All of the Marvels: Douglas Wolk’s Marvel Story

You may have heard about Douglas Wolk’s new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told. Frankly, it’s a stunt: what if one reader actually read all of the comic books that make up the Marvel Comics universe, that is, the 27,000-plus comic books published since 1961 that together add up to Marvel’s superhero world? What discoveries or patterns might be gleaned by reading and taking stock of so much stuff? Academics these days might call this approach (after Franco Moretti) distant as opposed to close reading: an overview or sweeping interpretation of a massive set of texts rather than the minutely attentive reading of a small set—essentially, a macroscopic rather than microscopic approach. The thing is, “distant reading” is usually understood to be a matter of machine reading and computational methods (it’s a term much used in the digital humanities). Douglas Wolk is not a machine or array of machines, but one splendidly quirky, human reader. All of the Marvels may sound intimidatingly geeky, but it’s a loving, very personal project—a barnstorming exegetical feat fueled by sheer gushing enthusiasm. Even Marvel’s unloveliest excesses, its long dull stretches and occasionally mortifying missteps, cannot quench that feeling. The stunt turns out to be a delight.

Honestly, when I saw the PR for this book, I got skeptical. Billing Marvel’s piecemeal continuity as “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created” begs a lot of questions. To make one story out of Marvel’s corporate patchwork, the stuff of serial comics by an ever-shifting crowd of artists, writers, and editors for hire, spread out over decades, seems either too optimistic or a surrender to hype. Cynically, I can’t help but see Marvel’s “story” as an ever-expanding incoherence, driven by unending opportunism, impersonal editorial mandates, relentless deadlines, and the sort of artistic interchangeability that work for hire demands. My internal argument would go something like this: There is no singular creative intelligence or cohesive collaborative team, nor even a distinct series of deliberate teams, behind the sprawl of Marvel, and the supposed continuity between comics published in the 1960s and comics published now is simply a commercial requirement of the superhero genre, a matter of desperately imposing shape where there is none. Believing in Marvel’s “continuity” amounts to willfully ignoring its publishing history, indulging in a kind of kayfabe that tries to wave away the incoherence even though we all ought to know better. There’s no big story here, I would say, only an accumulation of disparate comics united by branding.

BUT. One of the wise things about Wolk’s book is that he acknowledges all this. He knows that the continuity he can read into the Marvel story “wasn’t molded intentionally, for the most part” (331), that it came about through reckless improvisation prodded by commercial imperatives. He knows that “Marvel” isn’t one thing. Reading Marvel as one story is a creative act, and Wolk does it his way, according to his interests and pleasures. He encourages his readers to do the same, to “stray from the path,” follow their own curiosity, and indulge their tastes (21). Wolk himself, being a great conversationalist, does a fine job of evangelizing for his tastes, but less in terms of what is “important” and more in terms of what’s cool. All of the Marvels is a record of aesthetic delectation. For Wolk, “Marvel” becomes an idiosyncratic reading practice that does not, thank goodness, require a plodding chronological march through sixty years of comics starting in 1961. Marvel is a pond to swim in. Whether to wade in the shallows or plunge into the deep end, or whether to dogpaddle or swim strict laps, is up to you. Acknowledging the discontinuity of Marvel Comics, but still building his own continuity out of it, Wolk remains interesting on his own terms from first to last. He is a remarkably affable and unstrict guide, cheerfully acknowledging Marvel’s shapelessness even as he imposes shape on it. Good for him.

Opening splash to The Uncanny X-Men #141 (Marvel, Jan. 1981), by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, Tom Orzechowski, and Glynis Wein.

All of the Marvels is refreshingly free of worry about the ever-controversial business of assigning credit for the “creation” of Marvel characters—instead, Wolk assumes creation to be an ongoing, massively collaborative process that can belong to no single person or single team. If that sounds like an ethical dodge, it isn’t—the book generously supplies creator credits, and Wolk delights in the distinctiveness of individual artists and writers. From the outset you can tell that, as he puts it, creators are at least as important as characters (34). All of the Marvels is not a paean to Marvel the company (after all, “a corporation can never love you back,” 328) but a way of remembering thousands of moments of pleasure provided by specific comics created by specific groups of people. In fact, Wolk spends a considerable amount of time on certain scriptwriters—not just Stan Lee, but Chris Claremont and Jonathan Hickman—and cartoonists, chief among them Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, whom he regularly credits with plotting and character creation or co-creation as well as splendid narrative art. Though the book’s perspective is, obviously, not auteurist, Wolk knows and loves creators, and regards the various Marvel stories as personal work (even as he admits their market-driven and often formulaic nature). Reconciling a creator-focused vision with a sweeping overview of the Marvel Universe is quite a feat—and Wolk pulls it off.

