Current Reviews


Marvel 1985 #1

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Mark Millar
Tommy Lee Edwards
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Marvel 1985 #1 arrives in stores Thursday, May 29.


Matthew J. Brady: 3 Bullets
Mark J. Hayman: 4.5 Bullets
Erik David Norris: 4 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets
Thom Young: 3.5 Bullets

Matthew J. Brady 3 Bullets

It's hard to know what to think about this first installment of Mark Millar’s latest miniseries. Ostensibly, it's about a bunch of villains from the Marvel universe invading the "real world" in the eponymous year, but at this point, it seems to be more about the life of its young protagonist, a boy named Toby who is a child of divorce that has been sinking his energy into comics. That kind of story is a bit boring for a typical Marvel book (especially one written by Mark Millar), so the story gets a bit of a kick in the pants when Toby begins to suspect that some villains from his favorite comics have moved into an old house in his neighborhood and are up to some nefarious schemes around the neighborhood.

While that seems like an interesting concept (and it might yet turn out to be, once more is revealed about what is going on), as of this first issue, one wonders what exactly is the point of all this. Is it all metaphorical, with the villains metaphorically representing an escape from the drudgery of Toby's life? If so, it would have helped to see a bit more of that part of his existence; outside of some comments about his parents' breakup and his unlikable step-dad, we mostly see him talking about comics with his friends and the guy at the local comics store (in a unsubtly subtle plug for Secret Invasion, Toby spends a bunch of money on back issues of Secret Wars, saying "What's the point of collecting all these books if I'm missing the title where all the big changes are happening?"). If the villains are supposed to be real, why are they hanging around a house in the middle of nowhere instead of taking over the White House or something? Has Millar even really thought this through?

But while the story doesn't seem to be much of anything special, at least it sure looks pretty. Tommy Lee Edwards delivers some incredible visuals, full of down-to-earth locations and realistic-looking characters that contrast effectively with the more simple images of the comics Toby reads. He does a great job with the facial expressions, really bringing Toby and other characters to life, and the backgrounds are beautifully-rendered, from the laconic suburban streets, to the lush browns and greens of the forest, to the spookily-detailed house where the villains have taken residence. The depiction of the villains in the real world as opposed to their brightly-colored regular universe is also a fascinating one, and Edwards does a great job of making them look realistic and menacing, rather than silly.

Based on this first issue, the series doesn't seem like it will be especially good in the plot department (although Millar can be surprising, and he might be leading up to some sort of big action finale, which is what he does best), but the art is exquisite. Tommy Lee Edwards keeps getting stuck on strange projects like this and Bullet Points, but he makes the best of his situation and turns in work that nobody else can imitate. Maybe he'll be able to use this to springboard to something really good in the future.

Mark J. Hayman 4.5 Bullets

When this series was mooted, it was to have been a fumetti book--that's captioned photographs to spare you having to go look it up. Apparently, Marvel intended to hire actors, put them in costumes, and have at it in some small town, snapping pictures all the while. This put me off to the point where I actively disparaged the project. Let us give thanks that last season's hare-brained schemes have matured into something else entirely.

It's only natural for those of us with some memory of the year in question to relate some temporally appropriate anecdote. I'll spare you most of the details and say that it was the first of several transitional years. There was love and loss, triumph and tribulation, the usual signs of life. Oh yeah, some creep ripped off my bike, chained out back of my new pad; it had logged so many miles I'd busted two odometers before giving up on keeping score, so that'd go in the "loss" column. Well, enough reminiscing, let's talk comix.

Reading between the broadly spaced lines, this series will function as, among other things, a launch point for Mark Millar's next Fantastic Four arc, focussing on a newly contrived backstory for Doctor Doom, which strikes me as six kinds of peculiar. Millar has also stated that he plans to focus solely on (pop-)cultural references from the period. This is a shame seeing as the mid-80's seethed with as much social and political turmoil as any in modern history. The Cold War was taking its last, dying breaths, and with Ronald Reagan's finger on "the button," the prospect of global thermonuclear horror was very real, to which my nightmares of the day could have attested. The economies of the Western world were deeply in the tank, too; I vividly recall people lined up for blocks in the hope of a minimum wage job at any business that was hiring. Things couldn't have been any better in Scotland; perhaps Millar is repressing the darker aspects of his formative years.

