(A review copy was provided by NetGalley.)
First off, there is some debate online over this book. Having just finished the entire thing, and being a 40 something white cis male who has read comics since I was 9 years old I have one opinion on this book. This is a must own for every fan of comic books that simultaneously embraces and challenges how we all look at the medium.
Douglas Wolk read all 27,000 plus Marvel comics from Fantastic Four #1 (1963) onward. Hundreds of issues of Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers and single issues for random characters no one has ever heard of plus all points in between. Along the way he read the single largest continuous story in human history, one that is still growing. Wolk discovered themes and patterns that the original creators may not have been consciously aware of yet there they are. Waiting to be discovered decades later.
By reading thousands of issues and millions of pages at once Wolk makes points that can’t be seen reading 30 pages a month then waiting 30 days for the next issue. Character development, forgotten plots, jokes, references, and more bubble to the surface through this kind of reading. Where a single issue reader sees a puddle, Wolk discovers an ecosystem. This deep dive changed my own mind set to comics: as a fan, a reviewer, and hopefully one day a creator.
This book makes an excellent point that Peter Parker’s story is one of finding a father figure. He loses his parents, then Uncle Ben is murdered. He has bonds with adult men who end up being villainous and failing him like Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius. He tries heroic men like Reed Richards and Steve Rogers but is rejected from teams, from families. Even J Jonah Jameson pushes him like a father but ultimately disappoints. Wolk questions what is next for the Spider-Man story after breaking it down into distinct eras. I feel a sequel in 10 years would call this the time when Peter changes from the son to the father himself as he mentors Miles, Gwen, Anya, Cindy, and more.
Every character is someone’s favorite, but even then it’s a difficult task to read every apperance. However, Wolk sees character development that many of us forgot or never knew. Iceman was recently outed and some fans were in an uproar over this change to a long standing character. Yet Wolk sees examples in The New Defenders, not X-Men titles, which give historical precedent to this revelation. All of which shows not only how interwoven Marvel is, but also the openness and availability of the universe. Any character or plot thread can be picked back up at any time and used again, freshened up, or highlighted from a different angle. Even the nurses from the romance comics that Marvel published pre Fantastic Four return to the universe eventually.
Some readers today complain that comics are too political now. Yet these readers must have skipped Marvel comics of the 1970s with the Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, and more looking at race relations, Vietnam, and other issues of the day. Wolk makes an excellent point for Dark Reign as a premonition for where the world was heading and I now need to re-read that entire series along with a few thousand others that come alive as this book breaks these tales apart to see what they’re truly about.
This book also will go a long way to break the stigma that comics still have. Every year there’s still a “biff bam pow, comics aren’t for kids” article. While there are mature titles that have been spotlighted over the last 40 years, there is an argument within All of the Marvels that these stories have always been for kids and adults. Using characters who can fly through the air to bring us down to earth. Exploring the human condition through mutants, aliens, and robots.
It is also a self aware story that knows not everyone, or really any one, can read all of the story. While at the comic shop readers constantly drop and pick up books, Wolk makes a point for a few major eras of Marvel Comics. These almost generational markers show shifts in audience, creators, and world affairs. Cold War era comics and post 9/11 ones may feature some of the same characters but everything else in the real and fictional worlds has changed, and those changes are reflected. Stan Lee said Marvel is the world outside your window but Wolk through All of the Marvels makes an argument that it’s actually the mirror.
For comics research and education purposes I would consider this a must have in your personal library.