Let Us Compare Mythologies

A new book ventures to the farthest reaches of the Marvel Universe and returns with stories to spare


In a utopia, there’d be an issue for everyone. For me, it was Uncanny X-Men No. 414, which I read on the floor of a Pine Sol–scented Barnes and Noble when I was 11. Seated pretzel-legged in one of the aisles, I found something unexpectedly weighty in the Marvel comic: Abused by his father, a boy literally explodes. A lapsed superhero named Northstar discovers him in his home’s rubble. Northstar is gay, we know, because Professor Xavier, founder of a school for “gifted youngsters” with mutant powers they need to learn how to control, wants to hire the flying, ultrafast Canadian; he’d like to diversify his teaching staff so that his students have homosexual role models.

“Huh?” I thought, dropped from the drab retailer into a friendlier dimension. I’d never read anything so frankly queer before. The year was 2002, and I only knew gayness as the butt of jokes. Studio films were smattered with swishy stereotypes for comic relief, while the lyrics of Top 40 hitmakers like Eminem and DMX made mincemeat of homosexuals. In the wide world of graphic novels, superheroes might have been popular fluff, but they were still the just-off-center province of nerds, meaning they could address the marginalized with empathy. The experience of difference was the hidden soul of Marvel’s corpus: Secret identities, found families thrust together by their afflictions, and outcasts with life-altering urges that manifested around the time of puberty had evident non-straight connotations. Possibly because of corporate oversight, these undertones only occasionally rose to the surface. Yet rise, they did.

In Issue 414, Northstar admits his sexual orientation while flying the exploding boy to safety. The child freaks out. “You’re a fruit,” he exclaims. “Put me down.” The boy’s uncontrolled powers kill him, but only after he and Northstar have a heart-to-heart. Reading this scene, I felt as though split sides of my own fledgling self were speaking calmly: the child who had inhaled a culture of bizarro brutality and discrimination, and the adult who was attracted to men and did not want to ostracize anyone.

Marvel’s writers and artists often know how to reach these places in young—mostly male—readers. I came for the spectacle of cartoonish violence, the largesse of adventure. I stayed because past the masks and glitz were alienated, relatable characters with wasted good intentions and emotional turmoil they locked inside. In the past two decades, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has saturated society so deeply these tales no longer feel like the province of outsiders. I’ve gotten older, too, yet the company’s stories still reverberate in my head like personal philosophies. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him. Behind the weariness of this line’s overexposure is the weight of mythology, like a favorite verse from the Bible one quotes in a moment of self-doubt.

Douglas Wolk’s new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told  (Penguin, $28), draws on how Marvel’s narratives are both intimate and culturally embedded. The project has an inescapable hook: Wolk read all 540,000 pages of comics the corporation has published since 1960. A discerning fanboy, he excluded particular imprints and character lines he did not consider “canon,” yet the book bears the alluring scent of the completionist, someone who reached the end, as the opening sentence tells us, of “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created.…” Critically, Wolk doesn’t log all 27,000-plus comics that compose the publisher’s lumbering megatext, but cherry-picks a series of through lines he sequences with a conversational, entertaining voice and casually whip-smart analysis. There’s a section on Marvel’s failed forays into the movie business during the 1980s and early ’90s, an ignominious period that made its characters seem unfilmable; chapters that dive deep into the psyches of Spider-Man and Doctor Doom; an interlude that discusses the surprising predominance of nurse protagonists in the publisher’s early years; and another that considers the legendary working relationships of writers and artists such as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Wolk highlights a mixture of what matters most in comics history, and what he likes. If there’s an issue for everyone, Wolk knows which comics have touched on his own idiosyncrasies—and when Marvel’s mirror version of the world, Earth-616, rotates with surprising relevance around our ailing planet at large.

Naturally, his issues are different from mine. I can’t say I care enough about hammer-wielding Thor to enjoy a couple dozen pages and ample footnotes about his exploits, and I wish Wolk had given more space to Daredevil, whose gritty gymnastics on skyscrapers and tenements sparked my own childhood fascination with cities—plus, the blind lawyer born Matt Murdock is the rare marquee-name superhero with a physical disability. Instead, Wolk focuses on the underknown Shang-Chi—until the recent flick Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—and the 300-comic, multi-series “Dark Reign” cycle, which Wolk argues, compellingly, is “the best work of fiction I’ve seen about life under the Donald Trump administration—the one that most accurately captures the slow-grinding despair and tension of that period in American culture….” Wolk’s argument is weakened, though, by what he does not include. After all, the terror induced by the Trump era is hardly over, and while he mentions that “Dark Reign” actually came out during the Obama years, he neglects to consider how the story’s dystopian political aspects might have allowed it to pass muster with the company’s then CEO, major Republican donor Ike Perlmutter.

