WTF Comics Club Reads Marvels: Less ‘Ziggy Stardust’, More ‘Best of Bowie’

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The WTF Comics Club is a monthly reading group for Women, Trans, and Femme-identified fans in Minneapolis. In its second year, the club is taking a look at some of the major comic book “must reads” and asking: Must we really read this?

In the four-issue series Marvels, published in 1994 by—you guessed it—Marvel Comics, two of the great rock stars of comics creation, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, bring us a street-level view of moments that not only defined the Marvel Universe but still influence comics to this day. It looks really great on paper.

In scope, Marvels first appears daunting. Told from the perspective of a photographer named Phil, it offers a street-level narrative of every major event in Marvel continuity from the appearance of the first Human Torch in 1939 to the shocking death of Gwen Stacy, a period of almost 40 years. Alongside the mayhem and periodic destruction of Manhattan, Phil carries out his life in the shadow of heroes; he pursues his career, gets married, has kids, accidentally rescues a mutant child from an angry mob, and eventually publishes his fan fiction a coffee table book about superheroes in New York.

With so much focus on images of Phil’s “Marvels” and the contrast between their towering figures and the mortal figures on the sidewalks below, Ross’s art carries the vast majority of the story. His photo-realistic watercolors would be overwhelming in a traditional book, but here they give the deceptively small volume a sprawling, cinematic feel. Thankfully, there is enough balance that the full-color pages don’t overwhelm Busiek’s spare, earnest writing.

While it succeeds wildly in all other areas, there are two respects in which Marvels falls disappointingly flat: plot and protagonist. That isn’t much of a surprise, given that it effectively has neither. It’s unclear whether photographer Phil Sheldon is meant to represent the “everyman” of the Marvel universe, but his characterization as a white, middle-class career/family-man is generic enough to make him a non-presence in the story, which spends a significant amount of time focused on his 50s-sitcom-style life.

The “greatest hits” approach is part of what makes the book such a great read, but it also keeps the story from being truly incredible. Away from the context of their own stories, the events of Marvels loose some of the impact that made them such crucial moments in comics history. Theoretically, they should be given meaning and continuity through the narrative of Phil’s life, but they’re so far removed and Phil’s life is so boring that the plot is ultimately a near miss. What earns Marvels its spot on the must-read lists isn’t the story and characters; it’s the experience of reading the book. While the continuity between the great moments of the story may be weak, those moments themselves are spectacular. Between Ross’s stunning art and the quiet humanity that Busiek’s narration lends to the scenes, Marvels might be a greatest hits, but it’s the remastered greatest hits of your favorite band.

As a graphic novel, we agree that Marvels doesn’t quite cut it as a best-of-the-best title, but our group enjoyed it, nonetheless. It’s a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the Marvel U and for those looking for a different kind of superhero book. Good writing and gorgeous art put it firmly on our recommendation list for new and old Marvel fans alike, just not on the must read list for all of comic-dom.

Final Score Title:  Marvels
Creators:  Writer: Kurt Busiek; Art: Alex Ross
Publisher:  Marvel Comics, 1994
Popular Rating:  ✩✩✩✩
WTF Rating:  🐒🐒🐒
Must read?  Good read? Yes. Must read? No.

The books for WTF Reads were determined by cross-referencing recommendation lists from four online publications: Forbidden Planet, Empire, BuzzFeed, and Complex . Titles were then selected based on a number of criteria, including popularity, importance, accessibility, and thematic continuity. Popular Ratings are on a five-star scale, averaged from ratings across Comixology, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. WTF Ratings are on a five-monkey scale, averaged from ratings by club and community members. Only books that receive five monkeys will be preserved after the gender apocalypse.

Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.

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