It’s been twenty years since Marvels was first published in 1994. It was a crucial work within the history of superhero comics, not only because he retraced in a ‘historiographical’ way the main events of Marvel history, through the eyes of fictional photoreporter Phil Sheldon, but also because it somehow sewed the long season of “superhero revisionism” with a new “nostalgic” phase within mainstream comics culture.
A blast from the past and, at the same time, a love letter to the superheroes mythology, the miniseries also made Busiek and Ross comic book superstars and spawned dozens of imitations, that attempted to emulate the sense of the wonder, the everyman point of view and the hyper-realistic images of the book.
As a recollection of this anniversary, we interviewed Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, who told us about the genesis of the work and to how the profession of scriptwriter has changed in recent years.
Let’s start to talk with Kurt Busiek
Marvels is the result of a tortuous path. It has been redesigned several times, first as an anthology series, then as a miniseries. It was Tom DeFalco that proposed the idea of inserting a new character in the Marvel canon stories. Tell us about the origin of the project.
Oh, we went through a lot more stages than that — at one point, we talked about doing a story about a time-traveling weapon that evolved over time, appearing at different stages of evolution in different eras of Marvel history. It was an awful idea, but we kicked around dozens of them.
Alex’s original idea was for a series called MARVEL, that would have been an ongoing anthology of painted stories featuring Marvel heroes. In a book like that, he figured, he could do stories of the characters he liked the best, and other creators could do other characters. When he ran that by me, I suggested that it wasn’t focused enough — and Marvel wasn’t going to create a whole new anthology series for a newcomer, who didn’t even intend to do all the stories. I said what he should pitch should be a limited-run series, one with some sort of unifying story, that would include the characters he wanted to paint, so that it could be pitched as a story, as a self-contained thing.
That’s when we started batting around ideas, including the time-traveling weapon one. But what we settled on was a story about a photojournalist, who’d be in position to see all these amazing characters over time, to live through a world of marvels. And that’s what we pitched, when editor Marc McLaurin saw Alex’s samples and asked him if he had a project in mind. The big difference between that and what got printed, in the end, was that we’d made up new stories of Phil Sheldon meeting the Human Torch, Namor, Dr. Doom and others, rather than using existing Marvel history. We figured we should make up new incidents around Phil, and it was indeed Tom deFalco who made the big suggestion that we should use Phil, but instead of making up new stuff, we should have him witness moments from established Marvel history.
That was a great idea — it meant I had to do a humongous amount of research, but it was still a great idea. We went off and reworked the pitch a couple of times, and that’s what eventually got approved.
So while we considered a lot of different approaches, it was a mini-series centering on Phil in the first version that actually got pitched, and Tom got us to refocus that idea on established Marvel history; he didn’t propose the idea of using a character like Phil.
Marvels came out 20 years ago. Have you ever re-read it since then? Is there anything you would change?
I’m sure I’ve reread it multiple times, but I’ve never sat down and just read it all the way through, as a normal reader. I’m not a normal reader, not for this book, and I can’t step outside my experience as writer and approach it like a reader. Every page, every line, puts me back in the perspective of writing it, researching it, going over the layouts with Alex…I see it from a writer’s perspective, not a reader’s. But I’ve pages through it, I’ve looked stuff up, researched elements for the sequel, and so on, so I’ve read those pages many times, even if I haven’t read it all in a row.
And while I’m sure if I wrote it today I’d write it differently, I’m happy with how it came out, and I wouldn’t want to go into it and rework it. The one change I’d want to make, actually, is to have the captions done in yellow, like traditional comics captions used to be. The only reason they’re white is that the letterer, John Roshell, did them in black-and-white because normally, in those days, the book’s colorist would color the captions. But there was no colorist, since the art was painted. So the lettering got overlaid onto the artwork, and someone made sure to color the sound effects, but they didn’t think to color the captions.
The first time I saw that, it was already printed, so we were stuck with it. And then we made the captions white in the rest of the issues, in order to be consistent. But it was an error, and I would have preferred they be yellow.
A very small thing, I know. But if I got to change anything, that’s what I’d change.
Oh, and I’d also make sure that prologue chapter, that was originally printed as MARVELS #0, got correctly credited — that was a sample piece Alex did with his friend Steve Darnall, before I was involved or the project ever existed. It wasn’t done as a prologue to the actual series, and got added in when the first book collection was done. But I didn’t write it — that’s Steve and Alex, and they should get credited for it.
Twenty years have gone by and readers still talk about Marvels. How have the profession of writer changed since then?
