I’ve been reading plenty of miniseries lately that have seen a significant drop in quality after the first issue. All of the promise tends to be squandered with by-the-numbers plotting, underdeveloped characters, or issue after issue of set-up at the expense of story progression. Mark Millar and Tommy Lee Edward’s “Marvel 1985” isn’t necessarily free from those problems, but it has some other features that save it from the march toward mediocrity: gorgeous art and a fresh perspective.
I’m glad to say that issue #4 of this comic is as good as #1, and it’s shaping up to be one of the best miniseries of the year.
In many ways, this series is the heir to Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ “Marvels.” I don’t know if it was conceived that way — though I suspect it was, because of the original plan to use photographs instead of pencilling. What could out-photo-ref Alex Ross besides, well, actually photos? But, luckily for us, Marvel abandoned the photography experiment and handed the book over to Tommy Lee Edwards, who has always been an interesting artist but is doing some of the best work of his career on this title. And I say it’s the heir to “Marvels” not because of the look of the pages, but because of its perspective. Like “Marvels,” (and like Millar’s own “Kick-Ass,” but from a different angle), “Marvel 1985” shows stale old superheroes and villains through the eyes of a civilian. Not in the way that Busiek sort of did it in the early “Astro City” stories, and not the way that Marvel’s various “Front Line” series try to do it, but in the way “Marvels” actually did it: with a sense of the wonder and terror of the superhuman race.
When we see the Melter and the Trapster in an average Marvel comic, they are buffoonish, fifth-rate criminals with silly costumes. We know they are fodder for the heroes. But in this comic, seen from the perspective of humans from our world — or, more accurately, a Spielbergian version of our world — even the Melter and the Trapster are frightening. When the Melter turns his belt on a human, and young Toby sneaks past, it’s a genuine moment of suspense and the stakes are high. When Toby flees into a portal to the Marvel Universe, it’s not casual dimension-hopping like “Exiles,” or the precocious journeys of Franklin Richards — it’s a moment of a real boy overcoming his very real fears and forging ahead into the mysterious unknown.
It’s only by taking the Marvel characters out of their normal context that Millar is able to pull all of this off, and it works.
By the end of the issue, though, Toby is no longer in the “real” world. Edwards signifies the Marvel Universe with a distinct lack of shadows, and Toby lands in this bright and sunny superhero world with one mission: to find the Avengers and save his planet. It’s all played on such a human level that it feels like it matters. It’s not the heroes fighting the villains over and over. For Toby, and for us, seeing the threat through his eyes, it’s the most horrifying and thrilling event imaginable.
“Marvels 1985” is the perfect gateway comic for someone new to the Marvel Universe, and it’s also a lot of fun for the old-time readers. It reminds us about how strange and wonderful these characters can be, while telling us an exciting story about courage and responsibility. It’s good stuff.