Since the Dawn of Time (technically, the 1960s, to be precise), a tale has been building: a single connected narrative involving thousands of characters, and millions of pages of comics. The Marvel Universe, says writer Douglas Wolk, contains the biggest story that has ever been told. “It all happens in the same setting,” he said. “Stories that happened in 1961 or 1962 have consequences in comics that are coming out this week.”
Wolk, a Marvel expert, patiently explained to correspondent Luke Burbank (a non-comic-book person) that Marvel might be the longest-running and most voluminous story told in human history … and it’s all connected, meaning if The Hulk stubbed his toe back in 1979, Captain America could be dealing with the consequences in 2022.
“All of those events are its history, its past, what it can draw on for this perpetually-evolving story,” said Wolk. “Not just a continuous story going on for six decades, but the continuous story going on in many, many threads at once that can cross each other at any time.”
Marvel started publishing comics in 1930s, but according to Wolk, it was only in the early 1960s that, and Jack Kirby pioneered the idea of having all the characters live in the same universe.
Wolk had been a fan of Marvel Comics since he was a boy, but his son, Sterling, didn’t start off sharing his love of (as he calls it) “spandex violence.” But then, Wolk recalled, “Eventually he was like, ‘Oh, but superhero comics are a complicated system. I like complicated systems. Hey, Dad, I’d like to read all the Marvel Universe comics, not in the order they were published, but the order of events happened to the characters.’ I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a pretty tall order!'”
So, they set out on a father-and-son adventure, tackling a seemingly impossible challenge.
“You just have to find a way in and wander around inside it,” Wolk said. “There’s lots of weird and boring and arcane and confusing parts, and there are beautiful and magical and fascinating parts.”
They found themselves jumping around from comic to comic, devouring page after page, issue after issue. “But I started thinking, What would it actually look like to read these half million pages of comics, to read the 27,000 superhero comics that Marvel had published since 1961?”
It was at this point that Wolk started to transform from Mild Mannered Portland Writer to Dr. Marvel Brain (a.k.a, one of the few people on Planet Earth to read “all of the Marvels”). That became the title of the book he wrote about the experience.
Wolk said, “Superhero comics are stories about our world made much bigger than life, and turned into this enormous, endless ongoing soap opera.”
It seems hard to imagine now, with Marvel films regularly breaking box office records, but for years they struggled to get their work adapted for the big screen. In fact, the first Marvel feature movie was actually “Howard the Duck,” a box office bomb so bad it was literally declared “The Worst Film of 1986.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since then, churning out hit and after hit. But of course it all started with the comics, which is where things took an interesting turn for Douglas Wolk:
“On the last page, we see Dr. Strange hanging out in his study at home, and on his bookshelf we see a copy of ‘All of the Marvels.’ The book I wrote exists within the comic story. I could not be happier about this!”
An unusual origin story, but proof that there’s room for everybody within the Biggest Story Ever Told.
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Mike Levine.