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“Are You Glad You Did It?”: An Interview with Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk Laura Hudson All The Marvels Comics Journal Interview

Over the last five years, Douglas Wolk has pulled off a feat that few others have attempted, let alone completed: he read every Marvel comic book published since 1961, which adds up to around 27,000 issues, or 540,000 pages. He’s up front about the fact that this was a stunt for his new book, All of the Marvels, and not how the progressive revelation of the Marvel Universe was ever intended to be read. (“I do not recommend it.”) But it has uniquely prepared him to serve as a tour guide in All of the Marvels, an extreme adventurer who has ventured to the outer limits of a strange land, and returned with a map to guide others across its bewildering, fantastic terrain.

A lifelong Marvel fan and professional writer and critic based in Portland, Oregon, Wolk published the Eisner Award-winning comics primer Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean back in 2007.  His latest book that has a more specific but even more daunting remit: making sense of everything that happened in the last 60 years of the Marvel Universe. “The Marvel story,” as Wolk calls it, is so vast that it resembles what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject: a system so massive, strange and complex that human beings can only glimpse it in pieces, never in its totality. But in his own way, that’s exactly what Wolk sets out to do: examine the Marvel story not just as a haphazard patchwork of 27,000 disparate pieces crafted by hundreds of creators, but as an over-arching narrative entity unto itself, full of potent, often subconscious themes that emerge, recur and evolve through “a funhouse-mirror history of the past sixty years of American life.” I met up with Wolk at a park in Portland, Oregon, on a perfect summer day in the middle of a pandemic. -Laura Hudson

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Laura Hudson: What’s the origin story of All of the Marvels? You mentioned your son, Sterling, got hooked by Marvel Comics and decided that he wanted to read everything.

Douglas Wolk: That’s kind of what inspired it: my kid getting interested and saying, “I’m gonna read all of these.” And you think, no, you’re not. You’re gonna be interested in this for a week, and that’ll be a nice week we have together. But four months later, he’d read everything from 1961 through 1968, and he was like, “Let’s jump to the modern crossover era, dad!” He’s reading Thunderbolts at home today.

You describe Sterling as someone who like math, science, and systems. It’s fascinating to me that the Marvel Universe interested him primarily as a system.

Well, a jury-rigged system. It’s also a mess, but every part of it belongs to it somehow. It’s a system that has a lot to do with history: its own internal history, and the history of the world around it. You can see the reflection of the real world in the story, as well as pieces of the story retrieved from the past. You never know what from the past is going to turn out to be meaningful, somehow, in the present.

You touch on a lot of recurring ideas and images that crop up over the years, including how Marvel comics return to their histories and find new spaces to tell stories that recontextualize the past. You mention one panel in Amazing Fantasy #15 from 1962 where a kid climbs up to take a photo of Spidey, and then in 1993, this random background character gets his story told in Marvel Comics Presents. What it is about superhero comics that lends itself to this kind of narrative archaeology, and love of obscure storytelling artifacts?

It’s hard to think of any other form where a whole bunch of different people become stewards of particular characters over time, add to the story in ways that belong to story canonically, and in a way that is relatively cheap and easy to do. They also leave documents of the earlier points around for people to find. There are soap operas that have been running for 50, 60, 70 years, but there’s almost nobody who is watching them now who has access to parts of the story from 30, 40, 50 years ago. Maybe there are “best of” DVDs. But it keeps moving. It leaves its past behind. Superhero comics don’t. We hold on to that stuff and go back to that stuff. We look at previous generations of work and that sticks with us. But is always built on the bones of what people were hunting and pecking for in 1970 or 1980.

Callbacks are often someone saying, don’t you remember how much fun we used to have? Look, here’s a picture of how much fun we used to have! I gave a talk a couple years ago about Spider-Man lifting the giant, heavy thing. It’s that beautiful Steve Ditko scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33, although you don’t see callbacks to it for a long time [after it’s published]. There’s one with the Hulk in 1980 or so, and it’s what Simonson does on Thor when Frog Thor is lifting the hammer. Then sometime in mid-80s, that original Ditko story gets reprinted in a book called The Best of Marvel Comics, which is sold by Sears. It has a puffy, red leather cover. It’s a big gift book. Between that and the second time that story was reprinted as a comic in Marvel Tales, suddenly that image comes back in circulation again.

