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CSBG Archive

Gimmick or Good? – Marvels #1-4

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1994’s acetate plastic covered Marvels #1-4…

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Marvels #1-4 (published January 1994-April 1994) script by Kurt Busiek, art by Alex Ross

This mid-90s Eisner-award winning mini-series re-imagines some of the greatest Golden and Silver Age stories in Marvel comics history like the birth of the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner in pre-World War II America, and the death of Gwen Stacy in 1972, through the lens of fictional photographer Phil Sheldon. The series is also famous for introducing artist Alex Ross and his painted covers and interiors to the mainstream comics consuming public. Still, rather than just letting the classic stories and wholly unique artwork speak for themselves, Marvel packaged each of the comics like commemorative books of artwork – complete with “protective” acetate plastic covers (which actually scratch more easily than standard covers) and a hefty (for the time) price tag of $4.95/$5.95 an issue.

But what about inside the comic?

Despite the gimmickry of the series’ packaging, Marvels was critically acclaimed upon its release and remains a classic and joy to read nearly 20 years later. It’s a prime example that not every comic book that received the hard sell “instant collectible” moniker during the comic book speculation boom of the 1990s was an illiterate waste of paper of acetate.

By telling these stories from the perspectives of average citizens, Busiek successfully recycles what was already celebrated content and provides better context as to how the superpowered heroes that first debuted when America was on the cusp of the “second great war” tied-in to the collective consciousness of a country undergoing seismic social change. This is especially true during the second, third and fourth issues of Marvels when the story focuses primarily on the rise of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four’s confrontation with the planet-consuming Galactus, and the death of the “innocent” Gwen Stacy.

It’s long been believed that Stan Lee’s original premise for the Uncanny X-Men was a superpowered look at racial tensions during the civil rights-era. Some have gone as far as to analyze that Professor X’s peaceful approach to human-mutant relations was reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr., while Magneto’s “home superior” aggression reflected Malcom X. In Marvels #2, Sheldon, who after initially being afraid by the rise of the “Marvels” as he dubs the cast of heroes and villains, has come to embrace them, still finds himself participating in what resembles a lynch mob when it comes to the mutants. After throwing a rock at Iceman, he is stunned by the dismissive attitude of Cyclops, who tells his partner not to retaliate because the humans are “not worth it.” Then when Sheldon finds his young daughters hiding a mutant child in the house, the protagonist looks into the little girl’s eyes and sees parallels between her fear and exhaustion and what the liberators found in the survivors at Auschwitz during World War II. The experience makes Sheldon recognize his prejudice. Eventually, most people see Sheldon’s perspective when the Sentinels are introduced and start hunting and killing mutants without conscious.

The historic parallels continue to hold serve in Marvels #3 during the re-telling of the Galactus story. Galactus’ straightforward declaration to end all existence on Earth mirrors the looming threat of terror and nuclear holocaust during the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Sheldon and his contemporaries are completely resigned to their inevitable mass demise.

In what may be one of the most brilliant use of visuals and (lack of) text in the entire series, Busiek and Ross intersperse Sheldon’s perspective with wordless splash pages of the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Not only are the visuals stunning, but the lack of text really hammers home just how ultimately powerless the human race is against this threat. Just as was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the game to stave off the apocalypse was negotiated at a much higher level than Phil and his contemporaries.

ggmarvelspanel4The series ends appropriately enough with Sheldon’s view on the “Death of Gwen Stacy,” which is popularly known as the official “end” of the Silver Age of comics in favor of darker, grittier stories. Busiek really plays up how Gwen’s death marks the end of innocence in the comic book universe and in the world of Sheldon’s Marvels. Sheldon initially meets with Gwen in an attempt to write a story that will clear Spider-Man’s name in the death of her father police Captain George Stacy. During their first encounter, Sheldon and Gwen are walking the New York City streets when Namor stages a non-violent protest. While everyone else is initially startled, Gwen looks up at Namor’s accompanying raindrops and in an almost angelic pose, absorbs the simple beauty of the moment. Gwen’s good nature makes her inevitable death at the hands of the Green Goblin (and the way it is ignored by the press in favor of the more “powerful” Norman Osborn’s death) all the more heartbreaking for Sheldon, who then retires from the game of documenting Marvels.

