Current Reviews


Marvel 1985 #2

Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2008
By: Thom Young

Mark Millar
Tommy Lee Edwards
Marvel Comics
Editor's Note: Marvel 1985 #2 arrives in stores tomorrow, June 25.

"Clyde Wyncham"

It would not be accurate to say that Tommy Lee Edwards's illustrations for Marvel 1985 have a "photo realistic" quality to them. They obviously don't. However, it's become more obvious with this second issue that Edwards is probably using photo references for many of his panels--using photographs of cars and houses in order to create detailed accuracy in his illustrations.

Nevertheless, with his eye for details and his heavy use of black and muted colors, it's clear that Edwards is striving for a sense of visual verisimilitude. Additionally, in terms of the setting, the relationships, and the background histories of the characters, it seems that Mark Millar is striving for a sense of literal verisimilitude. Unfortunately, Millar's half of the project isn't quite up to the level of Edwards's half.

For a series that seems intent on creating a sense of "real world" verisimilitude, Millar's dialog choices are very strange. It makes me wonder if Millar has never done what a great many writers of realistic fiction do--sit down in a crowded public area and eavesdrop on actual conversations that real people have with each other.

The activity is not one of voyeurism but of research into the natural rhythms and phrasings of everyday speech. Of course, not all stories require "natural-sounding dialog."

For instance, the dialog in The Maltese Falcon (either the novel or film) is highly stylized without any consideration given to how characters from varied socioeconomic backgrounds would actually speak. In part, the film (as well as the novel) is a classic because of the artificial-but-stylized dialog. It works because it's the type of dialog the story requires.

However, if a story is supposed to be realistic (or at least have realistic elements), then the dialog should come across the way that real people of varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds would actually speak (see HBO's recently completed The Wire for a good example of a story that requires very precise realistic dialog).

A writer of such stories needs to be aware of the rhythms and word choices of real conversations. Yet, Millar's characters all sound as if they're reciting scripted lines rather than having actual conversations.

Obviously, Millar's characters do have scripted dialog (Millar is writing it), but the lines sound as if the characters are reciting the sentences for effect rather than having actual conversations with each other--such as when Toby's father is visiting his childhood friend Clyde Wyncham at the psychiatric hospital.

As with most scenes in this issue (as well as last issue) the scene at the psychiatric hospital has artificial speech rhythms and phrasing. A good example is this exchange on page nine between Toby's father and a staff nurse:
Nurse: Listen, I forgot to ask, but we need to know for the records . . . are you a relative of the patient or just a friend?
[Note: This type of information is probably not asked of people visiting patients. However, even if it is asked at some hospitals, it wouldn't be a nurse's responsibility to ask it; it would be the responsibility of the receptionist or security person at the front desk. Thus, we have another strike against verisimilitude, albeit a minor one.]

Jerry (Toby's father): Oh, just a friend. Clyde doesn't have any relatives. Not since his mom died. He and I go all the way back to grade school together.
[Note: Here we see why Millar chose to have the nurse ask the question--it gave Millar a chance to provide exposition that he otherwise would not have been able to have Toby's father provide to a receptionist or security person at the front desk (at least not as "naturally").]

Jerry: Bring a tear to a glass eye, huh?

Nurse: After twenty years in here, the only things that bring a tear to these eyes are my pay slip and the men's room, sir.
First, Jerry's "a tear to a glass eye" phrase doesn't come across as American. The syntax and grammar would sound more appropriate for someone from Scotland--which, of course, is where Millar is from.

Additionally, it sounds more like the type of phrase people use when they're writing rather than when they're speaking spontaneously. When that type of line is actually spoken in real conversation, it's usually from a person who has developed an affectation--probably rehearsed and made a part of that individual's style over a number of years.

The nurse's response involves a similar affectation: ". . . the only things that bring a tear to these eyes are my pay slip and the men's room. . . ."

Both lines might be great in a Humphrey Bogart film--if Millar was trying to create a very mannered story with stylized dialog. However, if the intent was to create a sense of verisimilitude that helps set up a point of contrast with the fantastic elements of super-villains crossing over into the "real world" from the Marvel universe (which I believe is the intent), then Millar's dialog fails.

