All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk
I have to confess that I went into Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told (2021) with a certain set of expectations, leading to some early disappointment as I read. But once I realized that my expectations were askew, and then eventually (admittedly a bit grudgingly at first) set them aside, I was able to settle in and enjoy Wolk’s work for what it was as opposed to being annoyed by what it was not. And what it was turned out to be pretty good.
Wolk’s book is based on an incredibly stupid idea. And if that sounds harsh, well, it’s only what Wolk himself says about his decision to read all 27,000-plus issues Marvel has put out since 1961, what he labels “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created.” As he says, about the foolhardiness of his endeavor:
Not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing … Nobody is supposed to read the whole thing. That’s not how it’s meant to be experienced. So of course, that’s what I did. I read all 540,000 -plus pages … Do I recommend anyone else do the same? God, no.
He does, however, add he was “absolutely” happy he had done so. His goal was to “get a better sense of what was in there” so he could help guide people curious about the Marvel universe, those potential travelers who might follow in his tracks. He also wanted “to see what the Marvel narrative said as a single body of work; an epic among epics.” (I would say he does more of the former than the latter). Wolk enters the task as a fan of many decades, but a clear-eyed one, a fan full of enthusiasm and awe, but also willing to acknowledge the epic’s flaws, noting how it offers “magnificent craft” but also “dumb hackwork” and a number of problematic portrayals of race and gender. And it’s both the enthusiasm and the clear eye that makes him such a good guide.
First, though, Wolk goes through a bit of throat-clearing, discussing general issues like continuity, the Marvel method, the connection/differences between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the comics, Marvel’s in-comics timeline, legacy characters, why there are so many Spider-Man and X-Men comics, etc. He also explains his rules for what he chose to read and not read:
- Was it a comic book published by Marvel during the period bounded by 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 and 2017’s Marvel Legacy #1? (The usual definition of “the Marvel Age”)
- Did it involve characters owned by Marvel? (no Star Wars comics, for instance)
- Could the version of Spider-Man who stars in The Amazing Spider-Man reasonably turn up in it without the benefit of time travel? (So no Western or war comics, no alternate history ones, none based on animated series, etc.)
From there he’s off and running, each chapter of All of the Marvels mostly focusing on a single title, beginning with the Fantastic Four, then moving to Spider-Man, Master of Kung-Fu (Shang Chi), X-Men, Thor, Black Panther, Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel. Several other chapters explore long narrative “events” like Secret Wars, and Wolk also intersperses “interlude” chapters that digress slightly from the stories themselves by exploring the early monster stories/comics that Marvel was influenced by; the working relationship, and non-relationship, amongst Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Mike Ditko; the impact of the Vietnam War; pop music in Marvel comics; Marvel and the movies before the MCU; presidents in the comics; the beginning of Marvel’s cross-story universe, where events in one comic reverberated across others; and, unexpectedly, Linda Carter, Student Nurse, a short-lived character in Marvel’s “young woman making their way in the world” series who surprisingly resurfaced in the company’s superhero universe. Finally, he ends with an endearing and surprisingly moving last chapter about bonding with his young son over several years of shared comic book reading.
Wolk eschews a simple chronological history of the titles he examines, choosing instead to move chronologically but only focusing on a few important strands and storylines, either within the series or for Marvel itself. For the Fantastic Four, it is how this comic first nailed what Wolk sees as the Marvel magic — a combination of “superheroes + monsters + romance” and also how they change as a family, and so he begins not with #1 but with #51 (“This Man, This Monster”) and then moves on to Reed and Sue getting married and then having a son, Franklin, and then a daughter, Valeria. For Spider-Man, he focuses on the series as bildungsroman, how “Peter is not yet — never yet — the person he needs to become.” One aspect of this attempt is the series of potential father figures, all “terrible,” its creators concoct for Peter Parker: the Green Goblin (father to his best friend), the Lizard (scientist mentor who goes wrong), J. Jonah Jameson, even Reed Richards who rejects him when Peter tries to join the Fantastic Four. Wolk also explores the rise of Miles Morales, the “new” Spider-Man who now co-exists happily alongside the legacy version.
