Nothing has been all right since...
Thirteen-year old Toby has fled from the bitter reality of his parents' divorce into the fantasy world of Marvel comics. One day, though, he makes a shocking discovery — his world is about to be invaded by Marvel supervillains, who've set up shop in an abandoned house down the street.
Look, I'll be honest — I read some of Mark Millar's hyperbolic pre-release publicity for this one, and figured that it would be an awful piece of tripe I could rip into. And, as expected, there's nothing terribly original here, and some of the aspects of Toby's story feel like terrible clichés. But the whole comic is well executed and surprisingly intriguing, and I'm curious to see if Millar does go someplace interesting with this. Though I expect it'll turn out that the supervillain invasion is all in Toby's head, and he'll come back to reality but not before learning some important moral lessons from the superheroes.
For now, though, a cautious thumbs up.
I suspect the real appeal of 1985 lies in Tommy Lee Edwards' art. I was going to say that he doesn't feel like a Marvel artist at all — but then I remembered that Marvel hasn't had a coherent house style since the early 90's. I think, more to the point, is that he's one of the few mainstream comic artists who are doing almost everything — penciling, inking, coloring — which allows his work to develop intriguing idiosynracies while avoiding the muddled mediocrity that comes out of the assembly line process. Here's a great example, an arresting two-page spread from the end of the book.
This is a beautiful piece, with complex detail suggested by savage brushstrokes and scratchy pen marks, enhanced by the vivid warm colors that suffuse the entire drawing. It's hard to imagine a page like this emerging from the assembly line process. Edwards would have to execute much tighter pencils just to ensure that his intentions weren't lost. An inker would never lay down such rough inks, and would be tempted to leave large parts of the image open for color. And a colorist would tend towards representative color — a hint of the fire might bleed over into the background, but you can just bet Dr. Doom would be wearing a forest green cloak.
I know why Marvel and DC insist on the assembly line process — it prevents artists and authors from making ownership claims on corporate-held properties. But artists like Edwards and Daniel Acuña, who are developing compelling styles that are only achievable when they control all elements of the production process (and who are fast enough to produce work on a regular basis) may finally make them question their policies and allow some interesting work to emerge from the corporate ghetto.
The Death of the Bleed
Of course, I can hardly pick up a Marvel comic these days without noticing something missing — namely, the bleed. It seems like Marvel's done away with it completely these days, with the art on most of their high profile projects running right up to the edge of the page. I don't exactly mourn the loss of the bleed — it's an artificial constraint, born of the necessity to hedge against badly cut print jobs — but I'm not sure that Marvel has really thought through what eliminating the bleed means aesthetically.
First, the bleed allows the art to breathe by preventing side-by-side pages from running into each other. Now, this can be dealt with through some intelligent page composition, but since many commercial comics have to be drawn without knowing which pages will be run side-by-side (thanks, advertising!) this can be a daunting task.
Additionally, the bleed also allows the art to look like it belongs on the page. Eliminating it can make the art more absorbing and immersive — but it can also make the word balloons and panel gutters really stand out. I mean, really stand out — there are a few pages of 1985 where my eye isn't drawn to the imagery but to the vivid white gutters running across the page.
The bleed also prevents the art and lettering from running into the bound edge of the page. I've seen a few series in the last couple of years (Eternals comes to mind) where the art looked just fine when it was a pamphlet but became problematic when compiled into a hardback because word balloons are now vanishing into the gutter.
And finally, by totally eliminating the bleed, it becomes really obvious whenever there's a mis-cut page because there's now a crisp white edge running along the cut. (Again, the Eternals hardback comes to mind).
So Marvel? You might want to think about bringing the bleed back. It doesn't have to be as massive as it used to be, but you probably want something.
Morning in America
One thing that does puzzle me is why, exactly, 1985 is set in the mid-80's. I can think of plenty of reasons to set a story about Marvel comics in this era. There are the weird political and social dynamics of the Reagan era. It's halfway between the founding of the company and the current era, the beginning of the "modern era", the tail end of Jim Shooter's tenure, the beginning of the speculator craze and the ascendancy of the direct market. It's the tail end of the period where comics didn't have to compete for your entertainment dollar — when they were cheap, before they had to compete with video rentals and video games. It's the Secret Wars era, the period where many Marvel characters started to assume their iconic status, before everything became grim-n-gritty. For the current Marvel audience, it's the period where they started reading comics. But so far there's no thematic reason for the comic to be set during this era — in fact, you could probably set it in 1975 or 1995 without changing anything.
Or, if you want to be snarky, it could just be that 1985 was the last year you could actually find 13-year olds reading comics.