Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Marvel Unbound - Marvels

The second installment of "Marvel Unbound" has been released with episode 35 of the Marvel Noise podcast today. Here on Random Thoughts Escaping is a written version of that. Feel free to join the conversation about this in the Marvel Noise forum "Marvel Unbound" thread.

I recently read the trade paperback of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels and was blown away. The saga collected here provides a window into how the super-powered inhabitants of the Marvel Universe came about. And, in a move that runs counter to comic book convention, the story takes its point of view from the inhabitants who are not super-powered, whose world is being turned upside-down by the arrival of these new "Marvels".

While I've heard of Ross, this is the first thing by him I've really given my full attention to. I read issue #0 of Project Superpowers and flipped through the Avengers/Invaders sketchbook freebie, neither of which did much for me (although I intend to read the latter in trade when it's collected). But Ross' painted style is gorgeous, and it works brilliantly with the Marvels story. His art transports the reader into the past and goes a long way in establishing the collection as a document of another time.

Spoiler-free as always, the storylines each take a fresh look through photographer Phil Sheldon's lens at well-known events of the Marvel Universe from the early 1940s through the early 1970s. The arrival of the Invaders and their influence on World War II, the appearance of mutants on the scene and the formation of popular teams like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, the first attack by world-devourer Galactus, and the death of Gwen Stacy are all used to frame larger-scale human issues and emotions.

By presenting the story from the Everyman's perspective, I think even readers with limited exposure to the Marvel Universe would enjoy the powerful narrative. That's not to say there aren't plenty of inside winks aimed at both old and new Marvel Comics fans, but they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story.

J. Jonah Jameson's introduction and cameos by folks like Willy Lumpkin and Danny Ketch are cleverly handled. And era-appropriate Easter eggs abound, like finding all four Beatles in attendance at the 1965 wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm. (I mean, wouldn't you expect the world's biggest band to move in the same circles as the superhero community's First Couple? Of course!) And one can easily see the seeds of Marvel's Civil War and the Superhuman Registration Act woven throughout.

The series was originally released in 1994, and a number of collection printings have been produced. There is a 10th Anniversary Hardcover Edition, and the trade paperback is readily available at the big box bookstores, and I've seen it on the shelves of all of the local comic shops in my area. It also appears Marvel will be releasing another hardcover edition under their "Marvel Premier Classic" banner this summer.

The extras in the trade paperback I read are pretty cool. Each issue is preceded by thoughtful commentary from Stan Lee, Busiek, Ross, or John Romita. Also included is an essay by Busiek's childhood friend and fellow comics enthusiast Scott McCloud and an in-depth look (relatively speaking) at Ross' approach to the art of the series.

The best extra for my money, though, is the "Sources" section, where all of the "real world" Marvel Universe events referenced in each of the books are notated. Like in Book Two of the series, "Monsters Among Us", where you see things like the Avengers' press conference introducing the Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Hawkeye lineup, and Daredevil battling Stiltman, both on page 25 and both appropriately sourced in the appendix as Avengers #16 and Daredevil #8.

The attention to detail, the uniqueness of the storytelling vehicle, the respect of the source material being reframed, and the appropriateness of the art all add up to a truly moving experience. In short, Marvels is epic in scope and rarely falls short of its ambition. And hard not to recommend.

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