Review: Marvel Boy hardcover/trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, June 01, 2009

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

There's always the question of what to listen to while you're reading. Grant Morrison probably would have picked something with more synth in it ("The Fall" is always a safe soundtrack for good superhero comics) but I went with Propagandhi's "Less Talk, More Rock" while re-reading the new hardcover collection of the 2000 Marvel Knights mini-series Marvel Boy, and it seemed to work OK -- both works are loud, dynamic, singular and explicitly in love with anarchy and hostile to corporations.

Until very recently when Marvel Boy (a.k.a. the Kree soldier Noh-Varr) joined the cast of something called Dark Avengers, debate raged as to whether this was the "secret first Ultimate Marvel book" which Joe Quesada had spoken obliquely of. Well, it's pretty clear now that it is in Marvel continuity proper (Earth-616) for better or worse, but the book definitely carries the smell of Ultimate Marvel and that imprint's mandate of "bringing Marvel Comics into the twenty-first century."

To me, the operative question is not "what universe is this book taking place in?" but rather "How does Marvel Boy figure into the oeuvre of Grant Morrison?"

On close examination, you can see Grant Morrison taking the opposite tack at Marvel than what he does with DC's stable of superheroes. At DC, everything he writes is connected, and Morrison is the first writer to use the notion of comic book continuity to its fullest literary potential. Animal Man connects to JLA connects to Batman connects to Seven Soldiers connects to All-Star Superman connects to DC One Million, and so on, enriching and enlivening the work. Of his three major works at Marvel, each has been self-contained to the point of barely needing to exist in a "comic book universe." The X-Men living in their own corner of the world is nothing new, but in four years' worth of New X-Men, Morrison never acknowledged the wider Marvel Universe. Fantastic Four 1234 was the same old FF story told on a broader scale and barely mentions any other superheroes. The same goes in Marvel Boy, except . . . not.

We never see the other superheroes, but their presence is felt. The villain, Midas, wears one of Iron Man's old suits, and is obsessed with giving himself the powers of the Fantastic Four. Marvel Boy is attacked by bastardized versions of Captain America called "Bannermen." Dum Dum Dugan and S.H.I.E.L.D. are present and accounted for. What's most important here is the sense of Marvel -- its ghost. As a logo, as a brand. Angry, alienated, rebellious ... Noh-Varr is almost the distillation of all the Marvel heroes, of Marvel as a brand\u2026 and so quite appropriately, Noh-Varr does battle with a living corporate identity at one point in the comic. (If not for thorny legal complications, I'm sure Morrison would have preferred to call this book Marvel Man.)

In both pacing, art style, coloring and dialogue cadence, Marvel Boy owes a lot to the then-recent Warren Ellis runs on The Authority and Planetary. And while J.G. Jones may be just a little less polished and fluid than Bryan Hitch and John Cassaday, his page layouts are more inventive, which serves to draw you back in for multiple reads. (However, Jones' at-times-stiff facial detailing recalls Bryan Talbot, who would is the last person you want drawing a Grant Morrison superhero comic.)

Noh-Varr is a punk superhero. He blows up an evil corporation with a cosmic bullet, carves obscenities into blocks of NYC and has his girlfriend blow up Epcot Center. Also, his best friend is his spaceship's living computer. (Is that punk? Sure! Why not!)

Superhero comics run on nostalgia and the veneration of decade-old concepts, so it's not surprising that something like Marvel Boy, which flies in the face of the familiar, takes some getting used to. But once you realize the hopefulness that's present in Noh-Varr's parting promise to turn Earth into the capital of the new Kree Empire, and also realize that Morrison will probably never complete this saga, it makes you love this unlikely volume all the more. Thanks, Marvel, for re-issuing this book as a hardcover, in an attempt to cash in on Final Crisis like the corporate shills you are.

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4 comments:

  1. That was a pleasant review but I take one exception with something you wrote- “If not for thorny legal complications, I'm sure Morrison would have preferred to call this book Marvel Man.”

    While the point is amusing, I disagree and humbly suggest it misses an important point behind the series. Morrison mentioned in interviews that Marvel Boy – the character and text – are meant to evoke Horus, the boy god. As evidence, Marvel Boy wears the emblem of Horus on his chest. The book is an invocation of Horus and presumably meant to stir the overthrow of old ideas so new cultural growth can be achieved. So it is important that Nohvarr be a boy as a “man” has become set in his ways and represents maturity. The “boy” represents revolution by the new so “Marvel Boy” it is then. In this respect, the book is much-more closely aligned with Morrison’s THE INVISIBLES series, which is a long magical discursion/invocation itself. Plus JG Jones inserts two INVISIBLES in the second issue of the book.

    I think you make a great point about the Ghost of Marvel [comics]. The reader only sees the remnants of the core Marvel Universe as you point out. The core heroes only appear in analogs - FF & Iron Man in Midas, Cap, Hulk and Wolverine in Bannermen, Dr. Strange via appearance of the Mindless Ones, etc. So if Marvel Boy is an evocation of renewal then his victory over these analogs is a desire for the reader (and future creators) to cast off the accumulated detritus of the Marvel U so new ideas can grow.

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Dave. I was going for a cheap laugh there, you're right. I think youth and youthful rebellion are both important parts of the character and what the story is about.

    I read quite a bit about how MB was meant to be "an invocation/download of the aeon of Horus" but I didn't feel like it played a huge role in the storytelling and was ultimately less important the book's meta-commentary on Marvel Comics itself. I think 7SoV served much better as a "magical experimental superhero comic." (But then I barely understand Alan Moore's cosmology much less Morrison's.)

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  3. One thing I'd like to know about this hardcover edition is if Marvel fixed the split double-page spreads that ruined the original Marvel Boy trade.

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  4. I didn't notice anything as egregious as Marvel has perpetrated in the past with some of their omniboo. No major production issues that jumped out at me, I guess.

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