In March 1963, the Fantastic Four had a fractious encounter with Spider-Man and a dust-up with the Hulk — a busy month which effectively launched the Marvel Universe as an ecosystem of characters whose individual stories all contributed to one giant narrative.
There is nothing quite like it: an endless, collaborative roman-fleuve of wildly variable quality, constructed over several decades by hundreds of writers, artists and editors, driven by a combination of personnel changes, marketing schemes and hasty improvisations. As a 14-year-old Marvel nut, I had a decent handle on it; but now, if I nostalgically check out a character’s Wikipedia page, I’m swamped by an unfathomable splurge of deaths, resurrections, shifting alliances and parallel universes. Who can keep up with this stuff? Who would want to?
Perhaps only Douglas Wolk. The critic committed himself to reading every single Marvel Universe comic book published between 1961 and 2017: around 27,000 issues, running to more than half a million pages. That’s quite a task. An even bigger one is to condense the experience into a book that isn’t as bewildering and exhausting as its subject matter. Fortunately, Wolk is a capable guide, wry, friendly and astute, who assures us: ‘What the story wants from you is not your knowledge but your curiosity.’ Now that Marvel’s film franchise, the MCU, is the world’s biggest, the story resonates far beyond the pages of comic books.
All of the Marvels is, necessarily, an unusual book. After 50 pages of amiable methodological throat-clearing, Wolk devotes chapters to crucial themes or characters, broken down into landmark issues and festooned with footnotes. It isn’t chronological, but along the way we learn how the middle-aged huckster genius Stan Lee (‘a con man who delivers the goods’) and artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko reinserted the superhero into the heart of American mythology in the early 1960s.