All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk

All the Marvels

Information

Goodreads: All of the Marvels
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

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.

Star Divider

Review

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!

3 Stars

4 thoughts on “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk

  1. Michael J. Miller says:

    When I first saw this book I hoped you’d write a review on it! I was so curious but I wanted a review I could trust (Amazon and Goodreads users I didn’t know weren’t cutting it) before I decided to give it a try. Outside of the fact that anyone would even TRY a project like this, I find it fascinating because this is a big piece of what I find so unique about comic books in general. I can’t think of any other story medium which operates like this – the same characters in ongoing stories every month for decades without ever really aging more than a few years and written by a revolving roster of creators. Trying to approach it all as ONE STORY is such an exciting idea! I’d never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever *deep breath* ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever want to do it myself! But the fact that Wolk did is something I respect and felt like I kind of needed to read. I really appreciate your review for helping me make that choice!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I really appreciated that someone was passionate enough about Marvel to try to make sense of it all! Even the people who WRITE the comics don’t do that! But it’s so fascinating to see someone try to piece it all together, tracing different themes found in the stories, showing how different time periods and their politics influenced the stories.

      I especially appreciated the moments when Wolk looks at questions that are specific to a character/comic. So he’s interested in the question, “What do gods do?” for the Thor comics, but interested in, “What makes a good superhero?” for Black Panther. Even MORE interesting is that Wolk concludes that what makes Black Panther successful is NOT what makes other heroes successful. Wolk sees Black Panther as only successful when he acts as a king and looks out for the people of Wakanda–even if doing so would seem to make him UNheroic in the context of another character’s comic. And then he ends with a look at Ms. Marvel and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and the new type of heroism they represent. It’s FASCINATING.

      Also fascinating is that he addresses the whole time/no aging thing. I didn’t know this, but apparently the Marvel comics have like a compressed timeline? Or something? I always thought the audience was just supposed to pretend that the characters don’t age through time, like Nancy Drew for instance. But apparently there is some theory that Franklin Richards is actually bending time or slowing it down? I didn’t understand if this is actually hinted at in the comics, or if it’s more of a fan theory.

      Anyway, I think you’d enjoy it! It’s presented as sort of one person’s journey through Marvel and, well, that’s also part of what makes comics fascinating! Everyone experiences them differently and picks up on different things that affect them or that they find important. It’s fun to see the stories through someone else’s eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Ok. Ok. I had to totally stop my life and look into this Franklin Richards thing because I’d never heard of it before! What I was able to turn up is it’s an admittedly wildly detailed fan theory that’s been bounced around and reported on by all the major “nerd news” sites like Screenrant, CBR, etc. Essentially, because he can control reality and fears change/growing up, he slows all of life.

        But it seems the general approach by Marvel, its writers, and its readers, is to just….not think about it. It’s just a weird thing that happens when you have the same characters in serial stories for decades. And IF you think about it, you should go the Nancy Drew route and just pretend they are eternally in the present moment of now.

        You just BLEW MY MIND with this. What’s also interesting is IF this was the way it was working in-universe, Franklin burned out the last of his powers a few issues ago in ‘Fantastic Four.’ So that would mean everyone would be aging in real time now! That would be intriguing to see…

        What a cool approach, too, to take the very subjective experience of one person’s journey through Marvel and use that subjectivity to explore something approaching the totality of the Marvel comic universe’s body of work. I’m glad it’s an interesting read!

        Everything you’ve said here makes me want to read it even more. Maybe I can over Christmas break! We’ll have to see how it goes. But again, thank you so much for the thoughtful review and reflection on this text! Yay!

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Wow. Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a bunch of fans apparently managed to come up with an extremely detailed and certainly plausible solution to a problem that the actual storyline just ignores? This is why I love fandoms! They add so much to our understanding and, even if something isn’t necessarily canon, they provide a great outlet to have fun working together on nerdy theories!

          And, yeah, part of the interesting thing about the timeline is that it’s not stagnant. The characters are not aging, but they are clearly in the present day because the comics periodically reference current events or current presidents.

          So weird it’s best not to question it too much? XD

          I hope you find some time for reading this winter break!

          Like

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