With years spent reading single issues here and there, juggling storylines of dozens of titles, I decided it was time to find a better way to read comics. So, it was off to the back issue bins armed with the longest want list you’ve ever seen! Putting together series after series and reading them in their complete goodness, I was reborn as the Retro-Reader!
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Number of Issues: 6
First Issue: February 2009 ($3.99)
Last Issue: April 2010 ($3.99)
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Jay Anacleto
Phil Sheldon is one of the top names in photo-journalism. For decades, his work introduced the people of the Marvel Universe to the super-heroes who exist within it. His book, Marvels, collected some of his most powerful photographs and intended to shed some positive light on these super-beings who are sometimes feared by normal, everyday people. Phil wanted the world to believe in these heroes – to trust them – and Marvels was his way of engendering those feelings.
But, the media tends to focus on negative events – after all, they’re more newsworthy. “Spider-Man: Murderer?!” sells more paper than “Do-Gooder Rescues Elderly Woman”. And, in this modern, cynical era, the public has begun to mistrust its heroes. Captain America & the Falcon fighting alongside the X-Men against S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents. Hulk – on a rampage. Captain America accused of murder. Mutants – living among us in secret. The world had grown frightened of the Marvels.
At this point, Phil Sheldon finds out that he’s got lung cancer – and only a short while to live. Faced with his mortality, Phil looks back upon his life and wonders if he’s truly accomplished anything. Many times, he’s missed out on time with his family to run off to photo opportunities. But, what has he accomplished? What has he done? In this dark hour, Phil feels as if he’s done nothing. He’s stood witness as others have done great things … but, he was only documenting the greatness. Not actually creating it.
After facing his fears and accepting the news of his impending death, Phil latches on to a new idea. An idea that drives his hopes up and, with his spirits lifted, staves off the ravaging effects of the disease – for a time. He’ll create a sequel to his book, Marvels. It will remind the public that they shouldn’t be scared of these super-powered heroes. This book will be part of his legacy – a way for people to remember him, long after he’s gone.
As he begins to contemplate the photos he’ll use in his next book, Phil can’t help but notice the newscasts on a daily basis. The Punisher – killing unconvicted criminals. Ghost Rider – an actual demon? Wolverine – a blood-thirsty Canadian super soldier. And now, Captain America – a neo-Nazi? Perhaps the Marvels had changed. Even the villains have changed: Molecule Man rescued the world from the Beyond’s damage. The Hulk had earned a Presidential pardon. Galactus had saved Manhattan from a renegade alien. Phil decides to approach his new book with a different angle: showing the good with the bad. Illustrating that there might be a dark side to the heroes … but, at the same time, the villains had some light in them, as well.
Sadly, before Phil could finish his book, he had gotten extremely ill. Confined to a hospital room, he eagerly sorted through his photographs – pondering which to include and what to write alongside them. He enjoyed visits from his wife and two daughters – and one other guest: Maggie. In her younger years, Phil and his family had taken Maggie in. She was a mutant on the run and that act of kindness had a profound affect on the young woman. Now, years later, here she stood – a testament that Phil had, indeed, done something great with his life. At the time, he toook the chance of a mutant-hating mob finding out and destroying his home or hurting his family. But, he took the risk to help a young girl who didn’t deserve the fear that her physical deformities bred in the hearts of less-understanding people.
In the presence of his family (Maggie included), Phil passed on – the cancer had finally taken its toll. The memorial service was packed – a crowd filled with family, friends and co-workers – all attesting to his family how he’ll be missed. How influential his work had been. And, how great a guy Phil Sheldon was. With the help of some of those friends, Phil’s family intends to complete his book, leaving behind a legacy he’d be proud to have.
The Bad: none that I can find
The Good: Although Phil Sheldon, everyman, is certainly the focus of this story, the super-heroes of the Marvel Universe are truly an essential part. Even though they’re barely in the limelight here, they are the driving force behind Phil Sheldon. And, with that in mind, Kurt Busiek includes references to actual bits of continuity in every nook and cranny. Each news report, headline and street conversation about what Captain America’s doing or who the X-Men are fighting is taken from the story found within a Marvel Comic. That attention to detail was truly appreciated by a Marvel Zombie, like myself, who actually remembers reading almost all of those referenced stories. It’s amazing how each brief headline or news report byline triggered memories of the entire story being referenced. I am truly impressed by the amount of research Busiek had to do to create all those references – or, possibly even more impressive, he pulled them out of his head – having read (and remembered!) all the same stories that I had enjoyed.
I’d be remiss if I took the time to talk about this series without mentioning the stunning artwork. Jay Anacleto’s pencil work is just beautiful. The realistic art style he employs adds an important layer of sincerity to this heartfelt tale. He also took the time to get the costumes right for the stories that were being referenced. Again, a lot of research must have been done to make sure those details were right – and, as a Marvel Zombie, I really appreciated that. In fact, his artwork was so superb that a variant of each issue was also published showcasing just his artwork – unhindered by the coloring process that can sometimes hide or cover over the original art. I hope you won’t read into that statement too much because Brian Haberlin’s painstaking coloring job was phenomenal – a truly important part of crafting the mood and tones of the story.
The Verdict: Wow! After 15 years, the long-awaited sequel to Marvels has finally arrived. At times, I had given up hope on it ever being created – but now, after reading it, I can honestly say: it was worth the wait. Seriously! Kurt Busiek has crafted a heartfelt tale that rivals the original in emotion (but not quite scope. The first one showcased Galactus’ initial arrival on Earth, for Pete’s sake!).
I’ve never felt as upset about the death of a comic character as I did by Phil’s. Why? Because it was permanent. Because Phil was me. He was you. He was Kurt. He wasn’t some super-hero that would magically come back to life a few years later. He was just a normal, every day guy. An everyman who just happened to show us the greatness of the Marvels. And, this was the last we’d see of him.
I’ve already mentioned earlier at how much more you’ll appreciate this story if you’re a true Marvel Zombie. Busiek took the time to carefully reference dozens of events from actual Marvel continuity and Jay Anacleto lovingly rendered them the way they actually took place (with the right costumes, and all!). And, while the original series showcased Busiek’s own admiration for the Marvel super-heroes, it seems that this one was even a little more personal. Sure, it continued to display the wonder of the Marvels but, it’s easy to read into Phil’s questions and ponderings about life – and take them to be Busiek’s own. Is Busiek, himself, pondering his own self-worth? After all, like Phil, he’s “chronicled” great moments in the lives of the Marvel super-heroes. But, is he now pondering and weighing his own accomplishments? I hope you’ll allow this story to serve as a shining testament to the greatness of Kurt’s writing. His amazing ability to tell a story that, while it does features super-heroics, can truly affect the reader on an emotional level. Have no fear, Mr. Busiek, long after you have shuffled off this mortal coil, this story will serve to inspire future generations to believe in great things and look for the best in everything. What a wonderful legacy for you … and Phil.