The industry’s changed a lot, in ways that readers may or may not get to see. Back then, most books at Marvel and DC were done plot-style; these days I think most of them are done full-script (MARVELS was full-script). I think that editors are a bigger part of the creative process at Marvel and DC these days — back then, there were some groups of books, like the X-books and the Superman books, where the editors had to coordinate among a lot of creators, and took the reins more, but most other books it felt like the creators set the tone. Nowadays, it feels like the editors set the tone for much of the line, as crossovers and event storytelling have become a bigger and bigger part of what those publishers do.
This is not a brand-new thing — editors set the tone at DC in the 50s, 60s and 70s, for instance. But it feels different from what the business was like in the early 90s.
Of course, thanks to Image, Dark Horse and other companies, there’s been a boom in creator-owned publishing, which creates more options, more opportunities for writers and artists. So on the one hand, you’ve got the big superhero universes being tightly coordinated, for readers who like the sprawl of that kind of setting, and on the other you’ve got an explosion of creative vision on other titles. Creators can take advantage of both approaches, even — certainly, Scott Snyder’s part of the big DCU stage with his Batman and Superman work, but he’s got his creator-owned successes at Vertigo. And over at Marvel, writers like Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick juggle superhero-universe assignments and creator-owned Image titles.
So it’s a different landscape, one where the parameters of writing the classic characters have changed, and there’s a lot more opportunity to do new things. But the meat of the job — making up stories and telling them in a way that attracts readers — is still the important part.
Marvels is the result of your collaboration with Alex Ross, with whom you had tried, in the early 90s, to work on a Iron Man story; what kind of project was going to be?
That was just a pitch to take over IRON MAN. It was a book I’d always wanted to write, and Alex and I were looking for ways to work together, so when John Byrne left the series, we put in a pitch to take it over, with me as writer and Alex doing either pencils or pen and ink art (I forget which) and painted covers. So if they’d gone for it, it wouldn’t have been a special mini-series or anything, it’d just have been the monthly IRON MAN book.
The story we started off with involved time travel, the Iron Man 2020 character, and some plot threads I later repurposed for use in ASTRO CITY, but I won’t go into great detail, because you never know how unused story ideas will turn out to be useful someday.
In any case, we never heard back from the editor at all, so there apparently wasn’t any chance of us getting the job.
Then came Marvels. What were your feelings about it while you were writing? It was just another job or did it felt that you were writing an important work?
I had no idea that it was going to be “important,” or even a hit. But it didn’t feel like just another job, either. It was a chance to do something different, something fun, something that wasn’t anything like any book anyone else was doing. That’s why I didn’t think it was going to be a hit — it was so unusual, to be doing a story so steeped in this old history, all about this little old one-eyed guy wandering around the Marvel Universe going “Whoahh, look at THAT!”
It didn’t sound like anything that had ever been popular before, so who would think it’d be a hit now? Mainly, it felt like a chance for us to do something personal, something that was exactly the kind of story I wanted to write, and exactly the kind of story Alex wanted to paint. It wasn’t commercial, it wasn’t conventional, but it was ours, and we were doing it just how we wanted to do it.
And then it came out, and Alex’s art was a huge draw, so lots of people picked it up just because it was gorgeous and strikingly different, and they liked the story we were telling, too. So it was a huge boost to us both, but while we were doing it it didn’t feel like a big commercial project. It felt like a chance to be unique, to do our own thing.
That period saw the birth of Marvels and Kingdom Come, which was born from an idea by Alex Ross, who wanted to make a DC version of Marvels. Beyond the most obvious parallels, in your opinion what kind of comparison can be made between the two works?
I’m really not the guy to compare them, I’d say, because I have such different experiences of them. I was on the inside of MARVELS, but I was part of the audience for KINGDOM COME. So I can’t really compare. Alex might, because he was on the inside for both. Or someone who was on the outside of both, maybe.
You could certainly draw parallels and contrasts — MARVELS looks at the past, KINGDOM COME looks at the future, both of them have human “witness” characters, both are concerned with how superheroes and villains affect the world for others, things like that. But I’m just rattling off a list, there. I don’t have the perspective to really compare them.
Marvels is a very metatextual comicbook, with the book within the book; also, sentences such as “It was the greatest show on Earth and we, every single one of us, we had the best seat in the house” or the one in the last issue ( “It’s like being in a snow globe, so pretty and strange and unreal, as if it’s not happening now. It’s only a dream of something that happened once” ) seem perfectly define the comicbook medium; Similarly, Phil retires in favor of the “Dark Age”. Is it a reading level that interested you?
