If you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe and haven’t read MARVELS, the graphic novel by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, you really should. It’s an everyman’s history of the Marvel Universe from the Golden Age through the beginnings of the Silver Age, told from the point of view of news photographer Phil Sheldon. And it’s wonderful stuff, certainly one of the best, if not the best, graphic novels I’ve ever read. Of course, I may think that because it retells from that slightly different point of view many of the stories I remember reading in their original versions when I was a kid.
Now there’s a sequel, MARVELS: EYE OF THE CAMERA, written by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern, with art by Jay Anacleto. It picks up just about where the first one left off and carries the stories on through the Seventies and Eighties, when a lot of things changed in the Marvel Universe. The simple days of the Sixties, when Stan Lee wrote nearly everything and Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, and Don Heck drew nearly everything, were gone. A lot of different creative voices were at work then, and the stories got longer, more complicated, and considerably darker (although it’s hard to get much darker than some of those early Spider-Man stories by Stan and Steve). As a regular reader of almost everything Marvel published from 1964 on, I knew when things began to shift during the Seventies. Some of the stories didn’t seem to be as much fun, but I figured part of that was because I was older, and we know that nothing is ever quite as good as it is when you first discover it.
During the Eighties, though, things definitely changed, and it wasn’t just me. Part of it was economic: the rise of comics shops and the direct market changed the way publishers did business, and that leaked over into the creative end of it. Big, company-wide “event” stories, like Marvel’s SECRET WARS and DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, became popular. So did changing characters’ costumes, and sometimes the people wearing the costumes were even different than what we were used to. Everything seemed to be a state of flux. I’ll be honest – I didn’t like it very much. But I found enough to enjoy in comics that I kept reading.
It was all the stuff that happened in the Nineties that drove me screaming for the hills and caused me not to even pick up a comic book for eight or ten years . . . but that’s a different post.
To get back to MARVELS: EYE OF THE CAMERA, the real “eye” of Busiek and Stern’s story isn’t the camera at all, but rather the man holding the camera. (And if the fact that Phil Sheldon has only one eye isn’t a rather obvious bit of symbolism, I don’t know what is.) The story doesn’t just retell Marvel history from that era, although there’s plenty of it in there, and an appendix in the back of the book even details which issues all the events came from. The central focus of the book is Phil himself, his personal story and how it’s reflected in all the superhero chaos that seems to be going on all the time. There’s some sly humor here, as the writers consider what it would be like for average people to be witness to all these earth-shaking events over and over again. It’s a little like Norvell Page’s Spider stories. Just how often can New York be destroyed, anyway, before it’s back to normal the next issue? Quite a few, evidently, if we’re to believe the pulps and the comics.
Busiek and Stern wind all this up in a closing chapter that’s almost guaranteed to leave you a little misty-eyed, especially if you’re a writer. I haven’t said anything about the art. It’s pretty good. Not as good as Alex Ross’s in the original, but Jay Anacleto does a fine job at what must have been a huge task of capturing the look of scores of different characters. All in all I’d rank this one just below the original MARVELS, and it’s definitely worth reading. Highly recommended.