Wolk’s choice of Master of Kung-Fu is an unexpected one, in that it’s far less popular/long-running than other possible titles and because of its major stumbling on race. It’s an apt follow-up to the Spider-Man segment as Wolk sees the story is similar but with a different spin — the “story about someone who realizes that the worldview with which he has grown up is actually unconscionable, and who comes — not immediately, but gradually — to do better.” Wolk faces the racial issues head on, noting its many “racist tropes,” ranging from the relatively small bore — “a Kung Fu practitioner whose outfit is basically a karate gi” — to the holy-crap-how-racist-can-you-get examples of the book’s use of the classically racist Fu Manchu character and the wince-evoking yellow/orange coloration of the Asian characters. As he admits in the close of this chapter, “there’s no getting around what’s wrong … From the Yellow Peril archetypes baked into the series premise to its perpetual ‘white people making stuff up about real world cultures not their own’.” He also, however, cautions that “to dismiss it is to dismiss a genuinely special, doggedly idiosyncratic piece of art … Most of it beautifully, inventively drawn … [by] creators who came to realize — if slowly and with some nudging from their audience — that they too needed to do better.”
Race, of course, rears up again with Wolk’s discussion of Black Panther, which “is problematic in fascinating ways, a mixture of racist tropes and ingenious inversions … where the character spends his first thirty-three years in the hands of white writers, being entirely the product of White Americans’ ideas about Africa, and very often the vehicle for their stories about American Blackness.” That said, he does credit that those views “were usually sympathetic and sometimes pretty right-on by the standards of the times,” albeit said standards themselves were “iffy by definition.” Eventually, though, as Wolk details, the character was penciled and written by black artists and writers such as Christopher Priest, Billy Graham, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
For the X-Men, Wolk hits the obvious — the X-Men as stand-in for “the Other” — but he’s more interesting in his examination of the artists/writers. Here, for instance, is his sharp honed insight on the difference between Chris Claremont and John Byrne: “If Byrne draws a pistol on a wall, it will be fired by the end of the issue; if Claremont has a character mention a pistol on the wall, it might never be mentioned again, or it might turn out, sixty issues later, to have been cursed by an eighteenth-century warlock.”
The section on Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl (one of my personal favorite Marvel series, and one I highly recommend) continues the latter chapters exploration of Marvel’s shifting (if late to do so) presentation of race and gender. Wolk calls these two “the most interesting Marvel superheroes to have emerged in the twenty-first century [both of whom who] care about social injustice, and systemic oppression and corruption, and having their voices ignored and their identities erased.”
While focusing on just a few strands and series runs makes the topic manageable, it does come with some cost. An obvious one is you can’t cover everyone, so we get no Daredevil, no Hulk, very little Iron Man or Captain America, and none of the more out-there Marvel characters like Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, Morbius the vampire, Tomb of Dracula, etc. The close focus also has a bit of a negative impact when Wolk deals with very long-running narrative arcs, but the bigger issue is the lack of a true “big picture.” Which brings me back to my opening expectations for All of the Marvels.
I had thought, hoped, OK, expected, that someone who read nearly the entire sweep of Marvel’s output would offer up a comprehensive exploration of how that company changed over time. We get some of that, as noted above, with regards to race and gender, but it feels pretty scattershot. And there’s not a great sense of narrative or stylistic elements outside of the singular titles themselves. Or any sense of context in the larger comics world, such as any mention of DC.
But as I said in my intro, while that’s a book that certainly could have been written after performing this gloriously ridiculous feat, it’s not the book that Wolk did write, and it’s not fair to hold that against him. Once I realized that, and took All of the Marvels for what it is, not a holistic critical appraisal but more of a reader’s guide for potential fans from a current one, and one that aims not at a comprehensive guide but one that takes a more selective approach. Sort of like a docent (a highly knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and engaging one) who, after you tell her you don’t have time to see the entire four floors of the art museum, takes out a map and circles all the rooms. And not necessarily the “highlights” (no Monet water lilies) but the ones that, over her great experience, she has determined are your best entryway and best journey. And judged by that metric, Wolk has given us a pretty good afternoon.