Marvels #1. Art by Alex Ross.
Marvels is a four-issue comic book limited series written by Kurt Busiek, painted by Alex Ross and edited by Marcus McLaurin, and published by Marvel Comics in 1994. The series examines the Marvel Universe, the collective setting of most of Marvel’s superhero series, from the perspective of an Everyman, news photographer Phil Sheldon. The street-level series portrayed ordinary life in a world full of costumed supermen, with each issue featuring events well-known to readers of Marvel comics as well as a variety of minute details and retelling the most infamous events in the Marvel Universe.
Marvels was a success, winning multiple awards and launching the significant careers of Busiek and Ross, who would both return to the “everyday life in a superhero universe” theme in the Homage ComicsAstro City. In 1995, Marvels was compiled into a trade paperback that featured a Marvels #0 told from the perspective of the 1940s original Human Torch, describing his creation by scientist Phineas Thomas Horton. Marvel later published similar limited series under the “Marvels” header, with other writers and painters, though none of these titles were as successful as the original. series
In 1995, Marvel released a dark parody of sorts. Ruins by writer Warren Ellis and painters Cliff and Terese Nielsen, was a two-issue parallel world series in which Sheldon explored a Marvel Universe that had gone terribly wrong.
Published separately from the original series, this mini-issue specifically focuses on the creation of the first Human Torch. From his point of view we learn what it is like to feel hated, feared, and being imprisionend underground.
The issue begins with a quote from Frankenstein, linking the concept of the superhero to early literary traditions.
In Marvels #1, taking place in the early 1940s, Sheldon witnesses the arrival of the first superheroes, the Original Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America and their involvement in the Allied forces during World War II. It opens with Sheldon describing his photography career ambitions to J. Jonah Jameson and then running off to witness the public unveiling of the Human Torch (Marvel Comics #1). He reacts, along with the other spectators, in shock and eventual horror when the scientist Phineas Thomas Horton reveals the Human Torch’s inhuman ability to generate fire.
The reporters urge Horton to destroy his creation, which is eventually buried underground for safe keeping. But the spectacle weighs upon the young Sheldon who is worried for the sake of his love and fiancée, Doris Jacquet. After the appearance of the Sub-Mariner (Marvel Mystery Comics #4), and his early battles with the Human Torch, Sheldon decides it would be irresponsible of him to raise children in a world where these Marvels run rampant. He breaks his engagement with Doris but continues to run into her around New York City.
When Captain America is unveiled to the world (Captain America #1), Sheldon begins to become less pensive about the Marvels. World War II then becomes the focus of Sheldon’s world and he dreams of being a war photographer. When the Human Torch and Namor join the Allied forces against the Nazis, Sheldon’s fears are eased enough to listen to his heart and rekindle his romance with Doris. The climax of issue #1 occurs during an enormous battle between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner (originally chronicled in Human Torch #5, published in 1941).
Namor had decided to declare war on the human race and was moderately successful until the Human Torch intervened. The Torch and Namor proceeded to beat each other all over famous New York landmarks until Namor uses super-turbines attached to whales to generate a huge wave that washes over the entire city. Sheldon manages to climb to the top a skyscraper and photograph the wave pushing its way over the Brooklyn Bridge and much of New York.
As the Torch and Namor’s battle approaches Sheldon, he is knocked out by a small chunk of masonry and permanently loses the ability to see out of his left eye. At the end of the issue, Sheldon is recuperating in the hospital and decides that he is so awe-inspired by the Marvels that he loses all his fears about their existence. He marries Doris and is sent to Europe as a war correspondent.
Sheldon’s first boss is referred to as Goodman; a clear reference to Martin Goodman, founder of Marvel Comics. Incidentally the Daily Bugle of Amazing Spider-Man fame was originally named in the Goodman Building before J. Jonah Jameson purchased it.
Upon listening to Phineas Thomas Horton’s lecture, Sheldon describes Horton’s theories as something out of a dime-novel. Bradford W. Wright states in his text Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture, that dime-novels were the predecessor to Pulp Magazines which would help spawn comic books.
In this issue, Sheldon often works with a cynical spiky-haired young reporter who is highly critical of the superheroes. He is not named but his boast of one day owning the Daily Bugle is a strong hint. In the next installments of the series J. Jonah Jameson, owner of the Daily Bugle, does appear and is named.
