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Marvel Boy
posted January 20, 2006
 

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Creators: Grant Morrison, JG Jones
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $15.95, 2002.
Ordering Numbers: 0785107819 (ISBN)

A refreshingly goofy take on superhero source material can be found in Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones' Marvel Boy, a little talked-about mini-series from the front end of the New Marvel era, a period in superhero comics marked by Joe Quesada's assumption of the Editor in Chief position and his subsequent recruitment of writing talent. Marvel Boy was collected in a trade paperback in 2001, putting it close to the beginning of the slightly-friendlier-to-bookstores era at Marvel as well. Grant Morrison went on to a long run on New X-Men good enough it was immediately dismantled on his departure while Jones is perhaps best known for his work on Mark Millar's bad-guy soap opera Wanted. A minor key adventure story that wears its underlying lack of profundity like cotton boxers beneath rubber pants, Marvel Boy is a textbook example of less is more, even in terms of its publishing history. A planned sequel never came off, giving the book a disposable and energetic sheen unfettered by explanations, explications, and one too many fight scenes.

The stand-alone nature of the book recalls the first, brief Marvel Boy series from 1950. It ran a whole two issues at a time when Martin Goodman's comic book company spent a few years experimenting in off and on fashion with the superhero genre, partly it seems as a matter of running every genre up the sales flagpole, and partly in hopes of a revival that might lend a ready-for-television sheen to some of their more classically popular characters. The second issue of the first Marvel Boy was one of Bill Everett's odder efforts during a long and mostly under-appreciated career. Everett, like Charlie Biro, dabbled in two-dimensional, personality-driven superhero stories before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched the billion-dollar Marvel entertainment empire with the technique in the early 1960s. If Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner stories leaned towards a harder-than-industry-standard pessimism about man at his jerkiest, the cartoonist's issue of Marvel Boy fully embodied Cold War stress disorder at its bomb shelter craziest. The decidedly loopy qualities of Marvel Boy's second set of adventures, its alien conspiracies and nuclear explosions, seem even more disjointed experienced through the rudimentary narrative structures favored by first generation comics creators like Everett. Such stories tended to unfold in uniform panel progressions no matter how many jumps in narrative there were, or how weird individual plot points might be in relation to what came before and after. This gave the wildest adventures the feel of an outlandish anecdote told in a creepy monotone, casting doubt on the sanity of the tale and the teller. Jack Kirby may have opened up the page at Marvel very early on for action, but by 1950 the King had yet to mix presentational styles in ways creators like Everett might have found extremely useful.

Coming of age in the 1970s, Morrison has long enjoyed access to storytelling strategies that effectively communicate the weird and disjointed. Many believe the writer responsible for introducing several of these techniques to American comic book readers through works like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. But unlike the central role the bending of reality plays in those more ambitious serials, in the Marvel Boy mini-series oddness serves mostly as a flourish. Morrison displays uncharacteristic restraint in Marvel Boy. The overriding emphasis seems to be on making certain everything works first as a comic book adventure story rather than as an idea virus, magic spell, pop culture cluster bomb, or whatever grandiloquent description writers like Morrison use for comics that goose superhero formulae with a formal twist and one or two declarations about the state of reality.

By making less obvious the stabs at relevance and deeper meaning, particularly those he sometimes attempts through sentiment and affectation, Morrison with Marvel Boy hewed closer to the Lee/Kirby model of superhero storytelling than anything he had done to date. It is a good fit. What the series resembles most closely is the later, Kirby-dominated and slightly tossed-off seeming issues of Fantastic Four. Like Kirby, Morrison focuses on the weirdness of the superhero concept itself, leaving many of the out-there science fiction ideas, the bizarre combat technologies and hints of radical, identity-focused politics, to sizzle at the perimeter of the page. When Marvel Boy digs into these ideas head-on, like in #3's “living corporation�? story, the result feels more like Morrison is having fun with a pretty standard, straight-forward way of doing satire than slipping a semi-shocking point or two under the radar. That's the Stan Lee effect, particularly the way dialogue is used to deflate the seriousness of the action. Sometimes the concepts don't work -- the At its heart, Marvel Boy is a light science fiction story with a lot of punching, kicking and blowing things up. The pages are filled with bright colors and attractive figures, the leads are handsome, the villains are monstrous, and if there are a number of smarter than average details to keep the reader on the page when the eye drifts away from the action in the foreground, that has to be good for the bottom line.