It’s an interesting way to look at it, but it’s not one I was thinking about while writing the scripts. I wasn’t trying to comment on Marvel history, like a critic, I was trying to tell a human story about what it would be like to be in the middle of it. So those lines you quote, they were merely me trying to capture how the characters felt, to give a sense of what it would be like to be there in the middle of it all, not to step back and comment as if they were just stories. I wanted them to feel real, and I wanted the characters to react in ways that felt emotionally right.
Following this line, you seemed very critical on the decision to kill Gwen Stacy. Phil says that everybody abandoned her and that it didn’t matter who decided to kill her. Do you think the death of Gwen, a character no longer useful to the then impending Dark Age of comics, was the right choice for Marvel to make?
Absolutely. I think it was a powerful story that made a great turning point for the Spider-Man series, and presaged what was to come in a lot of other books as well.
Phil’s not upset about it because I wanted to critique the story. Phil’s upset about it because he’s a person, and he sees her die, and it shatters the faith he’d slowly built up in the marvels, in the idea that they’d always be there to save the day. His reactions are about how he would feel, not about me doing a review.
Similarly, throughout the series, Phil can’t stand Peter Parker — he thinks he’s a weasel, taking pictures of Spider-Man that the Bugle will use to make Spidey look bad. He thinks that’s awful. We the readers, who know that Peter IS Spider-Man, know that Phil’s not seeing the full truth, but Phil’s attitude toward Peter isn’t meant to be critical commentary, it’s meant to feel human and credible, to be what a guy in Phil’s position would actually feel. Same with Gwen.
So no, I didn’t think killing Gwen was a bad idea. Phil didn’t like it, but he’s in the story. I liked it fine, which is why we used it for our climactic event.
In your opinion what’s special about the character of Gwen Stacy, so beloved by readers? Why the recent movie incarnations have failed to recreate properly her spirit?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with the assumption that the movies haven’t captured her spirit — I think the Emma Stone version of Gwen we got in the first AMAZING SPIDER-MAN film was terrific. The sequel wasn’t as deftly written, but I think that’s because the first movie had a script polish by one of my screenwriting heroes, Steve Kloves, and the second didn’t have that particular voice in the mix.
But really, I think what’s special about Gwen is that she died. She wasn’t beloved by readers before her death — they liked her or disliked her depending on their tastes, but she was just one character in a large cast, doing fairly standard things that characters who are a superhero’s girlfriend do. But when she died, that was a bombshell. She became the lost love, the innocent who didn’t get saved. These are very powerful things, that resonated throughout the series for years to come — since then, it’s become such an overused trope that people complain about it, but back then the idea that someone the hero loved could actually die while the hero was trying to save them, that was a powerful, earthshaking development. And that’s what made Gwen the memorable, beloved character she is today.
Marvels is one of the efforts of a decade that was trying to get out of deconstructionism and the gloomy atmosphere of the 80s in favor of a “return to the origin” (the new point of view, the sense of wonder, the ability to live our dreams) for a new audience. In your works the theme of nostalgia is strongly developed, what do you like about it?
I think I stumble into that a lot. I like to explore history, to explore the legend, the details that make up a character, who they are, how they became what they are today. That necessitates looking back, seeing how that journey happened, and what’s in it that would be interesting to explore.
I’m not in love with nostalgia for its own sake — indeed, while I’ve written a lot of projects set in the past, in a lot of cases I wasn’t the guy who chose that setting. MARVELS was set in the past because Alex’s list of characters he wanted to paint had the original Human Torch and Gwen on it, and that meant we had to be doing material set in the past. UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN and AMAZING FANTASY were offered to me after someone had already decided they’d be set in the past, LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN was set during a period artist Trina Robbins loved, because she loved it…over and over again, I found myself telling stories of the past because that’s just how things worked out. I certainly didn’t mind — I like exploring the past — but it wasn’t as if I was doing it intentionally.
I think I like history more than I like nostalgia. I like the texture of a different setting, a different time period. But it’s not a longing for the past to return — I like modern medicine, air conditioning, civil rights and so on, and have no desire to bring back the old days. But that doesn’t mean those old days aren’t worth exploring, that there aren’t stories to tell.
I guess ARROWSMITH, along with MARVELS, is the perfect example of that. There’s always new things to learn from the past or things we hadn’t seen. You did tons of superheroes stuff, but you also seems to like the normal people like Phil within that system. SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY has also this idiosyncratic appeal, because yes, it is a superhero title, but it has so much little “superhero-ness”. So is that the lesson one takes from it: to write good Superman stories – superheroes story in general – you have always to go back to the “human” aspect?
