Author: Douglas Wolk
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Year: 2021
Topic: Marvel Comics. Lots and lots of Marvel Comics.
WHAT IS IT?
In All of the Marvels author Douglas Wolk takes us along on his astonishing (and slightly crazy) mission to read every in-continuity Marvel comic from Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 to Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #50 from 2020. Along the way, Wolk provides us with a guidebook for Marvel neophytes, a reflection on the nature of comics and fandom, and a deeply personal and entertaining memoir of one fan’s lifelong relationship with Marvel and its characters.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In its first three chapters, All of the Marvels gives readers new to the comics format an idea of the size and complexity of the Marvel Universe. Wolk discusses how comics are made, how continuity works, and sets out the rules he formulated to determine whether a comic was in or out of scope for the project. He also provides an FAQ that answers questions like “Why are there five different Amazing Spider-Man #1's” or “What is a legacy character” or “What’s a comics fan? Do I count as one?”
The rest of the book is composed of chapters that revolve around a particular character or team. The story of the character(s) is tracked by jumping from one issue to another and using each comic to explore a key event or idea that connects to the others. The path is not always chronological. For Spider-Man, Wolk begins with the Free Comic Book Day Spider-Man #1 (2007) then proceeds to Amazing Fantasy #15 and Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #14 (2002). After this, he hops through various Amazing Spider-Man comics from #1 to #801. The chapter tells the story of Spider-Man, but also examines the real-world economic and cultural reasons for events like “Brand New Day” and the introduction of Miles Morales. Wolk ties in information about the company, the creators and the fans, and takes time to remind us that this is a story built haphazardly and accidentally over half a century through an alchemical combination of market demands and human creativity.
Many of Marvel’s big characters get a chapter dedicated to them, but with 27,000 comics to choose from, cuts had to be made. Thor gets a chapter. The Hulk doesn’t. The X-Men? Sure. But not Daredevil or Doctor Strange. Wolk doesn’t want you to get too wrapped up in that, though. He is not advocating for the primacy of the characters and comics he has chosen to discuss, so much as using them to illustrate one path through the world of Marvel. As he happily admits, with almost ½ a million pages of story, the Marvel Universe has something for everyone, and these are just the highlights of his own journey.
Chapter three’s FAQ may be the single best introduction to superhero comics that I have ever encountered. It should probably be posted in every comic book shop in the country.
Wolk’s explanation of “The Three Chronologies” is fantastic. The stories of the Marvel Universe were published in a particular order. That’s one chronology. Stories like “Days of Future Past” or characters like Kang jumble the timeline, though, resulting in an in-universe chronology that is different from the publication order. And lastly, Wolk wants us to recognize that each of us also has our own experiential chronology based on the order in which we choose to read these comics. What was the first appearance of the X-Men? In my chronology, it was Uncanny X-Men #112. I had no idea who any of these characters were when I bought that issue secondhand and coverless. But I still have that comic, and I have to admit it was a pretty great place to start!
The chapter on Master of Kung Fu is thoughtful and fascinating. Wolk’s analysis here challenges us to consider how we interact with – or avoid – art that is both valuable and problematic. He recognizes that the artwork for the series by Paul Gulacy and Gene Day is breathtaking, and details how Doug Moench built Shang-Chi into a fascinating protagonist over the span of nearly a decade. But he also understands that the comic had its origins in “yellow peril” pulp stories and was rife with racial stereotypes and racist imagery. It is at turns precious and unsalvageable. There have been a lot of Marvel comics printed over the last sixty years that have not aged well, and Wolk’s analysis of Master of Kung Fu serves as an excellent case study on how new and invested readers can process their own thoughts on problematic characters, stories, or creators.
Stick around to the end, and you will be treated to one last story – the secret origin of All of the Marvels itself. Wolk’s very personal reasons for getting started on this project tied everything together for me and made for a perfect ending to his book about the massive, generation-spanning epic that is the Marvel Universe.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
I’m a bit torn on the way that the core chapters of this book are organized. Conceptually, it is satisfying how each chapter is built on a series of short analyses of individual comics, which allows the book to be a physical testament to the pamphlet-by-pamphlet construction of the Marvel story. But while for the most part this worked well, at times things bounced around a bit too much for me and I really did long for a page or two of uninterrupted prose.
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
All of the Marvels is tremendous fun. It is also insightful. Wolk is clear-eyed without being cynical. He is nostalgic, but not reverent. I loved that this book celebrates the best parts of Marvel history but does not deny, hide or try to sugar-coat Marvel's unpleasant elements. Wolk also picks favorites, but invites you to disagree with him, and repeatedly encourages new readers to find their own path through the Marvel story. All of the Marvels is generous and welcoming, and it is obvious that Wolk loves these characters and stories, revels in sharing them with us, and is hopeful of a future where new generations continue to reimagine and enjoy them.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more about Marvel: Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts by Jeffrey A. Brown
For more from Douglas Wolk: Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Among Douglas Wolk’s earlier works are books looking at musician James Brown and 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd. He also won an Eisner in 2008 for Reading Comics. Wolk can be found on Twitter @douglaswolk, and his podcast, “Voice of Latveria” is an ongoing (and addictive!) look at the life and times of Victor Von Doom.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©Douglas Wolk. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED