Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels, a masterful tour of the last six decades of Marvel Comics, evokes much of the childlike wonder and alacrity of combing the spinner racks, eager to turn your afternoon over to another escapist fantasy.
Wolk, a journalist and critic who writes frequently about comics, is an eager and erudite guide through some dense material. He certainly did enough research — in fact, I’m not sure he could have done more. Wolk read every comic Marvel has published since 1961 — totaling roughly 27,000 issues — and lived to tell the tale. (Does he recommend it? “God, no,” he says.) But far from turning the book over to a meditation on his herculean attempt at completionism, Wolk uses the effort to only instill some credibility in what is, somewhat more conventionally, a tour of Marvel’s canon.
All of the basics are covered here, including Spider-Man, Thor, and the X-Men, and Wolk writes beautifully about them. His systematization of Spider-Man across different eras is one of the more tidy, fascinating breakdowns I’ve ever read of a character for whom nearly everyone already has an opinion. More satisfying was his skill at restoring the mystique of little-explored corners of the Marvel Universe, including the company’s legacy of monster comics and the wonderfully complex Master of Kung Fu, which developed a cult fandom even as its most fervent champions often bristled at the comic’s racist caricatures. (I certainly didn’t know that Master of Kung Fu’s dedicated readers included a who’s who of future comics talent.)
Like a good tour guide, Wolk maintains a careful balance between geeking out and knowing when not to overwhelm the reader with details. He finds time for delightful side trails, such as a chapter cataloguing all the times US presidents have appeared in the Marvel Universe. At some points, he is as flabbergasted as any discerning reader who tries to make sense of Silver Age stories. After describing a strange, Vietnam-inspired issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Wolk meekly acknowledges: “It’s weird.”
The only drawback to Wolk’s effervescent tour, particularly for more Marvel-literate readers, is how much throat-clearing needs to take place before Wolk actually disembarks. By the time he says “the tour is ready to begin,” we’re already on page 47. All that prologue is mostly for the benefit of new or casual fans, who need to understand all the peculiarities of comics before diving in deep. I am sympathetic to Wolk’s inclusive approach — and certainly in favor of the comics community being anything but the insular enclave it often is — but the wind-up period can veer into the self-indulgent as Wolk uses paragraphs-long footnotes to elucidate his points.
Some of the background information is genuinely engaging, including a lengthy dissection of Al Ewing and Alan Davis’ Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders, which ties into the 2015 Secret Wars event. Wolk uses the lore-heavy comic to analyze how shared universes breed “confusion” and why even the most seasoned comics readers have had to get comfortable not understanding everything. “What the story wants from you is not your knowledge but your curiosity,” Wolk writes. “You are not ‘unprepared;’ you are already the ideal reader.”
That spirit of accessibility keeps Wolk’s book a kinetic, enjoyable reading experience, even when it covers familiar terrain. Marvel diehards might seethe over their favorites not making an appearance — I certainly wished Wolk could have touched on Excalibur in the X-Men chapter — but the book successfully helps us turn off that fanboyish, encyclopedic impulse to dot every “i.” (Fans who want that full experience ought to consult the appendix, which is Wolk’s brilliant way of condensing Marvel’s disparate history into a 23-page narrative.) The more natural way to read this book is how one might use Marvel Unlimited — jumping from character to character, story to story, out of order and unencumbered by a linear need to capture everything.
The joy in reading Marvel’s labyrinthine overstory, which Wolk beautifully imagines as a mountain, is in entering at one point or another and mounting your own ascent.
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