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He Read All 27,000 Marvel Comic Books and Lived to Tell the Tale

ALL OF THE MARVELSA Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever ToldBy Douglas Wolk If Western popular culture has a common idiom, a force that …

He Read All 27,000 Marvel Comic Books and Lived to Tell the Tale

A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told
By Douglas Wolk

If Western popular culture has a common idiom, a force that binds us all, the stories contained in Marvel comics are probably it. In a few short decades, the Marvel Universe (in all its corporate manifestations) has rewired how millions, perhaps even billions, of people imagine what is possible, what is heroic, what is good. Once confined to dime store spinner racks, Marvel’s creations have burst free of their humble roots, hulking out into one of the most successful transmedia empires on the planet.

That is one version of the Marvel story, perhaps the most obvious. There are others, naturally, as befits a Galactus-size behemoth. There are the lives of the genius creators who broke their backs making it all happen or the perspective of one of the many superhero teams that defines the Marvel brand. Another narrative, though, is hiding in plain sight. It’s the one contained within the 27,000 comic books that Marvel published between 1961 and today — what the writer Douglas Wolk calls “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date and growing.”

Wolk, a lifelong comic fan who won an Eisner Award for his excellent “Reading Comics,” wondered (as only a true comic fan could) what those 27,000 comics — the original source for all the movies, TV shows, action figures, cartoons, video games, T-shirts, cosplayers — might say to us as a single body of work.

So Wolk read them. All 27,000 Marvel comics, give or take a few.

The result is “All of the Marvels”: Wolk’s brilliant, eccentric, moving and wholly wonderful attempt to distill it all into a coherent narrative.

If you grew up on Marvel comics like I did, “All of the Marvels” will be a gift. If your relationship with the monthly books is at best spotty — if, for example, you can’t tell your Heralds of Galactus from your Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or your Jack Kirby from your Steve Ditko — “All of the Marvels” will be an eye-opener, and Wolk’s learned enthusiasm will have you dropping coin at your local comic book shop before you turn the last page.

A small warning, though: For a book that moves with the kineticism of a Kirby double-page spread, “All of the Marvels” kicks off on the square side, with Wolk explaining his methodology, laying out which comics he read, and the ones he did not, taking time to address the questions he imagines his readers will have. All necessary, I’m sure, but I won’t lie — the opening few chapters are a bit of a slog, and not at all indicative of what is to come.

Trust me: Once Wolk finishes the preliminaries, “All of the Marvels” rips off its stuffed shirt, and soars.

Wolk starts sensibly with the comic that ignited the Marvel revolution: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s “Fantastic Four.” “Fantastic Four” ushered in modern superheroes as we now understand them — a fractious, self-doubting (and in many cases self-loathing) set of figures freighted with commonplace concerns. The last part was key; Kirby and Lee planted the superhero firmly and generatively in the soil of the “real” in ways that the stories of other superheroes were organized to avoid (looking at you, DC) — and readers just ate it up.

But Wolk doesn’t begin his exegesis with the first issue of “Fantastic Four” (November 1961), as one might expect. He starts instead with Issue 51. This might seem odd, but it is in fact breathtakingly smart. What Wolk has divined is that the Marvel story he’s after is not going to reveal itself linearly — and his rhizomatic approach allows him to track what really matters to this epic of epics without getting baffled by chronology or the size of the labyrinth. By vaulting from key moment to key moment, zipping across time and the various interlocking franchises, Wolk traces the innovations and strange experiments that made the Marvel magic work. Which is why beginning with Issue 51 is essential; as Wolk notes, it is in this issue (and, for my money, the three issues that precede it) where all the ideas that Kirby and Lee had been tinkering with finally come together.

Wolk admits the plot of the issue “doesn’t make a lick of sense” but the comic’s core juxtaposition is what matters: Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing, stands on a rain-swept city street and contemplates in despair a future stranded in his monstrous igneous form: “I’ll never be human again!” A few pages on, Mister Fantastic, the putative leader of the Fantastic Four, is trapped in interdimensional “sub-space” and comes face to face with what can only be described as the galactic sublime, rendered mind-bendingly by Kirby via ecstatic collage. But he does not despair — just the opposite: He is awe-struck.

Wolk makes a convincing argument that the Marvel formula, what you might call its Super Soldier Serum, is monsters + romance + superheroes + topicality. But it was in Issue 51 that Kirby and Lee hit the mother lode; discovered the precise amount of human misery you need to inflict on a superhero in order to sell the galactic and fantastic, to make it real. The galactic fantastic without human anguish: kid stuff. Human anguish without the galactic: soap opera. But the two blended together in the right proportions equaled a new type of imaginative vibranium. Once Kirby and Lee cracked the Galactus Equation, Marvel never looked back.

