Photograph: Anton Ivanov/Alamy
For his new book, Douglas Wolk read more than 27,000 comic books. What he found was one single coherent saga: the Uncanny American Novel.
A longtime comics reader gets good at dealing with different versions of time. The image in any individual comic panel might capture an infinitesimal slice of an instant, a picture of Planck time—but then how to account for bubbles of dialog that’d take minutes to deliver? Or the images in a panel might include the ghosts of their own past to show motion or change. The gutters between panels can encode moments, minutes, months, or millennia. A cliff-hanger might take four agonizing weeks between issues to resolve, but an instant in story-time. Some comics are telling stories that started more than half a century ago; nobody expects anyone to remember everything.
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Anyway, you get used to it. Comics walk stutter-step through their own timeline. Nobody ever sees the whole picture. Until now.
Douglas Wolk, a preeminent historian and explicator of comics theory and practice, has seen everything. For his new book All of the Marvels, out this week, Wolk read all of Marvel Comics, from 1961 to . That’s more than 27,000 individual issues. But because those comics all “happen” in the same shared universe, just like the recent movies and TV shows, all those stories are actually one continuous story. So Wolk has treated them as a single, massive, collaboratively created artwork, consumed and considered in a giant gulp. Wolk’s achievement is more than just a stunt. This is literary criticism as endurance test.
Still, though, that’s a lot of comics. Which is why the first question I ask him on our video call is: Are you OK?
“I’m getting through it,” Wolk says. “I’m hanging in there. Like a kitten on a 1970s motivational poster.” His dive into the Marvels turned out to be pretty intense—a journey into a parallel universe straight out of a you-know-what. But his head didn’t explode. The journey turned out to be a real trip, man. Comics’ wobbly status in American cultural discourse notwithstanding, Wolk found subtext, symbolism, even recurring images and references. He found patterns. This single piece of art has a worldview. It coheres.
That might seem surprising. Sure, in Marvel’s early decades the editorial team operated on what came to be called the “Marvel method,” in which a writer—most often Stan Lee—vaguely hacked out a scenario in conjunction with an artist, who then went off and did the blocking-and-tackling of pacing, paneling, and story beats. Then the writer would come back and fill in the dialog. And Lee had some standard approaches to storytelling and ideology. As more and more writers started getting involved, you’d think that would all schiz apart. But no. “It is people who are working in the same room collaborating with each other; it’s people who are working far apart from each other in the world that are in touch with each other, finding out what they’re doing and making sure that what they’re doing is compatible and building on each other’s ideas,” Wolk says. “And it’s creators in the present day, collaborating at a distance with people who wrote and drew comics 40, 50, 60 years in the past and had no idea that anyone would even remember their work.”
Don’t get him wrong; Wolk’s not arguing that all of the Marvel comics are good. As he points out to me, the great writer and artist Jack Kirby—cocreator of Captain America, creator of the Eternals, among many others—rarely even read the stuff he did in Marvel’s early years. “They were trying to do something cooler and more interesting and deeper than just grinding out pages,” he says. “They didn’t always succeed. Sometimes they fell on their noses, and sometimes they made something really special.”