Monday, February 07, 2005

The Future Is X-Rated: Marvel Boy, The Modern World And The History Of The Marvel Universe

Marvel Boy has been a bit of a forgotten treasure in Grant Morrison's career. It was his first major work for Marvel following his acclaimed work on JLA, but was quickly overshadowed by his run on New X-Men. That's not terribly surprising considering the book is filled with new characters, big ideas and is really only the first book in a trilogy of books that will most likely never be completed. Basically, despite the high profile creators, it just isn't what mainstream superhero audiences are looking for. Despite its lack of popularity, Marvel Boy is probably Morrison's most complex piece of work for Marvel and is, in a way, his defining statement on the Marvel universe as a whole and on modern superhero comics.

In this essay, I will outline various readings of Marvel Boy, including how the book can be seen as the history of the Marvel universe contained within six issues, how the book can be seen as the first "ultimate" book Marvel produced (although not as a part of what is now the official "ultimate" continuity obviously), how the book is a statement upon modern superhero comics, and how it is also a statement upon the modern world, specifically the modern corporate world. One aspect of Marvel Boy that I will not be looking at is what Morrison described as "a fairly blatant supersigil invocation/download of the incoming current of Horus, the newly arriving Lord of the Aeon" (Ellis 126). While this may be an aspect of Marvel Boy's subtext, it is beyond my understanding and I wouldn't know where to begin talking about it.

Marvel Boy as the history of the Marvel Universe

Even a casual reading of Marvel Boy shows an extensive amount of Marvel concepts taken by Morrison and altered in some way. The entire book is steeped in Marvel history and ideas, and the three primary actors (Noh-Varr, Midas and Exterminatrix or Oubliette) are no exception, with each representing one of the "ages" of Marvel's history (Noh-Varr being the only exception as he represents two "ages," but in a way that shows the cyclical nature of comics).

Noh-Varr is the representation of both the "golden age" and what I will call the "modern age" for lack of a better term. In initial comments on the series, co-editor Joe Quesada points to both the "golden age" and "modern age" aspects of the character: "The name is a tip of the hat to Bill Everett, who created the first Marvel Boy [during the 1940s], but it's Grant's attempt at finally creating an angst-ridden, Marvel hero for the next millennium . . . Grant's Marvel Boy is a guy who walks in the grey area between good and evil, sort of constructed on the Sub-Mariner principle" (Brick 42). The comparison to the Sub-Mariner is an easy one to make as both he and Noh-Varr are outsiders who essentially declare war on mankind. While the Sub-Mariner attempted to flood New York, Noh-Varr simply destroys the UN's headquarters and carves the words "FUCK YOU" into Manhattan and justifies it by saying, "Because it was the likes of you and this whole murky, hypocrite race who powderized my guiltless crewmates for no reason better than profit and ignorance" (Morrison "Boy" 18). As for his representation of the "modern age", I will explore that more in-depth later on.

Midas represents quite obviously the "silver age". It is key to point out here that Midas is a superhero, not a supervillain. While Noh-Varr is the protagonist of the story and Midas the antagonist, Noh-Varr is the alien invader, of sorts, and Midas is the superhero protecting Earth and the status quo. The most obvious tip-off that Midas represents the "silver age" is his costume: Iron Man's second armour (the first being nearly identical, but in grey rather than gold). Midas is dressed almost exactly like one of Marvel's most iconic superheroes, but with the addition of a leather jacket. His business is to kill aliens and he does that for profit, which is a play on the fact that Iron Man's began as Tony Stark, weapons profiteer. Also, if you look at Midas' allies in the story, you will find that they are all concepts or groups from the "silver age": SHIELD, the Bannermen (combinations of Captain America and the Hulk), the Mindless One, and even his attempt and success to become the Fantastic Four. Midas is most definitely a modernized superhero from the "silver age".

