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edge staff writer


In search of lost time, superhero-style – ‘All of the Marvels’

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There’s a certain flavor of nonfiction – I call it stunt nonfiction, but your mileage may vary – that is built around a particular gimmick. It’s tough to articulate what it is specifically, considering how many different ways one might partake, but generally, you know it if you see it.

Maybe it’s a book about making every recipe in a single cookbook or committing to saying “yes” to everything. Maybe it’s about taking the field with a professional football team as a rank amateur or tracking down everyone you find in a random pack of baseball cards. Maybe it’s about trying to follow the Bible or Oprah as closely and as literally as possible for one year.

Or maybe, if you’re Douglas Wolk, it’s about reading every single Marvel comic and considering it as one expansive story.

That’s what Wolk did with his new book “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told” (Penguin Press, $28). In an effort to demonstrate the comprehensive nature of the Marvel meta-arc over the course of the decades, Wolk read every single comic Marvel published from 1961 (considered to be the start of the true Marvel Age) through 2017, when he first decided to undertake the massive project.

In all, he would read over 27,000 comics from those 50-plus years, hitting every major milestone in the history of the Marvel Universe. We’re talking about well over a half-million pages in total. And in doing so, he began to see the sprawling Proustian epic buried within that incredible page count, as well as a variety of entry points for those who are perhaps too intimidated by the vast and convoluted history of Marvel Comics – a history that manages to extend far beyond the massive-in-its-own-right Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As Wolk sees it, the Marvel Comics output over this stretch is nothing less than the single longest, continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created.

Think about it. From almost the very beginning, there has been an interconnectedness to Marvel’s various titles. Events that took place in “The Amazing Spider-Man” might impact an altogether different storyline in, say, “Daredevil.” Happenings in “The Incredible Hulk” or “Thor” could well influence what happens in “The Avengers.” And don’t even get me started on company-wide crossovers, when characters are plucked from every corner of the Marvel Universe and brought together for an extended narrative.

Of course, it wasn’t always so clear-cut; the early days and early attempts at cross-continuity were haphazard and a bit messy. But even then, the events of one title inevitably affected others.

And here is Wolk, doing his best to read every single word.

Reflected in the pages of Marvel Comics, you’ll find reflections of almost every single significant development in American culture. They might be outsized, funhouse mirror reflections – but they are reflections. Whether we’re talking about Cold War paranoia or the burgeoning counterculture or the rise of jingoism or the ubiquity of technology, it was reflected in Marvel Comics. From the coded inclusivity baked into the X-Men or the duty/honor dichotomy broken down in the ebbs and flows of Captain America, it’s all there, waiting, for anyone who cares to look.

Now, Wolk is adamant that he A) greatly enjoyed this undertaking and B) would never under any circumstances recommend that anyone else do it. It’s worth noting that he didn’t read them all in order, and with good reason – there are periods of clunkiness throughout, along with some oversimplification that borders on the cornball (particularly in the earlier years).

He discusses titles and crossover arcs, of course, and their connections to the world we live in. But even as he examines the broader body of work as a singular work of cultural value, he also approaches it as a fan. He explores favorite storylines and characters and creators; we get plenty of Stan Lee, obviously, but despite the mythology surrounding Stan the Man later in life, there were a LOT of people behind Marvel’s success, spanning multiple generations. Artists and writers like Steve Ditko, Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont, Todd Macfarlane … the list goes on and on.

(Here’s where I note that I’m a Ditko guy, though I also have a lot of love for the transformational work that Chris Claremont did with the X-Men, steering them into a realm that left them both philosophically complex and wildly popular.)

I won’t go into the nuts-and-bolts of Wolk’s thorough and thoughtful breakdown of the various eras in Marvel Comics history; honestly, while you might be able to quibble a bit with beginnings and endings, his demarcations are pretty solid; his analysis of the various foci definitely tracks.

It’s wild to consider that the comic books I so loved as a kid – I started on current titles, but I also worked my way backward by way of abandoned collections from older relatives and the cheap paperbacks that brought together essential classic storylines – have become the subject of genuine scholarly interest. This kind of pop historical deconstruction would have blown the mind of young Allen, although I’d wager that that kid wouldn’t have been totally surprised. After all, I loved them and thought they had something to say – why wouldn’t other people?

Part literary criticism, part wanton fanboying, part nostalgia trip, “All of the Marvels” is one fantastic read for anyone who loves comic books. Is it a stunt? Sure is – and a hell of a good one. Just an incredible idea. Spectacular. Mighty. It is smart and funny, rife with sharp analysis and engaging ideas. In short, it treats this body of work with genuine respect – respect it absolutely deserves. 

Make mine Marvel. Excelsior!

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 08:04


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