Monday, June 10

Marvels: Eye of the Camera (Marvel 2010) – The Marvels Project (Marvel 2011)

Last week we were on vacation, enjoying a very nice vacation house that my wife and her siblings rented in Hancock, Maine. Anywhere I have to wear a jacket in June is fine by me! I didn't actually get as much reading done as I intended, although I did finish Sean Howe's Marvel Comics (see just previous blog entry, link). Knowing myself too well, that I tend to be a “binge reader” – that is, I'll obsess over something in particular for a while – I knew that reading the somewhat checkered history of Marvel Comics would send me off into one of my intermittent immersions into that company's properties, I had gone prepared, carrying along a couple of collections that I had purchased some time past. I make no secret of my preference for DC Comics, and to be honest I see little in current Marvel comics that I'm interested in reading (and their pricing structure, even in digital, provides further disincentive), but these two books were perfect for scratching that Marvel Comics itch.

Eye of the Camera is Kurt Busiek's, along with Roger Stern's, quasi-sequel to the near-twenty-years-old classic by Busiek and Alex Ross entitled simply Marvels, which mainly retold the 1960s “Silver Age” of Marvel Comics from the perspective of a photojournalist, Phil Sheldon. It was, of course, Alex Ross's big splash onto the comics scene, beautifully rendered in his practically trademarked fully painted, photorealistic style, but the approach to the story as written by Busiek was, I think, an underappreciated aspect of its success. Between the two of them, Busiek and Ross made the fantastic seem so very real. Well, Ross is not along for this later story, although according to Busiek's afterword he had input into the original idea and gave his blessing to it being developed, and surprisingly, I think that works. No question, I love Ross's work, and I think that it was perfect for the original Marvels, but this is a very different story and I think that Ross's clean, ultimately bright and shiny, often iconic images would be less appropriate for Eye of the Camera than is artist Jay Anacleto's and colorist Brian Haberlin's darker, grittier, more down-to-earth and moody style.

Because whereas Marvels used Phil Sheldon as the Everyman point-of-view character viewing the “marvels” – which has become a Marvel Universe euphemism for “super-heroes” – from street-level, Eye of the Camera focusses on Sheldon himself for a far more intensely personal story. I called it a “quasi-sequel” above because there is a good bit of overlap with the previous story, albeit from a different perspective, in the first of the six issues that comprise this collection, but subsequently the story occurs after the climax to that book and the publication of Sheldon's own in-universe best-selling Marvels, as Sheldon continues to try to make sense of the meaning of the marvels in a changing world. Where there are those who would take the death of Gwen Stacy, the event that shattered Sheldon's faith in the marvels at the end of Marvels, as the end of Marvel Comics' Silver Age, Eye of the Camera for the most part covers the subsequent “Bronze Age,” the early-mid 1970s to roughly the mid-late 1980s, which is more or less the period when I was reading a good portion of Marvel's output for myself. It was, in retrospect, the period when the Marvel Universe began darkening, and as Phil Sheldon himself observes in his inner'logue, a running meditation on the changing world, “it's like things have gone sour, like we can't tell the good guys from the bad anymore...” (quoted on the back of the dust jacket). Carrying on from the end of Marvels, Sheldon struggles to make sense of the meaning of the marvels – and of his own life even as it's ending, because the climax of that first issue has him learning he has advanced lung cancer.

Ultimately the return of a critical albeit minor character from the earlier story helps Sheldon to see both the worth of his own life and legacy and that of the marvels, even as he loses his valiant battle. I have read Marvels many times over the years, and the conclusion of Eye of the Camera literally had me tearing up as I read it, watching one who seems literally an old friend decline and ultimately die. It is a very human story, a fitting companion piece to the original, one which I know I will read again in the future and that I am proud to stand next to Marvels on my bookshelf.

The Marvels Project I've actually had sitting on my bookshelf unread for a couple of years. 'Way back in 2008, I believe, I took a leap of faith in a writer whom I've enjoyed since his days at DC writing various things in the Batman universe – most notably, in my opinion, Gotham Central, and purchased the big hardcover “Omnibus” edition of Ed Brubaker's Captain America, collecting the first 25 issues of Brubaker's outstanding run that started in 2005 and culminated with issue #25 (April 2007) where Captain America was assassinated to great media hoopla. The subsequent direction that series went, revealing that no, Cap wasn't killed, but was rather sent bouncing around “unstuck in time” was not to my liking and I eventually stopped reading Brubaker's run, but those first 25 issues (and, to be honest, the next dozen or so where Cap's old, long-believed-dead sidekick Bucky takes up the shield) are some of the best comics I've ever read. Then, when the movie Captain America: The First Avenger came out in 2011, I thought it might well send me off into a Captain America binge. As much as I loved that movie, however, it didn't, and Marvels Project lay unread until I carried it along with me to Maine. And looped around directly from Marvels: Eye of the Camera back to the beginning of the Marvel Age.

Originally published as eight issues, 2009-2010, The Marvels Project is a good solid read, as I would have expected from Brubaker, teamed here with artist Steve Epting from his great issues of Captain America. Perhaps it suffers a bit from my reading it immediately subsequent to Busiek's deeply moving Marvels: Eye of the Camera, but it is well worth reading on its own merits. If nothing else, it introduced me to some obscure heroes from the dawn of Marvel Comics – from ca. 1940 long before the company took that name – that I had only barely heard of, or maybe never heard of before at all. It's a straightforward narrative told from the perspective of the original “Avenging” Angel, about his own exploits as well as those other masked men of 1939-1941 (Phantom Bullet, Fiery Mask, et al.), that ultimately concentrates on the creation of the big guns Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Toro, capably rationalizing such things as why the Army – and Cap – would allow a kid to tag along as his sidekick, and the source of Namor the Sub-Mariner's initial enmity as well as how it is transformed into an alliance with the American marvels as the Invaders. It's all linked by a sinister plot of allied Germans, Japanese, and dissident Atlanteans against America that culminates on 7 December 1941. The story as a whole is framed by a time-travel device whereby the Two-Gun Kid is somehow fated to travel from the future back to 1938 where he will inspire the Angel to don his mask as the first of the mystery men. There's really no metatext that I can perceive, just a good, solid story that plays on both the fame of Marvels and Brubaker's great run on Captain America.

From my own personal perspective, however, reading this now could not have come at a better time. I've mentioned before that I am slowly reading through and compiling historical annotations and notes to Roy Thomas's 1980s DC Comics series, All-Star Squadron, which turned back to the Golden Age of DC Comics (back when those heroes resided on “Earth 2” before 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths) and told new stories interweaving with both the original tales published in the 1940s and the historical events of World War II. (I intend to start posting some of those annotations soon, I promise!) Well, before Thomas did that with the DC stable of 1940s characters in the 1980s, he had done more or less the same thing with the proto-Marvel or “Timely” characters in a mid-late 1970s series called The Invaders – Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Toro, and the Sub-Mariner. To get a bit of perspective on Thomas's writing of this type of “retroactive historical comics narrative,” I had been hankering to scrounge up that previous series, and between my trip to Comicpalooza a couple of weeks ago and some purchases on-line, I have just acquired Marvel's four-volume paperback collection of The Invaders. I think The Marvels Project may well make the perfect launching point to read that series.

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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