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Warren Ellis flips Marvels on its head and clubs it like a baby seal – Ruins

August 27, 2012

Marvels was one of the biggest comic book events we’ve ever had. That 1994 Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross jaunt through the heyday of the Marvel Universe was a nostalgia-tinged prism that helped both fans and novitiates relive an age of comics, as if seeing it for the first time. For dopes like me, who didn’t have the wherewithal to, you know, BE ALIVE in the 1960s, it was in many respects the first time, and gave immediacy to the Marvel Age of Comics like no reprint trades ever could. The realism of Ross’s painted art had us looking at characters and their costumes in a new light, as suddenly tights and goofy headgear seemed real and appropriate. Like you could walk down a busy Manhattan street and actually see Captain America vaulting over a taxicab or Spider-Man scaling a glassy tower. Maybe in a small way it paved the way for the live-action film crop that we’ve reaped for a number of years now — or at least got the wheels spinning (pick your metaphor).

But if Mad has taught us anything over the years, it’s that the more popular something is, the more ripe it is for satire. So Marvels could stand a bit of ribbing. I don’t know that Ruins, which was released in 1995, hot on the heels of that always-in-print bestseller, counts as satire. But it’s something. And that something is the hellish mirror image of Marvels — right down to the style and acetate overlay of the covers.

Springing from the oft-acerbic pen of Warren Ellis, it followed the central eye-patched voyeur of Marvels, Phil Sheldon, as he wandered through an alternate Marvel, one where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, looking for answers as to why things are so messed up, and battling an unshakable inkling that things shouldn’t be this way. How screwy is this different reality? Let me sum up the first issue’s action in one long, breathless Faulknerian sentence. Ready?

The Quinjet is shot down killing the remaining Avengers then Sheldon meets Wolverine in a bar but his adamantium bones have given him some god-awful disease then Sheldon goes to a Kree concentration camp where they’re all dying from radiation cancer from nuclear missiles that destroyed their fleet after it was exposed by the Silver Surfer’s energy after he ripped open his chest in a desperate attempt to breathe again(!) and it’s Captain Mar-Vell who tells him all this and then Sheldon meets Nick Fury who’s a jaded old cannibal who kills himself but not before murdering a prostituting Jean Grey and then Sheldon goes to see a strung out and abusive Rick Jones (who beats on his bitch, an equally strung out Marlo) who tells him all about the doctor who saved his life but then became a big green mass of exploding tumors oh and then Sheldon trips over the bullet-riddled body of the Punisher as he leaves.

Pant. Pant.

AND THIS IS JUST THE FIRST ISSUE. IT GETS EVEN BLEAKER IN THE SECOND.

I mentioned “parody” up above. Parody usually entails laughs, and one might wonder where the laughs come into play here. If there are any, they only come from the most ebon of dark humor — like laughing at the gory carnage of the last Rambo movie. But, as Ellis himself remarked when the series got a 2009 reprint, it was indeed intended as a comedy. There’s only the thinnest of plots, nothing more than an excuse to go from one nightmare station to the next, and that’s one of the things that marks it as satire. Like those Mad skewerings, all that really matters is the twist.

The two-part series was illustrated by the one-time husband and wife duo of Terese and Cliff Nielsen, as well as Chris Moeller on the latter half of the second issue. Their work is a counterpoint to Ross’s art just as the desolate storyscape of the plot is a counterpoint to the unfolding era of wonders in Marvels. It’s rough, abstract art that makes one think of Bill Sienkiewicz and his more rough-hewn figures. It looks like blood spatter, which is fitting. Here are a couple of pages — the first features afros and swipes of famous pictures:

Okay, this second one is kind of funny — if you can get past the blood:

Why can’t Curiosity deliver anything like that?

I can’t say that the art is pretty — and most of the time you don’t even know what it is you’re supposed to be looking at — but for the material it works. And, as appealing as Ross’s watercolors were back when they were fresh, they’ve grown so stale in recent years I welcome anything different, and this adds another dimension when reading the story at a decade and a half remove.

If you want a more overtly comedic destruction of Marvel, try Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe. (Which is sitting around here somewhere. Fodder for another day.) If you want a grim, hopeless meat-grinder of a story, one where the laughter comes from over-the-top deconstruction, go ahead and fumble about these Ruins.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 24, 2014 10:48 am

    Warren Ellis possesses a very, um, singular sense of humor.

    That “God Found Dead In Space” tabloid cover with a photo of Galactus is pretty funny, though, albeit in a really sick, twisted way.

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