Beyond the intelligence of the story, Ross’ artwork includes some of the greatest visuals the comic book medium has ever featured. There are countless iconic panels beyond just the four covers (a low-angle Giant Man stepping across the city, Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s wedding kiss – complete with John Lennon and Dick Van Dyke in attendance), and the painted style just makes every visual come across as painstaking and meticulous.

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While Ross would go on to recreate this style for countless other miniseries and variant covers, his work on Marvels remains my favorite.

My “gimmick or good” conclusion shouldn’t really be in doubt considering Marvels did win a couple of Eisner awards, but I always do like to point out to people who claim that today’s variant cover/special edition issue trends don’t match-up with the 1990s because today’s comics are “better,” that Marvels does exist and was released during the same period where publishers were placing holograms and polybags on anything they thought could generate buzz. And interestingly enough, despite its legacy and marketing, the series never became much of a collectible since you can find most copies of Marvels selling for LESS than what a person paid at their local comic book shop in 1994. However, anyone who’s turned off enough by the acetate covers and “book” packaging to not read this series is seriously missing out on one of the greatest series of the era.

Verdict: Good

28 Comments

Just love how everyone else is smiling (virtually), except the Thing who is wiping away the tears.

It’s always strange to me that people of any era insist that their comics are better than they used to be. I know it was the 90s but that doesn’t mean that every comic sucked then. It also doesn’t mean that every comic today is better. Hurray for perspective.

One of the definitive books of my lifetime, hands down.

Everything about this book was iconic. It’s amazing that it was a book based on different stories in Marvel’s past, done as period pieces, yet is still fresh right as you read it today…

I’ve never heard of this series as being a gimmick. If anything it was a groundbreaking series – Before this I had never seen a fully-painted comic before (Although they must have existed). It was also interesting to see the Marvel Universe from the perspective of a human character who is on the peripheral of the action. Marvel is known for their in-your-face dynamics where the viewer is put right into the action, so it’s interesting to be removed from that.

Rollo Tomassi

March 5, 2013 at 5:35 pm

This is also like the one TPB that Ron Perelman doesn’t discontinue after its been on the market for 72 hours.

Richard Reed, huh? I always thought it was Reed Richards.

I remember when Bryan Hitch homaged/parodied that shot in the Ultimates, with their Hank Pym looking down on the people and flirting with women. The next panel, his wife jokingly comments that he looks like a gigantic serial killer in that leather uniform. It turns out to be not entirely far from the truth.

Thought that was a nice point of reference to show how different the Ultimates were from the Avengers, since that shot has Hank charging off to fight evil, as opposed to mugging for the cameras.

This book a gimmick? No. However, it did kick off a series of painted books with acetate covers which didn’t read nearly as well as Busiek or look nearly as nice as Ross. Who remembers “The Wonder Years”? Or “Conspiracy”? Or that sort-of sequel to Marvels about the cop who goes through the 80s and early 90s?

And then there’s Ruins–the series that I really wanted to like, but which had a horribly flat ending.

Nice analysis! Just a couple of typos:
-The Death of Gwen Stacy was published in 1972.
-You typed “Richard Reed” instead of Reed Richards.

Definitely good I love Marvels. Its such a good book but If Marvel published this now it would get ripped.Ppl would say “oh man another retelling of the marvel universe,look at this artwork its terrible,nobody has a superhero physique” We cant have good comics nowadays.Good books come out weekly and fanboys cant wait to start ripping it.Its so frustrating! Like i said sorry for jumping off track. Marvels:good :)

” This book a gimmick? No. However, it did kick off a series of painted books with acetate covers which didn’t read nearly as well as Busiek or look nearly as nice as Ross. Who remembers “The Wonder Years”? Or “Conspiracy”? Or that sort-of sequel to Marvels about the cop who goes through the 80s and early 90s? ”

CSBG really needs to do a feature on painted comics. It includes a wide spectrum of great and terrible, from Dave McKean to Greg Horn.

Pretty sure that all four Beatles were there – Paul’s just behind Doctor Strange (his face is obscured by Strange’s collar), Ringo is back near the door, beside Nick Fury, and George is over near the back left corner. Marvels was very definitely NOT gimmick, it could have been, could have been very easily, but it worked really well showing the “mere mortal” side of the Silver Age.

