This is what Douglas Wolk can tell you after reading every single issue of Marvel Comics published from 1961 through 2017, some 27,000 comic books and more than 540,000 pages:
Don’t try this at home.
Not that you shouldn’t read Marvel Comics, Wolk is quick to add. Explore whatever corners of the massive Marvel multiverse tickles your fancy. Follow Spider-Man or the Avengers, Thor or Black Panther, the X-Men – heck, get into Squirrel Girl if a peace-loving bushy-tailed superhero is your kind of thing.
Just don’t feel you have to read them all, as Wolk decided he would do for his new book, “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told.”
“In some sense, it’s a stunt,” Wolk says from his home in Portland, Oregon recently. “But it was also inspired by my son, who having found out what these comics were without having read any of them, decided, ‘Oh, I would like to read all of them.’
“That started me thinking,” Wolk says. “What would it be like to read all of them? This story is more or less internally coherent, but it’s so big that not even the people making it have read it all.”
What would he see if he started at the beginning – 1961’s “Fantastic Four,” No. 1 – and read all the way through to the sprawling story to 2017’s “Marvel Legacy,” No. 1?
“I liked the idea of looking at the whole story, including looking at parts of it that I otherwise would never ever look at,” Wolk says. “That was interesting – and it revealed a lot of stuff.”
In the summer of 1979, a 9-year-old boy visiting his grandparents in upstate New York spent 40 cents at a newsstand for an issue of DC Comics’ “Green Lantern/Green Arrow.”
“And, of course, it ended on a cliffhanger, and I had to find out what happened next,” Wolk says. “So next month, I was back home in Michigan, and I was like, OK, so I went to the newsstand and there was the next issue. And then there was another comic that had Green Lantern in it, so I picked that up too.”
The regular trips to the newsstand for the latest issues of this comic or that quickly became a habit. Before long he found his way to Curious Bookshop in East Lansing, a genuine comic book shop, and that became his weekly haunt.
“A couple of years later they were like, ‘We’re just going to teach you to use the register,’” Wolk says. “I was working there when I was 13 or so.”
Now 51, Wolk has continued to buy, read and collect comic books, though when asked exactly how many issues and boxes are stored at his home he pleads ignorance.
“I don’t know, because I don’t like to think about how high that number is,” he says.
Suffice it to say, he had plenty of comics on hand to launch his Marvel marathon, though he mostly read on Marvel Unlimited, the online subscription site that offers nearly everything the company has ever published.
“I thought the book was going to be a quick 18 months,” Wolk says. “Like, read them for nine months and then write the book for nine months.
“Ended up, start to finish, being something like five years – and it took about two years to get through the reading.”
In the book, Wolk urges readers to blaze their own trails through the maze of Marvel Comics as he ended up doing, following the threads that seem most interesting or fun at any given moment.
“I was cruising,” he says. “I’d think, ‘Let’s go through Mark Gruenwald’s ‘Captain America’ and see where that takes me. But I might run into a character and go, ‘Oh, this character, who appeared somewhere else before, that’s a story I haven’t read, yeah, let’s jump over to that old ‘Tales of Suspense’ and read that story.
“Or today I feel like reading some monster comics. Whatever felt like fun, I did that,” he says.
The Marvel “Thunderbolts” comics he saved for dessert: “I knew I was gonna like it, and I knew it would be a nice, fun note to end on,” Wolk says. And occasionally he forced himself to eat all his vegetables.
“There were a few times when there were just blocks of comics that just kept not seeming like they would be the fun next thing to do,” he says. “At one point I pretty much had to lock myself into an apartment for two weeks and just force myself to read all ‘The Punisher.’”
While he kept a spreadsheet to track his reading and make sure he read it all, the themes that eventually surfaced in “All of the Marvels” were more intuition than data.
“Just pouring it all into my head is what helped,” Wolk says. “Some stuff stuck and some stuff didn’t. I read all 15 or however many issues there were of ‘Maverick.’ I could not tell you what happens in a single one of them.”
As he gulped down six decades of Marvel lore, patterns and themes appeared.
“Then I was like, ‘OK, that’s a thing to keep an eye out for. That’s a thing to tease out.’”
Chapters in the book alternate between longer guides to areas of the Marvel Universe and shorter “interludes” on narrower pieces of its history.
The shorter chapters might serve up appetizers on topics, such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the holy trinity of Marvel creators in the ’60s, or the way in which Marvel Comics wove real historical events, such as the Vietnam War or the terms of U.S presidents, into its storytelling.
The bigger chapters shine a lot on specific characters or storylines – Thor and Loki here, Black Panther there, the long saga of the X-Men, the significance of Jonathan Hickman’s more recent run of “Avengers” and “New Avengers.”
“I read a lot of Spider-Man stuff all around the same time,” Wolk says of how the chapter titled “Spinning In Circles” emerged. “I noticed that Spider-Man’s story was in a lot of ways a repeating pattern. And that’s because Spider-Man’s story is a coming-of-age story.”
Peter Parker’s journey from boy to man, though, isn’t something that Marvel could or would stretch out for 60 years running, he says.
“He’s gonna have to grow up at some point,” Wolk says. “So what it becomes is a cycle where he gets to a certain point, and then he’s knocked down again way farther than he reached, and has to start climbing up again.”
To help readers make sense of Spider-Man’s journey, Wolk’s narrative delves into more than two dozen comic books and explains how each fills out the portrait of Spider-Man across the decades.
The book also looks at how Marvel Comics often reflected the times in which they were created for better or ill. He looks at how different eras included now-cringeworthy stereotypes and the worlds of Marvel Comics were too-long the domain of white men, whether it’s the superheroes on the pages or creators behind the scenes.
A chapter on Marvel’s “Master of Kung Fu” series, which ran from 1973 to 1983, and this year entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the movie “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” illustrates some of this. It is, Wolk writes, a thrilling and well-told tale that is damaged by offensive outdated stereotypes, such as the villainous Fu Manchu or the wildly inappropriate skintones used for the books’ hero and other Asian characters.
Marvel did eventually find a more progressive footing in both its storytelling and the writers and artists working for the company, and the book’s penultimate chapter focuses on two more recent series — “Ms. Marvel,” which stars a Muslim American teenage girl, and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” whose hero is a young white woman whose friends all are people of color — which point the way to a more beneficial future.
(Not that everything is totally rosy: This month, screenwriter and director Steven DeKnight, who has also written comics for Marvel, announced he will no longer work for the company after learning that Marvel Comics editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski, who is White, had previously written comics for Marvel using a Japanese pseudonym.)
That sense that Marvel Comics offers something good, and even better, something fun, is largely why Wolk wrote the book, and in fact, wrote it twice because his first manuscript struck him as missing that celebratory aspect of the epic story.
Jump in where ever you like, he says in conversation and writes in the book. You don’t need to have read it all — remember, do as he says, not as he did — to enjoy the journey.
“All of this stuff is created for pleasure, for fun,” Wolk says of Spider-Man in particular, but all of the Marvels in general. “It’s right there on the surface. You can pick it up. There’s no prerequisite. There’s no background.
“This is going to be fun.”
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