Review: Marvels

by GregFahlgren

Taking a look back at the classic by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, and the wonders that it held.

Welcome True Believers! Today’s review is going to a retro adventure as I take taking at look at the all time classic series, Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. Published in 1993, Marvels is widely considered one of the greatest limited comic book series of it’s time, and that appreciation has only grown since then. I picked this book up on a whim, seeing it on sale at my local comic book shop, (the 10th Anniversary Edition no less), and being a big fan of Alex Ross, I immediately picked it up, not really knowing what I’d find.

Once I opened the book up, what I found was an outstanding achievement of graphic literature. The story, the art, the whole presentation was amazing, and I was dumbfounded that I hadn’t sought it out before. This book blew me away in more ways than one, and I am going to do my best to tell you all how and why it may well be one of the best comic books of all time.


Before I get to the review proper, I’m sure there are a few people who are wondering why I am reviewing a book that is over twenty years old. Well for one I just read it, and it’s fresh in my mind. Secondly, I really, really enjoyed it and want to give it the praise it deserves. Thirdly, I feel that it is an important book and something that people should check out whether they are familiar with Marvel or not.

To expand on my last point, Marvels was unlike anything I had ever read. The entire story was from the point of view of the people on the ground in the Marvel Universe, a unique viewpoint in a world that often forgets about those people. It showed not only how the superheroes, or ‘Marvels’ as the main character calls them, came to be, but the effect they have on society, both good and bad. How many books in the superhero genre use that direction? Other than Marvels, I can’t think of any off hand, making Marvels one of the most important comic books of all time.

So with that in mind, let’s get started.


First off, let’s meet the creative team.

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Artist: Alex Ross

Letterer: Richard Starkings

Logo Design: Joe Kaufman

Editor: Marcus McLaurin


Now, a large part of me when discussing the art of Marvels wants to say, “Its Alex Ross, do I really need to explain more?” Anyone who is familiar with Alex’s work knows just how incredible he is, and if you aren’t familiar with him, I’ll say straight up that he is one of the greatest artists in comic book history. That being said, this is a review, and I want to do Alex some justice here, especially given that Marvels may be some of his best work.

First off, Alex is a painter, and thus has a completely different style than most comic book artists. His work is quite realistic as compared to most comic book fare, making everything he does special because his work is such a stark departure from what comic book fans are used to. In Marvels, Alex really outdid himself, which is saying something when you are as familiar with his work as I am.

First off, The massive splash pages and action shots of Marvels are truly breathtaking, the battle with Galactus and the second fight between Namor and the Torch setting an incredibly high standard for the book. Every page feels like you’re right there in the middle of the action, getting an up close and personal look at some of the biggest events in Marvel history. There were times where I was so blown away by what I was seeing that I would forget to turn the page, wanting to soak in every last drop of awesomeness I could.

On the flip side of that coin were the personal scenes. The raw emotion that Alex brought to the characters was incredible, making me feel everything as if I was right there beside them. Those quiet scenes, like seeing Ben Grimm for the first time, Phil finding the mutant child in his basement, the conversations with Gwen Stacy, those are the scenes that truly stole my heart. Through those moments, I felt closer to the Marvel Universe than ever, and feeling for those characters as if they were my friends and family.

Bottom line, Marvels is some of the best work of Alex Ross’s career, every single page a monumental achievement. Getting the 10th Anniversary Edition also afforded me some wonderful extra pages in the back of the book, including recreations of the first covers of Marvel’s flagship books and characters, something that was well worth the extra cost.

PS, quick mention to Richard Starkings, whose lettering added a great final piece to the book’s puzzle. Good letterers are an underappreciated commodity in the comic book industry, and Starkings truly showed why throughout this book. I know that it seems unfair to sneak him in right at the end, but I’d rather give a quick shout out to a great letterer than not mention him at all, especially when the work was as good as it is.


As we jump into the story, I want to make something clear to everyone: Marvels is not your typical comic book. The original idea was conceived by Alex Ross as a way of looking at the Marvel Universe through the eyes of normal, everyday people instead of the heroes and villains. This unique approach was expanded upon once Kurt Busiek came onto the project, and I dare say that Marvels may be the strongest work of Kurt’s career.

The story follows the career of photojournalist Phil Collins, starting right at the beginning of WWII. Phil, wanting to get in on the action and report the goings on of the war, gets pulled into the world of superheroes, early on naming them “Marvels. Throughout the book, we see him bear witness to the birth of the Human Torch, the battles between the Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, the return of Captain America, the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards, the arrival of the X-Men and Avengers, the coming of Galactus, the Kree-Skrull War, the Atlantean Attack on New York, and finally, the death of Gwen Stacy. Through these events Phil tries his best to chronicle them, doing his job while being caught up in the wonder that the Marvels produced where ever they went.

