Douglas Wolk’s new book is based on a solid gimmick. Wolk read every Marvel comic from 1961 through 2017 — some 27,000 issues in all — with the aim of constructing a unified critical narrative of the entire Marvel comics universe, from “Alpha Flight” to “Omega the Unknown.” Incorporating Linda Carter: Night Nurse, the dread Dormammu and everyone in between, “All of the Marvels” explores every Secret War and chronicles every super-villainous “bah!” What man — what monster! — dares to brave this onslaught of purple prose to draw forth an infinity gauntlet of insight?
Wolk is brave, but he’s also foolhardy, and he knows it. “Nobody,” he emphasizes, “is supposed to read the whole thing.” He did so to offer a holistic, amusing and unique perspective on the universe.
If Wolk had to be a Marvel character, it would be the Watcher, who sees all. Yet the Watcher’s view too is limited — and not just because he winds up murdered, with his eyes torn out. The Watcher is under the misapprehension that the Marvel universe is all there is, and so, in a way, is Wolk. “All of the Marvels” is so busy exploring the tunnels and byways in his great pile of Marvel comics that he sometimes forgets other genres and ideas exist.
Before delving into those limitations, it’s worth acknowledging what is both a useful document and a worthy folly. Wolf has embarked on a fun stunt and written a fun book. He doesn’t try to start at the beginning and explain everything. Instead, he picks up strands here and there, using each chapter to pick up particular characters or series or issues and explain how a knowledge of the whole can enrich an understanding of the parts. The result is less a grand narrative than a hodgepodge of entertaining listicles — and a buyer's guide.
If you’re a hardcore fan who wants a list of all the comics that reference the 1963 time-travel-to-ancient-Egypt story in Fantastic Four No. 19, you’ve come to the right encyclopedic resource. But Wolk is also interested in welcoming the less immersed. “All of the Marvels” is largely a newbies’ guide. When you finish it, you’ll want to rush out to page through “Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu” or “Squirrel Girl” or Superior Spider-Man.”
The problem is that Wolk doesn’t just praise individual comics or series. He insists that the entire edifice of Marvel publishing is a singular aesthetic triumph — “a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed story about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders.” As the subtitle of his book trumpets, Wolk is promising a “Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told.” That grandiloquent, Stan Lee-esque declaration immediately raises a couple of red flags (or Red Skulls, if you prefer). First, is it really “the biggest story ever told”? And does “biggest” necessarily mean “best”?
Those are basic questions, but Wolk can’t really answer them because his context is Marvel and only Marvel. His stance might be provocative if Marvel were a niche interest, a fresh lens through which to view culture or society. But since the film version of this property stomps across global capitalism with the subtlety of the Hulk, you end up feeling “biggest” may just be shorthand for “most currently marketable.”
It doesn’t help that Wolk’s evidence for the unique vastness of the oeuvre is not especially persuasive. DC Comics got started a couple decades before Marvel, and so its continuity — the overarching chronology of its narrative — runs longer. Wolk dismisses it in an unconvincing footnote and rarely compares the two companies’ approaches. Other contenders, like long-running soap operas, myth cycles and folk tales, aren’t even mentioned. (Never mind the OG “greatest story ever told,” the Bible.) And what about Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which turns the entirety of pulp literature (and a good bit of regular old literature) into one massive story line? It dwarfs Marvel, not least because it includes it.
Wolk acknowledges readily that many Marvel comics are poorly written, poorly drawn and poorly thought through (especially when it comes to race and other blind spots). But collectively it is a “tribute,” he writes, “to the way that human imaginations in concert with one another can do far more than they could individually.” Each Marvel comic is part of a broader web of context, allusion and meaning. When Doctor Octopus takes over Peter Parker’s brain in Dan Slott’s “Superior Spider-Man,” the story line resonates because Parker has himself for decades been trying and failing to be a hero and a man.
Yet that hardly makes it unique. Virtually all works of art are created within a web of context, allusion and semiotic interconnection. “Finnegan’s Wake” is one novel, and yet it uses as backstory the evolution of English and of several related languages. Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis” series consists of three short novels, but it’s also “War of the Worlds” and the Cthulhu mythos and a couple hundred years of science-fiction (including Marvel comics). Marvel has some specific, strict rules about how its system of allusions works, but you could argue that makes its story smaller rather than larger.
Another difference between “Xenogenesis” and the Marvel Universe is that Butler gets primary credit, and primary recompense, for her work. Wolk mentions in passing the (ongoing) ugly treatment of many Marvel creators and reminds his readers that “a corporation can never love you back.” But he ignores the way his own project, by seeking to transcend individual authorship, necessarily shifts the credit toward the owners of the capital. If the special thing about Marvel comics is the official shared universe — “the canon” — in all its lumbering hugeness, then the writers and artists are secondary and interchangeable. The big thing in the biggest story ever told is the Company. Marvels doesn't own “All of the Marvels,” but its imprimatur still defines the project.
Again, that project is quite enjoyable to read. So are many Marvel comics. But the universe, translated to film, is now one of the primary ways our culture sells itself to itself, in a great glut of star-spangled shields, gleaming war machines and billions upon billions of dollars in profit. We are already just about buried in all of the marvels. Wolk’s solution is to praise the mountain that buries us. If you are looking for help in clawing your way to the surface, you’ll need to read something else.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.