And finally, Exterminatrix represents the "bronze age". She is a woman who runs around in black leather and kills things for her father, sort of a modern Punisher. She is also not quite accepted by her father in the same way that heroes from that time period weren't quite accepted by the heroes of the "silver age". She acts as the bridge between the "silver age" and the "modern age". Ultimately, she sides with Noh-Varr as one would expect.

Each character represents a particular time period in the Marvel universe's history and its progression: Noh-Varr to Midas to Exterminatrix to Noh-Varr again. While not a complete history by any means, the book gives the basic structure for it.

Marvel Boy as the first "ultimate" book

"Grant asked himself, 'If Stan [Lee] was the age he was when he created Spider-Man today, what would have he created?'" Quesada said of how Morrison went about creating Marvel Boy, and I contend that Noh-Varr is "ultimate Spider-Man." The basic similarities in the characters support this: both are orphans with only one figure of moral guidance left (Plex for Noh-Varr and Aunt May for Spider-Man); both are basically teenagers, both had their first great love killed by their nemesis (Merree killed by Midas and Gwen Stacy killed by the Green Goblin); both end up with redheads (Oubliette and Mary Jane Watson); both have similar powers (cockroach-spliced genes for Noh-Varr and bitten by a radioactive spider for Spider-Man); and even their costumes follow a similar design, but with opposite colours (green, yellow and white for Noh-Varr compared to red, blue and black for Spider-Man) and a lack of mask for Noh-Varr (notice that their hair are also opposite colours).

The two begin with similarities, but it is their differences that we see how Noh-Varr is the more "realistic" "ultimate" version. What is more likely behaviour of an angry, newly-orphaned teenager with superpowers: that he would dress up and stop bank robbers, or that he would blow up buildings and carve swear words into cities? Noh-Varr is a representation of the true teenage mindset of the time, which is what Marvel's "ultimate" titles soon became about: modern versions of old characters. Noh-Varr is exactly how Peter Parker would have acted in modern times: he'd blow shit up and try to change the world so that it fit with how he thought it should be.

Almost all of the other pre-existing concepts from the Marvel universe that Morrison uses are updated to be more "ultimate". Midas is a good example of this, as he basically is a modern version of Tony Stark (minus the suave playboy side of the character), focussing on his evil corporate side (sort of like how Stark would have acted if he hadn't come so close to death and had a change of heart (no pun intended)). The idea of supersoldiers who are essentially mindless and programmed with a set of UN directives is how a Captain America-styled project would be done. SHIELD also is more modern with its orbital platform and caters to business interests in an almost overt way (a cynical comment, of course). Plex is also an "ultimate" version of the Supreme Intelligence, while at the same time functioning as "ultimate" Aunt May.

The only main character that isn't an "ultimate" version of anything is Exterminatrix really. While she can be seen to be an "ultimate" Mary Jane, that is a minor characteristic best used just for comparisons between Noh-Varr and Peter Parker. Beyond that, she has no real "ultimate" role. That doesn't prevent the reader from looking at Marvel Boy from this perspective, it merely suggests that Morrison did not strictly adhere to the idea of modernizing concepts in that way (although, as said earlier, Exterminatrix is a modern "anti-hero" of sorts, just not one in particular).

Marvel Boy as a statement on modern superhero comics

This is a tricky area to deal with as the biggest definer of the modern superhero comic was Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's The Authority, which was only a year or so old at that point, so it's difficult to tell exactly how much it may or may not have influenced Morrison. Let alone the fact that Morrison's JLA was also a large influence upon the style and tone of the modern superhero comic. For those reasons, I will ignore those external influences and just look for aspects of the modern superhero comic in Marvel Boy as I see them.

