Pop culture author Douglas Wolk offers a deep dive into the awe and wonder of Marvel Comics for freshly acquainted fans and superhero junkies.
Where does one begin in the Marvel Universe? Before the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the release of Iron Man, and before The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel in 2009, there was Marvel Comics. While Marvel as a publishing name was established in 1939, the beginning of the Marvel superhero era started in in 1961 with the first issue of The Fantastic Four created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Since then, the world of Marvel Comics has entertained with thousands of comics and a plethora of superheroes and villains.
Author Douglas Wolk has written an encyclopedic tome to invite newly initiated admirers and welcome back devoted connoisseurs to underrecognized storylines within Marvel Comics. All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told (384 pgs., Penguin Press, 2021, U.S. $28) is organized as a travel guide, offering the inspired reader with different starting points and storylines to stop by for their own adventure through more than 27,000 comic books that form the expansive Marvel story. As Wolk mentions, he read “all 540,000-plus pages of the story published to date,” and while he wouldn’t suggest that everyone else do the same, the experience has given him the expertise to serve as a responsible coach.
Wolk previously wrote Reading Comics, a primer to the genre of graphic novels. In addition to writing about music and pop culture for a variety of publications, including the New York Times and Rolling Stone, he is the host of “Voice of Latveria,” a podcast about Doctor Doom, the supervillain within The Fantastic Four. All of the Marvels continues Wolk’s work as a tour guide and comics buff.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a lot of work to entice younger viewers with characters such as the Avengers and Black Panther, the obvious next step is to turn to the library of Marvel comic books. For Wolk, his enthusiasm for Marvel has less to do with the corporation and the cinematic universe behind it today than the stories, their characters and ideas, that came out of the decades of comics. As he remarks in his conclusion, “A story can never leave you; a corporation can never love you back.”
Marvel Comics created, as Wolk mentions, one of the longest-running stories, which can be compared to ancient epics and mythologies. Series and storylines of different superheroes often overlap with one another, so that superheroes from one series will make appearances in another, and vice versa, and artists and creators will dip backward and forward in time to follow up on a storyline that was introduced generations ago. In this way, the Marvel Universe offers an avenue for amusement and fantasy to its readers, but also expresses the time of its making.
One of Wolk’s interesting assertions is how Marvel Comics became a container for public feeling and national sentiment. “Marvel’s comics are always products and reflections of the moments in which they were made; reading them, you can see how those moments’ politics and aesthetics and hopes for the future turned into little paper artifacts that carry episodes of a gigantic, continuous story,” he writes. “They also reflect the work of particular creators (and their collaborations) over time, and the evolution of the business and technology of comics.”
After some introductory chapters on how to read his book, Wolk begins by looking at The Fantastic Four, the comic series of the superhero team that was made up of Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing. As with every comic series he points out, Wolk offers elucidating information on the artists and creators as well as quick recaps of interesting plot developments from each individual issue he highlights.
Wolk covers many little-known gems within the Marvel Universe. One such series was Master of Kung Fu, a series about the martial arts superhero Shang-Chi who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. While many enjoyed it for its storyline, the series was also problematic for its depiction of Asian characters. The series had a letter column in which discerning fans would respond with their critiques.
Different substories and plots within the Marvel world spoke to various people and communities. Wolk mentions how “X-Men was the bestselling American comic book series” from 1978 to 1987. The series’ success hinged on the mutant metaphor central to its premise of ordinary individuals who became outcasts due to their own idiosyncrasies. It was this representation of otherness that spoke to the oppression and marginalization of people around the world, and for this reason the series had a strong LGBTQ readership. Of the many series in the Marvel Universe, the X-Men series was intentionally inclusive of different races, cultures, and sexualities.
In addition to chapters on specific storylines or sets of characters, All of the Marvels includes brief interludes on related subjects. Wolk covers the relationship between Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee — the three significant figures to the Marvel Comics origins story, who at times had a disharmonious connection to one another, especially when Lee became a sort of figurehead for the enterprise.
Another interlude looks at how cultural attitudes towards the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War could be seen in the development of the comics. Over the decades, there was a shift in Marvel creators and audiences, the latter of whom were often college students sympathetic toward anti-war efforts, reflecting the change in cultural and political attitudes.
Wolk highlights two more recent series for how they change the idea of who superheroes are and what do they do. Squirrel Girl and the contemporary Ms. Marvel are both young women who represent the diversity of their readership, with Squirrel Girl as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and Ms. Marvel supported by characters of color. Their ideologies and values also match those of young people today. Wolk writes, “Now they care about social injustice, and systemic oppression and corruption, and having their voices ignored and their identities erased.”
One of the Wolk’s takeaways from reading the entirety of Marvel Comics is the comics’ ability to connect with readers across generations and cultures. “That sense of shared experience, of seeing dozens of historical threads and dozens of creators’ separate contributions being woven together, is a particular joy of following the Marvel Universe,” Wolk notes. All of the Marvels encourages readers to dip into the richness and creativity on offer.
(By Luis Polanco)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)