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He read all 27,000 Marvel comics and lived to tell the story


A journey to the end of the greatest story ever told
By Douglas Wolk

If Western popular culture has a common idiom, a force that binds us all together, the stories in the Marvel comics probably do. In a matter of decades, the Marvel Universe (in all of its corporate manifestations) has reconfigured the way millions, if not billions of people imagine what’s possible, what’s heroic, what’s good. Once confined to the rolling shelves of dime stores, Marvel’s creations have broken free from their humble roots, rising into one of the most successful transmedia empires on the planet.

That is to say a perhaps the most obvious version of Marvel history. There are others, of course, as befits a giant the size of Galactus. There’s the lives of the genius creators who broke their backs to make it all happen or the prospect of one of the many superhero teams that define the Marvel brand. Another story, however, lurks in plain sight. It is the one contained in the 27,000 comics which Marvel published between 1961 and today – what writer Douglas Wolk calls “the longest continuous, stand-alone work of fiction ever: over half a million pages to date and growing.”

Wolk, a longtime comic book fan who won an Eisner Award for his excellent “Reading Comics,” wondered (as only a true comic book fan could) what these 27,000 comics – the original source of all movies, tv shows, action figures, cartoons, video games, t-shirts, cosplayers – we could be called one and the same job.

So Wolk read them. The 27,000 Marvel comics, more or less.

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

If you grew up with Marvel Comics like I did, “All of the Marvels” will be a giveaway. If your relationship with the monthly books is patchy at best – 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 Wonders” will be a revelation. , and Wolk’s learned enthusiasm will have you dropping off coins at your local comic book store before you turn the last page.

A little caveat, though: for a book that moves with the kinetics of a Kirby spread, “All of the Marvels” starts out on the square side, with Wolk explaining his methodology, outlining the comics he’s read, and the those he didn’t, taking the time to answer questions he imagines his readers will have. Everything is needed, I’m sure, but I won’t lie – the first few chapters are a bit tedious, and not at all indicative of what’s to come.

Believe me: once Wolk finishes the foreplay, “All of the Marvels” rips off his plush shirt, and skyrockets.

Wolk starts off sensibly with the comic book that started the Marvel revolution: “Fantastic Four” by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. “Fantastic Four” ushered in modern superheroes as we now understand them – a surly, self-doubting (and in many cases hating themselves) set of characters loaded with mundane concerns. The last part was the key; Kirby and Lee planted the superhero firmly and generatively in the soil of “the real” in a way that other superhero stories have been curated to avoid (looking at you, DC) – and readers l ‘just ate.

But Wolk does not begin his exegesis with the first issue of the “Fantastic Four” (November 1961), as one might expect. It starts off with number 51 instead. It might sound odd, but it’s actually incredibly smart. What Wolk guessed is that the Marvel story he seeks out isn’t going to turn out linearly – and his rhizomatic approach allows him to follow what really matters to this epic tale without getting confused. by the chronology or the size of the labyrinth. By jumping from key moment to key moment, crossing time and the various interlocking franchises, Wolk traces the innovations and strange experiences that made Marvel magic work. That is why it is essential to start with number 51; As Wolk notes, it’s in this issue (and, for my money, the three issues before it) that all the ideas Kirby and Lee had tinkered with finally come together.

Wolk admits that the plot of the problem “doesn’t make sense,” but the main comic book juxtaposition is what matters: Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, stands on a rain-swept city street and desperately envisions a future locked in its monstrous igneous form: “I’ll never be human again!” A few pages later, Mister Fantastic, the alleged leader of the Fantastic Four, is trapped in an interdimensional “subspace” and comes face to face with what can only be described as the galactic sublime, made mind-blowing by Kirby via an ecstatic collage. . . But he does not despair, quite the contrary: he is amazed.

Wolk makes a compelling argument that the Marvel formula, what you might call his Super Soldier serum, is monsters + romance + superheroes + news. But it was in issue # 51 that Kirby and Lee reached the maternal vein; discovered the precise amount of human misery you must inflict on a superhero in order to sell the galactic and the fantastic, to make it real. Galactic fantasy without human angst: kid stuff. Human anguish without galactic: soap opera. But the two mixed in the right proportions amounted to an imaginative new type of vibranium. Once Kirby and Lee deciphered the Galactus equation, Marvel never looked back.

