Marvels by author Kurt Busiek, Illustrations Alex Ross
This post is adapted from two previous posts. First is the spoiler free review, followed by the spoiler full review and summary.
Spoiler Free Review
Marvels is the beginning of the Marvel universe from the perspective of a New York reporter named Phil. It begins in 1940 as a scientist reveals his newest invention, the Human Torch.
From there the world quickly experiences a surplus of superpowered superbeings. Some, like Captain America, are instantly beloved. And some, like the poor X-Men, are immediately villainized.
Phil documents it all with his camera and experiences a whirlwind of experiences with beings far above his level of comprehension. The book makes strong commentary about what it means to be human who feels helpless in a world full of dangers both relatable and completely far fetched.
It was wise to follow this story from the perspective of an unknown player. Phil is relatable and doesn’t require previous Marvel knowledge. His humanity toward the conflicts in the book is powerful. The author manages to make huge intergalactic conflicts parallel issues that we’ve seen throughout history as well as today.
The art is absolutely stunning in its realism. It’s a style that is far more common for covers than whole books and makes this one feel extra special. It also places the book back in time but the context of the book could easily have been written today with how fresh and relatable it feels.
I strongly recommend this one for Marvel fans or casual readers. It is one of those comic books that transcends fandom to stand fully on its own.
Marvels Spoiler Review and Summary
Marvels is an alternative perspective on an alternative history of the origin of superheros in the Marvel universe. It starts in 1940 and follows a New York reporter named Phil.
A scientist reveals his newest discovery for the media, the Human Torch.
Needless to say, people are confused and frightened when the Human Torch escapes and, without control of his powers yet, runs amok through New York City. But this is just the beginning as Namor the Submariner also appears from the depths of Atlantis and starts causing a stir.
The Submariner and the Human Torch begin fighting in a water vs fire epic battle above the city causing both fear and destruction. The humans below are left to wonder if this is the beginning of the end. Phil responds by telling his girlfriend he can’t marry her since he can’t protect her in this scary new world.
Then new heroes begin to emerge and America is infatuated with Captain America, a true hero.
And what’s this? Namor and the Human Torch are now killing Nazis! The bandwagon hops on over to favor them again! Oh wait, now Namor is killing everybody, back on the Namor hate train.
Phil decides to no longer cower in fear and marries his girl and then heads off to war were he loses an eye. End book one.
The concept is one that all comic universes must face eventually. How should humans behave in a world full of ultra powerful gods and enemies? Marvels tackles this concept masterfully as it follows Phil throughout the rest of his life as just a normal man in a world where he could be considered obsolete.
As Phil comes back from war New York is chock full of heroes and gods. The Avengers have assembled and street level heroes are battling the thugs. However the X-Men have also come into play and is so common for the mutants, they are feared and despised.
As much as the humans hate the X-Men they LOVE the Fantastic Four and are gearing up for a big celebrity wedding between Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Phil is hired as the media photographer to cover the wedding but he is more interested in working on a photography book documenting all the Marvels, loved and feared.
As everyone is distracted with the news of the wedding Phil discovers a dark secret. His kids have been harboring a young mutant in their crawl space.
Phil quickly realizes that the mutants couldn’t be all bad and he cannot allow this young mutant girl to die but he also cannot risk his family’s safety if a mob of anti-muties discover they’ve been helping her.
As he grapples with what decision to make he is called to report on the latest news. Sentinals are being released to hunt down and eliminate the mutant threat. However, the Sentinals quickly gain their own agenda and go off on their own to patrol the city as riots break out. The Sentinals shine their lights down on the fighting to reveal that humans are just murdering each other out of fear for a threat that isn’t even real.
Phil returns home to find that his decision has been made. The young mutant girl ran away and we’ll never find out what happened to her. Chances for her survival though are not strong.
Phil faces the tough conversation of explaining the state of the world to his children. They now live in a society that kills mutants because they are different and therefore threatening to humans. His children had the heart to take one in but society no longer favors heart.
This second issue in the series really hit some emotional punches. It did a great job of showing how quickly a mob mentality can form and how quickly the innocence of children can be abolished. The art spectacularly highlights the lens this society uses as seen in the differences between the FF wedding and how the X-Men are depicted.
Issue three brings in the big guns. Phil is now working with Ben Urich, my absolute favorite Marvel reporter and honestly one of my favorite Marvel characters period. They’ve been tasked with selling newspapers as New York begins to once again fear everyone with powers since the Avengers are off fighting in an intergalactic war the average human can’t wrap their head around.
