Douglas Wolk is the host of the Voice of Latveria podcast. He's also read every single comic book that Marvel has ever published. At first, he was just tracking his journey through the largest single body of fiction mythology in the history of mankind through his Tumblr. But now he's published a book about his journey into mystery, titled All of the Marvels, which came out this week. Here's how the publisher describes it:
The first-ever full reckoning with Marvel Comics' interconnected, half-million-page story, a revelatory guide to the "epic of epics"—and to the past sixty years of American culture—from a beloved authority on the subject who read all 27,000+ Marvel superhero comics and lived to tell the tale
The superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are, as Douglas Wolk notes, the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and still growing. The Marvel story is a gigantic mountain smack in the middle of contemporary culture. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Everyone recognizes its protagonists: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men. Eighteen of the hundred highest-grossing movies of all time are based on parts of it. Yet not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing—nobody's supposed to. So, of course, that's what Wolk did: he read all 27,000+ comics that make up the Marvel Universe thus far, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown.
And then he made sense of it—seeing into the ever-expanding story, in its parts and as a whole, and seeing through it, as a prism through which to view the landscape of American culture. In Wolk's hands, the mammoth Marvel narrative becomes a fun-house-mirror history of the past sixty years, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and political division of the present day—a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed epic about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders.
As a work of cultural exegesis, this is sneakily significant, even a landmark; it's also ludicrously fun. Wolk sees fascinating patterns—the rise and fall of particular cultural aspirations, and of the storytelling modes that conveyed them. He observes the Marvel story's progressive visions and its painful stereotypes, its patches of woeful hackwork and stretches of luminous creativity, and the way it all feeds into a potent cosmology that echoes our deepest hopes and fears. This is a huge treat for Marvel fans, but it's also a revelation for readers who don't know Doctor Strange from Doctor Doom. Here, truly, are all of the marvels.
Back in January, I'd read a blogpost on ComicsXF from someone else who had also read every Marvel Comic ever. So while I assume it's still an elite club, Wolk is not the only person to have accomplished such a feat. But he is the first to write about it, and his observations sound pretty interesting. I haven't read the book yet myself, but Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt:
For someone who lives in our society, having some familiarity with the Marvel story is useful in much the same way as, say, being familiar with the Bible is useful for someone who lives in a Judeo-Christian society: its iconography and influence are pervasive.
The Marvel story is a mountain, smack in the middle of contemporary culture. The mountain wasn't always there. At first, there was a little subterranean wonder in that spot, a cave that was rumored to have monsters inside it; colorful adventurers had once tested their skills there, and lovers met at its mouth. Then, in the 1960s, it started bulging up above the surface of the earth, and it never stopped growing.
It's not the kind of mountain whose face you can climb. It doesn't seem hazardous (and it isn't), but those who try to follow what appear to be direct trails to its summit find that it's grown higher every time they look up. The way to experience what the mountain has to offer is to go inside it and explore its innumerable bioluminescent caverns and twisty passageways; some of them lead to stunning vantage points onto the landscape that surrounds it.
There is no clear pathway into the mountain from the outside. Parts of it are abandoned and choked with cobwebs. Other parts are tedious, gruesome, ludicrous, infuriating. And yet people emerge from it all the time, gasping and cheering, telling one another about the marvels they've seen, then rushing back in for more.
This is the stuff I love about superhero comics — the meta-narrative inherent to it all. The stories about stories that are constantly riffing on someone else's story. The most inaccessible part of superhero comics is not the continuity, it's their frequent self-referential nature. The retroactive continuity that transforms a practical real-world publishing decision into a part the narrative within the story itself, like how Marvel kept publishing Captain America comics even after Cap was "supposed to" have been frozen in ice, which was later justified in-story with the creation of "replacement Captain Americas" like William Nasland and William Burnside. The story about the story becomes central to the story. You don't need to know that to enjoy Captain America, of course, but it makes the whole tapestry weirdly richer. (I will never forget the look on my wife's face when I tried to explain how Shazam used to be Captain Marvel but then Ms Marvel became Captain Marvel in order to capture the copyright after Captain Marvel died.)
Anyway I'm looking forward to checking out All of the Marvels as soon as possible.
All of the Marvels [Douglas Wolk]