How Marvel Comics became our longest-running work of fiction: Excerpt
Author Douglas Wolk has read all 27,000-plus Marvel superhero comics. By that measure alone, there is no better person to trace the history of the iconic comics. In his new book All of the Marvels, he looks at culture through the Marvel lens, charting the way history has been reflected in the comics — and vice versa. Here, in an exclusive excerpt, read the first chapter of the fascinating tome.
The twenty-seven thousand or so superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and growing. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Every week, about twenty slim pamphlets of twenty or thirty pages apiece are added to the body of its single enormous story. By design, any of its episodes can build on the events of any that came before it, and they're all (more or less) consistent with one another.
Every schoolchild recognizes the Marvel story's protagonists: Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men. Eighteen of the hundred highest-grossing movies of all time, from Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther down to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, are based on parts of the story, and it has profoundly influenced a lot of the rest: Star Wars and Avatar and The Matrix would be unimaginable without it.
Its characters and the images associated with them appear on T-shirts, travel pillows, dog leashes, pizza cutters, shampoo bottles, fishing gear, jigsaw puzzles, and bags of salad greens. (Some of the people who love the story also love to be reminded of it, or to associate themselves with particular characters from it.) Its catchphrases have seeped into standard usage: "Spidey-sense," "you wouldn't like me when I'm angry," "I say thee nay," "healing factor," "no—you move," "bitten by a radioactive spider," "puny humans," "threat or menace?" "true believers," "'nuff said." Parts of it have been adapted into serial TV dramas, animated cartoons, prose novels, picture books, video games, theme-park attractions, and a Broadway musical. For someone who lives in our society, having some familiarity with the Marvel story is useful in much the same way as, say, being familiar with the Bible is useful for someone who lives in a Judeo-Christian society: its iconography and influence are pervasive.
The Marvel story is a mountain, smack in the middle of contemporary culture. The mountain wasn't always there. At first, there was a little subterranean wonder in that spot, a cave that was rumored to have monsters inside it; colorful adventurers had once tested their skills there, and lovers met at its mouth. Then, in the 1960s, it started bulging up above the surface of the earth, and it never stopped growing.
It's not the kind of mountain whose face you can climb. It doesn't seem hazardous (and it isn't), but those who try to follow what appear to be direct trails to its summit find that it's grown higher every time they look up. The way to experience what the mountain has to offer is to go inside it and explore its innumerable bioluminescent caverns and twisty passageways; some of them lead to stunning vantage points onto the landscape that surrounds it.
There is no clear pathway into the mountain from the outside. Parts of it are abandoned and choked with cobwebs. Other parts are tedious, gruesome, ludicrous, infuriating. And yet people emerge from it all the time, gasping and cheering, telling one another about the marvels they've seen, then rushing back in for more.
Marvel Comics, as an artistic and commercial project, began in the early 1960s, initially as the work of a handful of experienced comics professionals—artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, editor/writer Stan Lee,* and a few others. The superhero stories that had dominated American comic books in the late '30s and early '40s had mostly fallen out of style at that point, but instead of returning to that faltering genre as it had been, Kirby, Ditko, and Lee combined it with aspects of the genres that had supplanted it: the uncanny horror of the monster and sci-fi stories Ditko and Kirby had been drawing more recently; the focus on the emotion of the romance anthologies Kirby had helped to invent in 1947; the gently jabbing wit of the humor titles Lee had been writing for many years. That hybrid formula—absorbing monster comics and romance comics and humor comics into superhero comics—turned out to be irresistible and durable. Marvel's early stories responded to the atmosphere of their historical moment, sometimes explicitly in their content and always implicitly in their themes.
Then Kirby, Lee, Ditko, and their collaborators figured out how to make the individual narrative melodies of all of their comics harmonize with one another, turning each episode into a component of a gigantic epic. That led to a vastly broader artistic collaboration: ever since then, its writers and artists have been elaborating on one another's visions, sometimes set in the same place and time but often separated by generations and continents.
The big Marvel story is a funhouse-mirror history of the past sixty years of American life, from the atomic night-terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and pluralism of the present day—a boisterous, tragicomic, magnificently filigreed story about power and ethics, set in a world transformed by wonders. In some of its deeper caverns, it's the most forbidding, baffling, overwhelming work of art in existence. At its fringes, it's so easy to understand and enjoy that you can read a five-year-old an issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and she'll get it right away. And not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing.
That's fine. Nobody is supposed to read the whole thing. That's not how it's meant to be experienced.
