Happy New Year! 2020 proved to be a trash year, so I am hoping that this new year will be as marvelous as this graphic novel is!

After enjoying two podcasts about Wolverine last year, I heard Marvel had put one out about The Fantastic Four without realizing it was based partly on this graphic novel. I enjoyed the Marvels podcast and picked up this source material to accompany it. I was in a bit of a reading slump at the time, so after skimming it and seeing it was worth a deeper read, I put it aside to read after the holidays. 

This amazing story gives the perspective of everyday people living in a world populated with superheroes, villains and mutants. We see the world through their eyes as they try to make sense of the incredible things happening around them. Begining in 1939, we first meet Phil Sheldon a young photojournalist and his friend Jonah Jameson who are amazed when superheroes begin to appear in New York City. The populace is at first scared and then in awe of these costumed avengers and soon admire them as they help fight for American freedom in World War II. But as the decades go by, in a 35-year span, perception of them waxes and wanes. The Fantastic Four are beloved for awhile but later pilloried. Later, the poor mutants get the brunt of the public’s hate. 

Divided into four chapters, the narrative moves forward chronologically with Sheldon marrying and having two daughters as he follows and photographs the heroes, that he calls the Marvels, both for his career and for a book he is planning about them. He is an everyman, who at times succumbs to mob mentality but as the years go by he thinks critically about what having heroes in his world means, despite losing an eye when he gets too close to a fight between Namor and the Torch. There is a poignant scene set in the 60s where Sheldon recounts seeing a mob react during a Sentinals attack, and a riot breaks out. Sheldon comments: “The real story was the people who’d been scared too long…who’d been wound too tight and cut loose”. This has uncomfortable parallels to today, 25+ years after this graphic novel came out, as a certain populace seems to be glorying in a changed America and violence is a daily worry during this contested election. 

Alex Ross’s work is a marvel! He did for the Marvel universe what he would do again later in  DC’s Kingdom Come– he made all the heroes fleshed out and real. His trademark painted photo-realism style is exquisite, as each panel is a work of art. The research he did was evident, showing the heroes in their original costumes from the Golden and Silver eras of comics. He also is great at recreating period pieces, as the narrative takes place from 1939-1974 and he gets the clothing styles and the inevitable aging of the characters spot-on. 

To further strengthen this unique story, author Kurt Busiek shares his thoughts about creating this tale. He plumbs the Marvel comic universe for a timeline on how the heroes developed, and they are worked into the story. Thus, the book becomes an encyclopedia of sorts as heroes and villains move in and out of the narrative in cameos as Sheldon, his family and regular people are the true main characters in this story. In addition, Marvel great Stan Lee adds an introduction and other artists share their insight during chapter breaks. The story is then bookended with comic sources for all the hero references and Ross shares his artistic process. While the podcast based on this graphic novel was interesting, it centered on the second and third chapters only, and this entire book fleshes out the story more thoroughly.  Although only one day into 2021, I’m guessing this book will be a contender for my Best Reads at the end of the year!

-Nancy