Even from the broadest of angles, nothing in the Marvel Universe makes any sense.
I’m not talking your “oops, I turned into a man-made of sand” scientific whimsy, or how Peter Parker believes he has a secret identity despite frequent interactions with telepaths; all of these things are suspension of disbelief joys, little super-fiction treats to be taken with Sandman grains of sand.
The problems are foundational in nature, in that the universe was formed pretty much on an accidental whim by countless creators over the course of eight or so decades, none of whom were exactly the most communicative with any other for a myriad of reasons, personal and professional.
With several dozen creation myths, conflicting pantheons of gods, an uneven timeline between books, and retcons of various sizes under effect, trying to establish a ‘correct’ timeline seems like an impossible undertaking. Lucky for us, Mark Waid went ahead and undertook it.
Framed as a conversation between Franklin Richards and Galactus (just a super casual Tuesday night between cosmic bros), Waid goes about establishing the sequential order of all major events of the Marvel Universe (as shown so far). It is not a light, breezy read, as one might expect, as it is very much a history text; without Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez masterpiece-level full-page spreads, the book would feel very much like reading a severely edited Wiki page.
Not to discredit Waid’s writing, of course — it’s just that it’s impossible to sum up major events, characters, and concepts in succinct, one-paragraph boxes without feeling deeply clinical (particularly when you get four to six of them per page). That this is clearly a labor of love as well as utility, and so a sense of incredible wonder is baked into the book that may have been lost with a different writer.
What truly blows the mind is considering how Waid might have gone about deciding on what moments to include and which to skip over. The first issue concerns itself with the origins of the universe, and we’re given the god-level events of a young Earth, discussing the Gaia, Cthon, and Set set; the first Celestial Host, Atlantis, and Varnae the first vampire are all laid out. On the other hand, though she shows up in the Spirits of Vengeance spread in issue #4, the pre-historical demon mother Lillith is left out of the world formation history. This is, of course, likely down to how deeply the creators at Marvel have delved into establishing a character or moment in time, making this history only as complete as the documents preceding it. Waid and co had to carve out a working history from thousands and thousands of books.
The final issues, of course, deal primarily with the huge crossover events of the last twenty years, packing a lot of importance into events that might not stand to the test of time (I’m looking at you, Spider-Island), viewing them equal to events like the cosmos-altering Secret Wars, which means Galactus is canonically more interested in market synergy than accurately judging the impact of events.
Initially collected in the massive, near poster-size Treasury Edition, History of the Marvel Universe really gives Rodriguez and Lopez top billing — and rightfully so. Seeing how detailed and jam-packed the pages can be, it’s hard not to want to engage with them in that format. The truth is, however, that the pages work perfectly fine in the traditional trade paperback format — never are the details lost in the reduction. There’s a smoothness to the artwork that makes everything feel flawless, and the page breakdowns are so fresh and custom-tailored that Rodriguez comes off as a near-genius. It really is a masterclass in stretching splashes into time-lapse narratives.
Excitingly (for a certain academic sort of reader), the back half of this trade is filled with illustrated footnotes, providing deeper information about each of the events focused on — expanding those one-paragraph caption boxes to give us context and cite issues. It provides the resources, then, for intrepid historians to do their own digging.
An impressive feat on all fronts, History of the Marvel Universe is a deeply important book. This trade edition makes it all the more accessible (read: reasonably shelved), but it is not, however, casual reading.
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