Reviews

All Of The Marvels

All Of The Marvels

Douglas Wolk

Penguin

$28

384 pages

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So to begin, I am the precise wrong person to review this book. Not according to my editor, mind you. It made perfect sense to him, and perhaps to you as well. There are worse problems to have, one supposes, than to have a niche in this world. It is sadly this ostensible expertise that disqualifies me.

How strange to wake strewn across the shores of the twenty-first century and find a putative expertise with comic books such a valued asset. For at least the first decade of the new millennium I lived in perpetual anticipation of “The Bubble” bursting and superhero comics being left adrift following a catastrophic Hollywood downturn. That clearly didn’t happen. The comics movie bubble didn’t burst, it grew to encompass our entire culture. The very same comic book bullshit that I had over the course of years and decades come to regard as a symbol of my own emotional immaturity and personal stasis - well, that bullshit soon dominated everything. To my great dismay I found myself in a gilded hell of my own making, assured that my particular bailiwick would remain indefinitely relevant, yes - but at what cost??? Superheroes are maybe going to wax and wane like anything else, but they’re always going to be around. There’s too much money at stake for them to ever let us forget Spider-Man, at least not for the rest of my life and most likely yours.

And this leads us here, to the publication of Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels, a book that seems quite inevitable in this climate. Once again, allow me to assert that I am the wrong person to write this review. Why? Because this book really isn’t designed with me in mind - and by me, I mean anyone who knows enough about Marvel to write their own books on the subject. This isn’t any kind of definitive atlas, this is a hiking map. Wolk to his credit says as much throughout, maintaining from the beginning that it’s not really designed to be exhaustive - he calls it a “strange, looping route” designed to lead past numerous trailheads.

The marketing copy nevertheless promises “the first-ever full reckoning” with the Marvel corpus, “a revelatory guide to the ‘epic of epics.’” Far be it from me to use a book’s flap copy as a bludgeon, very gauche since of course the author generally has little to do with it. But it remains to be said, sometimes expectations can veer significantly from reality for reasons that have nothing to do with the work itself. To wit: perhaps my expectations regarding what a “full reckoning” with the Marvel story might entail are hypertrophied to a degree that should be excluded from the mean. Friend, this is no full reckoning and it does the book a disservice to heap such a plutonium laurel upon its brow. Accordingly upon encountering the title of the second chapter, “Where to Start, or How to Enjoy Being Confused,” I gingerly holstered my pistol and slid my dagger back into its scabbard. Bad faith to bring a gun to a family picnic, isn’t that the moral of the Punisher?

Despite frequent admonishment to default to good faith I nevertheless found many occasions over the course of the book to test that newfound resolve. It is at times a frustrating read. If you already know the territory it can be maddening. It wasn’t just that I disagreed with some of Wolk’s interpretations of stories - I mean, that’s natural, to be expected, not yet a crime. I don’t grade down for having different opinions than me, no. But I had difficulty getting my arms around what Wolk’s idea of Marvel actually is - it occurred to me maybe I’m just too close to the subject to be satisfied with any organizational shorthand other than my own. There’s some description here that seems like hyperbole but really isn’t - the Marvel Universe really is as massive an undertaking as all that, it’s not like the superlatives in that regard are inaccurate. The scale is sufficient enough in 2021 that the scaling has become a feat in itself. But what do all the parts of this elephant best resemble? There’s no thesis here that isn’t descriptive or performative - Marvel is what you make it. Is that enough?

Many times throughout I had to chide myself for what I was actually doing, which was critiquing the imaginary version of this book that exists only in my head. That hypothetical full reckoning with the Marvel corpus appears in my shimmering imagination a stylistic hybrid between Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson and Frazer’s Golden Bough, and if I can’t berate Douglas Wolk for not writing the exact hypothetical book I want to read, well! I guess we just chalk up another victim to cancel culture.

Which marks as good a time as any to point out that I’m far from an uninterested party in the matter of writing about Marvel. For someone who talks a lot of shit I have written about nothing so assiduously for the entirety of my checkered career. Me even complaining is three-quarters schtick at this point and we all know it. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I’m actually writing a book specifically about Marvel, right now, myself. Chapters have appeared intermittently on my blog for a few months now. A completely different kind of book from a completely different kind of writer - focusing on one franchise, and one character from that franchise specifically, but still attempting through that to tell a larger story about the company. I am fairly certain, given that Disney has yet to even tease their larger intentions regarding the X-Men franchise, that writing a book about them now might prove a good investment in anticipation of their future introduction to the cinematic universe.