Noh-Varr, as I said earlier, represents the "modern age" of superhero comics, which I think is just a cyclical rebirth of the "golden age". The extreme methods and "walking in the grey" are both characteristics of both "ages". By far the most modern thing about Noh-Varr is his desire to actively change the world. This has been an aspect lacking in all of the previous "ages," even the "golden age." The idea of a superhero--as while I called Noh-Varr a villain that was meant within the confines of traditional superhero/supervillain definitions, not within the more modern meanings of the term where the boundaries are less clear and seem to depend on whether or not the character is a protagonist--playing the role of supervillain in his methods and goals is a relatively new one. Noh-Varr has good cause to believe himself superior to humanity and decides to impose his views upon it. This aspect of the modern superhero would be seen later in The Authority when they took over the United States.

To accomplish this goal, though, Noh-Varr had to displace the old order, which meant he had to defeat Midas. He does this primarily by "corrupting" his daughter through his sexuality. The overtly sexual superhero is another characteristic of the "modern age" and this can be seen in issues four through six of Marvel Boy as almost every comment Midas makes in relation to the two is of sexual nature, and Noh-Varr uses this to taunt Midas: "She loved it," he says weakly as Midas is beating him in issue four and also "I took your daughter" in issue six. Through sexuality is how Oubliette chooses to relate to Noh-Varr. He appeals to her because of the oppressive nature of his father as the idea of sexuality had been repressed greatly in previous ages. While it was never entirely absent, it was also only permitted to a certain point.

The rejection of the old ways by Oubliette is best seen in his casting off of her mask, which Midas describes as "her face" (Morrison "Zero" 19). The mask being a large part of the old ways of superhero comics, and by her rejecting it, she sides with the modern superhero. This effect could later be seen at Marvel in various titles as their heroes one after another had their identities revealed to some extent or another. The concept of a secret identity and separating one's self into two is no longer seen as realistic. The modern hero has no need for masks.

Another indication of Noh-Varr, and later Oubliette, representing the concept of the modern hero overcoming the old ways is in their fight against the Mindless One, which is literally being killed by the future (Morrison "Mindless" 5). The creature is used to a slower, older environment and can't compete with Noh-Varr and Oubliette who can handle the faster, more modern world.

Hexus, The Living Corporation, the "villain" of issue three is the representative of the modern supervillain in that in the "modern age," conflicts are not just a matter of simply physical confrontations, but of ideological confrontations. Noh-Varr cannot beat Hexus just by blowing things up, he must use ideas to defeat it, because it is an idea itself. Hexus is also an especially capitalist idea, which tends to be the role of modern supervillains, in that they usually represent things like greed and oppression of people with what Marx called a "false consciousness." The hero is usually put in the role of the oppressive liberator, who dominates the populace in an effort to free them, or as the Kree philosophy is described in issue six: "Zen fascism" (Morrison "Mindless" 21).

Marvel Boy was both a follower and precursor of the modern superhero comic. It conforms to established ideas about the "modern age" while at the same time sets up a few others.

Marvel Boy as a statement upon the modern world

From what I can count, there are approximately nineteen corporate brands or products mentioned or shown throughout the six issues of Marvel Boy with the majority of them in the first three issues. I am hard-pressed to find another comic, even a modern one that has that many "product placements"; while the number isn't amazingly high--only an average of around three per issue--it is higher than nearly any other comic, and one must ask why that is. It obviously ties into the character of Hexus, who I've labelled as the representative of the modern supervillain, as Hexus is the Living Corporation. Hexus' methods involve taking over the corporate culture by creating an appealing brand. This means doing everything from cola to music, and the underlying message is clear: corporations control the modern culture. Now this may not be a big surprise to many, it is an idea foreign to most comics--especially a mainstream superhero one.

This idea is raised again at the end of the series where Exterminatrix begins her attack upon the modern culture on behalf of Noh-Varr by destroying Disney World. She doesn't attack political or military institutions, she attacks a beloved corporate, capitalist entity.