Wolk gives short shrift to other popular heroes, notably The Punisher, and in that particular case for plausible reasons: “He’s a wish-fulfillment figure for bloodthirsty creeps; he’s had his stylized skull logo co-opted by American police.” The symbol has become a frightening calling card in recent years for alt-right vigilantism, but I think the anti-hero’s comics often have enough sorrow, ambivalence, and pulpy, funny bluntness to defy those who read advocacy into his gun-toting persona. Wolk also does a critical drive-by on J. Michael Straczynski, whose storylines on The Amazing Spider-Man between 2001 and 2007 “incorporated a few intriguing ideas, as well as some very bad ones.” Considering that Straczynski framed my childhood love for all things Peter Parker, I was surprised by Wolk’s speedy means of dispatching with him. Still, in certain ways, disagreement isn’t a liability but instead the point: Marvel’s interwoven folklore allows readers to pick their own stories as well as storytellers—even if one of the misleading aspects of mainstream comics is that their true author is a corporation.

We never lose sight of Wolk’s own authorship, one of the reasons he can weave together a series of curated, argumentative plot summaries over almost 400 pages. A writer with less control would put us to sleep. One chapter discusses Wolk’s difficulties relating to his son, citing his passion for the arts and the boy’s bent toward math and “complex systems” as an unbridgeable chasm. “I worried, neurotically,” he tells us, with admirable honesty, “that the kid I loved just sort of tolerated my presence.” What allowed him to bond with his then 10-year-old? Of course, the endless labyrinth of Marvel: “He had lots of questions about them all, and I could answer them—the first time that had really happened between us.” The formulation is potent for its details (for example, how Wolk’s son isn’t really interested in music except for “certain video-game soundtracks”), even if any reader can predict what will bring them together the moment the chapter begins.

Wolk himself is an excellent, longtime music critic, and he devotes a fantastic interlude to the appearances of both real and made-up musical figures in the fictional multiverse. The author’s omnivorous obsessions and his light touch for applying them give All of the Marvels space to breathe. “X-Men became to comics approximately what David Bowie was to music: the signal to every misfit out there that they weren’t alone and that things might be okay after all,” he tells us, with characteristic friendliness. A critic’s bevy of knowledge, Wolk knows, is only as interesting as their sensibility.

The book incorporates some exemplary Marvel panels, but these are irritatingly too small to read without a magnifying glass. And Wolk’s sensibility falls short in its examination of Marvel as a business, even if he makes his intentions clear up-front in a series of bullet-point disclaimers forecasting what All of the Marvels will avoid: “It is not a defense of Marvel’s business practices, currently or historically, or of the business practices of any of their corporate parents, nor is it a defense of any of these comics’ creators as people…. It’s also not a defense of these comics’ retrograde, myopic history of representation, in terms of both the characters who appeared on their pages and the people who created them…. It not only does not defend, but actively disavows, the elements of mainstream comics readership that try to keep it the province of straight white men, with boxes full of back issues, who want everything to stay exactly like it was when they were kids.”

Granted, his book is none of these things—but it also doesn’t criticize them quite directly enough. Discussing the Shang-Chi series Master of Kung Fu (1974–83), Wolk uses letters to Marvel’s editors by the prominent sci-fi author William F. Wu, who was offended by the comic’s frequent stereotyping, to show how an Asian American of the time reacted to the book’s racial issues. A wise move (as usual, Wolk provides a considered, multifaceted discussion), his thoughtfulness is nonetheless a bit undermined by his effusive praise for the book’s writers and artists, who rendered such stereotyping into existence. And while he delves into the colorists’ absurd inability to render an Asian skin tone, he mostly lets Jack Kirby off the hook for his hackneyed depictions of the citizens of Wakanda, the made-up African nation in which the Black Panther is king. My own predilections made me wish that Wolk would linger longer on the LGBTQ embrace of X-Men, and I positively ate up his incisive analysis of how Spider-Man repeatedly contends with older father figures as mentors and villains. Then again, these are the dynamics in the Marvel Universe that always captured my imagination, even when I was too young to understand why.

