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 comic book pages. The Marvel Universe, says writer Douglas Wolk, contains the greatest story ever told. “Everything happens in the same scenario,” he said. “Stories that took place in 1961 or 1962 have consequences for the comics that come out this week.”
Wolk, a Marvel expert, patiently explained to correspondent Luke Burbank (a non-comics person) that Marvel might be the longest and most voluminous story told in human history… in 1979, Captain America could be dealing with the consequences in 2022.
“All these events are your story, your past, what can be used for this ever-evolving story,” Wolk said. “Not just a continuous story happening for six decades, but a continuous story happening on many, many topics at the same time that could intersect at any time.”
Marvel began publishing comics in the 1930s, but according to Wolk, it wasn’t until 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 out sharing his love for (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 comics in the Marvel Universe, not the order they were published, but the order of events happened to the characters.’ I was like, ‘Okay, this is a really hard task!'”
So they set off on a father-son adventure, facing a seemingly impossible challenge.
“You just need to find a way to get in and walk around inside,” Wolk said. “There are a lot of weird, boring, mysterious and confusing parts, and there are beautiful, magical and fascinating parts.”
They found themselves jumping from comic to comic, devouring page after page, issue after issue. “But I started thinking, what would it be like to really read that half a million pages of comics, to read the 27,000 superhero comics that Marvel has published since 1961?”
It was at this point that Wolk began to transform from gentle Portland Writer into Dr. Marvel Brain (aka one of the few people on Planet Earth to read “all wonders”). That became the title of the book he wrote about the experience.
Wolk said, “Superhero comics are stories about our world made much larger than life, and made into one huge, never-ending novel in progress.”
It seems hard to imagine now, with Marvel movies regularly breaking box office records, but for years they struggled to adapt their work for the big screen. In fact, Marvel’s first feature film was actually “Howard the Duck”, a box office bomb so bad it was literally declared “The Worst Movie of 1986”.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since then, producing hits and hits after hits. 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 in his home office, and on his bookshelf we see a copy of ‘All of the Marvels.’ The book I wrote exists within the comic book. I couldn’t be happier about that. !”
An unusual origin story, but proof that there’s room for everyone in the Greatest Story of All Time.
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Mike Levine.