Simply put, All of the Marvels is a wonder. I envy Wolk’s genuinely charming voice and ability to hopscotch around the Marvel Universe so freely. He covers light years in a single bound. There is a lot of bounding around in the book, which makes its clarity and focus all the more impressive. Because Wolk is such a friendly narrator to hang with, and so emphatically underscores the importance of inclusivity and shared fun, he makes the crazy tangles of Marvel feel like diverting mental puzzles and invitations to sociability, rather than migraines. More than anything, I’m thankful for the way he makes this admittedly uptight auteurist and originalist—that’s me, honestly, a reader who has tended to bemoan rather than celebrate the endless rewriting of the Marvel Universe—see the virtues and pleasures of its continual revision.

Granted, there are times when Wolk doesn’t convince me, as when he works hard to find the good in prolonged and gimmicky storylines like Dark Reign or The Superior Spider-Man. His readings tend to be very optimistic: for example, he reads the history of Spider-Man as one of distinct “cycles,” each with a windup and a payoff, whereas I tend to read it merely as a history of repetitive imitation and diminishing returns. I found myself wanting to argue with Wolk at times—but I think that’s part of the pleasure he has to offer. He surely knows that readers, even the most enthusiastic readers, will pick arguments with him. Though All of the Marvels is a determinedly bright and optimistic book, it’s not pollyannish or blind. Wolk starts from the recognition that a great many Marvel comics are bad, and acknowledges that “there is cruelty and unfairness to creative geniuses stamped into every page” (27). He is able to find pleasure in the big patterns and the long haul, yet at the same time invites debate on a thousand points—indeed, the book practically begs for trash-talking, clubby exchanges with fellow fans. Criticism and debate, after all, are inevitable (and pleasurable) aspects of fandom. I don’t think Wolk would have it any other way.

Wolk can occasionally be quite critical. He despises the Punisher (“a wish-fulfillment figure for bloodthirsty creeps”), dislikes the original Secret Wars of 1984 (“superhero comics’ peak intersection of rapacity and artlessness”), and joins the chorus of those lamenting 1990s Marvel for opportunism and crassness (“increasingly incoherent exploits of wasp-waisted babes and muscle-bound men”). Yet he goes for a reparative reading whenever he can. Sometimes he notes troubling tendencies that he doesn’t bother to criticize, as when, for example, he cheerfully acknowledges the “nihilistic” (his word) ethos of Hickman et al.’s Secret Wars of 2015-2016 (I gotta admit, he does make me want to go read all of it). I wish he’d dig in more at moments like that. Also, he does some sleight of hand here and there, brandishing his artistic license, as it were, to keep the book focused: Notably, he personifies the Marvel story as a character with agency and a life of its own, as if it were a person living through interesting times. For example, regarding the nineties, he says, “the story has been looking back on itself—sometimes nostalgically, sometimes critically—and by 2004, it’s trying to shake off its repetitions” (347). This way, Marvel becomes a character that takes its knocks but keeps picking itself up and getting back in the race. This is a good strategy for making every fall a fortunate fall—perhaps that’s a little too convenient?

Double-page spread from Master of Kung Fu #116 (Marvel, Sept. 1982), by Doug Moench, Gene Day, Christie Scheele, and Janice Chiang.

But, thanks to Wolk, I can now read or reread Marvel comics with greater enjoyment, even in cases where I think they’re rigged or derivative. That is, I take a new pleasure in the sense of belonging and possibility that All of the Marvels so happily promotes. There are gems scattered throughout the book, from the brief interchapter on pop musicians appearing in Marvel comics, to the ambivalent yet loving chapter on, of all things, Master of Kung Fu, to the beautiful final chapter about passing along his love of Marvel to his young son. A real highlight for me is the interchapter “March 1965,” which is another instance of the kind of up-close cultural history Wolk does so well in his book James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (with its focus on just a few days in October 1962). Every reader will have their own set of highlights, I expect.

No lie—this book is a tonic. Speaking personally, I owe Wolk a lot: This past year, living under lockdown, in the shadow of COVID, and knowing that Wolk’s book would be coming out in late 2021, I did what I had never done before—I got my money’s worth out of the Marvel Unlimited service by reading back and forth between the 1960s and the 21st century. That is, I started on the longest sustained binge-reading of Marvel Comics I’ve ever done (outside of research). This had the effect of naturalizing, for me, digital tablet reading of comic books—a bridge I’d been hoping to cross for years. Armed with the idea that I would get something out of Wolk’s book, and the thought that I might eventually design and teach a new Marvel-themed course, I got over my resistance to screen-reading Marvel comics. As a result, I’ve read some good comics and quite a few lousy comics, plus reread a few old faves, and put them all into new contexts. The arrival of All of the Marvels has made this process, well, not complete (never complete!), but even more enjoyable. Wolk’s tome, this insanely ambitious tour guide, suggests diverse new entryways into, and so many different possibilities for teaching, whatever it is that Marvel has become and keeps on becoming.

So, wow. Do yourself a favor and read this book, if you haven’t already!

PS. I took in part of the book through the audiobook version, read by Wolk himself. It’s a delightful commuting companion. 🙂

One thought on “All of the Marvels: Douglas Wolk’s Marvel Story

  1. Ian Gordon says:

    Wow. Great review Charles. My copy arrives in two days; I can’t wait.

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