I only mention that for the purpose of mooting any criticism of hypocrisy - yes, I am indeed writing my own book about Marvel intellectual property, because I know the topic intimately and believe it has a very good chance of remaining culturally relevant. (I wrote a book about Star Wars under the same guiding principle.) The existence of All of the Marvels attests to the soundness of this assertion, and would seem rather the first than final salvo of many such books. It’s difficult to argue they won’t be needed. The prevalence and convenience of digital comics streaming has itself changed fandom in ways that haven’t quite been metabolized. There’s no gatekeeping anymore, not even of the most obscure shit conceivable. It’s easier than it has ever been, by orders of magnitude, for new and casual fans drawn in by media adaptions to whip up the kind of textual expertise in an afternoon that would have taken me or Wolk a month of scrounging and hunting under the old model of quarter boxes and convenience stores. It would probably cost a lot more, too, even given for inflation. People half my age are conversationally fluent in Chris Claremont, they have to get it from somewhere. I guess I can’t hold it against them that they didn’t have to walk uphill both ways from the 7/11 to get their Marc Silvestri X-Men. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well write guidebooks for ‘em.

Because, honestly, I’ve always thought gatekeepers got a bit of a bad rap. Not all gatekeeping is unwanted. Keeping a gate doesn’t have to mean keeping it closed, after all. Sometimes the gate is old and rusty and kind of forbidding and you need someone who knows how to jimmy it open so it doesn’t get stuck. You can enter anytime you want, of course, but some people like the 5 cent tour. There are pitfalls to avoid!

That’s where All of the Marvels comes in. Since we’ve already conceded there is an opening for such books, perhaps we can further concede that someone who comes off the street cold because they think Paul Bettany is “sort of?” sexy probably doesn’t need their first experience of Marvel Comics proper mediated by someone who describes the chore as “a gilded cage of my own making.” See, I can be reasonable. These days I’m all about meeting people halfway. Perhaps it may seem like an odd thing after the last few years, to have emerged with a newfound faith in fandom! But even given all the turmoil and controversy the view from my Olympian remove as an “oldster” has shown me so many people so much younger than me coming together to build new communities and institutions over the last decade, against the most daunting cultural headwinds, and around cultural artifacts towards which I had grown numb and pessimistic. The world we live in is such that I don’t think we can turn our backs on anything that brings people together in a healthy way. I’m happy to see people younger than me sharing something I value.

However we are left with the question - just what is “healthy?” How do you talk about and share what you love without also falling into the trap of toxic “Team Comics” boosterism? Can you meet peoples’ enthusiasm with good faith while still maintaining a jaundiced remove from blanket praise of the actual brand qua brand? Can you celebrate the artists who created the characters we love without conceding any ground to Marvel the business? They manifestly do not deserve the love and affection their grossly under-compensated employees garner for their stories. Human beings deserve your love and respect, not rapacious legal fictions that only want what’s in your pocket.

Does Wolk cross that line? Well, I believe he’s at least aware of that line. There are a few places, particularly in the early passages, where the tone might veer uncomfortable close to chipper. The bit about how “spending time in that world [Marvel] can make you better equipped to live in the real one” appears cousin to those limp managerial justifications provided in lieu of self defense by Humanities depts. across the land, squeezed mercilessly by neoliberal economic contractions.

You don’t need to justify a damn thing, you already made the sale. Just read your damn funnies and get more sleep. Place value in your own enjoyment and less in corporate fulfillment. I regret to inform you that no comic book can make you a better person. The only person who can make you a better person is you, dear reader, and that’s one to grow on.

Comic books can, however, form a bridge between people. That’s Wolk’s ultimate point, and it’s a good one. We’re more or less on the same page here, hyperbole aside. In fact, when you break it down, I don’t think I have much room for disagreement with Wolk on the big questions of life. We don’t know each other, though I believe we’re mutuals on the Tweet machine. Seems like we’d probably get along well. As long as we avoided discussing the X-Men.

He gets the most important stuff right. He begins by asserting that the Fantastic Four is and has always been the company’s flagship, which is actually a personal litmus test of mine. Fantastic Four is the spine, it was first. It carries the standard when the line is great and it carries the standard when the line is terrible. To extend the metaphor, FF is the flagship but never the “ship of the line.” It may rise and dip with the fortunes of individual creators but it’s the definition of a steady mid-list performer. Hence, when the line is flush with a surplus of readable books and a bumper crop of talent Fantastic Four will usually be pretty decent. It’s never anyone’s top priority, however,  so it’s really easy to lay off the gas in lean times, rope in a couple old pros to keep the lifers happy with the FF simmering on the backburner for a while. The book was gone entirely for a couple years recently, and sure enough that proved one of the weakest periods in the company’s history. Wolk also agrees with me that, in a vacuum, Fantastic Four #51 is the best first Marvel comic to give anyone. I’ve done that.

