Marvel Comics – From Fantastic Four to Squirrel Girl

“CARE superhero comics will empty your pockets, break your heart, and fill you with red-eyed indignation. They dwell on stupidity and violence, and tackle emotional identification and the audience’s sense of incomplete understanding; there is cruelty and injustice on every page. The whole structure is balanced on a disintegrating pile of flimsy, trivial amusements created for baby boomers.

It’s fair, I think, to suggest that the love on display in Douglas Wolk’s recent love letter to Marvel comics, All of the Marvels, isn’t simpering and overly romantic. He can see the particles in the eyes, the sometimes fanciful construction, the peddling and hype and, yes, the sheer greed that sometimes lurks underneath.

But then, isn’t that true love? When can you see the flaws and still care? Even for a true, lifelong believer like me, someone who hasn’t been a religious Marvel reader in decades, there’s tremendous enjoyment to be found in Wolk’s quirky, enjoyable journey through 27,000 tapes. comics of Marvel superheroes, from the Fantastic Four to the unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Wolk’s central idea is to examine Marvel comics as a kind of continuous text. “Marvel’s Great History is an amusing, mirror story of the past sixty years of American life, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to today’s technocracy and pluralism,” he wrote at the start.

And the more you dive into it, the more you come out of it, he suggests. “Every little detail of them becomes charged with meaning, another world (which is also an alien and livelier version of our own world) is slowly revealed to you – a world of constant spectacle and drama so vast and complicated that its mysteries perpetually unfold on hundreds of pages each week.

OK, maybe there’s just a little simpering here. But the truth is that Wolk is having fun here and communicating.

The result in my case is nostalgia for the teenage Marvelite that I was and perhaps a challenge for the apostate that I became decades later.

Because what got me excited in my teenage years (and we’re talking late 1970s and early 1980s) – that insider feeling I got from reading Marvel comics (fueled by crossovers constants and guest appearances and footnotes) – is now the thing I find most off-putting.

When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I generally find myself closer to the Martin Scorsese end of the spectrum. I watch the movies and find them decent at best, slightly amusing mixes of goofy humor and often quite tedious CGI effects, requiring an investment in the ongoing Marvel narrative that I’m not really interested in doing anymore.

I guess that’s the telenovela aspect that I can’t deal with. And yet, back when I read Marvel Comics religiously, that was a big part of the appeal. The soap opera (my favorite Marvel panel is when Peter Parker meets Mary Jane Watson: “Face it tiger…you just hit the jackpot!”) and the never-ending nature of the story.

Highlights from Marvel’s early years are where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (on The Fantastic Four) and Lee and Steve Ditko (and later John Romita) on The Amazing Spider-Man threw one thing after another at their heroes to see how they coped. Later, writer Chris Claremont and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne did the same with The Uncanny X-Men.

For any Marvel fan of a certain vintage, the biggest question about Marvel is how to sum up Lee’s contribution. There’s long been a slew of reviews that suggest that due to the idiosyncrasies of the Marvel method – in which artists were given creative carte blanche – the likes of Kirby and Ditko did all the work and Lee took all the credit. .

If there’s any truth to that, it fails to acknowledge Lee’s unique contribution as a writer, which Wolk nails here. At his peak, Lee was writing up to a dozen scripts a month, “with language that bounced and sang and clapped and clapped like it couldn’t get enough of itself.” (Reading that last sentence, I thought, “Yeah, that’s exactly it.”)

Lee was also responsible for much of the self-referential, nominative sense of a Marvel community that’s now been maintained for 50 years in the comics and now the movies, something the teenage me found so hugely appealing.

It was, I guess, the Marvel nostalgic in me who enjoyed All Wonders so much. Any book that acknowledges the admittedly problematic brilliance of Marvel’s greatest comics, The Master of Kung Fu (seriously revamped for this year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to remove racist ‘Yellow Peril’ overtones of the original) is always likely to get my approval.

But the book also argues that there’s merit in the insider, that embracing the Marvel Universe in all of its mutable (yet in some ways immutable) “glory” is the way to get something out of it.

And somewhere in the middle of it all, I started thinking about my own favorite comic, Love and Rockets. Because don’t Gilbert Hernandez’s stories about Palomar and his brother Jaime Hernandez’s ongoing stories about the lives of his characters Hopey and Maggie do exactly the same thing? (Although on a much smaller scale and, for the most part, without the involvement of killer robots or radioactive spiders.)

Deep down maybe I’m still a true believer after all.

All the Wonders of Douglas Wolk is published by Profile Books, £20

Lisa M. Horner