encounter for Book Two.

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