Any mythology that encourages us to choose our favorite myths lends itself to consumer capitalism. As I saw myself in Uncanny X-Men, today’s queer youth might embrace Eternals (2021), the first film in the MCU to have an openly gay character, though hopefully they’ll remember the decade-plus it took the franchise to introduce a hero who wasn’t arrow-straight. Wolk does little to recognize the company’s complicated relationship with its so-called “true believers.” This term, introduced with seeming innocence by the avuncular Stan Lee more than half a century ago, points to a bygone optimism in the capitalistic potential of youth culture, one which both jokingly and seriously demanded a kind of religious obedience, all in a voice like the annoying leader of a boy-scout troop. “For someone who lives in our society,” Wolk acknowledges, “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.” Those who are aware of the evangelical stranglehold on American politics can only balk at the notion that our society is not Judeo-Christian, but Wolk’s grander point alludes to how corporations create their own mythos. The stories that comprise it need not reflect a company’s corporate culture, office culture, or the politics and values that its brass have in their own lives. They can, and will, be whatever brings in the most cash—whenever Marvel reflects a “minority” identity in a new comic or film, the company is only expanding into a new market of consumers. And since films make so much revenue abroad, Marvel’s social perspectives are not only bound by American mores but also those of international markets with different notions about personal liberty and freedom of expression. Clearly, Wolk has a complicated relationship with superheroes, but the extent to which he buys into them makes his omissions conspicuous. Weirdly, he never even tells us that the ur-corporation of global kiddie domination, The Walt Disney Company, has owned Marvel since 2009.

In its beginning, Marvel comics stood out because they showed people the futility of their heroes, seducing their hearts while drawing a fine line of vulnerability to separate these crime-fighting allegories from fascism. Peter Parker’s famous adage moves us not because Spider-Man has superhuman abilities but because his life is an exercise in disappointment and helplessness. However subconsciously, we understood his proverb as “with very little power comes great responsibility,” and such a predicament is why many continue to find the web-slinger relatable. Yet as capitalism and fascism seem to draw closer together every day—I can’t help but think of Upton Sinclair’s quote “Fascism is Capitalism plus murder”—people are fittingly revealing how they take (probably, they always did) the action-packed adventures and Übermensch abilities of superheroes at face value. Numerous news stories have covered how apparel from The Punisher, as well as from Captain America, have become ubiquitous at alt-right rallies. Of course, sympathetic characters are often used for evil gain—malignant people have for millennia co-opted the pacifistic Jesus Christ to justify wars and bigotry. Instead of painting crosses on their shields before embarking on a crusade, the devout thugs of 21st-century America put on a Target-bought skull shirt.

Wolk doesn’t purport to be interested in going behind the scenes at Marvel, perhaps because other authors beat him to it—notably, Sean Howe in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2012). But All of the Marvels needs at least a chapter on the company’s corporate history, as well as a more direct acknowledgement of the hand its changing leadership has played in shaping Marvel’s many-layered tale. Wolk writes about the imprints individual writers and artists left on particular series, but one is left to wonder: Just how much autonomy did they have, and when did their corporate bosses meddle? Wolk does take some shots at the company’s inherent hypocrisy, saving this pointed couplet for his book’s last line: “A story can never leave you; a corporation can never love you back.” But I wanted him to twist the knife another few rotations, and then blast the company with an energy bolt and Hulk Smash it—maybe that’s just my bloodthirsty self. Just after his erudite chapter on the appearance of presidents in Marvel comics, he includes a hilarious reference to Donald Trump’s sole cameo in an excellent 2009 issue of New Avengers—the hero Luke Cage moves the future president’s limousine out of New York City traffic in order to allow an ambulance to pass. “I—I will sue the—!” sputters Donald’s character, too scared to complete his threat. Afterward, Wolk drops a bomb: “Trump’s subsequent, uncharacteristic-for-presidents invisibility in Marvel’s comics may or may not have anything to do with the fact that one of his major real-world donors and close associates, Ike Perlmutter, has been the CEO of Marvel Comics, and then of Marvel Entertainment, since 2005.” The shifty, perhaps legalistically safe syntax Wolk uses while offering this significant revelation is difficult to get behind. And it must be noted that Perlmutter, the largest shareholder in Disney, is in fact a chairman at Marvel now, and no longer its CEO—he lost the position after purportedly spouting racist garbage about actors in an Iron Man sequel, threatening to shoot a company executive, and being generally opposed to diversity in the MCU.

Still, in large part, All of the Marvels is quite successful: Wolk’s engrossing, rich tome is cheerfully serious about the tangled skein of an ongoing story, and he sets the bounds of his argument early and clearly. But in these decidedly non-innocent times, Wolk needs to attack the corporate overlords of the stories he loves with more than a glancing blow. If representation is threatened, stories themselves are threatened. An imperative response is to send constant, irritating missives from the bottom of our intellects up to the top of the capitalist food chain.

So peer past the surface of comics’ unholy scrolls and consider how their aims might be distorted and blinkered. Remember that, like the talent of many establishment cultural facets, such as Hollywood movies, popular music, and the evening news, Marvel’s creators could be so much truer to the lived experience of humanity than the vicissitudes of industry and its Doctor Dooms will allow. Let Wolk’s deserving text be more than free marketing material for a corporation. That is to say: Don’t buy All of the Marvels for the superhero fan in your life this holiday season. Buy it for the critical thinker who uses alternative worlds and fantastical allegories as a lens of analysis, so they can pick apart a failed utopia made in the image of our own.  ❖

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