On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Why You Need To Read Marvel Boy
Posted on March 11, 2015
March 11, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
Grant Morrison is one of the most well-respected and revered writers in modern comics. His critically acclaimed runs on JLA, Batman, New X-Men, and All Star Superman regularly and rightly appear on lists of the best stories ever using those characters. His non-superhero work; including We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, and his anarchist pop-magic opus The Invisibles; is recognised as some of the most challenging and creative work in the field. The same titles pop up over and over again, and rightly so. But one is almost always overlooked.
Marvel Boy was Morrison’s first major collaboration with J.G Jones, who he would later work with again on Final Crisis. It is superficially at least, a superhero comic, but it lacks the big-name-character recognition that would get it included in the list-based articles that seems to drive so much of contemporary comics journalism. Basically, it’s not superhero-y enough for the superhero set, but, conversely, it’s also altogether too superhero-y for the chin-stroking, coffee-sipping, ‘graphic novel’ brigade. People like things to fit into neat little boxes. That’s why they go to IKEA.
Anyway, I’m gonna tell you why Marvel Boy is so bloody good, and why I consider it one of the most important and powerful of Morrison’s works, and you’re going to bugger off and read the thing for yourselves? Deal? Deal.
Marvel Boy is the story of Noh-Varr, an adolescent crewmember of a Kree craft capable of traversing the barriers between realities. His ship is attempting a crash landing on an Earth very similar to the Marvel universe, when it is shot down by the billionaire industrialist (and Iron Man lookalike) Midas, killing everyone on board. Everyone expect for Noh-Varr, who finds himself alone and captured on a hostile world, moments after his dead friends sent out a distress signal. He is understandably angry.
That’s the primary theme of the book, that righteous fury that runs so hot through adolescence, and if you’re very lucky, keeps burning into adulthood. That rage that comes from the belief that better worlds are possible, and that the heinous injustices of the one we find ourselves in are completely unnecessary. Yes, it’s a blunt instrument sometimes, and it’s frequently naive, and often downright wrong, but it’s that passion, that fire, that burns right through the work.
Of course, as a recently bereaved teenager from a technologically advanced martial culture; and having just escaped a sadistic torturer; Noh-Varr’s response is less than subtle, and he declares war on… everyone.
It’s important to make clear at this point that there is heavy and obvious use of symbolism here. It would be easy to make a cursory reading of this aspect of the book and see it as a surface-level carnival of violence and destruction, but quite how you can ignore the symbolic layering of a story when the main character’s gun has a fucking scrotum, I don’t know.
Marvel Boy also serves as a deconstruction of many of the archetypal figures which dominate the Marvel universe. Midas represents the capitalist-futurist Iron Man figure, with his moral compass removed, and driven toward ever more ostentatious levels of avarice. The full force of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also levelled against Noh-Varr in the form of the Banner-men, human weapons comprised of the most simplistic aspects of Captain America and The Hulk.
Because, lest we forget, the cheery heroes of the Marvel Universe are, by and large, concerned not with fighting injustice, but with maintaining the status quo. Even those who take an active role in seeking a new world, like Tony Stark, usually view that future through the prism of corporate profit and private ownership. We get the heroes we deserve, I guess.
Although Morrison has suggested that Noh-Varr’s attitude is based on that of Namor (Marvel’s Atlantean monarch – lots of those about), his antagonists and romantic interest have more in common with the Hulk’s. Midas, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Banner-men represent the military-industrial complex the Hulk so often clashed with in the early days, and Midas, as a General Ross stand in, also uses Noh-Varr’s attraction to his daughter Oubliette, to attempt to capture/kill him.
Except that General Ross’s daughter Betty wasn’t a trained killer who spends the bulk of the story in face-obscuring fetish-wear. I can’t imagine that would have made it past the Comics Code Authority back in the early ‘60s. Whether you want to read this as objectification, a comment on such, or some combination of the two, is up to you. Oubliette has a full and compelling character arc, mind, and the outfit is a meaningful part of that. Read it, and see what you reckon.
As the story progresses, Noh-Varr takes some time to face off again Hexus The Living Corporation, an intergalactic parasite that infected Earth following the crash, its holding chamber having been compromised. Hexus begins as a small business, rapidly expanding, using innovative advertising to capture the public consciousness, while steadily growing, overtaking all in its wake, before consuming all available resources and leaving the host world a lifeless husk as it moves on to the next poor saps’ planet.
Mondays, am I right?
It is not a particularly subtle metaphor. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a metaphor at all, so much as a dark mirror to our present cultural and economic reality. And I’m deeply conscious that I’m writing this in an essay about a work owned by Disney. A work that is not terribly kind to the ‘Magic Kingdom’. Life is weird.
Thinking about it, there aren’t too many subtle metaphors in Marvel Boy, nor should there be. It’s about a kid who is angry at the world, and angry at it for fucking good reasons. He’s seen thousands of realities, thousands of new and radically different ways of being, but when his friends asked for help they were murdered. So he goes apeshit with a space gun. One with a big swinging bollcosk.
Who here can honestly say they’d react differently?
Oh, okay. Fine. Only me, then. Just go and read the bloody thing!