A few years later, you start to see callback after callback to it. There’s always one reason or another why Spider-Man has a giant machine that looks a particular way on top of him, and water is dripping around him as he tries to lift it off him. By the late ‘90s, there’s one time where it happens and you see him thinking, “It’s strange, I have the funniest sense of deja vu.” There’s a bit in Spider-Man: Homecoming where he’s being crushed by a heavy thing, which is that scene again. It is an example of momentism. There’s this big story, but we’re just going to boil it down to its greatest hits. This was the peak, forget about the rest.

Reading this vast catalogue of stories in such a compressed way seems like it gave you a different perspective — more of a bird’s eye view or at least a sharpened sense of pattern recognition. Someone gradually and organically reading 20 years of comics might not see those recurring images or deeper themes jump out as quickly. Did those themes seem mostly conscious or subconscious?

It’s all subconscious. It’s all individual people doing a thing and not realizing that they’re doing the same thing.

Was it a challenge to consume so many comics? It reminded me of what it’s like to review video games, and how you sometimes have to stuff this 60-100 hour experience into like three days — which isn’t an organic way to consume it at all. You keep going because you have to, which can color the experience. Did you struggle with that?

Oh, yeah. There were times when my eyes glazed over. I know for a fact that I read every issue of Maverick. I could not tell you what happens in any of them. I definitely over-consumed. This was not a heroic act of consumption. This was a stunt. It’s a gimmick. I overdid it. There were days when I thought, oh god, I’m wasting my eyesight. It’s beautiful outside! And there was a point where I started to enjoy comics I knew were really bad because I was finding something about them to enjoy. To say, this is not a creator I love, but this is this creator being themselves. This is the purest expression of what they do, which I don’t particularly like, but it’s really interesting to see them just doing their thing.

That sounds like a coping mechanism, but also a positive one. Like a gratitude journal.

Exactly. I’ll get through this somehow! The Punisher period was the hardest. I went to an apartment, locked myself in with provisions, and was like, you don’t get to come out until you’ve read all of The Punisher.

In the book, you position yourself as a tour guide who has traveled the territory and emerged with one possible map to the Marvel Universe, but you also encourage people to explore and draw a map of their own. In an early FAQ chapter, you insist readers “must stray from the path” and suggest they jump ahead to the abridged Marvel Universe history in the appendix before continuing. 

The appendix was originally a lot bigger. It was probably four times as large and it was split into bunch of chunks throughout the book. And it just did not work that way. It absolutely didn’t work. It was boring; it was distracting; it was repetitive. But I loved the idea of it, so I ended up boiling and cutting it down to find the stuff that served what was going on thematically at that point in the big story, most of which was not intended that way or visible that way to the people who made the story.

You describe the unfolding narrative of Marvel as a product of multiple histories: the fictional history of the Marvel Universe, the creative and editorial history behind the scenes, and the political and cultural events of the real world that get reflected in the stories: WWII, Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, the Cold War, 9/11, technology and privacy. And how this subtext is “often clearer in dull or hacky comics than in aesthetically satisfying ones.”

Oh yeah. What are we gonna do this month? How about something ripped from the headlines! If you’re making something that is pop, you’re going to want to make it speak to its audience somehow. Doing something that directly reflects the culture around it is one way of doing that. It sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. Pop is really, really mysterious to me. Popularity is really mysterious to me. There’s a fantastic editorial that Joe McCulloch wrote at the start of his tenure as editor of The Comics Journal:

I have found that a lot of the talk about art recently starts from the false "objective" basis of wide exposure and monetary success as the solemnization of what is worth talking about. If something is big, and successful, it must be discussed, because that is where the eyes go. That is where you discuss the effect on culture. That is how you build the audience to make the money. Success ensures success, so that anyone who starts ahead is assured to remain there. What an independent website can do, is offer a dedicated source for deeper thinking. The Comics Journal has been around since the 1970s; we do not need to be the introduction to comics. What we ought to be, is a place from which this vast and troubled terrain is surveyed with a sense of questioning the maps drawn by those most adept at mass appeal, because the danger today is that mass appeal is read as the sole means of getting anywhere.

That’s a good way of putting it, and a really legitimate argument. That is the argument against covering this in TCJ. It’s a completely fair argument. I find super-popularity really interesting, especially if something is super popular and I don’t feel that passion for it.