Despite his many gifts, natural dialogue doesn't seem to be a thing with which Millar is comfortable. It's one thing for Captain America and Nick Fury, or Reed and Sue, to carry on a "normal" conversation within the context of their fantastic milieus, and another entirely for a kid and a couple of geeks in a "real world" comicbook shop. "Stilted" is the adjective that springs to mind, as though the characters were reading from a script as opposed to just talking. The balance of the "ordinary" dialogue flows better as things progress, but there's still a sense of affectation; less conversation than interpretation. Despite these hang-ups, everyone says what needs to be said and when (with a single, marked exception); since content trumps style, that's a deduction of only a fraction of a bullet, but you've been cautioned.

The first issue is spent establishing the central character, adolescent lad Toby, his supporting cast, and their small place in a mundane world meant to mirror our own. As much of the script is presented through Toby's narration, we're left to assume that he's fated to survive the coming storm of super-villainy, despite Millar's claims of widespread death and destruction permeating the story. You go, Toby!

It doesn't take long for things to slip. Toby is convinced that he saw the Red Skull for a moment in the window of a dilapidated house allegedly scheduled for renovation, and was a little creeped out by the misshapen stranger he'd met on the property. Though he initially claims to believe that it was just somebody in a Red Skull mask when describing the scene to a friend, our hero is deeply troubled (as well as troubled about people already believing him to be deeply troubled). The house is another supporting character, former home to his father's childhood friend "Clyde Wyncham," a name that will figure prominently. As Toby anxiously ponders what he's seen, a crystal clear photo of the Vulture (classic Toomes version) perched atop a local church is shown on the local news. Unable to elicit interest in the strange clues from his friend, and afraid to share his suspicions with his mother, Toby, flashlight in hand, skulks into the dark woods and back to the Wyncham house. At that moment all bets are off as we're up to our stalagmites in Moloids, confirming Toby's suspicion that "... there was something familiar about that creepy little midget guy." Another displaced villain spots him and Toby runs for his life, straight into, well, that would be telling.

Let us now turn to the art of Tommy Lee Edwards. I missed ignored the "imaginary" series Bullet Points and was otherwise unfamiliar with his work, which spans many media and genres. His style here evokes early Bill Sienkiewicz, though more developed, as well as any number of impressionist illustrators. Edwards enjoys the liberal use of heavy blacks (pause for the old Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald jokes) which adds a distinct mood to the work, well in keeping with the dour storyline. What might initially appear "loose" or "sketchy" on the surface is in fact tight and realistic, and function follows form as each scene flows seemlessly into the next. The only hiccup, the fire at the Wyncham house, is in fact the fault of the writer for not lending any dialogue or narration to the scene; careful examination of the art clearly implicates the character shown, it's their motivation that's dodgy.

Due to the dialogue, my empathy for the protaganist is low, but the story that surrounds him and Edwards' gorgeous illustration have me dangling on the hook. In an industry where it's recently taken anywhere from six to twelve issues to tell a ten page story, four issues seems like a tight squeeze for 1985; let's hope we get a resolution and that the evident "compression" is a sign of things to come.

Erik David Norris: 4 Bullets

I have never been a huge fan of the Marvel Universe. There are roughly ten characters I absolutely love, and the rest seem to bleed together. So it's a nice treat when I can read a single book that takes the majesty and charm of an entire universe and condenses it into a single mini-series. It was done with Marvels, Earth X, and things are looking good for Marvel 1985 after its debut issue.

The story follows a thirteen year old boy named Toby who is dealing with the divorce of his parents. To cope, Toby has buried his head in Marvel Comics as a form of escapism where, as he explains, "all life's problems are solved in 24 pages." One of the first things I noticed was that all the characters in Marvel 1985 are well developed. For example, it would have been easy for Mark Millar to cast the step-dad of Toby as a complete ass, making readers instantly gravitate towards the same sentiments as Toby. Instead, Millar gives every character a well rounded sense of right and wrong, and thusly, helps build a stronger, more engaging narrative.

