Douglas Wolk of Portland has read over 27,000 Marvel comics so you don’t have to
Since its introduction in 1961, what is now considered the Marvel Comic Book Universe has captured the hearts of adults and children alike. Stories, featuring pop culture icons like Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four, have permeated society: from record-breaking films to the most influential. hip-hop artists; from R-rated adult crime dramas to children’s pajamas.
Few have taken on the gargantuan task of reading every Marvel comic. But one person just unique enough to do so is a Portland State University-based comic book journalist, pop culture critic, professor of comic studies, and author. Douglas wolk. By his tally, Wolk has read over 27,000 Marvel comics; over half a million pages of Marvel history. In his latest book, “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told,” he acts as a tour guide for readers as they form their own mystery journeys – an effort to make comics more understandable, and more accessible.
Wolk recently spoke with OPB’s Donald Orr about his quest to read every Marvel comic book ahead of his appearance with comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick at the Portland Book Festival.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Donald orr: By the rules set out in your book, you’ve read every comic book in the Marvel Universe, starting with the Fantastic Four # 1 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. How long did it take you to read each Marvel comic?
Douglas wolk: It took a while – I thought doing all the reading and then writing the book was going to take two years, two and a half years, something like that. It finally took almost six years. I was doing a few other things, but it ended up taking a little while to do all this reading.
Orr: How did you manage to find them all? Were there any issues that weren’t easily accessible?
Wolk: So tracking them down wasn’t the hard part. One thing that was really helpful was Marvel Unlimited, which is Marvel’s all-you-can-eat Netflix-y digital subscription service. And they have about 20,000 problems. And I’ve been collecting comics for a long time, I have friends who have been collecting comics for a long time. Finding them wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was finding enough hours in the day to read them all.
Orr: Would you recommend this trip to someone else? Start at the beginning, or…?
Wolk: [Laughter] No, I strongly advise against doing the same as me. I read all of these comics so you don’t have to. Not only would I say, “Don’t read them all!” I would say, especially if you plan to read a lot of these comics, don’t read them in order. Don’t start at the beginning and try to go all the way. This is the shortest path to boredom and frustration. These comics were designed for fun and entertainment. And you can read them as you like. As a reader, coming to them in 2021, you do indeed have a time machine. You can start anywhere and jump anywhere you want. If you have a time machine, why wouldn’t you use it?
Orr: Law. You know you mention this time machine, and the comics act like a kind of time capsule of when and where they were written. How has this helped you understand contemporary American culture over the past sixty years?
Wolk: It’s really fascinating to see how the Marvel comics, since 1961, reflect the culture around them at every turn – sometimes indirectly, sometimes very, very directly. We’re thinking of the early comics – The Incredible Hulk, you might think, it’s about an atomic bomb test, it’s about nuclear fear in the 1960s. And it’s not about only that – it’s specifically about the end of the nuclear test ban that happened just months before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the first Hulk story. And as you read the comics you find these kinds of connections all along.
Orr: Most of us fell in love with these characters and stories when we were kids. Do you remember your first comic book or your first meeting with your favorite character?
Wolk: Oh, my first comic was definitely a Green Lantern / Green Arrow issue, around 1979. I mean, I was a DC kid to begin with. And of course after I got that I had to find out what happened next, so I went back to the store next month and got the next issue. And then there was another thing that looked interesting, and a few other things that looked interesting too … And then a few months later, I realized that there was a store downstairs from my house that only sold comics, and they got new ones every week and started going there every week. After a few years, they were just like, “Uh Douglas, we’re just going to teach you how to use the registry. “
Orr: Comics can be this intimidating business for people at times, with multiple continuities, teams, and storylines to follow. What would be your advice to someone who wants to get started?
Wolk: You’re going to be confused at first – and that’s okay. It’s a feature, not a bug. Because the wonderful thing about being confused about this kind of story is that then you become unconfused. As you keep reading you see things that suddenly fall into place in your head. And then you have this, “Oh, I get it now!” moment. And the “I get it now” moments are about the funniest kind of thing. Now, if you’re lucky, the place you start will be very entertaining on its own as well. And if it’s entertaining enough, it doesn’t matter whether it’s confusing or not, because you’re entertained.
Orr: You read all the comics between 1961 and 2017. Do you still know?
Wolk: I said 2017, but it was just to have a nominal stopover, I continued. Yeah, I continued with everything. I’m not reading everything right now – after 2017 I don’t feel pressured to read absolutely everything, but I read a lot. I read the new X-Men books every week, all of these BD Krakoan X-Men and derivative comics. They are so good, they are so much fun.
Orr: Absolutely, I agree. In the book, you also mention that all of that effort was also a way to bond with your son, Sterling. How old was he when you first started reading comics together, and how was it to watch those stories grow up with him?
Wolk: Sterling and I have been reading comics together since he was little. It’s something we’ve always done. But until he was about 10, his attitude towards superhero comics was, “Superhero comics?” That’s what my dad loves. What you know is true. And then when my son was about ten, he said, “Oh, superhero comics are a complicated system. I really like complicated systems – Hey Dad, let’s read all the Marvel superhero comics together. Okay, I was like, “It’s okay, it’s going to last a week.” He’s a kid – he arouses interest, he loses interest, okay. And then, three months later, he had read a few hundred of them, and we were making great weapons. And I thought, “What would it really mean to read all these stories?” What would this 60-year, half-million-page story look like? “
And so I got really into that. He doesn’t read everything, that’s okay. He reads what he likes – that’s the way to do it! We still read a comic book together, pretty much every day, and it was wonderful to watch him grow up with the story and see the story grow with him. And seeing the things that attract him and seeing how it becomes one of the filters through which he sees the world – it’s wonderful to watch.
Orr: How would you say that this trip taught you about fatherhood?
Wolk: Many characters in Marvel history have difficult or complicated relationships with their own fathers, or fathers who, for one reason or another, are not present for them, or are not physically present for them. And realize that this presence is so important, that it doesn’t matter what you do with your child, as long as you do something with your child. Being there for them, being a senior, being someone who can be a guide is incredibly meaningful and valuable on both sides. It was an absolute joy to have my son to do this with.