Does it give you the feeling that other people understand something or see something that you don’t?

My first question is, what does this story know that I don’t? It’s really easy to look at comics I don’t like and identity what it is about them that pissed me off, things I think are stupid or hacky or dull. But if it’s a story that is also incredibly popular and means a lot to a lot of people, then yes, I want to know what those people know that I don’t. That is something I took from pop music criticism: as they call it there, god help us all, poptimism. The fact of something being incredibly popular doesn’t make it good, but it sure makes it interesting.  You don’t need to feel it [like they do]. Your taste is your taste; you like what you like. But it can be really interesting to figure out what’s special about it. What does this do that 3,000 other things don’t?

As repetitive and corporate as the Marvel Universe can be, you also talk about it as this often vibrant space for experimentation, where people can genuinely do new things.

It is absolutely driven by corporate interests every step of the way. If something is commercially hopeless and creatively really interesting, it can stick around a little bit. If it’s creatively hopeless and commercially hopeless, then boom, it’s gone. But there’s also stuff that I’m sure comes down as edict from the business office that results in something really interesting.

It’s 2012, and there’s an Avengers movie coming out. It is no longer enough to publish one comic called "Avengers." We have to have eight comics with "Avengers" in the title. One of them is going to be the Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie Young Avengers, which is super special and interesting and beautiful. That wouldn’t have necessarily happened otherwise.

It’s 1973, and the Comics Code has just changed. There’s money to be made in horror comics. Quick, come up with 15 new horror comics. A couple of those are not very good. A couple are lovely and couple are accidentally good. The Living Mummy is not a good comic at all, but by the end the people making it were like, we can kind of do anything we want here. So why don’t we? There are some failed experiments and some lovely stuff in there. Steve Gerber gets assigned Man-Thing and realizes that this is a character who has no interiority and can’t speak. There’s no way to really do stories about that character, but you can use that as an excuse to do anything you want and just have that character around it. He says, I can get weird! And he does, and it’s wonderful.

There’s this idea that the giant Marvel narrative or the super long narratives within it are like a novel somehow? They’re not novels. They’re not unified works of art because you can’t go back and change anything after an issue has gone to print. When you realize later you should have gone somewhere else earlier in the story? Too late. You’re improvising. Gotta do the next thing now.

But superhero comics, more than most genres, gives creators room to double back or reverse course, particularly with death. I love that the X-Men have immortality built into the machine of their story now, where any mutant who dies can be resurrected immediately, and how making that explicit shifts everything.

It’s so good. So smart. So clever. And now they’re dealing with the question, are we really immortal? We’ve gotten to the point where we’re getting really casual about this death thing, which we see with Cable and the Last Annihilation special that came out recently. They've seen the future and made an armistice with death, a temporary peace with death. That’s not forever. And suddenly death becomes dramatically interesting again.

Magneto’s line is, “We are your new gods now.” The Way of X series that Si Spurrier has been writing is about that. And it is specifically about Nightcrawler who is very, very Catholic, trying to figure out what this means. What does this mean in terms of our metaphysics, our conception of the soul? These are really uncomfortable questions, which means they are questions that can turn into stories. Fortunately, they are turning into stories.

These stories are part of what has become a mythic cycle, but one that is driven by commercial and corporate interests. Characters can’t really die and things can’t really end when they’re too popular. You mention how that’s addressed directly in Journey Into Mystery, where Old Loki wants to change but keeps getting pulled back to a static version of himself by “them” — which I interpreted as the readers and their resistance to seeing iconic characters evolve.

It’s written by Kieron Gillen, who’s always going to do something metafictional if you give him half an inch and even if you don’t. The big question of the story is, can Loki change? Can he be somebody completely different, or does he have to be the same Loki forever? He tries and does his absolute best, but he can’t. The story absolutely will not let him. The end of that story is Kid Loki saying that Old Loki can’t change because “they won’t let you.” He has to swallow the lie. In the final panel of the story Loki turns to face the audience and says, “Damn you all.”

One of the epigraphs of the book is from an issue of Loki, Agent of Asgard where Doctor Doom says, “Oh, the story of Doom can end, you say?… Then I’m a better story than you.”

Conversely, I think there’s something optimistic in how the cyclical nature of superhero comics means that even when the world is over, it’s not.

