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Saturday, December 2, 2023

He Charted Marvel’s Massive Story—and Revealed an Epic

A longtime comics reader gets good at dealing with different versions of time. The image in any individual comic panel might capture an infinitesimal slice of an instant, a picture of Planck time—but then how to account for bubbles of dialog that’d take minutes to deliver? Or the images in a panel might include the ghosts of their own past to show motion or change. The gutters between panels can encode moments, minutes, months, or millennia. A cliff-hanger might take four agonizing weeks between issues to resolve, but an instant in story-time. Some comics are telling stories that started more than half a century ago; nobody expects anyone to remember everything.


Anyway, you get used to it. Comics walk stutter-step through their own timeline. Nobody ever sees the whole picture. Until now.

Douglas Wolk, a preeminent historian and explicator of comics theory and practice, has seen everything. For his new book All of the Marvels, out this week, Wolk read all of Marvel Comics, from 1961 to today. That’s more than 27,000 individual issues. But because those comics all “happen” in the same shared universe, just like the recent movies and TV shows, all those stories are actually one continuous story. So Wolk has treated them as a single, massive, collaboratively created artwork, consumed and considered in a giant gulp. Wolk’s achievement is more than just a stunt. This is literary criticism as endurance test.

Still, though, that’s a lot of comics. Which is why the first question I ask him on our video call is: Are you OK?

“I’m getting through it,” Wolk says. “I’m hanging in there. Like a kitten on a 1970s motivational poster.” His dive into the Marvels turned out to be pretty intense—a journey into a parallel universe straight out of a you-know-what. But his head didn’t explode. The journey turned out to be a real trip, man. Comics’ wobbly status in American cultural discourse notwithstanding, Wolk found subtext, symbolism, even recurring images and references. He found patterns. This single piece of art has a worldview. It coheres.

That might seem surprising. Sure, in Marvel’s early decades the editorial team operated on what came to be called the “Marvel method,” in which a writer—most often Stan Lee—vaguely hacked out a scenario in conjunction with an artist, who then went off and did the blocking-and-tackling of pacing, paneling, and story beats. Then the writer would come back and fill in the dialog. And Lee had some standard approaches to storytelling and ideology. As more and more writers started getting involved, you’d think that would all schiz apart. But no. “It is people who are working in the same room collaborating with each other; it's people who are working far apart from each other in the world that are in touch with each other, finding out what they're doing and making sure that what they're doing is compatible and building on each other's ideas,” Wolk says. “And it’s creators in the present day, collaborating at a distance with people who wrote and drew comics 40, 50, 60 years in the past and had no idea that anyone would even remember their work.”

Don’t get him wrong; Wolk’s not arguing that all of the Marvel comics are good. As he points out to me, the great writer and artist Jack Kirby—cocreator of Captain America, creator of the Eternals, among many others—rarely even read the stuff he did in Marvel’s early years. “They were trying to do something cooler and more interesting and deeper than just grinding out pages,” he says. “They didn’t always succeed. Sometimes they fell on their noses, and sometimes they made something really special.”

All of that work—then and now—talks to itself while it’s talking to readers, like a decades-long game of Exquisite Corpse. The callbacks, done well, can turn into arcs in the characters’ lives. In one recent book, a character sings a song originally performed by the disco-queen Dazzler in a comic 30 years ago. In another, Storm—a weather-controlling member of the X-Men—catches a knife someone throws at her before a fight. “That is about violence, and receiving and deflecting violence. But it’s also a total callback to an X-Men story from 35 years ago, where somebody who she’s about to be in a knife fight with throws her a knife and she catches it,” Wolk says. “That makes it more than a story.”


Even if this collective art project isn’t a great American novel, it is an amazing one, or maybe an uncanny one. It’s a canon that reflects everything its creators thought about heroism, justice, and the sociopolitical context of their times. That was true when a mismatched family with a mad-scientist father defeated a planet-eating space god, and it remained true when a social justice warrior girl who communicates with squirrels made friends with that same space god.

Which brings me back to the idea of “longtime comics readers.” That phrase comes up a lot in comics criticism and, more recently, film criticism, too. As in, “longtime comics readers will recognize” or “longtime comics readers might hate.” Fandoms of these multiple story universes—not just Marvel and its direct competitor DC, but also Stars Wars and Trek, Doctor Who, James Bond—have all acquired superpowers through the connections and amplification offered by social media. These are people—I’m one of them, and so is Wolk—who have lifelong relationships with not just comics but the characters and events in them. For some of us, comics are the first places we encounter grand melodrama and operatic turns. They don’t seem cliché or overwrought. They move us and embed in our personalities, like all great art should. I have intertwined myself with these fictions. All us longtime comics readers have, over lifetimes.

Reading them all at once, though, allowed Wolk to see the entire landscape at a single view. He notes, for example, that decades-old characters written by dozens of different people end up having consistent themes, but they change to reflect their times. Stories about Iron Man are always about the military industrial complex, Wolk realizes. In the 1960s, they were pretty rah-rah about American power. That changed during the Vietnam War. Back then the stories were about lasers and nukes; these days they’re more likely to be about surveillance, data, and artificial intelligence. Or take Captain America, a character whose stories are always about how Americans perceive themselves—which made it interesting when the commie-smashing Cap of the 1950s comics was reimagined in the 1970s as a government-employed imposter who turned out to be a white nationalist. X-Men stories are famously about diversity and acceptance, though the team was created as a race parable. It evolved, if you will, into present-day stories about international relations and gender identity.

But if a story is so big that it contains, like, everything, is that still a point of view? Is that still art? Wolk’s answer is yes, but his main goal, he tells me, is still to find ways someone could start reading Marvel Comics now, today, and enjoy them without being crushed by history and time. “I’m somebody who’s leading you on a guided tour of this enormous territory that I’ve walked every mile of, and you don't have to walk every mile,” he says. “I don’t want to show you what I think the highlights are. I want my readers to be able to find the parts that will matter to them.” He’s trying to pathfind a trail that maybe only a longtime comics reader can see. Every frame of every Marvel story might have been an infinitesimal, but like some grand mathematical model they all integrate together into the long, long arc of the Marvel universe.

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