‘All Of The Marvels’ Decodes The Biggest Story Ever Told
Imagine a single story told over six decades, in more than 27,000 installments crafted by hundreds of small teams of creators, featuring every manner of plot twist, thousands of named recurring characters, encompassing every genre, and spanning locales from the mundane to the subatomic to the inter-dimensional. That, in a nutshell, is the literary scope of the Marvel Universe, the most ambitious work of collaborative fiction ever attempted, according to critic Douglas Wolk’s provocative new book All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, which comes out October 12 from the Penguin Press imprint of Penguin Random House.
Wolk came by his conclusion the hard way. He read just about every comic book produced by Marvel from the dawn of its superhero age (Fantastic Four #1, 1961) to the present: the great, the terrible, the famous, the obscure and everything in between. All of the Marvels is his heroic attempt to synthesize all of this diverse material into a coherent framework.
It’s not as crazy as it might seem. The “Marvel Age” began as the product of a small group of creators: primarily visual storytellers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko providing the pyrotechnics and mythic resonance, tied together by the witty patter of wordsmith Stan Lee, who was also the Editor-in-Chief overseeing the line. Lee, a master marketer, understood the value of cross-selling. Early on, he established the premise that all Marvel stories took place in a single “universe,” where heroes and villains were not only aware of one another, but where actions that took place in one story had consequences that could reverberate in unexpected ways. The goal was to get kids to buy every issue for fear of missing something that might later be important. It not only worked well enough to elevate the poverty-row press formerly known as Timely and later Atlas Comics into a force to rival (and eventually surpass) mighty DC, but also change the practice of storytelling forever.
Marvel has embraced this concept of continuity ever since. Characters get updated with the times, shed antiquated characterizations, forge new relationships and embark on new adventures, but their arcs follow certain established contours. Even when strands of narrative can’t be smoothly reconciled with previous events, the effort must be made to at least account for the inconsistencies. If the company fails to play by its own rules, it can be subject to rigorous policing by fans and readers who have become deeply invested in its mythology.
Wolk takes Marvel at its word. All of the Marvels engages with these stories earnestly, imputing them with an intentionality that may not always have been present at their creation. At the same time, he is forthright about the near-impossibility of coming to terms with a “story” that came about in such a peculiar set of circumstances: the product not only of vastly different creative sensibilities, but also against the background of corporate policies and shifting social mores. At times, All of the Marvels seems engaged in an argument with itself about how far to push its central thesis.
Wolk approaches his topic from several directions simultaneously. After a few introductory chapters, he uses some of the well-known characters of the Marvel pantheon as a point of departure for discussing the emblematic features of Marvel’s storytelling style. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Shang-Chi and Black Panther are all the subject of chapter-length discussions. Wolk hopscotches through the histories of these characters going back 50 or 60 years in some cases, zooming in to individual issues that either exemplify a recurring theme, represent a unique creative approach to the story, or offer a chance to explain a longer story arc.
In between these chapters, he focuses on issues like Marvel’s treatment of world events contemporaneous with the publication of comics, such as the Vietnam war, various Presidential administrations, or 9/11; Marvel’s cosmology; the role of monsters, and so on. He concludes with a master chronology that divides Marvel’s output into six discrete eras, each embodying its own central themes and concerns.
In all these cases, Wolk gives equal weight to Marvel comics across the decades, skipping seemly at random from the Kirby-Lee Silver Age (1960s) to the buttoned-down corporate storytelling of the 21st century to the ill-regarded 1990s era of grim-and-gritty characters and endless crossover sagas, and all points in between. This approach was only made possible by Wolk’s comprehensive reading project. Typically, Marvel fans have a bias for the period where they started reading, and view everything else in comparison to that. If anyone else has attempted to take such an ecumenical view of Marvel’s historical output – taking each story on its own terms, noting the creative and historical context when appropriate, pointing out reputed classics, but not letting personal passions get too much in the way – I’m not aware of it.
That’s not to say Wolk is dispassionate. Parts of the narrative are extremely personal, as when he discusses introducing some of his favorites to his son, and how the project of reading through the Marvel oeuvre has enriched their relationship. Wolk is a fine writer and raconteur. It’s these touches which help keep readers turning the pages even when the subject matter threatens to drown in its own minutia.
All of the Marvels sets a difficult, perhaps impossible, standard for itself. Any book attempting a “unified field” theory of Marvel storytelling will either fail the diehard fans by leaving out examples that someone somewhere will consider obvious and essential, or else fail the general reader by getting too much into the weeds.
Amazingly, Wolk does the best possible job threading this needle. There’s detail galore in the book. No one, with the possible exception of longtime Marvel archivist/scholar Peter Sanderson, has read every single issue, so some parts of All of the Marvels are bound to come as a revelation even to longtime fans who have disagreements with his spin on their favorites. Meanwhile Wolk’s commitment to his thesis of the unity of Marvel’s narrative, references to external social and historical context, and polished writing style all make the book approachable by anyone with a passing interest in the subject and an open mind toward taking some frankly weird and ridiculous story concepts at face value.
Marvel itself has made Wolk’s job easier. A book like this being published on anything but a specialty press would have been inconceivable a decade ago. But now Marvel has trained millions around the world who have never cracked the cover of a comic to appreciate the concepts of continuity and universe-building, to the point that it’s worthwhile for the company to invest in elaborate animation and star-quality voice talent for such a deep continuity-nerd concept as What If?
As florid as the MCU has grown over the years, it still can’t hold a candle to the Marvel comics universe. For anyone willing to take that step into the inconceivably vast and wonderful world that generations of creators have brought to us, issue by issue, month by month, year by year, All of the Marvels is an indispensable handbook. And for anyone seeking an explanation for the enduring popularity of our modern superhero mythology, Wolk has provided as well-informed and well-argued a thesis as you’re likely to find.