Even when the world is over, it’s not. And even the apocalypse has antecedents we can remember. The end of the world is the end of a world, the end of a particular way of doing things. It’s not that after that, there’s nothing but nonexistence. It’s that something has ended, and now something else is going on. It’s interesting how many Marvel/DC comics and mainstream comics outside that have the end of the world as the point they’re driving towards.

You also touch on that hackneyed yet perpetual troll complaint, “Why are superhero comics suddenly so political?” It’s hilarious to think about while reading your book in particular, because it so thoroughly catalogues all the ways that politics have always been a part of these comics since their inception.

The awfulness of that particular piece of rhetoric is sometimes argued in bad faith by a lot of people who know better. But there are a lot of people to whom a lot of this stuff is pretty new and who are not making the argument in bad faith, but in ignorance. It’s still a bad argument. If you’re objecting to politics in any kind of popular art, what you’re really objecting to are politics that aren’t your own. Politics that are your own don’t necessarily seem too political. They’re neutral.

Despite a long history of presidents making their way into Marvel comics — which you devote an entire chapter to in your book — there was no Trump or Trump equivalent during his presidency. But you describe "Dark Reign," a year-long story that ran from 2008 to 2009 about Norman Osborn becoming director of S.H.I.E.L.D., as a surprisingly vivid analogue for the “slow-grinding despair and tension” of Trump's ascent to power. It’s so spot-on that it almost feels precognitive, despite being published eight years before his election.

This strain of culture, this strain of politics has been building towards the totalitarian dream for a good long while. Fox News is not new. Right-wing politicians are not new. The reason that all the rhetoric that the villains of "Dark Reign" use has that zing to it is because it’s familiar language and familiar arguments stuck into this larger-than-life setting and blown up. The thing I really enjoy about "Dark Reign" is that it’s the background for everything. It’s not necessarily the focus of most comics during that year. It’s just this discomfort and this fear, this constant looming thing that’s around, that’s environmental. We live in Portland, which is the lefty capital of the Left Coast. Even here, there was that fear and looming during the Trump presidency, that sense the awfulness was just waiting for its opportunity to pounce.

The storyline ends with the return of nation’s conscience, aka Captain America, which signals that everything is going back to normal and will be fine now. And there was that sense, particularly before and during the 2016 election, that something had gone very wrong, but many people saw it as a temporary insanity — surely the rubber band would snap back to its original shape in the end, and sanity would be restored. And that's not what happened. It's 2021, the rubber band is not snapping back, and Captain America is not going to save us.

He really is not. The one part of "Dark Reign" I think is really weak is the way that it ends. Yeah, the bad guy got beaten and everybody is friends again and it’s all great. There’s no this long, painful recuperation coming out of that. But the story has to end somehow. Those are the demands of storytelling.

All of the Marvels talks a lot about how the politics and events of each era wind through Marvel’s stories, but your discussion of the X-Men ends around 2016. They’re a team whose stories tend to speak directly to issues of prejudice and oppression. How did the X-books or other Marvel comics react to growing intolerance fueled by the Trump presidency, or its aftermath?

They haven’t, very much. It’s interesting to see that. But it’s hard to react to trauma when you’re in the middle of it, to say something artistic and interesting about trauma when you’re in the middle of it. I didn’t really get into the Hickman era stuff [in the book], which I love, because that’s a whole thing. The X-Men chapter would have been twice as long, and it’s already the longest thing in the book. There’s so much to say about it and so much that I still have to come to terms with about it. Something that is that bad and that painful takes a while to react to thoughtfully. The comics that come out right after 9/11 are so gross about it.

Crying Doom will live in infamy forever, yes.

I think the phrase I used to describe that was “performing sentimental concern.” These immediate reactions were urgent, they were from the heart. They were also completely predictable and completely boring. You just had to sit there and take it, because that was the time and that was the only thing it felt ok to express.

You also wrote about how "Dark Reign" deals heavily with disinformation and conspiracy, two things that have been increasingly dangerous and popular elements of political culture.

There has been so much of that in the last few years of comics. That, if anything, is the real inheritance of mainstream comics from the current period: the idea that so many people believe that the information that they’re getting has to be a lie.

When do you feel like comics got around to really processing or reflecting on 9/11?

A reflection I thought was flawed but super interesting was Nick Spencer’s giant "Secret Empire" story. People were so freaked out by it and so angry about it. The premise is, there is a magic gizmo that does magic plot device things, and suddenly Steve Rogers is not just a fascist, but retroactively has always been one. And people were like, but no! No, he’s good! America’s good!

