‘All of the Marvels’ Charts the Comic Universe’s Massive Story

Don’t get him wrong; Wolk’s not arguing that all of the Marvel comics are good. As he points out to me, the great writer and artist Jack Kirby—cocreator of Captain America, creator of the Eternals, among many others—rarely even read the stuff he did in Marvel’s early years. “They were trying to do something cooler and more interesting and deeper than just grinding out pages,” he says. “They didn’t always succeed. Sometimes they fell on their noses, and sometimes they made something really special.”

All of that work—then and now—talks to itself while it’s talking to readers, like a decades-long game of Exquisite Corpse. The callbacks, done well, can turn into arcs in the characters’ lives. In one recent book, a character sings a song originally performed by the disco-queen Dazzler in a comic 30 years ago. In another, Storm—a weather-controlling member of the X-Men—catches a knife someone throws at her before a fight. “That is about violence, and receiving and deflecting violence. But it’s also a total callback to an X-Men story from 35 years ago, where somebody who she’s about to be in a knife fight with throws her a knife and she catches it,” Wolk says. “That makes it more than a story.”

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Even if this collective art project isn’t a great American novel, it is an amazing one, or maybe an uncanny one. It’s a canon that reflects everything its creators thought about heroism, justice, and the sociopolitical context of their times. That was true when a mismatched family with a mad-scientist father defeated a planet-eating space god, and it remained true when a social justice warrior girl who communicates with squirrels made friends with that same space god.

Which brings me back to the idea of “longtime comics readers.” That phrase comes up a lot in comics criticism and, more recently, film criticism, too. As in, “longtime comics readers will recognize” or “longtime comics readers might hate.” Fandoms of these multiple story universes—not just Marvel and its direct competitor DC, but also Stars Wars and Trek, Doctor Who, James Bond—have all acquired superpowers through the connections and amplification offered by social media. These are people—I’m one of them, and so is Wolk—who have lifelong relationships with not just comics but the characters and events in them. For some of us, comics are the first places we encounter grand melodrama and operatic turns. They don’t seem cliché or overwrought. They move us and embed in our personalities, like all great art should. I have intertwined myself with these fictions. All us longtime comics readers have, over lifetimes.

Reading them all at once, though, allowed Wolk to see the entire landscape at a single view. He notes, for example, that decades-old characters written by dozens of different people end up having consistent themes, but they change to reflect their times. Stories about Iron Man are always about the military industrial complex, Wolk realizes. In the 1960s, they were pretty rah-rah about American power. That changed during the Vietnam War. Back then the stories were about lasers and nukes; these days they’re more likely to be about surveillance, data, and artificial intelligence. Or take Captain America, a character whose stories are always about how Americans perceive themselves—which made it interesting when the commie-smashing Cap of the 1950s comics was reimagined in the 1970s as a government-employed imposter who turned out to be a white nationalist. X-Men stories are famously about diversity and acceptance, though the team was created as a race parable. It evolved, if you will, into present-day stories about international relations and gender identity.

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