This hatred of the greed and capitalism is introduced right from the very beginning of the series where the entire conflict is brought about through the destroying of "The Marvel," Noh-Varr's ship because Midas wants to steal the technology and make a profit off of it. Let's not forget that Midas is also a representative of the corporate world, which highlights even stronger Oubliette's turning against her father. While she comes from a corporate culture, she prefers to rebel against it much like the youth today do. But much like the youth of today, Exterminatrix is also a hypocrite as when she declares war upon "the way that was," she re-dons her mask, this taking up the methods of her father. While the youth of today claim to despise their parents' culture, they often act in much the same way; they will claim to despise the inhumanity of the corporate world and then catch their breath by taking a drink out of a bottle of water that they paid four bucks for. Exterminatrix directly stands in for the youth who are trapped between a capitalist world and one of socialism, with Midas and Noh-Varr standing in for each.

Also, if you notice how Noh-Varr looks upon humanity, you'll see that he sees our culture as a virus, of sorts, and uses it against us. A piece of dialogue in issue two sums up this feeling best, as Plex says to Noh-Varr, "You spent a day in the ship's limbo suite learning their English for this? Noh-Varr, you know every word in their language."

Noh-Varr replies, "Too bad I have to stick to the simple ones they understand." Before attacking humanity, Noh-Varr takes an effort to learn about it and understand it. At the end of issue two, we see him return from his attack on New York to sit down and watch dozens of TV screens in an effort to learn more about humanity. He doesn't go to libraries or schools or even reads the paper to learn about humanity, he watches TV.

Also, in issue two, the "promotional video" for the United Nations Bannermen is done in such a way to show just how corrupted we are by the media. Instead of an informative report on the group, we are given lame voice-over and quick shots of action and meaningless posing. Our political systems no longer contain actual substance, they've been reduced to catch-phrases and Hollywood videos.


Marvel Boy is ultimately a book about the modern world, including the modern superhero comic. It is a book that while ahead of its time already seems dated because it was very much of its time. If Morrison went about trying to create this book now, it would look radically different--something that I don't think could be said about any of his other work for Marvel. It was his ultimate statement on the Marvel universe and his mission statement, in a way, for what he planned to do there. It can also be seen as the first "ultimate" book as Morrison literally tried to recreate what Stan Lee did in the early sixties, but for the twenty-first century--and I would suggest succeeded far greater than those who created the actual "ultimate" line of titles. He manages to capture the feeling of what it was like to be living in the year 2000, especially what it was like to be a teenager at the time. Sadly, it is not likely that we will see the sequels planned for it, but luckily, other creators--including Morrison himself--have carried on in the tradition of Marvel Boy--which is part of the reason why the comic seems so dated. Titles like Wildcats Version 3.0, Daredevil (under Brian Michael Bendis) and The Intimates seem to be direct descendents, in a way, of Marvel Boy and I believe it will be a lasting influence upon any other titles of the "modern age" however long that lasts.

Works Consulted

Brick, Scott. "Taking Aim: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's 'Punisher' marks the major moves of Marvel Knights' second year." Wizard, October 1999, No. 98, pp. 40-44.
Ellis, Warren. "Come In Alone Twenty-Eight June 9, 2000". Come In Alone. San Francisco: AiT/Planet Lar, 2001. Pp. 121-127.
Lawrence, Christopher. "Marvel's newest boy." Wizard, May 2000, No. 104, pp. 20.
Lawrence, Christopher. "Marvel Boy: Will Grant Morrison end his comic career with a roar?" Wizard, July 2000, No. 106, pp. 60-61.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Hello Cruel World". Marvel Boy, August 2000, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Boy Vs. World". Marvel Boy, September 2000, Vol. 1, No. 2.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Digital Koncentration Kamp One". Marvel Boy, October 2000, Vol. 1, No. 3.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Exterminatrix!" Marvel Boy, November 2000, Vol. 1, No. 4.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Zero Zero: Year Of Love". Marvel Boy, December 2000, Vol. 1, No. 5.
Morrison, Grant, et al. "Mindless: The End". Marvel Boy, March 2001, Vol. 1, No. 6.