Spencer is writing this at the same time as he is writing the Captain America: Sam Wilson series. Sam Wilson is a Black guy who has been prepping for this job for a solid 45 years of comics. He is Captain America now. The title of one of the first collections was "Not My Captain America," which, oof. Now he’s the person whose job it is to always be good, to settle all the disputes to everyone’s satisfaction. When a young Black superhero gets shot by police they say, Sam, you’re the one who can talk to everyone and make them cool with everything, right? It’s an impossible position to be put in. That comic sold half of what the Steve Rogers title made by the same creators sold. Which is kind of the point.

The moment that the old white guy comes back and says, “I’ll be Captain America again now!” the reaction both in the text and outside the text was, "Oh thank god, the real one’s back." But he is now an actual, full-on fascist. He reveals that he’s been with HYDRA all along, and America now belongs to HYDRA. He says all the history books are lies, so we’re going to revise the history books now. We’re gonna rewrite that narrative because everyone mistakenly believes that HYDRA has not been supreme all along, but America is a HYDRA nation and always has been. There is more magical jiggery-pokery; the real Steve Rogers turns up and eventually beats up the bad one and locks him away someplace. The very end of the story makes it clear that this whole thing has really been Sam Wilson’s story. This is the character who has gotten the emotional journey, who is really the protagonist. But it gets read as a Steve Rogers story anyway.

You float the idea in one chapter that the Marvel Universe could actually be the story of the first character published under the “MC” banner: Linda Carter.

That’s a piece of play-imagining.

It’s all play-imagining.

I don’t think anyone making this story has ever thought, “Oh, this is Linda Carter’s story all the way.” But it’s really fun to think of it.

But as you say, creators often come along and retrieve dropped threads from the past and make them true.

That was actually the chapter I had the most fun writing, but I ended up it cutting because it was real inside baseball. It’s probably going to be a little chapbook of its own that’s going to go to people who buy it through a particular thing I’m doing. It's a counterfactual history of Marvel Comics that asks, what if the comic that had been the artistic breakthrough that everything else was built on afterwards was in fact Linda Carter, Student Nurse? And what if all the comics after that that Lee and Kirby and Ditko and other collaborators were making for the next decade, what if those were all about young professional women? Imagining how everything might have gone if that had been the thing that really sparked, that really connected with the audience in the way that Fantastic Four and the superhero comics and monster comics after it did. It’s funny only if you’re someone who knows the actual history pretty cold. It didn’t belong in the book. But god, it was fun to write.

Douglas Wolk
Douglas Wolk

In the chapter “The Vietnam Years," you describe a scene from Captain America #130 where Cap says, “There’s nothing sacred about the status quo.” It’s a cultural commentary about what’s happening in the ‘60s, but it could easily be commentary about the culture around superhero comics as well, and how rigid and resistant some fans become about changes to what they consider canon. On the one hand. superhero comics is this vital, protean space where you can do entirely new things, but it also produces a strain of very calcified and retrograde fan culture.

People wanting things to go back to the way they were when they were kids, it makes me really sad. I love the comics I was reading when I was 13 years old. I don’t want them to be like that forever. I love the thing that DC, especially, did for decades where a particular person would be a particular character for a couple of decades, but then they’d retire and someone else would take over. I would’ve loved it if that could have continued.

I love seeing Miles Morales take over for Peter Parker. I think there’s a lot more to say about Miles Morales than there is about Peter Parker right now. He’s much more like what a teenager is now. The first person to write Spider-Man on a regular basis after Stan Lee was Gerry Conway, who was a teenager when he started writing it. He was 19 at the time he took over Amazing Spider-Man. Similarly, Jim Shooter started writing Legion of Super-Heroes in the ‘60s when he was 13.

They haven’t done that experiment again in a while. I would actually love to see a superhero comic written by a Gen Z kid who has never known the world without the internet. What will superhero comics look like when they’re in charge?

I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon. A lot of digital natives are probably not so interested in superheroes. The romance webcomic Lore Olympus is bigger than any superhero comic you want to name.

Sure, but most people have at least seen the Marvel movies. That’s in the mainstream cultural consciousness, and a lot of younger people connect with that. It’s also been interesting to see how well the Marvel Cinematic Universe has adapted these idiosyncratic elements of superhero comics: the individual character series that wind together into crossovers and team-ups, as well as the callbacks and references to the historical fabric of this world.

