Madison Palmieri ’22
For those uninitiated into the world of Marvel, it may seem rather daunting. With over 27,000 comics, 60 films, and 100 television shows—which feature multiple versions of the same characters, often in seemingly contradictory situations—it can be hard for a prospective reader or viewer to know where to begin.
In his 2021 book All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Douglas Wolk provides a roadmap to the Marvel universe. As Wolk explains in the book’s introduction, a lifelong love of Marvel coupled with a realization that no one had yet attempted to trace a larger “Marvel story” that encapsulated Marvel’s decades of comics inspired him to read all 27,000-plus of these comics in their entirety. Since no one else had told the “Marvel story,” he figured, why not him?
All of the Marvels is the result of Wolk’s efforts. Although the book’s fairly modest length of 354 pages may seem insufficient to capture six decades of storytelling across multiple mediums, Wolk is deliberately economic and efficient in his writing to keep readers engaged. Rather than trying to create a “Marvel encyclopedia” that catalogues every single character and plot point in the Marvel universe, he offers sweeping summaries of the world’s major players and most important moments, events, and sagas. For instance, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Thor—along with their respective villains and major storylines—each have their own chapters.
Each chapter describes these characters’ inceptions and evolutions. Each also provides readers with a handful of titles and plot summaries of comics featuring said characters for suggested reading. Cognizant that much of his audience has likely not read more than a handful of Marvel comics and may have even only previously encountered the Marvel universe through television or film, Wolk makes frequent, helpful references to small- and big-screen adaptations of the comics’ world.
Interspersed between these chapters are “interludes” devoted to exploring the history of Marvel outside of its comics. For instance, Wolk takes up the proliferation of monster stories in 20th century popular culture as well as conflicts such as the Vietnam War that likewise shaped 20th century life. Another notable “interlude” details how the relationships between Marvel creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko evolved over time.
One of the most notable aspects of All of the Marvels is Wolk’s attention to how women—although long sidelined in Marvel comics and screen adaptations alike—have been central to the Marvel story from its genesis. He explains how Marvel’s very first comics centered not on aliens or mutants, or even super-powered human beings, but rather an ordinary group of young women—mostly 20-something professionals—going about their daily lives. Wolk notes that although these figures have long faded from prominence, one of them, Linda Carter, has made an appearance as recently as 2006 in a Doctor Strange comic.
Wolk ends the book with a discussion of how Marvel has made a difference in his life, primarily by bringing him closer to his son. If there is a larger point for readers to take away from All of the Marvels—aside from the sheer magnitude of the “Marvel story”—it is this: these stories, in all of their forms, remain beloved hallmarks of Western culture not because of their characters’ powers, but rather because of the power of the stories, themselves. The Marvel universe helps us make sense of our lives and bring us closer together, and this is the staying power of all of the Marvels and their superpowers.
Rating: 4/5 stars