A long time comics the reader becomes good at dealing with different versions of time. The image in any individual comics panel can capture an infinitely small piece of a moment, an image of Planck time – but then how do I account for bubbles of dialogue that would take minutes to deliver? Or the images in a panel may include ghosts from their own past to show movement or change. Gutters between panels can encode moments, minutes, months or millennia. A rock hanger can take four painful weeks between problems to solve, but a moment in history time. Some comics tell stories that started more than half a century ago; no one expects anyone to remember everything.
Anyway, you get used to it. Comics go tribal-steps through their own timeline. No one ever sees the whole picture. Until now.
Douglas Wolk, a prominent historian and explainer of comic book theory and practice, has seen it all. To his new book All Marvels, out this week, Wolk read all the Marvel Comics, from 1961 to today. That is more than 27,000 individual questions. But because these comics all “happen” in the same common universe, like the latest movies and TV shows, all of these stories are actually a cohesive story. So Wolk has treated them as a simple, massive, co-created work of art, consumed and viewed in a giant sip. Wolk’s performance is more than just a stunt. This is literature criticism as an endurance test.
Still, there are a lot of comics. Therefore, the first question I ask him during our video call is: Are you ok?
“I get through it,” Wolk says. “I’m hanging in there. Like a kitten on a 1970s motivational poster. “His dive into the Marvels turned out to be pretty intense — a journey into a parallel universe right out of a you-know-what. But his head did not explode. The trip turned out to be a real trip, man. The comics’ shaky status in American cultural discourse despite Wolk found subtext, symbolism, even recurring images and references. He found patterns. This only work of art has a worldview. That connected.
This may seem surprising. Yes, in Marvel’s early decades, the editorial staff worked on what came to be known as the “Marvel Method,” in which an author – most often Stan Lee – vaguely hacked a scenario involving an artist who then went out and made blockchain and -tackling of pacing, panels and story beats. Then the author would return and complete the dialogue. And Lee had some standard methods of storytelling and ideology. As more and more writers began to get involved, you would think that everything would fall apart. But no. “It is people who work in the same space who collaborate with each other; they are people who work far apart in the world, who are in contact with each other, find out what they are doing and make sure that what they are doing is compatible and based on each other’s ideas, ”says Wolk. “And it is creators of today who collaborate at a distance with people who have previously written and drawn comics 40, 50, 60 years and had no idea anyone would remember their work at all.”
Do not make him wrong; Wolk does not argue that all Marvel comics are well. As he points out to me, the great writer and artist Jack Kirby – co-founder of Captain America, the creator of Eternals, among many others – rarely even read the things he did in Marvel’s early years. “They were trying to do something cooler and more interesting and deeper than just grinding pages,” he says. “It did not always work out. Sometimes they fell on their noses, and sometimes they did something very special. ”