That sure seems to have worked out really nicely. There’s not really a comparable body of work in movies. Even in TV, the closest thing I can think of it the first three seasons of Arrested Development. You need to have been paying attention all along, and if you have, there’s a lot of extra stuff that you’ll get. It rewards close attention. A smart thing about Marvel movies is you’re also probably fine if you haven’t been paying close attention. They will reward you with a lot of fun, surface-level stuff. They will tell you everything they need to tell you; they will not leave you baffled. What’s dropped in is extra. It makes it more rewarding, but it doesn’t block anyone out from understanding.

You describe Marvel’s history as “constantly expanding fractal form of histories and characters and contradictory evidence and impossible reversals” where “there is always a ‘previously’ and always a ‘to be continued.’” No matter when you come in now, the story is already underway and you just have to jump on board a moving train.

You’re always coming in later, and that’s fine. How you find your way and understand the stuff that confuses you at first is you ask a friend. Or you look it up. Just because you don’t understand something right away doesn’t mean you won’t understand it forever. Maybe you can reread it later on if you feel like it. Maybe this is something that brings you closer together with a friend. Maybe it’s something that lets you find a new way to get information.

As you were reading through this dense history of comics, many of which you were already quite familiar with, did anything surprise you?

Occasionally I’d think, my god, this is so good! It’s good in a way that’s really particular to me: this is my jam, the kind of thing I really like to see. And there was a lot of just pushing on. I kept a little Tumblr journal as I went to say, here’s an interesting panel; here’s something that I notice keeps happening. Here’s some image that we keep seeing over and over, in one way or another. We keep seeing the Statue of Liberty, dozen — hundreds — of images of it. Especially after Planet of the Apes, you keep seeing the Statue of Liberty destroyed or turned into something else, and that means things have gone down. There has been some sort of massive destruction, and this is the visual shorthand. Jack Kirby used that too. That’s the cover of the first issue of Kamandi. That’s an image that goes back way further than Planet of the Apes. Somebody I was talking to had found stories with the Statue of Liberty on pulp magazine covers in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

There are so many panoramic shots of Times Square, and if you look at them over time, you can see how the real Times Square changed by how the imaginary Times Square changed. There used to be a billboard in Times Square that was a smoking man, and smoke rings would come out of the billboard every 30 seconds or so. I saw it in three different comics, and it totally existed. The last comic to use it was a Cloak & Dagger/Power Pack graphic novel that came out six or seven years after that billboard came down, but it lived in memory as a thing that lived in Times Square.

There were also a few unexpected “wow” moments. [J.M.] DeMatteis and Liam Sharp did a Man-Thing series in 1998 that’s never been reprinted and it’s freaking gorgeous. How did I not know about this? And honestly, going back and reading Master of Kung Fu. There were a few weekends I spent reading that series and thinking, "This is so gooood. This is so problematic. This is so good.”

I had always thought of Sal Buscema as the guy who could meet deadlines. And he drew a hell of a lot of comics. There was a point in the '70s where he was regularly drawing four or five comics a month. That’s Kirby-level in terms of speed demon. A lot of Buscema's stuff is very sketchy and very caricaturey. In reading so many of the comics he’d drawn, I realized how freaking good he is at just communicating a story unflashily. Just getting the information across, making it flow. He never calls attention to what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the raw power or raw weirdness that we associate with the big names, but every so often he would get paired with an inker who was really invested in putting their own energy into what he was drawing.

Kyle Baker inks a couple of his stories and bam! This guy’s amazing! Bill Sienkiewicz inked him for a while on Spectacular Spiderman, and it’s startlingly good-looking. I realized that this artist who I’d always thought was a perfectly fine, get-'er-done guy was super good in a low-key way. Comics are more people who do the flashy stuff. And there is a lot to be said about the splashy stuff. Who doesn’t love an amazing Gene Day drawing of staircases and statues everywhere? But someone who leads your eye where it needs to go, shows you what you need to see, everything just flows invisibly — that’s a special thing in its own way.