“marvels” almost put me to sleep.

that reporter is the most boring, uninteresting character ive read in ages.
also cant stand alex ross and his stiff paintings.

i still have issue number 4, i so much love the story and the artwork.

Still a few typos, I think you meant “conscience” in one of them.

Good article!

“Pretty sure that all four Beatles were there – Paul’s just behind Doctor Strange (his face is obscured by Strange’s collar)”

I wonder if that was a nod at the album covers, and the rumor of Paul’s death… :-)

I like this feature – I’d like even more insight into the gimmicks, too. In the Sean Howe book, he covers how much effort some of the gimmicks took, and how all different covers for Mcfarlane’s Spider-man 1 allowed them to experiment and learn different approaches – he never goes into Hologram insets, though!

What I esp like about Marvels is how rough Ross’ painting looks compared to the super-slick sheen he’s developed since then – it’s charming and makes it all much more readable.

Now let’s talk glow-in-the-dark!

The acetate covers are a horrid gimmick, but the books themselves overall are quite good. The “everyman” POV wasn’t unique, but it was unusual and the scope of Marvel history the story covered was new and fresh at the time. There wasn’t a lot of this kind of painted art in mainstream comics, which added to the fresh vibe to it. And Alex Ross’ work was beautiful. There wasn’t a ton of Ross’ work on the market either, and the way the story was structured and designed (looking through the photographer’s lens) played well to Ross’ strengths as an artist (iconic images, big visuals, heroic shots) and away from his weaknesses (fluid action, dynamic movement).

It’s really good stuff and very enjoyable today.

Oh, great, a whole series of posts where someone takes their arbitrary personal tastes and tries to pass them off as an objective standard for “good” and “bad” comics in the 90s.

Oh, great, another comment where someone takes their arbitrary personal tastes and tries to pass them off as an objective standard for “good” or “bad” articles on CBR.

It was a good article that was hardly arbitrary. Each opinion was carefully substantiated with examples from the comics themselves. That is what makes the article as objective as an opinion piece needs to be. Your comment, on the other hand, WAS entirely arbitrary and lacking all objectivity. Pot, meet kettle.

Marvels came out right around my comic-fandom kicking in, and so for years afterward, I would grab those painted comics, thinking they’d be as good. I’m pretty sure ‘Conspiracy’ broke me of that, even though, on paper, it sounded like a far more interesting series than ‘Marvels’ (which at first I thought was just retreading stories we’d already seen before, which seemed like something Marvel tried every way they could before getting right).

I always mentally bookend this series with DC’s Kingdom Come (also by Ross with Mark Waid writing), in that Marvels looked lovingly at the past while KC looked apprehensively at a very dark future.

@ mrclam

Let me break down the next few weeks worth of posts for you:

Youngblood #1 – BAD!!!!
Kingdom Come #1-4 – GOOD!!!!
X-force #1 – BAD!!!!!
JLA #1-4 – GOOD!!!!!

Whether or not I agree with the actual opinions, it’s still just jerking off about shit the author likes or why something he hates sucks using a lot of straw-man arguments and trying to make it look objective. You can try and gussy it up as much as you can, but this is still jerking off.

Seriously, if he does another post about something from the 90s that’s seen as shitty (like a Liefeld book) and how that book is bad, followed by a post about why Kingdom Come is awesome, it’ll be super-meta jerking off, because he’ll be complaining about shitty 90s trends while jerking off about a book that also bitches about shitty 90s trends while jerking off to what the creators of the book see as good stuff (stuff I’d assume the author of this article will beat off to in future articles).

Anonymous (if that is your real name), why do you care at all? Don’t read the article.
I’ve enjoyed the first two articles, enjoyed the perspective they were written with.
Anon seems to enjoy not being joyful at all….

David Gallaher

March 22, 2013 at 2:50 am

Neat idea for a column. I think the only thing I’d like to see is coming into some of these gimmick-covered books cold — and for the first time ever. It adds a wildcard element to the column.

Still, I’ve read all of the columns — and I had forgotten about how good Silver SUrfer #50 actually was. Nice stuff — keep it up

I thought the story was dull but the art was amazing. That alone got me to buy the book.

[…] actually discussed Marvels as a whole in a Gimmick or Good? column last year. I remember walking into my local comic book shop as a teenager and seeing this series with painted […]

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