Well, SECRET IDENTITY wasn’t really a stab at writing a good Superman story, since Superman — the “real,” conventional Superman — isn’t in it. I wanted to use Superman as a symbol, as a metaphor, for that “secret identity” we all have, our inner selves that we only share with a very few people in life. So that was a story deliberately using the idea of Superman as a tool to get at something universal about the human experience.
But I do think that Superman’s a character where, if you’re not getting at the “human” side of it, you’re probably not going to wind up telling a good story. Superman’s enormously powerful, a kind of fantasy built around very human dreams. “If I could only stop that bully,” “If I could shrug off threats and danger and just make things right,” that sort of thing. So if the human dreams don’t enter into it — if you treat Superman as a purely science-fictional set of abilities — then the results are probably going to be hollow, because without the “-man” in there to make him relatable to the rest of us, the “Super-” is just surface flash, without context or texture.
One of the pet-themes of yours is the rehabilitation of the supervillain, the ambivalent characters (The Liberty Project, Thunderbolts). What fascinates you about this topic?
I like screwups. I like characters who make mistakes and have to redeem themselves. Spider-Man’s like that, of course, but after decades of being a hero, you expect him to do the right thing. But criminals, losers, screwups — you don’t know what they’re going to do. Will they turn their lives around? Will they make them worse? Will they fail completely?
Writing THUNDERBOLTS was a treat because the characters had such different motivations. On a book like AVENGERS, the characters can have conflicts and issues, but when the bad guy looms, they’re expected not to be selfish, to put their problems aside and rise to the occasion. But in THUNDERBOLTS, everyone wants their own thing. MACH-1 wants respect. Zemo wants to take over the world. Techno wants a challenge and he doesn’t care what it is. Moonstone wants to manipulate others to make herself a cushy life. Atlas doesn’t know what to do. Everyone’s going in their own direction, so it makes things much livelier, much less predictable.
Plus, the story of the flawed guy who pulls himself out of the muck is a great story to tell, and there are so many ways to be flawed. There’s always something interesting to do with characters like that.
A few years ago you went back to those characters with Eye of the camera, a follow-up to Marvels, assisted by Roger Stern and Jay Anacleto. The miniseries has suffered numerous delays and had a troubled gestation. Who conceived the idea of doing a sequel to Marvels? Are you satisfied with the end result?
We’d talked about doing a sequel back when the first series came out, and even started work on it. But that eventually fell apart, and the story I was going to tell eventually became THE DARK AGE in ASTRO CITY.
But Alex and I had another idea for a sequel of sort, a 30-page one-who I thought of as “Epilogue,” about Phil Sheldon’s last days, looking back on his life. That was something we talked about, never really did anything with, and then just put aside.
The impetus to do EYE OF THE CAMERA came from editor Tom Brevoort, who wanted to do something for the 10th anniversary of MARVELS — and considering it came out for the 15th anniversary, you can see it was slow in coming!
But he talked me into doing it, and what I essentially did was take the story I’d had in mind for that “Epilogue” special, make it the finale, and put a whole new story in to lead up to it. Between health and other work, it was hard to do all the research the book required (plus, there were so many more books to read than there were for the first series), and that’s why we eventually brought Roger Stern in to help. We also had some weird editorial rules to cope with — Bill Jemas hated flashbacks, so we had to restructure the whole story to put it all in mostly-chronological order, that sort of thing. And Jay Anacleto was slow doing the art, just as Roger and I were slow with the scripts. So it wasn’t as easy to do as the first one. But Jay’s art is gorgeous, and I think the story came out well, particularly the ending. So I’m pleased with it.
In the second issue of Marvels Phil starts wondering about the incipit of the book. Beginnings are always the hardest part because the mental reality disappears and a single truth is crystallized on the page. How do you tackle this difficult first phase of the beginning?
Same way he did, pretty much. Just mess around with different beginnings until you find the right road in to the story, one that sets the tone, introduces what needs to be introduced, and does so in an engaging way.
Thoughts On A Winter Morning is a very warm depiction of your life and it’s a first-time for you. Have you ever considered to work on an autobiographical piece of work?
You mean, another one?
I do have another autobiographical story I want to tell someday, but it’s nothing like THOUGHTS ON A WINTER MORNING. It’s an alcohol-fueled comedy piece about a distributor show I was at in Montreal while I was a sales manager for Marvel. I’ll get around to it someday.
But overall, I don’t think I’m all that drawn to autobiography — I don’t think my life’s been that interesting, and I’d rather write other stories, about other characters.
You helped shaping the Marvel universe in the 90s and 2000s. How do you see the Marvel nowadays?