The humans feel abandoned and lash out against heroes like Spiderman who are still down on Earth. And then the Silver Surfer and Galactus arrive. They’re the biggest threat to New York yet and the people have to be saved by the real heroes. The Fantastic Four save the day! Galactus is sent back to space where he belongs! But wait… that was too simple…
An enemy the size of Galactus can’t be conquered that easily right? How did the FF do it? It must have been a hoax for publicity! The humans are now so distrustful of anyone unlike themselves that they spread the conspiracy theory that Galactus was created by Richards as a means to give them a ratings boost.
Since the humans cannot fathom the horror they just survived they once again shift focus to street level fear. The X-Men and Spidermen are the main targets of negative propaganda.
I found this story line absolutely fascinating. It seems so true to me that humans would rather believe a hero is acting nefariously than believe they were truly in danger. It is the philosophy at the center of all big conspiracy theories. It also makes this run that was written back in the 90s seem completely relevant today in a world full of Sandy Hook truthers and climate change deniers. This is the epitome of human behavior, complete and utter distrust.
The final issue focuses on Spiderman. He’s been accused by the media of killing Gwen Stacy’s father. In actuality the police only want him for questioning but the mob mentality in New York has latched on to him being a menace.
Spiderman and the Green Goblin are fighting at the top of a skyscraper while the streets below watch in horrified fascination. Phil watches through his camera.
Unfortunately, Stacy becomes the one casualty in this battle. Spiderman attempts to save her but to the crowd below it appears he’s the one who killed her.
The public has decided that Spiderman is not a hero. He’s a menace just like the X-Men and just like the rest of them. This is the last straw for Phil. He realizes that no matter what he does, no matter how much truth he sells, the public will have their own fear based opinions. He retires and decides to finally go home and spend time with the family he’s been neglecting.
He makes a grand gesture of passing his photographer torch along and asks that his assistant take a picture of him with the next generation of the public. A young paperboy named Danny Ketch.
I’ll be honest. I had to look up the name. I had a feeling Danny Ketch must be someone but I didn’t recognize it. Well, this young boy grows up to be Ghost Rider! So yeah, that’s a pretty deep cut reference to end on.
I loved this book. If you haven’t noticed already the art is spectacular. Each page is a work of brilliant painting, it’s hyper realistic and the color is phenomenal.
In addition to the amazing artwork the story is well thought out and well written. It actually adds up to mean something and makes its commentary without being too heavy handed. It’s also precise, 4 double length issues and one epilogue about the creation of the Human Torch. Exactly as long as it needs to be.
The book does make some references that will only resonate with well versed Marvel fans but I believe the book could easily be read by casual comic readers as well. I strongly recommend it, I read it in one sitting and would do it again.
5/5 Human Torch flames 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
For another must read Marvel book check out Ms Marvel.
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Buy it here: Marvels: The Remastered Edition (Marvels (1))
13 thoughts on “Marvels-Comic Book Review and Summary”
This was the series that brought me back to comics as an adult – it really opened my mind to the possibilities of the medium while still feeling like a comic book story, you know?
I think it’s aged really well due to both Alex Ross’s painted art and the fact that it’s a period piece. Great review!
I agree! Alex Ross is always so impressive but this one has the great story to go with it!
Yeah, the DC one came much later … 2011 or 2012 I think? Right after (or during) Final Crisis. It was pretty good and had the same theme of a regular guy–this time a cop–interacting with the superheroes over the years. Of course, the look is much different too, since Alex Ross didn’t do the art 🙂
That’s fair. With the art I kept thinking of Kingdom Come, the DC one he did do but I really disliked that one so it took me a minute to adjust to not being negative about Marvels right off the bat since it had so tainted my opinion.
Also DC seems to like cops for that role whereas Marvel favors journalists. I actually really like those characters a lot. Ben Urich for Marvel and Jim Gordon for DC are two faves for me
I really like this when I first read it; I love all the little references and character appearances (like J. Jonah Jameson as one of Phil’s fellow reporters). As for Gwen’s neck breaking, I think some reprints removed the SNAP sound effect, but I’m pretty sure it was there in Amazing Spider-Man 121, so I guess we’re supposed to believe it was the whiplash that killed her. DC did a similar story to this called DC Universe Legacies; it was pretty good too.
Oh I didn’t know that! That does make it more dramatic for sure. I might have to check that DC one out as well
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