Yet, beyond the obvious disconnection between the dialog and the apparent desire for verisimilitude in the story, we continue to have the interesting concept of Marvel super-villains (and the Hulk) crossing over into the "world outside our windows." Until the final six pages of this issue, though, I thought Millar was leaving the series open for interpretation regarding how the fantastic elements are appearing in the real world setting.

Until the last six pages, the only sense of a Marvel character not being exclusively witnessed by Toby was in the first issue when a TV news report and photo showed one of Spider-Man's nemeses, The Vulture, atop a clock tower in the town in which Toby lives. That photo of The Vulture atop a building was explained away by Toby's mother as "some lunatic dressed up in a bird costume. . . . The radio says it's students playing a frat-house prank."

In other words, she (and the radio station) offered the most plausible explanation for such a circumstance in the real world. Had Toby been the only character in the series to actually see Marvel characters using their powers, then the readers would have been allowed to interpret the story in at least two possible ways:
  • As either a science fiction tale of parallel universes in which super-powered people are able to crossover from one universe to another, or
  • As a story about the psychotic breakdown of a boy who is unable to cope with the reality of his life--such as the divorce of his parents, his dislike of his stepfather, and his possible cross-Atlantic move that was mentioned in this issue.
In other words, we would have been left with a story not unlike The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, which can be interpreted as either a supernatural story of ghosts attempting to abduct or possess two children, or as the unreliable report of the children's governess after she has experienced some sort of psychotic breakdown.

Of course, the Marvel characters have been shown to us operating outside of Toby's first-person observation. However, other than The Vulture being spotted atop a building, no one but Toby has seen these characters within the story--and only Toby has witnessed the display of superpowers.

Unfortunately, the possibility of interpreting Marvel 1985 as anything other than a science fiction tale of parallel universes seems to have ended with the final six pages of this issue in which another Spider-Man nemesis, Sandman, breaks into a house in Toby's town and attacks the couple who live there. With this development, all sense of ambiguity and possible interpretations of the fantastic elements in the story appear to have ended.

Still, there are mysteries that remain that can hold a reader's interest--such as how the Marvel characters are crossing over and for what purpose. Additionally, there is the question of whether the anachronisms in the story are intentional or mistakes that are being made my Millar and Edwards. At least we know that one of the anachronisms is intentional.

In the first issue, Toby was at a comic book store and saw a H.E.R.B.I.E. (actually, it should be HER-B) toy from The New Fantastic Four cartoon series of 1978. The comic book store owner admitted that no such toy was ever made, and he couldn't explain how the one he's selling could exist. Do the super-villains have a nefarious plot that involves bringing licensed products from their universe to sell to collectors on our Earth?

Obviously, that particular anachronism is intentional, though we don't know why. However, I'm not so certain about others--such as when the man who is eventually attacked by Sandman is shown holding a 3.5 inch computer disk (which was invented in 1984, so that's not the anachronism).

As he holds the 3.5 inch disk, he explains to his wife that he was able to transfer ten computer games onto "a single cassette tape"--to which his wife replies, "Making copies of Commodore 64 games is not a career, Edgar Bowman."

First, what wife refers to her husband by his first and last name (and with a wry smile on her lips) as she alludes to him being a deadbeat? Here we have yet another example of affected dialog. However, the anachronism in the scene is that the man seems to be using a 3.5 inch disk with a Commodore 64 computer.

Perhaps there's some significance to the man anachronistically using a 3.5 inch disk with a Commodore 64 (not to mention being able to transfer computer games to "cassette tapes" in 1985). Perhaps the presence of anachronistic technology in the house is whhat prompted Sandman to break in and attack the couple. Perhaps this technology "error" ties into the appearance of the HER-B toy at the comic book store.

Despite my concerns about the details in this story, I'm intrigued by the possibility that the anachronisms are intentional and that there is some sort of connection between Toby's experiences now and the psychological breakdown of Clyde Wyncham that occurred decades earlier.

I just wish Mark Millar would spend several hours hanging out at a bus depot, a laundromat, or an airport departure gate the next time he's in the US. He needs to eavesdrop on how real Americans having real conversations actually speak.

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