Douglas WolkCredit…Lisa Gidley

In Issue 51, Mister Fantastic cries out: “I’ve done it!! I’m drifting into a world of limitless dimensions! It’s the crossroads of infinity — the junction to everywhere!” Mister Fantastic might as well have been speaking for Marvel itself. And for Wolk, too. For it is in his Fantastic Four discussion that “All of the Marvels” ignites, and where Wolk reveals what happens when you read all those comic books and take them seriously: You gain the ability to discern the source code of the Marvel comic universe.

It’s heady, thrilling stuff, and Wolk proves to be the perfect guide for this type of adventure: nimble, learned, funny and sincere. He brings his critical superpowers to bear on the people who launched the Marvel century — Stan Lee, whom he describes as the “con man who delivers” (that’s one way of putting it), and the artist Jack Kirby, the undervalued genius who produced furious prophetic art. There are interludes on Marvel’s monsters and on Marvel’s American presidents, a chapter on how time works inside the Marvel universe, even a What-If chapter that recasts Marvel’s earlier nurse comics as the frame for the entire Marvel continuity. And, of course, Wolk takes on the Marvel superheroes themselves. All the greats are here assembled: Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Black Panther, the Avengers. Wolk’s X-Men chapter is a gem and gets at how the comic’s sustained engagement with difference spoke to fans who themselves often felt quite othered, especially in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. He shows how important the editor-writer Christopher Priest, one of the few African Americans working at Marvel at the time, was to making Black Panther the Black Panther we now recognize.

Wolk includes some deep cuts, as well. He has a chapter on one of Marvel’s lesser-known comics, “Master of Kung Fu,” whose orange-hued hero, Shang Chi (now on the big screen everywhere), was created to capitalize on the kung fu craze of the early 1970s. It is in this chapter where Wolk’s critical Power Cosmic shows its limitations. Wolk goes to great lengths to argue that “Master of Kung Fu,” created by white men who knew more about Fu Manchu than anything remotely resembling Asia, both complicates and — for him — rises above its Orientalist framing. I am open to these types of arguments, but Wolk’s “Master of Kung Fu” chapter did not convince. Wolk is clearly aware of the degree to which Marvel comics participated in the Thanos Snap of patriarchal white supremacy, which erased a lot more than half the world from mainstream representation — and still does — but when it comes to dealing with this particular stream of the Marvel source code, Wolk notes more than he analyzes. He doesn’t, in other words, clobber hard enough.

Wolk and his book would have been better served if he’d assembled a different kind of avengers, the pioneering scholars who are already doing precisely this type of research: Anna F. Peppard, Brian Johnson, Adilifu Nama, Ramzi Fawaz, Frederick Luis Aldama and Julian Chambliss.

How more persuasive Wolk’s “Master of Kung Fu” chapter would be had he deployed Sylvia Shin Chong’s groundbreaking “Oriental Obscene” to illuminate why so many Americans were especially eager for kung fu heroes in the wake of the Vietnam War. (Martial arts, Chong explains, became a way that American masculinity could harden itself and gain mastery over the trauma of Asian violence brought on by the Vietnam War.) Chong’s insights would have given us a better understanding not only of the comic as a whole but also of the trauma that haunts Shang Chi throughout the series, a trauma that interests Wolk deeply but which belongs as much to the nation that produced and consumed Shang Chi as to the hero himself.

One could have imagined a book where we got to understand the Marvel comic book epic through its erasures and distortions. A book that explored Marvel’s many Orientalist stories or that laid bare Daredevil’s abuse of his African American “informant” Turk through the lens of Black Lives Matter.

But these What-If dreams aside, that is not the book Wolk wrote. The book Wolk did write is nevertheless impossibly invaluable. Wolk illuminates much that is important about our strange mutant Marvel century, proving, to borrow from Claude Lévi-Strauss, that Marvel is not only good to think with but also perhaps, in our culture, essential.

In his final chapter, Wolk describes how reading Marvel comics with his son helped to deepen their love. It’s a beautiful closing, intensely moving, utterly human, a perfect counterpoint to all the wild weird that came before. That Wolk finishes his journey on this note of communion is fitting. For all their imperfections, Marvel comics have given countless readers inspiration, recognition and, in the face of larger societal rejection, a home. Even communities who have historically ended up on the short end of the Marvel stick have found deep joy in their pages — reparative joy that like Black Panther’s vibranium suit absorbs narrative blows and transforms them into something sustaining and occasionally liberating. “All of the Marvels” is magnificently marvelous. Wolk’s work will invite many more alliterative superlatives. It deserves them all.


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