When you agree with someone on the big questions in life, it’s easier to overlook the small things. I certainly found no small mound of nits to pick - well, let’s put it this way. We all form unhealthy parasocial relationships with inanimate objects, such as my calling the book “Douglas” in my head these last weeks and months of study, as if the book were itself named “Douglas” and was in the process of actively vexing me with tendentious interpretations of X-Men comics. “That’s not what The Dark Phoenix Saga is about, Douglas!” I would groan. “Why are you spending so much time on Claremont’s ex post facto rationalizations for Jean Grey’s resurrection? I didn’t want to know these things the first time around. Where’s Madelyne Pryor? Douglas, what do you have against poor Maddie? She’s already been through so much.”

I mean - look. I’m literally writing a book about the X-Men right now, as we speak. The material is very fresh in my mind. I could go on, as you might imagine. He breaks each major topic into chapters, such that the X-Men comprise a meaty 33 page chunk in the middle of the book. If my editor would like to know why it took so long to finish this review, it’s because I put the book down in the middle of the X-Men chapter and then just - tried to clear my head. For a while. Walked around the farm. Had to wait a minute to return, until I had forgotten what pissed me off.

“Douglas, you scamp,” I would chide, “what mischief have you in store for me now?”

It was in this general mood of twitchy bemusement that I made my way through the book. I didn’t really want to cut the book apart, really - even though I didn’t agree with some of it, I agreed with some of the rest and thought it represented a noble effort that was by definition merely a small gesture towards something larger. Perhaps a bit enthusiastic. But if we’re being frank I also wasn’t really relishing writing a puff piece. I’m trying to be even handed. It has limitations, it knows those limitations, and it has good humor about it. But still, some of the sections are stronger than others.

The Dark Reign passage is very strong, for instance. I agree that was a generally good period for the company, with Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man an especially notable highlight. Made me a Madame Masque fan, at any rate. I could read another book just of those kind of run-downs of major stories past - I hadn’t really thought about Dark Reign in years but it was a thematically rich era defined by a lot of fun reversals and Wolk gets at that really well. Wolk teases out the extent to which that initiative was built on the foundation of a handful of stories by Warren Ellis - primarily his Thunderbolts and Iron Man, cribbed mercilessly for years afterwards. It goes unmentioned, however, why precisely Brian Michael Bendis might wince at seeing the statement, “I got to write my Warren Ellis fan fiction” reprinted in 2021. That strikes me as crucial context, and sadly as much a part of the Marvel story as anything else here.

The chapter on the 2015 Secret Wars reiterates a daunting narrative, spread over some fifty years, with aplomb. I’ll bite, however, and dispute the claim that Hickman’s epic doesn’t “reflect [its] moment in the culture” - I read the series at the time and it still seems to me now as a tombstone for Obama-Era technocratic liberalism. Every moral paragon in the Marvel Universe is reduced to flailing at shadows in the dark, flinging appendages of the military industrial complexes at one another in impotent mortal struggle as the world ends due to forces utterly beyond their control. Hickman is animated throughout his corpus by an abiding pessimism regarding the tragic impermanence of human institutions. Even his Fantastic Four is haunted by the understanding, permeating the later build-up to Secret Wars, that permanent solutions to intractable problems often cannot scale despite the best intentions of good men. (Marvel was unwilling to move on to the later parts of his X-Men outline, perhaps people don’t actually want to see the tragic impermanence of human institutions blowing up the fun new setting?)

There’s a potted history of T’Challa in the back half that really gets to the heart of a character I’ve often struggled to appreciate and found cold - to be fair, Priest’s run on Black Panther got juice out of precisely that regal affect. If any run from the last couple decades deserves the tight focus, it's that. Foundational for the company in the twenty-first century, which is funny to me as I vividly remember a period when I was the only person in the shop who had it on their pull list. Wolk nails an elusive character in just one sentence: “He succeeds when he acts in the interest of Wakanda, and he fails when he acts for any other reason, even when acting morally is contrary to the benefit of his nation.”