In Marvels #2, taking place in the mid 1960s, Sheldon, now a husband and father, grows worried about the arrival of mutants such as the X-Men, human beings born with superpowers. At this time New York city has become populated with all sorts of superhero teams, including the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. Sheldon’s work for The Daily Bugle takes him to many key battles, including the Avengers battling the Masters of Evil (Avengers #6). With his pictures of the superheroes, Sheldon plans to write a book about the Marvels.
Early on, Sheldon becomes swept up in anti-mutant hysteria that plagues New York. He has a run in with the first incarnation of the X-Men in which he throws a brick at Iceman and calls names after the mutants alongside a crowd of racist New Yorkers. This issue also shows for the first time the celebrity attached to being a superhero in New York. Sheldon attends a gala opening of Alicia Masters‘ sculptures which is also attended by Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), the Thing, Tony Stark, Matt Murdock, Doctor Strange, Donald Blake, Professor Xavier, Scott Summers and Jean Grey.
The first few of that list are swamped by reporters looking to write a gossip column, in particular Reed Richards and Sue Storm, who have recently become engaged to be married. The brightness of this coming event is contrasted with what Sheldon feels is the dark side of the Marvels, the mutants. Things continue on as normal until Sheldon returns one day to his suburban home and finds his neighbors forming a mob to hunt down a mutant they suspected was in the area. Sheldon runs to his house and finds that his two daughters had been hiding a small mutant girl with a head like an alien skull.
He quickly realizes the importance of this girl, imagining his friends and neighbors tearing his house and his family apart to get at the girl and decides to help hide her. But Sheldon continues to worry for the sake of his family as anti-mutant tensions mount in New York.
The wedding of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl begins the climax of this issue and is a huge event, attended by hundreds of celebrities, including the Beatles. Unfortunately that night, while the town is celebrating, Dr. Bolivar Trask unveils his solution to the mutant problem during a televised debate with Professor Xavier; giant robots known as Sentinels that are programmed to hunt down and kill mutants. When the Sentinels turn on their master and begin a rampage on the town, the city explodes in violence. Raging mobs roam the streets searching out mutants to kill and wreaking havoc on the city.
While the night erupts in violence, Sheldon takes out his camera to record this event and let people see what their hatred brings them. When the Sentinels pass over the violent mobs, the scanning lights serves to make people aware of their actions and they dissipate. Sheldon returns home and finds that the young mutant girl has left on her own again. His daughter, Jenny, approaches him late in the night for comfort as to the safety of the young girl. He hugs Jenny and says he doesn’t know if she’s alright but that he hopes she will be.
In Marvels #3, taking place in the late 1960s, Sheldon is preoccupied with his work to the detriment of time spent with his family; the public have gradually turned against their heroes (despite the near worship of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers mere months back) owing to the influence of the head-hunting Senator Byrd and other influences. Suspicion and paranoia towards the Marvels are rife, and as Sheldon and fellow reporter Ben Urich investigate millionaire industrialist Tony Stark‘s suspicious connections to the Avengers – and in particular, his bodyguard Iron Man, he finds himself growing jaded with the negative coverage and ingratitude the Marvels are facing. In the meantime, he is beginning to focus on his work to the exclusion of his family.
Ominous portents are occurring, however; the city is briefly flooded, and doomsayers are warning of the coming Judgement Day. Finally, one day, the sky turns to fire, and then to rock; and surfing through the sky can be seen a mysterious silver being on a surfboard, and although the Fantastic Four fight him, he is but the herald for another, more terrible being – a giant alien introducing himself as Galactus, who bases himself atop the Baxter Building in New York City and declares that he will consume the entire world of all elemental life.
The city flies into panic; despite their best efforts, the Fantastic Four do not seem able to stop Galactus as he prepares to devour Earth, despite the changing allegiance of the Silver Surfer. Ever a newsman, Sheldon covers the story, but as it looks increasingly unlikely that the world will see another day, he realizes the futility of it and decides to return to his home to spend his last moments with his loved ones. As he journeys home to the suburbs, he encounters the chaos and simple, uncomprehending terror faced by his fellow citizens (his journey juxtaposed with the battle against Galactus) as they attempt to brace themselves for the end of the world. Finally, Sheldon manages to make it home to the arms of Doris and his children – at which point, the Four finally manage to defeat Galactus, saving the Earth. Having realised what is important in his life, Sheldon vows to make more time for his family in future… but is nevertheless disgusted with the ungrateful, even embarrassed way in which his fellow citizens turn on their heroes once more.
