Committed: The Dangerous Ideas of Grant Morrison’s “Marvel Boy”
This week I picked up the trade paperback of Marvel Boy, (originally published in 6 issues between 2000 – 2001) by Grant Morrison and Jeff G. Jones. The main character of Kree diplomat, Noh-Varr, lone survivor of an accidental shipwreck, is a charming, irreverent, unpredictable one. His love interest / sparring partner, Oubliette, daughter of our hero’s one true enemy (in true star-crossed lovers fashion) is a fantastic series of contradictions. The issues and ideas which are the playground of this book are deceptively entertaining, giving us plenty to digest and think about once the book is finished. It gives credence to the concept put forth within the book, that ideas have a life of their own, not as a metaphor, but as a concrete reality.
The story opens with the dramatic crash landing of a Kree diplomatic ship as it traverses millions of possible dimensions, stumbling upon Earth. Noh-Varr is the sole survivor of the crew, captured and experimented upon by Doctor Midas, a self-styled genius who wants access to gamma rays in an attempt to harness Fantastic Four-like powers for himself. Noh-Varr escapes, initially vowing revenge upon the Earth for the death of his crew mates and lover, but constraining himself to defacing Manhattan, swearing at us in letters visible from space (immediately establishing his as a mischievous, moralistic power).
Noh-Varr’s relationship with his gradually self-repairing ship, (hidden underground, called “Plex”), is a rather maternalistic one, as it reminds him that the people of Earth aren’t all guilty. When a “dangerous idea” escapes from the hold and threatens to destroy Earth, Plex implores Noh-Varr to save them. This concept of a sentient, “idea” is hinted at in the very first pages of the book, when the crew talk about belief powering their ship and Noh-Varr is at risk of being literally trapped by frozen data. These brief hints give backbone to the story three chapters later as Hexus, the Living Corporation, quickly grows to dominate Earth culture. In the midst of violent battle, Plex hacks the data banks and disseminates all of Hexus’ corporate database and disseminates it’s secrets with Earth’s natural corporations, (i.e. Hexus’ rivals). Through the mouthpiece of it’s employees, Hexus threatens “THE HUNTER OF THE LIVING CORPORATION CANNOT BE OPPOSED”, right before Noh-Varr delivers his cosmic bullet and ends Hexus once and for all.
In the aftershock of the cosmic bullet, Noh-Varr is weakened and once again finds himself at odds with Doctor Midas, who this time uses his daughter Oubliette in the hunt. Oubliette and Noh-Varr’s dialogue, though sparse, hints strongly at her conflicted feelings towards the Kree and as she finds herself defying her father and saving the alien, new lines of battle are drawn. Though Midas manages to engage S.H.I.E.L.D. in the pursuit and capture of Noh-Varr, he is vanquished in the process, leaving Noh-Varr and Oubliette uncowed, to threaten the Earth and hint at a future adventures.
While the wonderful romp of the book is an engaging and entertaining work, the central storyline is in chapter three. The living corporation seeks to brand and subsume every aspect of human life before abandoning the burnt out husk to move on to new worlds. Language which might be considered inflammatory or outrageous in another context is utterly acceptable in the space of a science fiction comic book, (a supposedly “disposable medium”), hidden amongst the surreal and strange. In this instance it speaks volumes about our current cultural concerns, examining issues which were only mildly troubling in the mainstream 13 years ago when this came out, but have now become overt hot-button topics in our culture. Corporate monopolies and the monoculture they create weren’t as inflammatory back then, but now we see the fruits of these issues in the Occupy movement and the corporate hegemony of our current culture.
Visually, particularly from chapter three onwards, Marvel Boy is a prime example of the kind of sequential experimentation which Morrison and his collaborators have become known for. A precursor to books like We3, by Morrison and Frank Quitely, and Seven Soldiers of Victory, particularly the portion by Morrison and J.H Williams. Like Quitely and Williams, J.G. Jones is a versatile, eloquent artist who responded beautifully to a writer moving away from the custom of creating comic books like storyboards for movies, and instead exploring the limits of visual storytelling. As well as a beautifully crafted example of sequential art, this is also a nicely packed, highly engaging novel. At only six issues, most comic books nowadays have a difficult time introducing their world and characters, let alone creating the depth of humor and rich descriptions that Morrison and Jones effortlessly communicate in this short book. This is a rich, well-encapsulated modern parable which I’m surprised it took me this long to discover, but really, the timing couldn’t be better.