Despite whatever criticisms or complaints one might choose to make about Marvel Comics and their product, one thing that they do well – which even the most anti-Marvel fanboy will be hard-pressed to dispute – is capture that initial magic that makes one read comics in the first place. I know many fans that, even if they prefer other publishers now, would not have started reading comics had it not been for Marvel. Mark Millar’s magnificent miniseries, Marvel 1985, recently collected in a trade paperback, is emblematic of this trait. This story, about a little kid in the real world who discovers that the super villains he has read about in his favorite comics have moved into his neighborhood, is a wonderful reminder of the simple pleasure that comics and superheroes provide.
Marvel 1985’s protagonist, Toby, is no doubt instantly recognizable to many comic book readers. He is a young man who loves comics in part because of the escape they provide him from a world in which he feels powerless. His parents are divorced and his mom has married a guy he doesn’t quite get along with. Comics represent a “…world where every problem could be solved in twenty-four pages,” as opposed to the world Toby inhabits in which he is seen as a weirdo by his classmates and his mom might be moving him to England against his will. When Toby accidentally learns that the new neighbors moving into an old abandoned house nearby are really Marvel super villains it is up to him and his screw-up father to save the day.
The strength of this miniseries is its use of easily recognizable tropes that any comic book fan will be able to instantly relate to. The boy shops at a comic store where the overweight manager rips off the customers and talks shop like a nerd king in complete control of his domain. In a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to Indy fans there is even an angry hipster clerk who laments that people should forget superheroes and instead read comics like Love and Rockets and Cerebus. Toby’s mom commits the dreaded parental mistake that many older comic fans still lament, and rips up his comic collection because she fears the corrosive influence they might have on her son. These figures and events are iconic symbols of comic fan culture and mythology that strengthen the bond between reader and storyteller.
Despite the use of a child protagonist and the massive potential for silliness that the setup provides, Marvel 1985 is actually a very serious book. The imagery of outrageously-garbed super villains roaming the streets of the real world is chilling at times. The Vulture, one of the cheesier examples of a villain, is downright scary looking when Toby and his friends see him on the evening news, perched on a rooftop and staring into the camera. Moreover, the havoc the bad guys unleash as they wander the city murdering citizens en masse is a powerful reminder of what one comic historian has called, “the violence that has always existed between the panels.” This synthesis of escapist childhood fantasy and adult themed violence and plot, creates a wonderful storytelling blend that reminds the reminds the reader of the pleasures comics books offer as a child while still providing a story that is enjoyable to older readers.
Marvel 1985 culminates as the ultimate fan’s fantasy by its conclusion, with Toby even having a chance to enter the Marvel Universe to enlist that aid of the superheroes to battle the invading villains. Millar’s story is no doubt an homage to countless similar fantasies every superhero fan has no doubt had in their lives. What if superheroes were real and what if they needed my help? While some of us have no doubt turned into that hipster clerk who wanders the comic shop reading Indy books and laughing at the Marvel zombies who will buy anything with an “X” in the title, the medium and all fans nonetheless owe a debt of gratitude to the superheroes and the children who love them. Marvel 1985 is an elegant reminder of that debt.