You have extensive footnotes on every pages, some so voluminous that they remind me of David Foster Wallace. That feels appropriate, these separate stories that spin off of the parimary narrative and sometimes talk to each other. It reminded me of a letters page, and the sense of genuine dialogue between creators and fans that could emerge there. Is that a lost or archaic element of comics now? Obviously, creators are more accessible than they’ve ever been thanks to social media, for better or worse. But I kind of missing having this metatextual dialogue in the text itself. I think that matters.

It really does. Especially with something like Master of Kung Fu, where there are some very harsh and very fair critiques of the book going on in the letters page of the book. That’s something special and I don’t think that’s something you see very much right now. Squirrel Girl always had a letters page. Al Ewing has been doing letters pages in all his books. Really interesting to see how he responds to letters to Immortal Hulk. There are not a lot of other books that do letters pages. You do see public creator and reader dialogue on fan sites, people sending in their questions for creator X. That’s more what a letters column is now.

You describe the Silver Age/Kirby/Lee era, when so many of Marvel's iconic characters were established, as something creatively more like improvisation or jazz, a time of wild, extemporaneous invention with had no clear idea of where it would lead. Do modern superhero comics still have that sense of improvisation, or is everything too carefully planned out now for that?

There’s totally jazz and improvisation. Anything that throws a wrench into somebody’s plan is that, in its way. The X-books right now are a really good example. There’s a lot of creative synergy going on between the writers of those books. They’re all on Discord together. They’re all riffing on each other’s stuff. When you get to the "X of Swords" storyline, they’re collaboratively writing some issues of it, and Hickman is set to leave the X-books after Inferno. His initial plans was three big events. "House of X/Powers of X" was the first one.

When they got to the point where it was time to do the second one, he asked the rest of the group, do you think I should do the second one now? And they all said, no, actually. Let’s hang out here. And he said, well, that means I’m going to be stepping away after I get these other things in position, because Marvel didn’t hire me to just write monthly books. They hired me to do bigger things, so I’m going to do bigger things. The reaction I’ve read to this is, oh no, because of corporate interference, Hickman doesn’t get to finish his story! And that’s not how I read this. It’s very clear that creative collaboration is really important to him. It seemed like it was a collaborative, creative decision.

One thing that gets forgotten about corporate comics a lot is they’re super collaborative. For people who have not done collaborative creative work, it may not be clear how much push and pull and give and take there is. But it’s almost never one lone genius who comes up with a plan and then executes that plan over however many years. You work with other people and develop your plans and you change them. Maybe somebody else comes up something that is a better idea than you had, so you do that instead.

You bring up the Carol Corps, a fanbase that connected really strongly to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, and how even though the comic didn’t have blockbuster sales, it was a success in mindshare.

This was a comic that affected a lot of people really deeply, to the point where they were talking about it all the time. They were spreading the word to their friends, dressing up, being present, writing things on their own, creating things on their own, building on this idea that was so meaningful and so important to them. That’s the mark of something special and interesting. I love that.

How do you define “mindshare”?

The extent to which people think about a thing. There are stories that you read where, all right, that was a way to spend 20 minutes. And there are stories that you read that stick with you and you write about them and you talk to your friends about them, and maybe you get a t-shirt with an image from it, or you buy a bag of salad greens that has the character on them. That’s mindshare. That is it digging its claws into you. Grant Morrison talks a lot about sigils, and you can’t make a more impressive sigil than Iron Man.

Maybe this is because of my personal history as a critic, but I get kind of weirded out by fandom, when I feel myself becoming too much of a fan of something.

I love that feeling. I spend so much time looking at whatever kinds of art I’m dealing with as a critic and seeing how they work, picking it apart in my head and looking at it structurally. But I love when I read something or listen to something and think, I need to know what happens next! I can’t wait to tell my friend about it. It feels so good. It’s fun. There’s pleasure in that. Pleasure is way underrated. This is a story that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about, and enjoying thinking about. Not trying to figure it out, not trying to dissect it or figure what makes it work, but replaying bits in their head. I like that. That feels good. That’s magical. That’s really special. That’s the magic of pop.

It’s a little mind control spell.

It’s a benign mind control spell, mostly. It’s something you keep thinking about later not in a FOMO way, but in an inspirational, this lifts me up, this comforts me kind of way. I love when that happens. I love anything that does it.

So how do you feel now that the project is finished? Have your eyes recovered from the strain of reading every Marvel comic?

No. I’ve probably done permanent damage to myself.

Are you glad you did it?

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

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