Goodreads: All of the Marvels
Age Category: Adult
The superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are, as Douglas Wolk notes, the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and still growing. The Marvel story is a gigantic mountain smack in the middle of contemporary culture. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Everyone recognizes its protagonists: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men. Eighteen of the hundred highest-grossing movies of all time are based on parts of it. Yet not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing–nobody’s supposed to. So, of course, that’s what Wolk did: he read all 27,000+ comics that make up the Marvel Universe thus far, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown.
And then he made sense of it–seeing into the ever-expanding story, in its parts and as a whole, and seeing through it, as a prism through which to view the landscape of American culture. In Wolk’s hands, the mammoth Marvel narrative becomes a fun-house-mirror history of the past sixty years, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and political division of the present day–a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed epic about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders.
As a work of cultural exegesis, this is sneakily significant, even a landmark; it’s also ludicrously fun. Wolk sees fascinating patterns–the rise and fall of particular cultural aspirations, and of the storytelling modes that conveyed them. He observes the Marvel story’s progressive visions and its painful stereotypes, its patches of woeful hackwork and stretches of luminous creativity, and the way it all feeds into a potent cosmology that echoes our deepest hopes and fears. This is a huge treat for Marvel fans, but it’s also a revelation for readers who don’t know Doctor Strange from Doctor Doom. Here, truly, are all of the marvels.
Douglas Wolk read 27,000 Marvel comics, spanning from the 1960s to the present day, in order to try to make sense of the narrative. The works comprise, he says, the world’s longest continuous story–unlike their competitor DC, Marvel has never rebooted their self-contained universe, but instead kept adding to it, sometimes creating plot holes, but often explaining them away years later. The result is a story so vast that no one is meant to read it–and even Wolk says it is a terrible idea to try (not least because there is a lot of dross in with the gold). While reading all the Marvel comics may be a questionable idea, however, reading about Wolk’s journey is definitely a delight–one sure to entertain casual and hardcore Marvel fans alike.
Initially, I hoped that All the Marvels would finally explain the Marvel universe to me, so I would feel a little less lost when trying out new comics or attempting to figure out where in a character’s story arc to start. However, it quickly became apparent that such a thing is probably not possible. Wolk’s book focuses on just a few key characters, major events, and time periods. But even if he did not selectively pick and choose which comics to focus on, explaining how they all connect is a hopeless task. If I came away from Wolk’s book with anything, it is the knowledge that reading all the comics would not help me feel any more well grounded in the Marvel universe–because that universe is huge, in flux, and not altogether coherent.
This knowledge, however, proves surprisingly freeing. One of the aspects of comics that likely scares new readers is that the universe is so vast, and jumping in feels disconcerting. Wolk, however, assures his own readers that comic writers know this and that comics are written to account for people jumping in. Most comics will give just enough background for readers to follow what is happening now, without having to know everything before. And, as I said above, knowing everything that happened before seems even less necessary to me now, having read Wolk’s explanations of certain characters. A lot of their appearances seem kind of random and maybe unimportant (unless retroactively made important). No character really seems to have a linear timeline that truly makes sense.
Wolk’s own work is a short of ad hoc collection of characters, events, and time periods that he finds interesting. Significant moments also appear, but Wolk acknowledges that people have different ideas of what “significant” means. Significant to the character? The plot? To readers? As part of the writing process? As a period piece? So what grounds the work is really Wolk’s personal journey going through the comics, discovering hidden gems, encountering problematic texts, struggling through poorly written runs to get to the amazing ones. It’s a journey I am thankful he took so the rest of us will not have to.
Hardcore fans of the Marvel comics are as likely to learn something new and surprising as more casual ones. Readers interested in literary history, in comics history, or in the writing process (especially the comics one, with all its collaboration, and the corporate one, where personal and commercial interests collide) will also find the book worthwhile. This project is a unique one–and it certainly will intrigue comics fans!