This unique approach takes the readers through nearly every major Marvel storyline in history, but instead of following the heroes and villains as the battle it out it shows things from the human perspective. As I said before, you feel like you’re right there in the middle of it all, viewing these events through Phil’s eyes, feeling the wonder, and fear, of what the Marvels were and what they could mean for humanity’s future.

What really blew me away about Marvels is just how brutally honest it is. Many writers (and artists), tend to look back at the past through rose-tinted glasses, saying how wonderful everything was back then. Kurt doesn’t do this. Instead, he shows us the blunt reality of the way the Marvel Universe was, and by allegory, the way our world was at those times. Today, we expect people to be awed and excited to see Superheroes. But that’s what would really happen, is it? If you saw a man, or what looked like a man, burst into flame and then soar through the air, you would be scared, wondering what the hell is going on. If you saw in the newspapers that “mutants” were cropping up, bigotry might just come into your mind out of pure fear, just like it did in Marvels. Kurt depicts these emotions on every page, from the fear Phil and his fellows first feel when the Human Torch awakes, to their adulation when the Torch and Namor join Captain America and the rest of the WWII heroes to fight the Nazis.  You feel the fear and disgust at the mutants, but then, you see the horror in Phil’s mind as he meets a scared mutant child, seeing the same look in her eyes that he witnessed in pictures of the Jews at the Death Camps. After that, you feel the frustration in Phil’s mind when after all the Marvels had done to save humanity (especially after the battle with Galactus) people still look at them with suspicion. And finally, you feel the despair at the death of Gwen Stacy, a Marvel failing right in front of Phil’s eyes, and an innocent dying because of it. My heart genuinely broke for Phil in that moment, and it was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever had reading a comic book.

In the world of Marvels, the public is not unanimously in love with the heroes. The emotions vary as widely as the people of our own world. Yes, they are heroes, but what do they really want? Why are they doing this? Where did they come from? And why can’t they trust us with who they are? These are the questions that people ask about a lot of things in life, and in Marvels, Kurt using them to illustrate the reality of a world of superheroes like it never has been done before, and it was fascinating.

For those of who don’t know Kurt Busiek, he is a comic book historian of sorts, and as such, the perfect person to pen Marvels. I cannot tell you how many amazing conversation I have had with Kurt about the history of the industry with both love so much, and after reading Marvels, I see that not only is a he historian of this industry, he loves the worlds that were created, and how much care he put into writing this book.

Point blank, what Kurt did here was truly amazing. He retold Marvel’s history, and by doing so connected dots that I didn’t even know existed. More than that, he gave us a new perspective to view that wor.ld from. Yes, the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe are incredible and wondrous, but they are also flawed, as are the people they seek to protect. Even sitting here now, I am still still completely awestruck by the majesty of Kurt’s work on Marvels, and consider some of the finest I have read.Bravo sir.

Final Verdict

Trying to find the words to sum up just how incredible this book is a difficult task, one that I feel a bit ill suited for. Thankfully, Stan Lee wrote a heart-warming forward for this book, during which he states, “Marvels is a giant leap forward in the evolution of illustrated literature.” To me, that’s all that really needs to be said. I mean, when Stan Freakin’ Lee gives an endorsement that enthusiastic it has to be something worth checking out.

Having gotten to know Kurt a little bit on Twitter, I have discovered his incredible wealth of knowledge on comic books both on the page and behind it. He genuinely loves this medium, loves the history of it, and loves how it came to be where it is today. Kurt loves comic books and that love shines into every page of this book. Couple with Alex Ross, their work creates a in a perfect storm resulting in one the best comic books I’ve ever read. This book changed my whole view on Marvel Comics, the characters in it, and how I will view superheroes for the rest of my life. This book made me feel every emotion imaginable. I was at times angry, others sad, others awestruck, and on more than one occasion joyous at the events I was witnessing.

Should you pick up Marvels? If you are a fan of this medium, of Marvel, of superheroes, or just an amazing story beautifully told, then yes, you should pick this book up immediately. But which edition should you get? Well, if you just want the story without  any bells and whistles attached the Trade Paperback is perfect for you, but if you’re like me, and love looking behind the scenes, then the 10th Anniversary Edition (which admittedly is hard to find) is worth the extra cash. In that edition, you get several essays on the book, the original proposals, scripts, and concept art, in addition to many other bonuses from Kurt and Alex that really made this edition worth getting.

Bottom line, Marvels is an outstanding achievement in graphic literature, one that will stand the test of time forever, and is a must read for anyone that loves Marvel. Kurt, Alex, I tip my hat to you gentlemen. Thank you for this wonderful book and I hope to read many more from both of you. Cheers.

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Updated: 02/21/2017, GregFahlgren
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