But it wouldn't be a Marvel book without some tights, and Marvel 1985 doesn't disappoint. Plenty of top-tier villains show their faces, including Doom, Red Skull, Mole Man, and the Vulture. It seems they are amassing in an old house under the leadership of some unnamed uber-villain and without any heroes, it's up to Toby to stop them.

Tommy Lee Edwards also turns in awe-inspiring artwork with the first issue of Marvel 1985. I have no prior experience with his work, but Edwards' style reminds me of John Paul Leon, and it works perfectly to capture the real world feel the book is going for. This is Marvel villains inhabiting our world, not the other way around, which the artwork clearly exemplifies. Tommy Lee Edwards also draws a freaky Red Skull. It was actually one of the first panels I saw for this project and it was the deal breaker. I was hooked.

The first issue of Marvel 1985 shows a lot of promise. The writing is strong and the artwork even stronger. While the cliffhanger has a "coolness" factor, it kind of makes the premise of the series moot. However, I have faith in Millar's storytelling abilities and think by the time issue #2 rolls around my questions will start to be answered. If you're like me--not interested in Skrull Invasions but are always open to reading something that captures the spirit of an entire universe in a single series--give the first issue of Marvel 1985 a shot.

Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

The first issue of 1985 finally arrives this week, after a long gestation period and a fair amount of advance hype. As a fan of 1980s Marvel comics, I've been looking forward to this book ever since it was announced, and I was interested to see whether Mark Millar would be able to make good use of the historical setting whilst at the same time crafting a story that's accessible and compelling in its own right. On the strength of this first issue, it looks as though he's going to pull off that balancing act well.

From the start, the book firmly establishes the era, with an opening sequence that's lifted directly from the climax of the classic Secret Wars crossover. Whilst this could be seen as an easy way to curry favour with Marvel fans--especially those like me, who consider the mid-'80s to be a high point of the company's publishing history--I was pleased to see that this first issue doesn't rely too much on the period setting, never feeling as though it's trying to substitute nostalgia for a good story. Although other comics of the era are occasionally mentioned explicitly (Frank Miller's Daredevil is talked about, for example), there isn't an endless catalogue of clunky references. Instead, Millar uses the landscape of the 1980s Marvel Universe as a mere backdrop for his central tale, which is far more grounded in the real world.

Millar's story has a certain timeless quality to it, making use of some classic tropes of kids' adventure stories (a haunted house; a troubled family background that encourages escapism and fantasy; kooky mystery elements) but filtering it through a mid-'80s superhero lens. His lead, a boy named Toby, is well-characterised and immediately likeable, feeling like a more sympathetic and less disturbed take on Dave Lizewski from Millar's Kick-Ass. There's a similar level of comic geekery and in-jokery here as is evident in that book--with a fun skewering of "intellectual" readers in the form of the cooler-than-thou comic shop attendant--but there's a warmth and lack of cynicism here that sets 1985 apart from the writer's other "real-world" superhero title. Supporting characters, such as Toby's father, are given some welcome definition here too, and there's a healthy villainous presence that I expect to see increase in further issues.

It's no secret that this book was originally planned as a fumetti-style project, with the initial concept based around the use of treated photographs to illustrate Millar's script. However, this approach was ultimately abandoned in favour of hand-drawn art by Tommy Lee Edwards. I think that the right choice was made in switching to a more traditional style of comics art for the book: Edwards' artwork captures a sense of realism without being photo-realistic, and it allows for a smoother fusion of the real-world elements with the more fantastical characters and concepts than might be possible with photography. That said, his art style isn't completely to my tastes. I've been aware of Edwards' work since seeing his work on the Bullet Points miniseries from a couple of years ago, and whilst I know that he has a lot of fans, I found some of his images in that title to be a little indistinct and sketchy.

His work here seems to have shown a real improvement and progression, however, with some powerful shots of superhero action (such as the opening image of Dr. Doom) sitting alongside some equally impressive depictions of more mundane everyday suburban life. The shots of Toby's neighbourhood, a local forest, and the "haunted" house are really detailed and lifelike, and help to reinforce the idea that the book is based in a tangible world that we can relate to. There are other places where the art feels a little more flat and less detailed, but they tend to be during the more superhero-based sequences, which leads me to believe that it's an intentional stylistic choice on the part of the creators that is being used to contrast the "reality" of the Marvel Universe with the real world that Toby lives in. I also enjoyed the nods to other Marvel comics of the era, with countless 1980s comics covers featured on the shelves of Toby's local comics shop in the background of certain panels. One final visual element that stood out for me was the unorthodox style of the issue's word balloons, the tails of which have flat, truncated ends rather than the usual point. It's subtle enough that it's almost unnoticeable, but along with Edwards' distinctive visual style, it helps to give the book a strong sense of visual identity.

