Author: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Type: Fiction, comic
I read it: February 2015
I still dream of Marvel cards. That I’m opening a brand new pack or hunting down a rare set at a convention at the mall. Upon awakening, I’m disappointed that I don’t actually have a mint Nightcrawler card in my possession.
Alongside the X-Men animated series, the trading cards made up the bulk of my Marvel education. For whatever reason, my brother and I didn’t read many actual comics. But collecting the cards allowed us to get a glimpse, piece-by-piece, of the structure and stories of the somewhat dense and confusing Marvel universe.
Now when it comes to said trading cards, there were cards and then there were cards. In the former category you got the characters in bold primary colors, all forced flash and little personality. On the other end (and for several dollars more) were the sets in which each hero and villain was rendered with artistry and care, colored in delicate pastels or lit to reveal a complex expression. In the best scenario, these cards had a comment by the artist on the reverse side, where they explained their inspiration or vision or technique.
Marvels is an entire book of this artistic caliber. The pages are paintings you could hang on your wall, such as the cover of issue two that shows Angel lifting a helpless young mutant above the clutches of a bloodthirsty mob. It’s magnificent.
The story is equally renowned. It’s from the perspective of Phil Sheldon, a New York photojournalist who is at the center of the action when superpowered beings first spring onto the scene in 1930s America. The issues span across the following few decades and explore the changing attitudes that regular humans have about the “marvels” who often leave destruction and confusion in their wake. There is a huge cast of cameos, and the back of the book lists the reference points to how the plot points of the book link up to where they previously occurred in the Marvel universe (gotta try to keep that tangled continuity intact).
But man, that artwork by Alex Ross. You can see the folds in the fabric on Spider-Man and Captain America. You can tell they are wearing suits! A simple detail that adds heaps of realism. More extras include artist commentary and photos of his craft, as well as concept art that includes homage covers that update the early appearances of Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spidey, and the Avengers. The X-Men cover is another revelation that I could frame.
This is the type of superhero book that a wide audience can enjoy, without needing much comic experience. It’s self-contained and exciting, and asks great questions. It’s worth noting that I heard about it while listening to the podcast Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I definitely recommend, and I’m eager to seek out other starter books they have mentioned.