In 2008 the first Iron Man film heralded a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has shown audiences worlds of wonder. Since then we've met the likes of the Avengers, Dr Strange, Black Widow and, most recently, Shang-Chi on the big screen. Its continuity can seem forbidding, but that’s nothing compared to that of the comics that inspired it – with hundreds of thousands of pages published since the beginning of the “Marvel Age” you’d surely have to be a madman to try to make sense of it all.
Lifelong fan Douglas Wolk isn’t insane, but he is ambitious, and stumbled into the idea of reading all 27,000 Marvel superhero, horror and romance comics published at time of writing – that's more than 540,000 pages (he excluded western and war titles as they tended not to feed into the overall tapestry of the Marvel Universe). He “wanted to see what the Marvel narrative said as a single body of work: an epic among epics, Marcel Proust times Doris Lessing times Robert Altman to the power of the Mahabharata.”
He notes that what started out as individual stories quickly became a larger epic – writers and artists were consciously building a bigger picture, elaborating on one another's ideas. A throwaway gimmick in an Eighties back-up strip could become the lynchpin of a line-wide crossover event in the 2000s; you don't need to have read that first story, but if you have, the experience is that much richer.
Rather than take a linear approach, listing who appeared when and what everyone was up to, chapters follow individual characters through time, aiming to show how “the big Marvel story is a funhouse mirror history of the past sixty years of American life, from the atomic night-terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and pluralism of the present day.”
And Wolk succeeds in a fascinating pop culture journey. In 1961 the very white future Fantastic Four took a rocket ship into space, spurred on by fear of the Other – “the Commies.” By 2014 we have Ms Marvel, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen who cares as much about social justice as bashing bad guys. In between, in the Seventies, there was the aforementioned Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, whose stories were tinged with racist elements – his father was that embodiment of the “Yellow Peril” Fu Manchu, and Asian characters were the colour of bananas – yet remain among the best material Marvel has ever published. Wolk explains how the heck this was possible. And the Eighties were ruled by the X-Men, mutants whose plight could be seized upon by any marginalised group as reflecting their experience. Marvel may not have always got diversity right, but its creators kept on trying, readers responded, and today inclusion is baked into the books.
Wolk gets a tad carried away, saying of the Marvel tapestry: “In some of its deeper caverns, it’s the most forbidding, baffling, overwhelming work of art in existence.” Still, when you’ve been brought up on the words of legendary Marvel architect and hype merchant Stan Lee, it’s forgiveable. Wolk is a knowledgeable, generous guide, lighting the potentially more confusing corners of the Marvel Universe with enthusiasm, humour and humility.
Existing comic fans will get the most out of All of the Marvels – the trivia-laden footnotes are almost a book in themselves – but if you’re at all curious about how Spider-Man and his amazing friends spent the last 60 years and why so many of us love them, this is the handbook you need.
All of the Marvels, by Douglas Wolk, Profile Books, 367pp, £20
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