Sunday, March 28, 2010

Marvel looks back: Eye of the Camera & The Marvels Project

The owner of the comic book store I frequent (the excellent Maximum Comics in Las Vegas) told me a few weeks ago when I picked up the final issue of Kurt Busiek and Jay Anacleto's Marvels: Eye of the Camera that he has a customer who will only read comics like Camera and Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's The Marvels Project, set in past eras of Marvel continuity, because he has no tolerance for the superheroes of today. Presumably these stories offer him the chance to feel safe, comforting nostalgia without just re-reading old collections of Silver Age and Golden Age series. It sounded to me like a pretty sad mode of comics fandom, and I didn't want to feel like I was falling into that same trap, given that I was buying both Camera and Project. Maximum's owner also suggested to me that if I went back and read Busiek and Alex Ross' original 1994 nostalgia-fest Marvels (which is probably one of the most influential comics of all time), I'd find it incredibly boring.

I haven't gone back and read Marvels again, but I suspect he might be right. I really like a lot of Busiek's work, especially his creator-owned stuff; I still read and enjoy Astro City, and I was a big fan of Arrowsmith. I'm looking forward to Busiek's upcoming dark-folk-tales series American Gothic as well. But I've been less enthused about his mainstream superhero work, which often seems overly safe and respectful -- probably what that Maximum customer likes about it. I have very fond memories of reading Marvels as a teenager, which is why I decided to pick up the long-in-the-works sequel, Eye of the Camera, which concluded last month after a nearly yearlong hiatus between its fifth and sixth issues.

Camera isn't bad, but it is boring, and in a separate way from how Marvels itself might be boring. The main problem with Camera in its early issues is how much of a rehash it seems to be of Marvels. Unlike Busiek's current epic Astro City arc, The Dark Age, Camera doesn't specifically comment on a changing era in comics storytelling, or the political climate of the U.S. in decades past. It's mostly an affectionate extension of the first series, with photojournalist Phil Sheldon witnessing momentous events in the history of the Marvel universe and offering an everyman's perspective on these fantastical stories. A lot of the events in Camera aren't familiar to me, but it almost doesn't seem to matter: The point is that unfathomable things are happening, and regular people have no control over them. It's something we saw in the original Marvels, and, thanks to that series' huge influence, it's something we've see in loads of comics (including Astro City) since.

A few issues in, Camera becomes about the swan song of Phil Sheldon, and at that point it gets rather unappealingly maudlin (Busiek also takes on co-writer Roger Stern with the third issue), piling on more and more sentiment until the tearjerking finale. Busiek still has some nicely observed moments to dovetail with Marvel history (his riff on mutant persecution, while entirely familiar, is well-executed), but overall the story of Phil and his slow battle with cancer, his saying goodbye to his family, dominates. It's not about humanizing superheroes so much as it's about superheroes in the background of human drama, but not one that's particularly compelling.

And Anacleto's art isn't as exciting and new as Ross' was on the original series, nor as it was when Anacleto first appeared on the comics scene with Aria in 1999. His hyperrealistic style is, well, boring, with little sense of movement or scope. It's great at depicting static images of beauty, but to convey the hugeness of old-school superhero battles, it's pretty useless. Rather than make Phil's story feel real and grounded, the art just makes it even more stilted and awkward. The whole package is easy to read and clearly full of affection for the Marvel universe, but it's still fairly lifeless.

I didn't expect similarly respectful dullness from The Marvels Project, but it's been a lot more subdued than I imagined it would be (seven of eight issues have been released so far). A unified retelling of the early days of the Marvel universe in the historical context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Project has a little bit of Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier (which took place in the 1950s) in it, with its efforts to tie the evolution of its characters to a specific time in history. Unlike Marvels, it doesn't use an everyman observer as its point-of-view character, but Brubaker does center the story around obscure Golden Age character the Angel, who chronicles the rise of Marvel's first costumed heroes.

I'm not familiar enough with Marvel's Golden Age continuity to know if Brubaker is doing a wholesale retcon here (other than the changes to Captain America and Bucky's relationship that I know he already made in the regular Captain America book), but if he is, it's pretty mild. This is a fairly straightforward retelling of the origins of several iconic characters (Captain America, Bucky, Namor, the original Human Torch) alongside a number of more obscure ones, but other than the Angel, none of those side characters really comes to life. The first issue, with its deathbed confession by time-traveling Western hero the Two-Gun Kid, set up a story that would be epic in scope while drawing new connections between characters, and that hasn't really happened. Instead, Brubaker's been telling mostly separate stories about the Torch, Captain America and Namor, with only occasional crossover.

The story has moved so slowly that it's sort of unbelievable to me that it's wrapping up in one more issue. There's no overarching narrative, so there's not really anything to resolve, but there's a lot going on that doesn't seem like it's going to conclude within so quickly. I guess that's part of the point -- this was all just the beginning of Marvel's grand superhero history -- but it makes the story feel incomplete, like Brubaker just ran out of time and had to stop. Maybe that eighth issue will really bring everything together, but so far the series has been too disjointed, even though the individual bits are strong, and Epting's clean art style works perfectly.

The reason I read stories like this is not, I don't think, because I can't accept change or that I don't connect with modern comics (although I don't read a whole lot of current mainstream superhero books from Marvel or DC). It's because I like writers who can pull together the disparate elements of a committee-created superhero universe and make them into a unique and personal story. It's also nice to read something self-contained in this era of endless cross-pollination. I don't know if either Eye of the Camera or The Marvels Project is entirely successful, but each one gives you a clear picture of how its creators view the characters and comics they love, and that's the kind of storytelling that draws me in.

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