This book is the story of the first half century of the Marvel Comics universe. It is revealed to us through the eyes of Phil Sheldon, a newspaper photographer who lives in New York City and witnesses the rise of the Super Hero Age.

The story starts out in 1939 with the birth of the original Human Torch: an android, built by a scientist, with the unusual affliction of spontaneously bursting into flames whenever exposed to oxygen. The existence of the Torch sets off a series of ripples throughout society, as people fear the horrors this new menace might unleash. Their fears are further exacerbated by the appearance of Namor, the Sub-Mariner, whose pompous attitude and disdain for surface-dwelling people brings him into a series of violent clashes with the Human Torch. The book allows us to take a unique look at how the press and the people viewed the larger than life events of the Marvel Comics universe.

Captain America & The Avengers

These characters have always been altruistic, powerful, and never fail to deliver justice to evil-doers. They are also depicted as intervening in World War II, stomping Nazis and “Japs” who threaten western values. Just as these characters were used in reality as propaganda tools to stir up youngsters, so too are they used in this capacity within the fictional world of Marvels. Captain America and his cohorts are seen in newsreels in movie houses, exciting audiences in patriotic fervor. This demonstrates that there just as in reality, the concept of a super human is a powerful persuasive device.

This would not work as well with the DC heroes, though they were used in a similar fashion. Captain America and his band are all “guys like us.” As Americans, they share our values and customs. This sets an example of nobility and heroism that every American can endeavor to live up to. It is this sense of humanity and loyalty that makes the Marvel characters so special.

The Fantastic Four

Long time mainstays of the Marvel universe, the Fantastic Four are shrouded in celebrity and pulp science as they combat aliens and other menaces with their unique, complimentary powers. They represent the promise of the future, where war, Communism, and other fears have vanished. Science has endowed them with powers, and by proxy their celebrity, fame, fortune, and happiness. The book takes careful time to show their wedding, and the media circus it became. The Fantastic Four represent the super hero at his or her best.

The X-Men

Anti-mutant prejudice is a famous aspect of X-Men franchise history. Their problems with intolerance and hatred have been likened to numerous social and political movements over the past 40 years. They serve as allegories for racial, ethnic, religious, and perhaps most famously for sexual minorities. This is due to a mutant’s ability to conceal his or her true identity from the world, until they are required to have a “coming out of the closet” event. Their story brings hope to any person who is a member of a marginalized group.

Marvels depicts this with grace and dramatic prowess. At first, the narrator is disgusted by mutants. He is threatened by their powers, their freakishness, and their seeming disdain for mankind. In one incident, he and others hurl rocks at cornered X-Men. Sheldon is shocked to hear Cyclops warn off a colleague by saying “They aren’t worth it.” This confirms his fear that the mutants see themselves as the future overlords of the Earth, and as inherently superior to the rest of mankind.

Later, he finds his neighbors marauding around with torches and weapons looking for a mutant which was seen picking through the trash nearby. They describe it as a skull-faced monster. Phil races home to make sure his family is safe. He finds that his daughters have taken the mutant in. They had been sneaking food to her and playing with her. The mutant’s name was Maggie. She was a small child with a torn dress and pigtails, who sat crying and shivering in the corner of their basement, terrified and alone.

Her face is horribly disfigured. Her eyes are large and dark, and her mouth is just a slit. She has no nose to speak of, and though this puts Phil off at first, he cannot deny her humanity and her innocence. He is moved by her plight, and agrees to let her stay under their protection. This is due in part to the fact that his neighbors would kill him and raze his home if they knew his daughters had been harboring the girl.

Not long after, the sentinels are unveiled at a press conference, and the giant robots begin their worldwide search to exterminate all mutants. Phil again rushes home, worried that the sentinels would detect Maggie and kill his family to get to her. He finds that she has already fled, leaving a note thanking them for their hospitality and saying she could not stay and endanger them further. He never hears from her again, and his ideas about mutants are forever changed.

Once again we see the hero, in this case the X-Men, shown to be just as vulnerable as any normal person. Through Maggie, Busiek invokes one of the most powerful, enlightened messages of the Marvel Comics universe– that all people, no matter their various attributes, deserve a common level of respect and compassion. We see the fear in Phil Sheldon’s eyes dissolve and we see the light of compassion ignited by a helpless little girl. Few non-science fiction dramatic works can distill such a powerful message into so few pages with the depth and emotion as depicted by both Busiek’s writing and Ross’ artwork.

Phil Sheldon, Gwen Stacey, and Spider-Man

One of the final stories involves the arrival of Galactus, the giant being who wishes to devour the Earth and destroy mankind. His arrival sparks rioting as people act out their fear. Sheldon watches as the Fantastic Four and eventually the Silver Surfer battle Galactus, seemingly to no avail. As the world erupts into violence, he walks home, to be with his family.

It is at this moment that he begins to realize that were there no Marvels, the world would be finished. He watches on television as Mr. Fantastic defeats Galactus, once again using science as his weapon. Afterwards Sheldon watches in disgust as the press slings accusations at the Marvels, claiming the Galactus incident was a hoax orchestrated by a bankrupt Fantastic Four. Iron Man and his “employer” are attacked by jealous Congressmen, the X-Men are endlessly hounded as criminals, and Spider-Man is blamed for the death of a former police captain, George Stacey. It is this final insult that puts him face to face with his former colleague, J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson believes as Sheldon once did, that the Marvels are all charlatans and dangerous con men.

Phil discovers the truth behind the incident, that Captain Stacey had been killed by Doctor Octopus in the midst of a battle with Spider-Man. When he interviews the fallen officer’s daughter Gwen, he sees through her the kind of wonder and admiration for the Marvels that reminded him of what they can inspire. In spite of her father’s death, she is fully open to what they represent.

One evening as he goes to see Gwen, he witnesses the Green Goblin kidnap her, and follows them to the Brooklyn Bridge. The famous battle ensues, as the Goblin tosses Gwen off the bridge, and Spider-Man’s efforts to save her end up costing her his life. Sheldon is devastated, but realizes that Spider-Man did his best. In spite of his amazing powers and skills, he is fallible too, and must be experiencing tremendous grief and regret.

Ultimately, that is what the Marvel universe is all about. Individuals who, despite their enhanced abilities and powers, are just as human as all of us. They aren’t our superiors, or faceless marketing tools. They are examples from which we can draw lessons of courage and humanity. In the same way heroes from Greek myth battled gods and monsters with only their wits and a blade, so too do these new heroes amaze and inspire.

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