Nostalgia isn’t anything new for comics.

These days there’s practically a cottage industry within comics hearkening back to bygone eras; either in format or content. There are creators and readers that want to bring back characters from their childhood, resetting them to what they consider halcyon days. Nostalgia by Veidt. Series set to plug holes in continuity. Creators telling stories of what they hoped would have happened if they’d have continued their legendary runs.

I’d probably argue that the most common form of nostalgia within comics may not really be recognized as nostalgia by many. Since it’s transformative. Like character legacies. New characters using an old name. Or reintegrating forgotten characters into continuity in new ways. One of the things that was always great about many Roy Thomas books.

Then Marvels came along and changed things.

Marvels, I called them — and that’s what they were. Next to that — what were we?”

Marvels by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s John Roshell is the tale of Phil Sheldon. A photojournalist just starting his career as superheroes start appearing. The story serves two angles: an average person’s view of the new, wonderful, but frightening, super-powered beings around them and a retrospective of the dawn of the Age of Marvels.

The artwork from Alex Ross in this series is something special. Not that there weren’t fully painted comics before this, it just feels like something timeless. It works to enhance that feeling of nostalgia in a number of different ways. The photorealistic style works to give a heightened sense of reality to the story. It grounds Sheldon and the regular people around him, even while making the superheroes seem all the more fantastic in comparison. The recreation of iconic scenes throughout the history of the Marvel Universe then also brings to mind the kind of prestige retrospective specials of magazines like Time and Life. It’s beautiful how it comes together.

I also find it interesting that Busiek and Ross don’t just let the story sit there with us in awe, but also circle back to the danger that superpowers potentially entail. That the world is more complicated than just the brightly coloured simplicity of the four coloured fantasies that we remember from our youth. Although not without reminding us as to why the heroes are still important.

I saw the wonder and delight in her face and knew the mistake I’d made.”

We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of Marvels by Busiek, Ross, Starkings & Roshell now. For the 25th anniversary, in addition to a new collection, a number of follow-ups came out, including Marvel and Snapshots that expanded on the setting in different ways. Eventually leading to The Marvels, that circled back to filling in a new gap made by a shifting timeline.

I think it’s interesting having nostalgia for a nostalgia piece, but that reinforces some of its legacy. Both on the grip the original stories had, and still have, from the early days of Marvel and on the history of the project itself. I remember how different the issues of Marvels were, not that they were painted, but the thick acetate over a card stock cover. The smell of those glossy pages. And the sense of wonder contained within those pages. Marvels captured the magic of the bygone era and reminded us of everything that made it special.


Classic Comic Compendium: MARVELS

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Alex Ross
Letterers: Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s John Roshell
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Release Date: November 9 1993 – March 22 1994

Available collected in Marvels: The Remastered Edition and Marvels: 25th Anniversary Edition

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!