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. Last issue showed the coming of Galactus and the growing criticism of the Marvels, despite the Fantastic Four pretty much saving the entire planet. We're now up to the 70's...
Phil is busy at a book signing of his new book "Marvels", which is doing far better than expected. He believes that the reason the book is doing so well is because of the people's desire for The Avengers return, who are off in another galaxy involved in the Kree-Skrull War. Phil reflects on how the public criticised, slandered and tried to arrest the heroes before they left, and how now they were off fighting for their lives. And now, as a way of apology, people are buying his book.
Later, over at a local hangout of journalists (Iggy's Super-Heroes Cafe) Phil is introducing his new assistant Marcia Hardesty. Once again, Phil thinks about how the heroes that are day after day saving people's lives are getting criticised and attacked in the media and by the ordinary citizens. Phil decides he needs to do something to stop this, and just at that moment Spider- Man crawls up the side of the Daily Bugle building, right in front of Phil. It gives him an idea: he's going to clear Spider-Man of the murder of George Stacy.
Phil goes off to interview various witnesses, most of whom are convinced that Spidey is a murderer. He ends up at the office of Jonah Jameson where predictably Jonah goes into a trademark rant.
Some time later at a new year's party, Phil gets offered the chance at writing a regular column in the Daily Globe, but only if he goes to cover the "Thing vs. Thundra fight at Shea Stadium". But Phil's personal agenda comes first and he skips the fight, and the chance at a column, to go visit Doctor Octopus at Ryker's Island to get more info on his part in the death of George Stacy. There, Doc Ock rather cryptically admits that he was the one who murdered Captain Stacy but he enjoys seeing Spider-Man take the blame far too much to confess.
From there, Phil goes to visit the last person on his list: Gwen Stacy. They chat for hours about Captain Stacy and how he always thought Spidey was a hero. Gwen then admits that she's no longer so sure that it was Spider-Man who murdered her father. They go for a walk, still talking, when they walk right into the middle of an Atlantean 'attack' (although there's no violence at all), as strange underwater machines march trhough the cities sending everyone, except Gwen and Phil, running in terror. It's here, as Phil see's the Sub-Mariner fly away, and remembers back to when he first saw him all those years ago, that Phil realises what he is going to do next: write a proper book on the Marvels and as the centerpiece a vindiction of Spider- Man. "Everything would work" he thinks.
From there everything goes wrong. Phil goes to meet with Gwen when he see's the Green Goblin leave her apartment window with Gwen's unconcious body in his arms. Phil frantically travels to the Brooklyn Bridge where he anxiously watches the famous fight between Spidey and the Goblin. He's waiting for the big moment when Spidey saves Gwen; after all "that was what the Marvels did". Of course that moment never comes. The Goblin throws Gwen off the edge, Spidey tries to save her but fails. Gwen is dead.
From that moment on, Phil has lost his faith in the Marvels. "He failed her. They all failed her" . The passion that was there only a few days before seems to have been completely extinguished with the death of Gwen. During a meeting with Marcia, with Phil deep in thought, he realises that the world just went on even if she was dead and it was never going to stop. It's then that he decides he's too old, too close to everything to be a reporter anymore. He lost his eye for it a long time ago and now he's "inside where he can't see anything straight". He hands Marcia his camera and begins his retirement with a picture of himself, his wife and the local paper boy, Daniel Ketch; "a nice, normal ordinary boy" (that is, until he transforms into a mystical flaming skeleton called Ghost Rider who rides a superpowered motorbike...but that's for another day). The End.
This series works best when you read all four parts back-to-back to fully see the evolution in Phil's character and the Marvels; but as a single issue, this really cannot be faulted. This issue is a far more human and down-to-earth story than the three previous and Busiek pulls it off with the same level of excellence. The change in Phil's character this issue is very natural; from the building up of excitement in his new project and while he's meeting Gwen, to it all coming crumbling down and his loss of faith in his Marvels, it's extremely well written and flows very well; never seeming forced or out of character. Although the series is titled Marvels; it's really Phil and his progression that are the true main characters of this series and Busiek finishes the series in a excellent and fitting way.
Also, just like last issue, it's interesting to see the Marvel universe from the eyes of the average joe and how all the super-heroes and their huge battles look from down on the street. The fight between the Goblin and Spider- Man is completely different from the actual issue because there is no speech heard between them at all and it really does give another perspective on this famous scene, and let's you understand Phil's feeling that Spidey "let Gwen down".
Obviously, Alex Ross' art is equally brilliant this issue and shines through in every scene; from the shadowy halls of Rykers Island, to the Atlantean attack through to Phil's personal conflict. Ross captures the emotion of the scenes very well in his art and it really does enhance the issue.
Excellent. Although perhaps the Atlantean invasion scene was a tad jarring in an otherwise down-to-earth story, to give this brilliantly written and illustrated issue anything less than 5 would be wrong.
Obviously this series references lots of old Marvel comics. If you want to go and read the original stories, here's the issues in which they appeared in. Be prepared not to pay bills/food for a while because some tend to cost quite a lot:
Kree/Skrull War- The Avengers #92-97
Black Widow Trial- Daredevil #83
"Four wounded in Stark riot"- Iron Man #45-46
George Stacy Death/Spidey vs. Doc Ock - Amazing Spider-Man #90
Galactus in New York again- Fantastic Four #120-123
Sentinels approaching- The Avengers #102
"Spider-Man not stopping a crime wave"- Amazing Spider-Man #112
Fire destroys Pym home- Marvel Feature #6
Thundra's Challenge- Fantastic Four #133
Atlantean invasion- Sub-Mariner #60
Death of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn- Amazing Spider-Man #121-123
Vison/Scarlet Witch romance public- The Avengers #113
Ant-Man and Wasp Alive- Marvel Feature #10
There's also a cameo appearance by legendary Spider-Man artist John Romita as the cab driver who drives Phil to the Spidey/Goblin fight. And is it my imagination or is that Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey of the band The Who on page 12?