This should not be too harsh, I thought, as long as I remain disciplined. All I have to do is read 27,000 comics and then write about them. I had just signed a contract to write All of the Marvels, a book about reading every single superhero story Marvel has published since 1961 as a single giant tale. The Marvel story is ubiquitous – its characters are everywhere, in movies, on television, even adorning shampoo bottles and bags of salad – but also unrecognizable. It pretends to be one big story: any episode can refer to and be compatible with any past. But not even the people who tell the story have read it all. That was not how it was meant to be experienced.
However, I did not read six decades of stories in sequence. That would have been unbearable – and that’s one of the two mistakes Marvel-curious readers often make. It is a sure path to boredom and frustration as the fun lies in following your whims. The second mistake is to try to pick the biggest hits, the key single issues. In isolation, these peaks are without mountain ranges. Their dramatic power comes from their context.
Instead, I walked on grass and watched what seemed funniest that day: the plot-tight spider woman of the 1980s, then the monstrously huge dragon Fin Fang Foom, followed by a bunch of 1970s romantic comics that gave veteran cartoonists (who had been drawn into the superhero game) a chance to return to their roots, specifically by drawing young women wearing very fashionable clothes and crying.
I read the stories on sofas, in the bus, on the treadmill. I read them as yellowed numbers I had bought when they were first released, scored on garage sales as a child, or snatched from a discount bucket at a convention as an adult. I read them in blank, basked paperbacks from the library and like the gems borrowed from friends. I was reading a few pieces from a stack of back issues that someone left on the table next to mine while I was sitting and working in a Starbucks. I read a hell of a lot on a digital tablet.
I did not think so to read someone at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert in the summer of 2019. The only comics I had with me were copies – to give away – of 1998’s X-Force # 75, in which the team participates in the same event, transparently renamed ” Exploding Colossal Man “Festival. But someone had set up a memorial shrine for Stan Lee, Marvel’s longtime galleon figure, and at its base was a box marked, “Read Me.” It contained some battered but intact 50-year-old versions of The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor and Tales of Excitement. What was I supposed to do, does not read them?
And I had a great time. The best of Marvel’s comics, old and new, were as amazing, exciting and imaginative as popular entertainment becomes. There were also plenty of sophomore, retrograde things that rushed out to serve an audience of gullible children or bloodthirsty nostalgics. I was often aware that I was devouring something that was only made to snack, and pampered myself with the worst part of the collector’s impulse: the part that strives for completeness (like Beyonder in Secret Wars II!) Rather than enjoyment.
Luckily, by the time I had waded in too far, a useful transformation had come over me. I realized I was able to find something to enjoy in virtually any edition: Examples of a particular creator’s unique language use or strange cultural references that could not have emerged at any other time. It may have been Stockholm’s syndrome, I admit. But when someone recently asked me if I had actually read every issue of the NFL SuperPro, a mercifully short-lived series about a super-strong American football player, I said, “Of course! And # 10 includes both a parody of the mythopoetic men’s movement at the beginning of 1990s and a character whose power is literally throwing money at trouble – coins come flying out of his hands. ”
The reading phase lasted longer than I thought. It turns out that my brain can only handle so much flashy colored, hyperviolent soap opera in a single day. The highlight may have been to break with the thoughtful, exquisitely drawn, yet problematic title Master of Kung Fu from 1974-1983, which introduced the character of Shang-Chi, who recently appeared on the big screen. A tight, introspective espionage thriller, whose antagonist is Fu Manchu, the series eventually became both more impressive and – for its racist depictions – more creepy.
Or it may have been rediscovering author Chris Claremont’s legendary 16-year-old race on the Uncanny X-Men, whose freaky ingenuity and compassion for his cast of mutants and outcasts turned it into cartoons similar to David Bowie’s career. Then there was the joy of reading Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s disarmingly sore The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series with my son. Its protagonist has “a squirrel’s proportional speed and strength”, but her real power is an ability for creative non-violent conflict resolution, a rare quality in a superhero.
The low point was clearly the week and a half I spent locking myself into an apartment in New York, forcing myself to plow my way through 30 years of the bloody adventures of my least favorite character, the Punisher, who has so far slaughtered against 1,000 drug dealers, security guards and the like. (I spoke.)
I also developed a fascination with the extremely smaller series from 1961 Linda Carter, Student Nurse. It’s not good, by any reasonable standard, but it’s remarkable as an example of Marvel’s forgotten 60s titles about ordinary young women and how their characters and tone were absorbed into the superhero line. Its protagonist reappeared a decade later, in the cast of the even shorter-lived Night Nurse, and again in the 2000s as a nurse running a secret medical clinic for wounded superheroes. For a while, she also dated Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, who lived in New York’s Greenwich Village and is set to appear on screens this year, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I spared myself a good dessert: the last title I checked off on my spreadsheet was Thunderbolts, the long-running, constantly mutating, joyfully perverted series about a team of supervillains posing as heroes who do very good things of much bad reasons.
As I had hoped, I gradually got a feel for the big, random form of the Marvel story and the way it reflected its time. When you first see Iron Man as a 60-year-old ongoing commentary on the U.S. military-industrial complex, you can not see it – from the protesters who occupied Tony Stark’s weapons factory in the 1970s to the drone technology he implemented in the 2000s. I noticed the curious story of the Black Panthers, how the beautiful concept of Wakanda, his African home, evolved from dozens of writers and artists who improvised on each other’s inventions over decades: from the afro-technological utopia of the fictional nation’s first appearance in 1966, to political intrigues added in the 1970s, and the regional factions that debuted in the late 1990s.
The writing process also took longer than I had anticipated: it turns out that it is not easy to get a solid grip on a story of more than half a million pages. After completing an initial version, I ended up scrapping it almost completely and starting over. What made everything click was to realize that I could be the tour guide for the readers.
The final phase of writing went painfully slowly during the terrible months when the pandemic overlapped with Donald Trump’s presidency. But my immersion in Marvel history had become a useful lens, even in that moment. It became clear that Dark Reign, with its intertwined story lines that emerged in 2009, had been nervously foresighted, both about what a totalitarian monster that came to power in the United States might look like (in this case, the ultra-wealthy, media-genetic, murderously cruel Norman Osborn, AKA Spider-Man’s old arch-enemy the green elf) and about what could bring him down (the reunion of a divided coalition, here in the form of the Avengers, as well as some clever reports).
I refuse to claim that there is some kind of canon of essential questions that everyone can enjoy. There is no such thing. What I can do is offer trails into Marvel Mountain and suggest perspectives from which the huge story can offer the joy it’s designed for: a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four that shows Jack Kirby’s and Lee’s hectic ingenuity in their golden era; a decades-exciting cluster of Thor and Loki comics that provide an ingenious meditation on fiction, myths and lies; a set of Vietnam War-era questions that map the development of Marvel’s relationship to politics. Want to know my favorite characters? I do not want to tell you that, because it does not matter. What I’m up to is giving you the tools to find your own.
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