So, of course, that's what I did. I read all 540,000-plus pages of the story published to date, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown. Do I recommend anyone else do the same? God, no. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.
I've spent some of my happiest days exploring the mountain of Marvels, and I wanted to get a better sense of what was in there so I could help curious travelers figure out how they might get inside it and how they might find the parts they'd like best. (I went all out so you don't have to; if you liked an Avengers movie and are interested in dipping a toe into its characters' comics, or read X-Men as a tee ager and wonder what it's looked like since then, I'm here to help you have fun with that.) I also wanted to see what the Marvel narrative said as a single body of work: an epic among epics, Marcel Proust times Doris Lessing times Robert Altman to the power of the Mahaharata.
As a cluster of overlapping serials, with dozens running in parallel at any given time, a different relationship with time and sequence than most kinds of narrative art have. It doesn't really have a beginning—well, it does, but since mid-1961, where the story began is not where any member of the audience has ever been meant to join it. Instead, the Marvel story gives the reader tools to figure out the context from any entry point, reading backward and sideways as well as forward. Each individual piece of it, on its own, is fun—engaging, exciting, pleasing to the eye—or, at least, meant to be fun. But there's another, different kind of fun that comes from piecing together the big story.
Marvel's narrative also has a peculiar relationship with authorship. Legally, its "maker" is a corporation, one that's gotten bigger over time as its body of intellectual property has changed hands. In practice, it was made by a specific group of people whose names we (mostly) know, and whose particular hands are (usually) unmistakable on any given page. But it's also almost always been created collaboratively: if you think any one person is the sole creator of a particular image or plot point, you're probably wrong, which is why it's a mistake to think of any one person who's worked on a Marvel comic book as its "author." On top of that, the nature of "continuity"—an important word in this context—is that every episode has to dovetail with (or at least not contradict) everything by other writers and artists that came before it or appears alongside it.
From a reader's perspective, though, that was one of Marvel's great innovations. You can follow any series on its own, without having to pay any mind to others; if you just want to see what Moon Knight's up to this month, you're good. But characters and plotlines bounce freely from one series to another, and events in any individual issue can have ramifications in any other, the same week or years later. Every little story is part of the big one, and potentially a crucial part.
That sense of shared experience, of seeing dozens of historical threads and dozens of creators' separate contributions being woven together, is a particular joy of following the Marvel Universe (with a capital U), as both the company and comics readers call it. The Marvel story is not the first or only one that works like that—DC Comics, Marvel's largest competitor, and other comics publishers have adopted the "universe" template too— but it's the largest of its kind.
It wasn't even meant to work that way, at first; it wasn't conceived organically in any way. The story has been driven, at every turn, by the dictates of the peculiar marketplace that sustains comics, and in recent decades by the much more profitable business of media and merchandise derived from stories that originated in comics. It grew accidentally, and it's accrued meaning accidentally, through its creators' memory lapses and misreadings and frantic attempts to meet deadlines. Even so, it's accrued a lot of meaning.
The Marvel story is about exploration—about seeing secret worlds within the world we know, and understanding possibilities of what we haven't yet experienced—and its parallel serials and wildly divergent creative perspectives even within a single serial make that broader understanding possible. It's high adventure, slapstick comedy, soap opera, blood-spattered horror, tender character study, and political allegory, usually all in the same week. It encompasses magnificent craft and dumb hackwork, and enduring the latter is sometimes helpful preparation for appreciating the former. It grew with its audience, and then grew beyond successive generations of its tellers. In form and substance, it's a tribute to the astonishing powers of human imagination and to the way that human imaginations in concert with one another can do far more than they could individually. It's a tale that never ends for any of its characters, even in death.
Those characters — and there are thousands of them — include some extraordinary ones, in whose fantastic excesses you, as a reader, might potentially see parts of yourself, or see what you might hope to become or fear becoming. On any page, you're likely to encounter someone like a computer science student who can talk to squirrels and is friends with an immortal, planet-devouring god; or an android who saved the world thirty-seven times, then moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and built himself a family in a catastrophically failed attempt to be more human; or a vindictive, physically immense crime lord who has become the mayor of New York, and whose archenemy is the alter ego of the blind lawyer who serves as his deputy mayor; or a woman who discovered as a teenager that she could walk through walls, was briefly possessed by a version of herself from a dystopian future, trained as a ninja, later spent months trapped inside a gigantic bullet flying through the cosmos, and is now a pirate captain; or a tree creature from another planet who makes remarkably expressive use of his three-word vocabulary.
From ALL THE MARVELS by Douglas Wolk. Copyright © Douglas Wolk, 2021. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.