‘I read all 27,000 Marvel comics and had a great time. Here’s what I learned’ | Culture
JIt shouldn’t be too hard, I thought, as long as I stay disciplined. All I have to do is read 27,000 comics and then write about them. I had just signed a contract to write All of the Marvels, a book about reading all the superhero stories Marvel has published since 1961 into one gigantic narrative. Marvel’s history is ubiquitous – its characters are everywhere, in movies, on TV, even adorning shampoo bottles and salad bags – but also unknowable. It claims to be a big story: any episode can refer to any previous episode and be compatible with this one. But even the people telling the story haven’t read it all. That’s not how it was supposed to be lived.
However, I haven’t read six decades of stories in order. It would have been unbearable – and it’s one of two mistakes curious Marvel readers often make. It’s a surefire route to boredom and frustration, because the fun is in following your whims. The other mistake is to try to select the greatest successes, the essential problems. Taken in isolation, these are peaks without mountain ranges. Their dramatic power comes from their context.
Instead, I was going to graze, watching what seemed the most fun that day: the 1980s Spider-Woman, then the monstrously huge dragon Fin Fang Foom, followed by a bunch of romance comics from the 1980s. 1970s that gave veteran cartoonists (who had been drafted into the superhero game) a chance to go back to their roots, specifically, drawing young women wearing very fashionable clothes and crying.
I read the stories on the couches, on the bus, on the treadmill. I read them like yellowing numbers I’d bought when they were first published, marked at garage sales as a kid, or hung on a discount bin at a convention as an adult. I read them in glossy, warped paperbacks from the library and like gems borrowed from friends. I read some of a pile of back issues that someone left on the table next to mine while I was working at a Starbucks. I read a lot on a digital tablet.
I did not intend to read about it at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert in the summer of 2019. The only comics I brought with me were copies – to give away – of 1998’s X-Force #75, in which the team attends the same event, transparently renamed the “Exploding Colossal Man” festival. But someone had set up a memorial shrine for Stan Lee, Marvel’s longtime figurehead, and at its base was a box labeled, “Read Me.” It contained damaged but intact 50-year-old issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor and Suspense Tales. What was I going to do, not Read the?
And I had a great time. The best of Marvel comics, old and new, were as amazing, thrilling, and imaginative as popular entertainment gets. There was also plenty of sophomore and retrograde stuff, rushed to serve an audience of gullible kids or bloodthirsty nostalgics. I was often aware that I was gorging myself on something that had only been made for nibbling, indulging in the worst part of the collector’s impulse: the part that yearns for completeness (much like the Beyonder in Secret Wars II!) rather than pleasure.
Fortunately, when I had waded too far, a useful transformation had taken place in me. I realized that I was able to find something to enjoy in just about any issue: examples of a certain creator’s unique use of language or odd cultural references that might not have appeared at any other time. Maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, I admit. But when someone recently asked me if I had actually read every issue of NFL SuperPro, a thankfully short-lived series about a super-powered American football player, I replied, “Sure! And #10 includes both a parody of the mythopoetic male movement of the early 1990s and a character whose power is literally to throw money at trouble – the coins slip out of his hands.
The reading stage took longer than I expected. Turns out my brain can only handle one hyper-violent, garishly colored soap opera in a single day. Perhaps the highlight was the struggle with the thoughtful, delightfully drawn, but problematic 1974-1983 title Master of Kung Fu, which introduced the character of Shang-Chi, who recently made it to the big screen. A tense, introspective spy thriller whose antagonist is Fu Manchu, the series has become, over time, both more awe-inspiring and – for its racist portrayals – more grimace-inducing.
Or he may have rediscovered writer Chris Claremont’s legendary 16-year run on Uncanny X-Men, whose bizarre inventiveness and compassion for its cast of mutants and outcasts made it the comic equivalent of the career of David Bowie. Then there was the joy of reading with my son the disarmingly tender series The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson. Its protagonist has the “proportional speed and strength of a squirrel”, but its real power is a knack for creative, non-violent conflict resolution, a rare quality in a superhero.
The low point was definitely the week and a half I spent locking myself in a New York apartment, forcing myself through 30 years of bloody adventures of my least favorite character, the Punisher, who has until now massacred more than 1,000 people. drug dealers, security guards, etc. (I counted.)
I also developed a fascination with the extremely minor 1961 Linda Carter series, Student Nurse. It’s not good, by any reasonable standard, but it’s notable as an example of 60s Marvel’s forgotten titles about ordinary young women, and how their characters and tone were absorbed into the superhero lineage. . Its protagonist reappeared a decade later, in the cast of the even shorter Night Nurse, and again in the 2000s as a nurse who runs a secret medical clinic for injured superheroes. For a time, she also dated Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, who lived in New York’s Greenwich Village and is due to hit screens this year, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I saved myself a good dessert: the last title I ticked off my spreadsheet was Thunderbolts, the long-running, ever-changing, gleefully evil series about a team of supervillains posing as heroes, who make very good things for very bad reasons.
As I had hoped, I gradually came to understand the grand and accidental form of Marvel history and how it reflected its time. Once you see Iron Man as a 60-year commentary on America’s military-industrial complex, you can’t ignore it – protesters picketing Tony Stark’s weapons factory in the 1960s. 1970s to the drone technology it deploys in the 2000s. I noticed the curious history of Black Panther, how the beautiful concept of Wakanda, its African home, evolved from dozens of writers and artists improvising on the inventions of others over the decades: from the Afro-technological utopia of this fictional nation’s first appearance in 1966, to the added political intrigue of the 1970s and the regional factions that debuted in the late 1990s.
The writing process also took longer than expected: it turns out that it is not easy to master a story of more than half a million pages. After finishing an early version, I ended up abandoning it almost completely and starting over. What finally made it all click was realizing that I could be a tour guide for readers.
The final stage of the writing came painfully slowly, during the terrible months when the pandemic straddled Donald Trump’s presidency. But my immersion in Marvel history had become a useful focus even then. It became clear that Dark Reign, with its interlocking storylines that emerged in 2009, had been bewilderingly visionary, both on what a totalitarian monster rising to power in the United States might look like (in this case, the ultra-rich, mediagenic, murderous and cruel Norman Osborn, Spider-Man’s old nemesis the Green Goblin) and what could bring him down (the coming together of a fractured coalition, here in the form of the Avengers, as well than intelligent reporting).
I refuse to pretend that there is some sort of canon of essential questions that everyone can benefit from. There is no such thing. What I can do is offer paths to the mountain of Marvel and suggest perspectives from which this huge story can offer the joy for which it was designed: a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four that shows the inventiveness frenetic Jack Kirby and Lee in their golden robes. time; a collection of Thor and Loki comics spanning decades that offer an ingenious meditation on fiction, myth, and lies; a set of issues from the Vietnam War era that trace the evolution of Marvel’s relationship to politics. Want to know my favorite characters? I’m not going to tell you, because it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is giving you the tools to find yours.