In Marvels #4, taking place in the early 1970s, Sheldon – having written a best-selling book of his superhero photos, entitled Marvels – remains disgruntled at the general reaction to the Marvels, who continue to be belittled, scapegoated and insulted, despite continually risking their lives for the good of the world. He is particularly disgusted at the cynical exploitation and mudslinging represented by J. Jonah Jameson and his photographer Peter Parker, a young man making a living off selling ‘unflattering’ photos of Spider-Man, who has been blamed for the death of NYPD Captain George Stacy. Despite advancing age forcing him to hire an assistant, Marcie, Phil decides to conduct his biggest story yet – he will investigate and clear Spider-Man of murder.
As Sheldon investigates in between assignments (such as the introduction of Luke Cage, the ‘Hero for Hire’), he discovers that the event has been misrepresented – the police don’t, in fact, suspect Spider-Man at all, believing the death to have been caused by Dr. Otto Octavius, a.k.a Doctor Octopus. The truth has been obscured by malicious media coverage on behalf of J. Jonah Jameson, the unreliable memories of witnesses, and Spider-Man’s own reluctance to submit to police questioning. As Sheldon investigates deeper, he uncovers some of the motives for humanity’s apparent disregard for its heroes, courtesy of Jameson – a mixture of jealousy and insecurity, knowledge that everyday, average humans cannot compete with the selfless heroism and nobility displayed by the Marvels.
Sheldon, whilst investigating, also befriends the late captain’s orphaned daughter, Gwen Stacy, who also has absolved Spider-Man of any blame for her father’s death. Gwen’s simple faith in the marvels, demonstrated during a brief Atlantean invasion of Manhattan led by Namor, convinces Sheldon of the purpose of the Marvels – beyond petty human jealousies and spite, they genuinely exist to protect the innocent, like Gwen. He resolves, as well as clearing Spider-Man, to write a book praising the heroes, and what they should mean to humanity.
Unfortunately, not long after, Gwen is kidnapped by the Green Goblin, the arch-enemy of Spider-Man, and held hostage to ensure that Spider-Man will challenge him. Sheldon, frantically following the resulting chase in a taxi, arrives at the Brooklyn Bridge in time to see Spider-Man fight the Goblin atop one of the towers – and to see Gwen accidentally knocked off the bridge and killed, despite (or possibly because of) Spider-Man’s desperate attempts to save her. Although Spider-Man is cleared of Gwen’s death, Sheldon’s faith in the Marvels has been irreparably shattered, as Sheldon cannot reconcile Spider-Man’s failure to save Gwen with what he sees as the purpose of the heroes. Consequently, Sheldon decides that he’s done enough, and decides to retire – but not before passing on the mantle to Marcie, who will carry on his work in his place (and starts by taking a photo of Phil, his wife, and a “nice, normal boy”, named Danny Ketch).
In the German edition of Marvels, Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek reveal that the whole concept was originally intended only as a collection of classic Marvel Comics stories, seen from the point of view of ordinary people. But as the project grew, the two creators felt that underneath most stories, there was too much social relevance to be passed on. They stated following things:
Marvels #1, which features the Namor and the Human Torch I, deals with scientific progress.
Marvels #2, showcasing the X-Men, deals with fear of the unknown.
Marvels #3, featuring Galactus, handles powerlessness.
It is not explicitly said what Marvels #4 deals with.
In the German edition of Marvels, Alex Ross states that his version of Namor was inspired by Freddie Mercury and Buster Crabbe.
Ross also did the artwork for the DC Comics mini-series Kingdom Come. Phil Sheldon makes a cameo at the superhero press conference held at the UN building in Kingdom Come #2. He also makes an appearance in the last page of the epilogue in the Kingdom Come trade paperback. He is seated next to the Spectre in his civilian guise of Jim Corrigan and Norman McCay.
Phil Sheldon is mentioned in Peter’s first scene in the Daily Bugle in the eponymous graphic novel. J. Jonah Jameson requests Sheldon cover the photo op of Harry Osborne in the hospital. He is reminded that that “Phil is covering the Tony Stark trial”.