Before reading this comic, I already expected to enjoy the 1980s references and the "Marvel supervillains in the real world" plot. However, I didn't particularly expect to be won over by the characterisation of the main character or the well-paced storytelling to the extent that I have been. The story is still very much in its early stages, but this issue provides a well-told opening chapter that builds slowly towards a minor climax that sets up the concept of the remaining issues effectively, and drops a few hints as to future developments in the book (such as the mysterious H.E.R.B.I.E. toy, the intriguing caption of the very first page, and the as-yet unrevealed master villain). 1985 looks like it's going to provide a decent story to go along with the nostalgia, and I look forward to seeing where it leads.

Thom Young: 3.5 Bullets

For some reason (such as not paying attention to promotional copy), I thought this series was going to attempt to recreate the style of Marvel Comics in 1985--a year when Jim Shooter ran the show, Secret Wars was the company's runaway best seller (because there's no accounting for taste or quality), and Frank Miller was working at DC in-between his two runs on Daredevil.

Additionally, my other favorite Marvel creator back then, Bill Sienkiewicz, was no longer working on Moon Knight or New Mutants. However, John Byrne still had a year to go on Fantastic Four. For the most part, though, Marvel Comics circa 1985 was a wasteland, and I questioned the idea of publishing a series that would attempt to recreate the type of comics the company was publishing then.

I was certain that Marvel 1985 would be as big of a disaster as DC's ill-conceived Silver Age summer event was in 2000 when they completely failed to capture the nostalgia of the Silver Age but succeeded in pointing out the flaws of DC's comics from that era (though I think that their "success" was unintentional).

Anyway, I genuinely thought Marvel 1985 was going to try to return us to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the Beyonder was holding professional wrestling-styled closed-cage matches on a planet "in another galaxy" as a precursor to TV's Survivor series.

How wrong I was.

This is the story of what it was like to be a 15-year-old Marvel Zombie fanboy living in Everytown, USA in 1985. I actually don't know what age the protagonist, Toby, is supposed to be, but I know he's older than 13 (because he started collecting comics when he was 13). I chose "15" because that's the age Mark Millar was in 1985, and I figured some of Toby's story must be partially autobiographical (except, of course, that Millar is from Scotland, not Everytown, USA).

We're told on page six that Toby is older than 13 (and probably 15). Unfortunately, the story's illustrator and painter, Tommy Lee Edwards, has made Toby look more like he's 10 or 11 years old. I guess Toby must have been an underdeveloped kid at 15--you know, as many comic book nerds were back in 1985 (I wrote, facetiously).

I was in college in 1985, and I was living a life very much different from Toby's in this book--not because I was in college, but for other reasons. However, my life in 1976-77 was quite a bit like Toby's--not because my parents were divorced and I sought solace in comic books but because my family kept moving across the continent (North America) every year or two from the time I was 11 until I was 18 (and so I sought solace in comic books because it's tough to break into social cliques at a new school every year or two).

I also know what it's like at that age to imagine those four-color characters actually being found in the world outside my window--or, rather, my hotel window. When I went to the Chicago ComiCon in 1978 (in downtown Chicago at the Congress Hotel), my friends and I went out for a late-night climb on the fire escape of the old YMCA building (now torn down), and we saw a rooftop cityscape that was like something drawn by Marshall Rogers in his 1977-78 run on Detective Comics.

Actually, my friends saw something that looked like it came from Jack Kirby's tenure on Fantastic Four. They were about ten years older than me, and they imagined Galactus towering above the buildings across the street as Reed Richards and the gang raced towards Him in the FantastiCar--armed with the Ultimate Nullifier. However, I imagined a Marshall Rogers-drawn Batman staring down at me from the shadows beneath a rooftop water tank.

