Marvels is a lookback at the early years of the Marvel Universe (both Golden Age and Silver Age), but it is not simply a re-telling, it is showing the stories from the perspective of the average citizen; namely Phil Sheldon. Phil is a photographer who has been involved with super-heroes ever since the 30's and the days of the original Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Bucky etc. He's watched as the heroes of the Silver Age (the FF, Avengers and of course Spider-Man) emerge as the successors to the old "Marvels" (Phil's name for the super-heroes). The public have showered the Marvels with praise and acclaim and the heroes have turned into celebrities with everyone wanting to read more about them everyday. We are now up to the mid-silver age and the coming of Galactus...
Only two months have passed since the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards but already the public adoration of the Marvels is fading. Phil Sheldon has been paired with Ben Urich to write an article that slams Tony Stark in a 'hard- hitting and uncompromising' way. Phil knows that this article will ruin the sales of his new book (titled "Marvels", that collects hundreds of Phil's pictures of the super-heroes). Stark himself is in trouble with the government over the identity of Iron Man and his company's activities. (I'll admit my knowledge of this Stark vs. Washington event is simply drawn from the two pages this book focuses on it as I've barely read any Iron Man comics). Overall, the heroes that only a few months ago people were showering with praise now seem to be being publicly criticised and attacked every day.
Phil goes out on a family trip to the zoo where his mind is more focused on work. Suddenly, water starts forming from nowhere and seems to stretch for miles in the distance. A crackpot starts raving about how "the end is coming!" and there will be "three signs then the end".
But the world continues on and the criticism of the Marvels keeps coming. Spider-Man is accused of attacking Jonah Jameson, the Fantastic Four caused a whole building to collapse in a battle against The Dragon Man and The Hulk attacks Washington. Phil is beginning to lose faith in his Marvels. Perhaps they weren't the glorious heroes he once thought they were? Perhaps he had misjudged them and they were really something much darker.
But the next day Phil's mind is distracted from this when the entire sky over New York suddenly lights up into fire. Everyone is panicking but as soon as it began it was over. But the fire is replaced by hundreds of fragments of rock floating over the city and the arrival of the mysterious Silver Surfer. Phil begins to think that the crackpot at the zoo was right and judgement day is here. Then...Galactus arrives. The city is thrown into chaos; a mix of confusion and fear. The FF arrive but from where Phil, and the rest of New York, is watching it seems they have lost and nothing can stop Galactus.
Phil rushes home to his family, through streets of people who either do not know what is happening or who believe that the world is ending. Finally, Phil makes it home and watches the dramatic events from there. All of a sudden though, Galactus is defeated. Nobody knows exactly what happened and the news keeps on showing Reed Richards holding up a strange device that seemed to cause Galactus great alarm and then he quickly departed. Phil's faith in the Marvels has been re-affirmed and he expects the Fantastic Four to be hailed as mighty heroes who saved the planet from doom. He expects statues built in their honour and bridges and mountains named after them. Instead, Galactus is called a hoax and the FF get no thanks. Phil is amazed at how people can turn against the heroes that just saved them from extinction.
Phil is even more disgusted at Peter Parker when Peter offers J.J. photos of Spider-Man "that make ol' Spidey look terrible". Phil explains that the whole city seems embarrassed of the fear they felt and they were taking it out on the Marvels. As Phil is enjoying dinner with his family he is called out to a story in Washington. As he walks to a cab, a group of people are criticising the X-Men; which sends Phil over the edge. He shouts at the people and blasts "what do you need?! The world to actually end?!". He's appalled at their lack of gratefulness to the Marvels and tells them to "look up for once in your lives" as he points upwards to the Baxter Building.
The handling of the classic Galactus story from the point of view of the public here is nothing short of brilliant. Kurt Busiek excellently captures the sense of confusion, terror and ultimately powerlessness of the average citizens as the FF battle Galactus. Nothing is ever explicitly explained about what the FF actually did to defeat Galactus and that is exactly how the citizens would have seen it. They didn't know what is happening and they can only watch as the planet is brought to the edge of annihilation, and that side of the story is wonderfully executed by Busiek. This isn't simply a re-telling of the Galactus story, it's showing the events in a new and interesting light, showing the very realistic reactions to such huge events.
Busiek also shows the public turning on the 'Marvels' very well and shows Phil Sheldon questioning his faith in them very realistically. Nothing about this side of the story ever feels forced or unnatural and Phil lashing out at the critics of the Marvels is the perfect way to round the story off. He's in utter shock that the people that just saved their lives are now being criticised.
The art by Alex Ross is astounding. Never have the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe looked so real and the world around them seem so alive and realistic. The splash pages of the battle against Galactus are absolutely amazing and contrast well against the human side of the story as Phil is returning to his family. Every panel of art is ultra-detailed and looks spectacular. You can't really describe Alex Ross' art without seemingly descending into hyperbole but it really is breathtaking.
The story is a very well-written and interesting take on classic Marvel stories, all woven together to form a real world. The public and Phil's reaction to Galactus and the Marvels is realistic and natural and the great painted art really is the icing on the cake. A superb issue in every way. Easily five webs.
This story obviously contains lots of refrences to old Marvel comics so here are most of those refrences and the original issues in which they appeared:
Senator Byrd demands for Iron Man's real identity- Tales of Suspense #72
Attuma floods eastern seaboard- Avengers #27
"Spider-Man attacked Jonah Jameson"- Amazing Spider-Man #34
FF vs. The Dragon Man- Fantastic Four #45
Hulk In Washington- Tales To Astonish #75
Galactus events- Fantastic Four #48,49,50
"Spider-Man fighting that Looter character"- Amazing Spider-Man #36
Byrd cancels Stark's defence contracts- Tales of Suspense #77
X-Men vs. Count Nefaria in Washington- X-Men #23
There are more smaller references than this but these are simply the main ones.