There are daunting reading goals, like inhaling the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in one day or War and Peace in a weekend. And then there’s reading every Marvel superhero comic ever published, a mountaineering expedition that makes all other reading goals look like a short jog up a small hill.
That’s because the Marvel story — and yes, unlike DC Comics, Marvel has connected nearly all its series in one single, continuous, interlocking story with no reboots — runs to more than 540,000 pages so far. That’s roughly the length of 500 Bibles. Sure, the Marvel story contains fewer words per page than the Bible (the average amount of smiting may be the same). Even so, you’d be hard-pressed to consume the whole scales-tilting, record-breaking Marvel opus in anything close to five years.
But that’s what Douglas Wolk did. As detailed in his new book All the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Wolk (who previously wrote the award-winning Reading Comics) set out on this adventure after his teenage son Sterling became interested in reading dad’s stacks of old Marvel comics in 2016. Rather than tackle them in chronological order, they followed Sterling’s favorite characters down a rabbit hole of story arcs from across the years.
‘I was gorging myself on something never meant to be gorged on’
Which made Wolk wonder: What if he kept going and read them all? What would the Marvel story looked like if you were able to view it as a coherent whole? A spreadsheet of 27,000-plus comics was duly compiled. (This avoided the versions of Marvel that came and went before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby struck gold with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, and also left out anything Marvel published that didn’t tie into the larger Marvel story — sorry, Star Wars.) Then Wolk started chipping away at it, arc by arc, over five long years of dedicated reading.
“It was gorging myself on something that was never meant to be gorged on,” was how Wolk described this dopamine-rich experience to me. Comics were designed in a disposable age, after all. Before their potential to be art was widely understood, most Marvel comics went straight in the trash. The storylines were often made to match.
But gorging on the equivalent of visual candy didn’t bother Wolk in the long run, he says: “It was enormously enjoyable. I had a really, really good time. Even with the bad comics, a certain kind of Stockholm Syndrome set in.”
And then there were the comics that were both good and bad at the same time. Case in point: Master of Kung Fu, the 1970s series that gave birth to the MCU’s latest hero, Shang-Chi. Wolk, not knowing a movie was in the works, devotes a whole chapter to this “hidden gem” in part because of its flaws (some characters were literally colored yellow; Shang-Chi’s dad was infamous racist caricature Fu Manchu). And also to praise the hero of its letters page, a fan named Bill Wu, who loved the series but constantly urged its creators to do better. (They pledged they would, and usually did.)
Topical since the beginning
This, ultimately, is the most fascinating aspect of reading as much of Marvel as Wolk has. You’re not just reading a fun narrative, you’re reading a societal meta-narrative. Marvel didn’t just reflect recent history; Marvel was history, playing out in real time. In the dialogue, in the art, on the letters page, and most especially in the choices of subject, America can be seen making sense of itself and the world.
“What surprised me the most in this project was how topical the [Marvel] story has been, since the very beginning,” Wolk says. He points to Bruce Banner, whose transformation into the Hulk during an atomic test came in 1962 at the same time a U.S.-Soviet moratorium on atomic testing lapsed. The Cold War metaphor was really specific. You could also point to the eerie coincidence that Black Panther the character arrived in 1966 at almost exactly the same time as the Black Panther Party, neither apparently named after the other.
The topicality is even more eerie when it arrives ahead of time. Wolk describes a 2009 series named Dark Reign, in which Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) rises to political power thanks to media manipulation, as “the best work of fiction I’ve seen about life under the Donald Trump administration — the one that most accurately captures the slow-grinding despair and tension of that period in American culture.” And yet it arrived at the very beginning of the Obama administration. While hope and change was in the air, Marvel had its finger on the pulse of a more terrifying future.
The Marvel multiverse of madness
Credit: UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Weirdly, given all that cultural relevance, the Marvel story actually goes out of its way to disconnect itself from history. Sixty years may have passed for Marvel readers, but only 14 years have passed in the comics — in part to explain why characters like Fantastic Four child Franklin Richards seem to be aging so slowly. This led to the extraordinarily weird principle of the “sliding timeline”: If you’re reading a Marvel comic from 1961 in 2021, you’re supposed to imagine it took place 14 years ago — in 2007! — and that the artists just added all those 1960s references so that the people of the 1960s would understand them.
Got a headache yet? You will at some point, the deeper you dive into the multiverse of madness that is the Marvel story. Its 14-year chronology is far from neat. There’s a lot of jumping around in time with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and side-stories that are said to have taken place between specific panels of a story from years earlier. Characters are forever dying and being resurrected, even when the promise of resurrection is explicitly taken away. Clones, robot doubles, and alternate universe versions of our heroes abound. The Earth/universe has been altered, restored and/or destroyed many times, but for the most part people’s minds have been modified so they don’t remember. I know the feeling.
This is why Wolk says he had to rewrite roughly 90 percent of the book. He started out thinking a summary of the entire Marvel story, divided into four phases of roughly 15 years apiece, would be the interesting part. Instead, it became the appendix. There’s just so much sprawling insanity to this tale that was effectively created by thousands of improv artists, you need some kind of hand-hold. Wolk provides this by focusing on an unlikely character: night nurse Linda Carter, hero of one of the earliest Marvel comics, contemporary of the Fantastic Four, who has returned to the Marvel story on and off ever since.
Ultimately, Wolk decided he was better off playing tour guide than Marvel historian. And that’s what the final version of All the Marvels reads like: a quirky personal tour of a planet-sized theme park. You’ll find plenty of reading recommendations — I’ll be checking out the mid-1980s runs of Black Panther and Thor after this — but Wolk is mostly highlighting story arcs that contrast with each other in interesting ways. The Spider-Man chapter, for example, is the mostly tragic tale of a series that too often tried to repeat the high notes of its first ten years, then painted itself into a corner with a weird narrative about a Peter Parker clone.
And even though All the Marvels is explicitly not about the MCU — the closest is a cute mini-chapter detailing every single time Stan Lee had hyped up a Marvel movie that didn’t pan out over the years — you will come away with a greater sense of why the movie series has succeeded. Every element was drawn from something that worked well in the comics; every element was remixed fearlessly without too much respect to the original. In short, the MCU is a much more manageable second draft of the longest, wildest story in human history.