Another great line I wish I had written, from the discussion of Simonson’s Thor: “Any curve in his drawings that wasn’t a compass-ruled circle seemed to have been bent by brute force.”

Still, as I rounded the corner to the book’s final stretch I found myself distinctly unsatisfied. My qualms at that point could be jumbled roughly into two pots: in the first pot are querulous but benign disagreements of a qualitative nature, in the second organizational puzzles of a quantitative nature. The first kind of qualms may certainly prove vexing and, in large amounts, may instill a lack of confidence on the part of the reader, but are more or less to be expected, even part of the fun. We can certainly disagree about whether, say, the assertion that the Age of Apocalypse “ignores the mutant metaphor almost entirely” is defensible. If anything, I’d argue it suffers from a surplus of thematic didacticism, that most 90s of mutant afflictions. Certainly worse than the Legacy Virus! But that’s a conversation between friends, or at least respectful peers.

It was that second qualm that I couldn’t quite escape. The nature of the book is such that hard choices had to be made before a single word could be put to paper - he discusses the criteria in the early chapters. The choice was made to follow up early chapters on the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the imbroglio of their creation with an extended look at Master of Kung-Fu. Certainly, it’s hard to tell a cohesive story about the company in the 70s, as the mainline grew increasingly stale and all the energy bubbled up around the sidelines. Most of the period’s well-regarded books are outliers of a sort - Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Warlock, Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb of Dracula, Steve Gerber’s entire output, all the best stuff from the period sat at a remove from the core line of meat & potatoes superhero books Stan & Jack & Steve had launched the previous decade. (I’d also hasten to add Thomas & Windsor-Smith’s Conan the Barbarian, tho’ Wolk skips mention of that for defensible reasons. It’s an arguable point as Conan is currently back at Marvel.) This was the atmosphere when Giant Sized X-Men #1 was published, and why that book could be published in the first place. It was a time for rolling the dice. In that context, the improbable success of Master of Kung-Fu stands as well as anything else for the era’s eclectic spirit.

Shang-Chi and Master of Kung-Fu is a defensible choice, perhaps even one I’d make. It covers a lot of territory, from the industry’s evolving understanding of race and representation, to the growth of organized fandom, and the occasionally arbitrary nature of life as a creator under Jim Shooter. You’ve got career-defining work from stalwart Doug Moench, alongside three of the company’s best-ever artists - Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck, Gene Day. There’s even the pathos of Day’s passing, though the specific circumstances and the ill-will engendered thereby are passed over lightly. But still - Shang-Chi appears in the book before the X-Men and Thor for reasons which can only be described in-context as “personal preference.” There’s a tug-of-war here between the book’s stated desire to sketch a broad map of the entire territory and the practical exigencies of having to actually pick and choose which weeds to hack in a set amount of time.

The Bronze Age in general seems to take it in the shorts, in this formulation. The presentation follows its own logic, and that logic kept nagging at me as insufficient. As I began the final chapter I was still of multiple minds about the book, really liking some parts and intensely disliking others, questioning the overall organization while also admiring the alacrity with which he breaks down very difficult material. And then I started the final chapter, “Passing It Along,” and unleashed a primal howl of frustrated defeat, a ragged keen which took the form of a deep, guttural “Fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuccckkk yooooooooouuuuuuu, Douglas!” This wounded yawp rose from deep down in the wet earth of my shriveled critic’s soul as I absorbed the fact the book was actually a story of a dad reading comics as a way of getting closer with his son.

I do not know if I can adequately describe the degree of shame and loss which I felt in that moment, dear reader. Fallen into my own trap. Just how much of a shithead do I feel like being today, anyway? Good job, you cantankerous bitch. I can’t be mad at the book. Again, you know, maybe I wasn’t the best person to review this for a number of reasons. I’m off my game because point of fact I’ve been locked away on a tiny house on a farm for two years taking care of my father during his decline from late stage Parkinson’s. It hasn’t been an easy relationship and there hasn’t been a lot of grace to spare between us these last months. I remember reading comics with my dad when I was a kid but we didn’t really have much in common as I got older - he didn’t care for comics, really, other than appreciating that I liked them, and he never really understood why they stuck around with me. Everything I’ve written for years has been composed in the spare moments between taking care of him and my mother. Hence the sporadic output, in case you were wondering. This review represents an evening’s work spread across a hard week. Those fleeting moments I can find to sit down at the kitchen table and bang out some bullshit about old comics to post on my hilariously archaic personal blog or this very site are the only times I ever feel as if I am still a part of this world that appears so distant.