And that's what the first issue of this series does a good job of doing--evoking that pubescent (or arrested pre-pubescent) fanboy imagination of getting so caught up in the four-color characters of our youth that we imagine them existing in the shadows just at the edge of our vision (but hidden from the non-comic book readers with whom we co-exist in the mundane world).

I appreciate Toby's visions of Marvel villains (and The Hulk) in this story. He sees them lurking in the shadows and/or fleeing the lights of TV news camera crews--and he knows who they are while everyone else is clueless (except for his comic book-reading neighbor who has trouble believing because he's beginning to feel that he's getting "too old" for comics).

I liked this story a great deal on that level of evoking the nostalgia of being a kid feeling isolated and turning to comics as a form of escape--but obviously not enough to give it more than three-and-a-half bullets. My quibbles are with some of the details in Edwards's painted illustrations and with some of Millar's dialog.

For the "real world" images, Edwards has a melancholy line that stirs up a sense of half-remembered images as it simultaneously evokes a loneliness of being in the world but not of it--and I like that look. He also uses faded colors for the backgrounds that add to the sense of memory and separateness.

At times, though, the images seem to evoke a time even earlier than 1985--partially due to the faded colors and partially due to Toby and his neighborhood friend living in A-frame houses with attic loft bedrooms. These are houses that look like they were built in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Most of the middle-class kids I knew who were Toby's age in 1985 (or even in 1977) were living in modest middle class houses that were built in the 1970s or 1980s--and most comic book readers then (and now) were from the middle class. Of course, it seems that Toby may be living in the house that his father grew up in (which his mother and stepfather own), so it would make sense for it to be a house built in the early 1940s.

Additionally, the house in which Toby believes Marvel's super-villains are using as a hideout is an 18th-century Victorian mansion, so that also contributes to a sense that the setting is other than 1985. That impression of a "nebulous time period" is, admittedly, a minor quibble on my part. In fact, the sense of dislocation in time may even be intentional for all I know.

After all, the issue opens with an image of shadowed men (supposedly Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, though one has glasses) slumped over a draftsman's table as they create the Marvel Universe in 1961. However, while the buildings seen through the window look like they might be skyscrapers from 1960s New York, the man seated at the drawing table seems to be wearing a 1940s-styled vest and dress shirt (based on the draping quality of the baggy sleeves).

In other words, the nostalgic quality in the story seems to be multi-temporal and might well be an intentional attempt to have the story appeal to all comic book readers, not just those who were kids in 1985. If that was the thought behind these elements, then I can certainly appreciate the notion.

The other quibble I have with Edwards’s art is with the Cadillac Eldorado he drew on page six. It's supposed to be a new car fresh off the dealership lot. However, because of the nostalgic feel he is evoking, which includes the shade and tone of the purple or blue he chose for the car, it doesn't look like a shiny new Cadillac. It looks like a 23-year-old car with dull, faded paint--such as I might find in a run-down section of Everytown, USA today.

Again, though, this is an admittedly minor problem, and I like the painted illustrations as a whole as Edwards does a good job of evoking a sense of nostalgia with both his line work and coloring choices.

My other quibble is with some of Millar's "real world" dialog. It lacks verisimilitude in that Toby and his friend sound not so much like comic book-reading teenage boys in 1985 but more like how a 39-year-old male comic book writer with the benefit of hindsight would have liked to have sounded when he was 15.

Similarly, the comic book store owner and his employee don't sound realistic as they make speeches regarding comic book reading habits and review preferences rather than engage in the natural rhythms of "comic book talk" that you would have actually found in a store in 1985 (or a store today, for that matter).

Their dialog sounds more like what you would expect to find on comic book message boards--or in long-winded reviews written by someone like me. It's not the type of "realistic" dialog that should be found in a comic book that is attempting to conflate fantasy and reality by bringing Marvel's characters through a portal into a universe that is "the world outside your window"--your window in 1985 (or earlier), anyway.

Overall, this is an intriguing story that I enjoyed. However, I'm not sure it would appeal to an audience outside the main superhero comic book-reading population--and that's too bad. Still, for those of us who were once teenage boys lost in four-color worlds (regardless of the specific year in which that was the case), this book is a nice journey back to those days.

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