I don’t see all that much of it, actually. They’re clearly doing well, but they’re not aiming the books at me, and they shouldn’t be. I feel like, by the time I wrote JLA/AVENGERS, I’d had the opportunity to do a ton of interesting stuff with the Marvel characters, and that project felt like a culmination of it all. And afterward, I didn’t feel the same itch to keep going with them, so I aimed more and more toward different things, other ideas.
These days I read a few Marvel books, here and there, but mostly I’m reading comics that aren’t part of some big shared universe — FABLES, SAGA, FATALE, SEX CRIMINALS, book like that. Books that are aimed at an audience that includes fifty-something old guys with a family and a mortgage, who are looking for something different, something that goes its own way. So I don’t see a lot of what Marvel’s putting out — which isn’t to say I don’t think it’s well crafted, merely that it’s not aimed at me. My 15-year-old daughter reads more Marvel books than I do, and I’m sure the people at Marvel would be happy to hear that. They had me as a reader for decades, but they want to catch younger readers like her now.
And that’s cool. To cycle it all back to MARVELS, it’s not all that different from Phil handing his camera to his assistant, and saying you’ve got to be able to see it through fresh eyes. To my daughters, it’s all fresh and new and surprising, and I’ve got plenty to read from other sources.
I don’t know if that’s a positive ending, or bittersweet, or what, but I think it’s a fine way for things to work.
And now we move to talk with Alex Ross
Marvels is 20 years old. What do you remember about that period?
For me, Marvels is a project that started in 1990 and took until 1992 for it to be sold and for me to get started on it. I had a full-time job doing storyboard work at an advertising agency at the time I started doing Marvels. The concept and pitch were in development the whole time I was working there. It was certainly my hope to switch jobs into full-time comics work, but moreover I hoped for Marvels to be a project that would stand the test of time.
Have you ever read it again? Are there any things you would do differently?
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve truly read every word again in 20 years, but I’ve certainly looked at it from time to time. I know that graphically I can execute things with some skill better than I had then, but what you can never replace is the initial inspiration that drove me so hard during that period. I know I would talk Kurt out of the cameo of a kid at the end of the story who would turn out to be the ‘90s version of Ghost Rider, since clearly we don’t hear any more about him today.
The idea of Marvels came from you. What was the level of cooperation you had with Busiek about the stories? He was the guy that brought you to work for Marvel, right?
Yes, Kurt contacted me for my second job in comics, a short story for the sci-fi anthology Open Space. As it was, Kurt wasn’t a full-time editor there, and when I came back to him with the rough concept for a Marvel-based anthology, he was just a freelance writer. Initially, Kurt believed that the very rough concept of a painted anthology like this wouldn’t be received well at Marvel. He was half-right, certainly, because the project was converted into a singular storyline that blended some of the character pieces I wanted to focus on into a larger narrative that he definitely took charge of. Mainly, from my original notes, I got the story to begin with a retelling of the origin of the original Human Torch, eventually leading to a closing story of Gwen Stacy’s death. A lot of the other short story subjects and characters I wanted to focus on didn’t make it into the final narrative.
What was the most difficult and challenging thing to on Marvels?
Basically it was learning how to paint a comic series to the degree that I became comfortable. My first few jobs in comics used a lot more colored pencil and marker illustration on sometimes colored board. I was trained in art school as an oil painter, not as much with watercolors as I use today. There was a lot of trial and error that I went through during the course of the series. It’s fairly clear when one looks at the books how much the artistic process improved over four issues when I finally became comfortable with painting everything.
That period saw the birth of Marvels and Kingdom Come. Beyond the most obvious parallels, in your opinion what kind of comparison can be made between the two works?
Obviously from the outside, the books stand as a beginning and end for looking at the world of superhero fantasy. After using friends as models to base the characters on in Marvels, I wanted to increase the intimacy I felt with my subjects in Kingdom Come to become even more personally satisfying.
It was my key drive with Kingdom Come to cast my father as the main human protagonist this time to interact with the world of superheroes. It was also a large part of my ambition to become more intimate with the time spent with the superheroes so we got up very close to their experience. In every way, Kingdom Come happened because of Marvels.
After Kingdom Come came out all the doors were open, yet you radically reversed the trajectory of your career with US Uncle Sam, a deconstruction of the American icon. To me, one of your finest works, grounded in real life and still with a dream-like quality. How was the project born and why did you agree to be part of it?
My Uncle Sam collaborator, Steve Darnall, and I had been discussing our mutual interest in the character icon of Uncle Sam for a number of years.
While I was producing these other works, Uncle Sam was always a project I was intending to line up for a thematic follow-through in my career. For me, it fits in as a graphic novel that evolves past the first two series, which are bound into pure comic book fictions, and Uncle Sam makes a commentary on world history and popular culture that expands beyond comics.