In issue # 51, Mister Fantastic exclaims: “I have ended this!! I am drifting into a world of limitless dimensions! It’s the infinity crossroads – the junction with all over! “Mister Fantastic could just as easily have spoken for Marvel himself. And for Wolk too. For it is in his discussion of the Fantastic Four that” All Wonders “ignites, and where Wolk reveals what is going on. when you read all of these comics and take them seriously: you gain the ability to discern the source code of the Marvel comic book universe.

It’s intoxicating, enthralling, and Wolk turns out to be the perfect guide for this type of adventure: agile, knowledgeable, funny and sincere. He brings his critical superpowers to the people who started the Marvel Century – Stan Lee, whom he describes as “the con man who delivers” (that’s a way of saying it), and artist Jack Kirby, the genius. underrated who produced furious prophetic art. There are interludes about Marvel’s Monsters and Marvel’s American Presidents, a chapter about how time works in the Marvel Universe, even a What-If chapter that recast Marvel’s early nurses comics as a setting. from all of Marvel’s continuity. And, of course, Wolk takes on the Marvel superheroes themselves. All the great are gathered here: Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Black Panther, the Avengers. Wolk’s X-Men chapter is a gem, and explains how comics’ sustained engagement with difference spoke to fans who often felt quite different, especially in the LGBTQ community. It shows how important editor-writer Christopher Priest, one of the few African Americans working at Marvel at the time, was in making Black Panther the Black Panther we now recognize.

Wolk also includes deep cuts. It 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 craze for kung fu from the early 1970s. It is in this chapter that Wolk’s Power Cosmic review shows its limits. Wolk goes to great lengths to claim that “Master of Kung Fu”, created by white men who knew more about Fu Manchu than anything remotely resembling Asia, complicates and – for him – goes beyond his orientalist framework. . I am open to these kinds of arguments, but Wolk’s “Master of Kung Fu” chapter was not convincing. Wolk is clearly aware of the degree to which the Marvel Comics were involved in the patriarchal white supremacist Thanos Snap, which wiped out far more than half of the world from mainstream portrayal – and still does – but when it comes to processing this Marvel’s particular source code stream, Wolk notes more than he analyzes. In other words, he’s not hitting hard enough.

Wolk and his book would have been better served if he had brought together another type of avengers, the pioneering researchers who already do precisely this type of research: Anna F. Peppard, Brian Johnson, Adilifu Nama, Ramzi Fawaz, Frederick Luis Aldama and Julien Chambliss.

How much more compelling would Wolk’s “Master of Kung Fu” chapter be if it had deployed Sylvia Shin Chong’s revolutionary “Oriental Obscene” to explain why so many Americans were particularly hungry for kung fu heroes in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. (Martial arts, explains Chong, became a way for American masculinity to harden and overcome the trauma of Asian violence brought on by the Vietnam War.) Chong’s ideas would have given us a better understanding of not only the gang. drawn as a whole. but also of the trauma that haunts Shang Chi throughout the series, a trauma that deeply interests Wolk but which belongs as much to the nation that produced and consumed Shang Chi as to the hero himself.

We could have imagined a book where we would learn to understand the epic of Marvel comics through its erasures and distortions. A book that explored Marvel’s many orientalist stories or exposed Daredevil’s abuse of his African-American Turkish “informant” through the lens of Black Lives Matter.

But those dreams and what if, aside from that, this isn’t the book Wolk wrote. The Wolk Book made writing is still invaluable. Wolk sheds light on a lot of important things about our strange mutant Marvel century, proving, to borrow from Claude Lévi-Strauss, that Marvel is not only good to think about but also perhaps, in our culture, essential.

In his final chapter, Wolk describes how reading Marvel comics with his son helped deepen their love. It is a beautiful enclosure, intensely moving, totally human, a perfect counterpoint to all the strange savage that preceded it. That Wolk ends his journey on this note of fellowship is most fitting. Despite all of their imperfections, the Marvel comics have given countless readers inspiration, recognition, and, in the face of wider societal rejection, a home. Even communities that have historically found themselves on the short end of the Marvel Stick have found a deep joy in their pages – a restorative joy that, like Black Panther’s vibranium costume, absorbs narrative blows and turns them into something lasting. and sometimes liberating. “All of the Marvels” is beautifully wonderful. Wolk’s work will invite many more alliterative superlatives. He deserves them all.