Morrison avoids getting bogged down in details. World-building elements accrue to describe the setting; they never consume the reader's attention as things unto themselves. The main character is Kree, one of the standard Marvel Comics alien races, and he uses a computer with the face of Roy Thomas-era super-villain The Supreme Intelligence of the Kree. The villain Doctor Midas wears the old Iron Man armor, and name-drops the Baddoon (the half-naked and surprisingly dull-witted eventual conquerors of Earth from the Guardians of the Galaxy serial). Readers glimpse a trophy room in issue #1 that is filled with Marvel alien paraphernalia. Reed Richards' name flits by on a newscast, Dr. Doom's rolls off a prison guard's tongue and Marvel's super intelligence agency SHIELD serves as a recurring foil. All of this suggests a pretty standard “alternate universe�? trope, or another potential sideways upgrade of the standard Marvel “universe�? reminiscent of what Kirby was asked to do by bringing his Ancient Astronauts series The Eternals into Marvel's company-wide storyline. This plays in very clever fashion into one of Morrison's favorite subjects. In many of Morrison's comics, one has to be appropriately fabulous before the bad guys become revealed to you at all. For most of us common folk, the bringers of destruction to soul and free will are merely a comfortable status quo. Victory over evil thus involves replacing our accepted reality -- or as he hints in this comic, Marvel's -- with a better one, such as that enjoyed by an advanced space traveling civilization.

The way Morrison sidesteps the insidious traps of the here-but-maybe-not-here trope is by jacking up the thrills and spills. There is little to no unpacking of the tedious realities or a course in comparative relationships between Marvel Boy's world and the more familiar license-filled homes of socky-zappy. The theme of replacing one world with another comes up explicitly only at series end, avoiding overexposure and excess scrutiny. Tiny clues as to where we are and why scurry off into the corner as if they desire to avoid the beatings and explosions, as if they know they are unnecessary to understand the work and are perhaps beside the point when it comes to appreciating it. One also gets the feeling that Morrison and Jones may have been hedging their bets as to exactly where the story takes place so as to better fold it into any future editorial-driven directions that might hold sway at the House of Ideas. If true, one might applaud the creative team's willingness to provide their sparkly jumpsuit of a comic book with the equivalent of removable epaulets.

Grant Morrison channels Stan Lee's savvier qualities in several ways throughout, none more important than letting the strengths of his artist do most of the pulpy lifting. JG Jones is one of the most talented commercial mainstream illustrators of the post-Image comic book world. He lacks the distinct approach to human form and character design that someone like Frank Quitely brings to comics, but Jones outperforms Quitely in terms of finding the right tone for the moments between action set pieces and varying the pace once he gets into them. He controls the readers' eye by setting up dead spaces in one panel in a way that builds anticipation, and then in the following panel filling that empty area, usually while tweaking the readers' point of view. Thus no matter what the shape of the panels, or the design of the page, the reader can follow the action because they're drawn to specific representations within the larger piece of art work. It's a particularly good way to approach superhero comics because it drives one's attention to the human form. Jones' figure drawing approximates the effects of manga's energy and body extremes that many of the core Image artists pursued, without forcing the reader to confront grotesque moments of incompetent craftsmanship that stopped most early 1990s comics dead in their tracks. Jones is a pro.

Unlike superhero creative teams that get their most interesting moments out of ways in which they clash, Morrison and Jones work well together, teaming up to achieve effects of emphasis. For instance, the shiny, rubbery quality of Jones' costume designs adds greatly to what Morrison does to bridge the Lee/Kirby and Everett traditions of characterization. As written, main character Noh-Varr lies somewhere between early Reed Richards and the Sub-Mariner on the asshole scale of hero-dom; Jones underlines this by making Marvel Boy a great-looking jerk in a kind of biker shorts outfit that begs to be sideswiped by one's Lincoln. Noh-Varr's generally grating personality and punch-me look snatches from readers' hands the crutch of no-questions-asked superhero shorthand, the way many books sugarcoat the irksome reality lurking behind fantasies of effectiveness and moral certainty with comfortable totems of one's youth. This kind of character work is a uneven section of wood for any team of creators to walk, and Marvel Boy offers up at least one obvious genital-crushing slip: the female lead is an absolute bore. The prickliness shines through, however, and thus the general impression carries the day. Bill Everett's take on unpleasant men doing unpleasant things had to be tempered by Stan Lee's slippery faith in redemption to really hit it big with audiences. Grant Morrison and JG Jones failed to create a hit with Marvel Boy, the essential jerkiness of its cast of unknowns almost certainly playing a significant role.