So yeah, comic books can form a bridge between people. I can’t gainsay the sentiment because I agree, I try to live my life along these principles. That makes my mulish contrary streak even more self-defeating, I realize. We do learn in the last chapter a little bit more about why the book focuses on the kinds of stories it does, why it makes the kinds of connections it makes between disparate eras. He’s following his son’s lead, to a degree, and leading his son as well. That’s an interesting story. Of course Shang-Chi comes up early in the rotation.

But it’s not just a story about connections, too - the final chapter also throws a dash of vinegar in with the sugar. Here is acknowledgement not just that comics build bridges but that loving comics can also take a toll on your life, in a number of ways. Not just ruining your back lifting heavy magazine boxes. Steve Gerber doesn’t really get more than passing mention throughout, but Howard the Duck does show up in a footnote in the last chapter, chiding his creator and the reader both from the maw of the “Dreaded Deadline Doom.” “I just wanted ya to see for yourself,” he says to Gerber after prompting an impressive recitation of Silver Age minutiae, “how much trivia you were carryin’ around in your head! It’s gotta be crowdin’ out the important stuff, or keeping it safely repressed.” Now, while we could certainly have wished for more discussion of Gerber on Wolk’s part, it’s fitting that Howard at least show up to provide the necessary disclaimer. That’s part of the Marvel story, too, that puckish instinct to bite the hand that feeds.

It’s actually a lot closer to the heart of the company than I think most people realize, even as it can seem ever more distant in our well-coiffed Disney era. It’s not just the reflexively oppositional stance of the counterculture, but a deep humanistic streak that underlies the putative cynicism that emerged across the line throughout the 70s as the natural antidote to Stan’s dominant influence. Gerber’s influence can still be felt today, I believe, in books like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, both of which Wolk takes time to discuss in depth - there’s a commitment to human scale, as well as wholesale absurdity at the heart of both characters. There’s also a slightly more elastic relationship with the fourth wall. Most modern characters seem to lack his teeth, but to be fair, Gerber had a surplus of teeth and Marvel is still finding them wedged between the couch cushions to this day.

Howard’s shadow highlights the strength of this last chapter - here you see the torsion of modern fandom in all its nuance. There is warmth and connection between people, but also unavoidable pathos from the realization that, on some level, loving something that can’t love you back and just wants your money will always disappoint. People can use comic books as a form of self harm. That’s something anyone who reads Marvel should understand perfectly, or prepare accordingly. The oft-bittersweet juxtaposition between his own experiences and memories and those of his son, reading the same material, is the heart of Wolk’s story here. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say they buried the lede in the back of the book.

Sure, the book says it’s about “All of the Marvels,” but it’s not really. The real beating heart doesn’t show itself until the very end. I realize my criticizing another writer for withholding crucial personal details until the very end of an extended essay is pretty rich, but: that said, I think maybe the last chapter should have gone first. I liked the book better when I could look back and see, oh yeah, this framing appears kind of wonky because it’s partially pedagogical and partially personal preference, but only partially. It’s based on family discourse to which we aren’t privy, until the very end.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but as Douglas and I ended on better terms than we began I can’t really call it a failure. Stylistically I think the book suffers a bit from sticking to the strict format of discussing individual issues in isolation. This makes sense when discussing self-contained Silver and Bronze Age standouts but less so as later series become increasingly defined by long arcs. It works fine when you want to go into detail on, say, Fantastic Four #51, less so when discussing a modern run like Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery or Al Ewing’s Loki that has to be broken into a half-dozen bite-sized entries even as the reading experience is designed to be more continual and less episodic.

The tight focus on only a handful of topics meant that some pretty big things were left out - like, say, the Hulk, Daredevil, Captain America, and Iron Man, all of whom come up in passing but none of whom receive any focus. Rogue! Barely mentioned. In light of that it almost seems whimsical to point out the company’s horror characters go completely unrecognized. Alas poor Ghost Rider, tertiary to the Marvel saga, a skeleton of great pith . . . I will make the argument for Tomb of Dracula as Marvel’s quintessential 70s book, but I recognize I will make that argument to an empty auditorium.

Anyway. Sorry if you were expecting a review that had fewer in the way of first-person pronouns in it. I personally thought I’d be reviewing a book called All of the Marvels, but was in fact brought face to face with my own elemental pettiness and dismal lack of good faith. Here’s your fandom paradox, middle-aged variant: a peevish and ineradicable territorialism that surely works at cross-purposes to generous ecumenical impulses. Certainly one to grow on.

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