Did Dark Reign foresee Trump? Was Iron Man about US military might? Who was Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – and was her superpower really non-violent conflict resolution? Only one man knows …
This should not be too hard, I thought, as long as I stay disciplined. All I have to do is read 27,000 comic books, then write about them. I had just signed a contract to write All of the Marvels, a book about reading every superhero story Marvel has published since 1961 as one single gigantic narrative. The Marvel story is omnipresent – its characters are everywhere, in movies, on television, even gracing shampoo bottles and bags of salad – yet also unknowable. It purports to be one big story: any episode can refer to, and be compatible with, any earlier one. But not even the people telling the story have read the whole thing. That’s not how it was meant to be experienced.
I did not, however, read six decades of stories in order. That would have been unbearable – and it is one of the two mistakes Marvel-curious readers often make. It is a surefire route to boredom and frustration as the fun lies in following your whims. The other error is trying to cherrypick the greatest hits, the pivotal single issues. Taken in isolation, these are peaks without mountain ranges. Their dramatic power comes from their context.
Instead, I would go grazing, looking at whatever seemed most fun that day: the plot-dense 1980s Spider-Woman, then the monstrously huge dragon Fin Fang Foom, followed by a bunch of 1970s romance comics that gave veteran cartoonists (who had been drafted into the superhero game) a chance to get back to their roots, specifically, drawing young women wearing very fashionable clothes and crying.
I read the stories on couches, on the bus, on the treadmill. I read them as yellowing issues I had bought when they were first published, scored at garage sales as a kid or snagged from a discount bin at a convention as an adult. I read them in glossy, bashed paperbacks from the library and as gems borrowed from friends. I read a few from a stack of back issues somebody abandoned on the table next to mine as I sat working in a Starbucks. I read a hell of a lot on a digital tablet.
I did not intend to read any at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert in the summer of 2019. The only comics I had 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 somebody had set up a memorial shrine for Stan Lee, Marvel’s longtime figurehead, and at its base there was a box labelled: “Read me.” It contained some battered but intact 50-year-old issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor and Tales of Suspense. What was I going to do, not read them?
And I had an absolutely great time. The best of Marvel’s comics, old and new, were as astonishing, thrilling and imaginative as popular entertainment gets. There was also plenty of sophomoric, retrograde stuff, rushed out to serve an audience of credulous kids or bloodthirsty nostalgics. I was often aware that I was gorging on something that had only been made for snacking, indulging the worst part of the collector’s impulse: the part that strives for completeness (just like the Beyonder in Secret Wars II!) rather than enjoyment.
Uncanny X-Men, with its mutants and outcasts, was the comics equivalent of David Bowie’s career
Fortunately, by the time I had by the time I’d waded in too far, a useful transformation had come over me. I realised 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 weird cultural references that could have appeared at no other moment. That may have been Stockholm syndrome, I admit. But when someone recently asked me if I had actually read every issue of NFL SuperPro, a mercifully short-lived series about a super-powered American football player, I said: “Of course! And #10 includes both a parody of the mythopoetic men’s movement of the early 1990s and a character whose power is literally to throw money at problems – coins come flying out of his hands.”
The reading stage went on for longer than I thought it would. It turns out my brain can only handle so much gaudily coloured, hyper-violent soap opera in a single day. The high point may have been wrestling with the thoughtful, exquisitely drawn, yet problematic 1974-1983 title Master of Kung Fu, which introduced the character of Shang-Chi, who recently made it to the big screen. A taut, introspective espionage thriller whose antagonist is Fu Manchu, the series became, over time, both more impressive and – for its racist portrayals – more wince-inducing.
Or it may have been rediscovering writer Chris Claremont’s legendary 16-year run on Uncanny X-Men, whose freaky inventiveness and compassion for its cast of mutants and outcasts made it the comics equivalent of David Bowie’s career. Then there was the joy of reading Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s disarmingly tender The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series with my son. Its protagonist has the “proportional speed and strength of a squirrel”, but her real power is a knack for creative nonviolent conflict resolution, a rare quality in a superhero.
The low point was definitely the week and a half I spent locking myself into a New York apartment, forcing myself to plough through 30 years of the blood-drenched adventures of my least favourite character, the Punisher, who has so far slaughtered upwards of 1,000 drug dealers, security guards and the like. (I counted.)
I also developed a fascination with the extremely minor 1961 series Linda Carter, Student Nurse. It is not good, by any reasonable standard, but it is remarkable as an example of Marvel’s forgotten titles from the 60s about ordinary young women, and how their characters and tone were absorbed into the superhero line. Its protagonist turned up again a decade later, in the cast of the even shorter-lived Night Nurse, and again in the 2000s as a nurse who runs a secret medical clinic for injured superheroes. For a while, she also dated Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, who lived in New York’s Greenwich Village and is due to appear on screens this year, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I saved myself a fine dessert: the last title I checked off my spreadsheet was Thunderbolts, the long-running, constantly mutating, gleefully perverse series about a team of supervillains masquerading as heroes, who do very good things for very bad reasons.
As I had hoped, I gradually got a sense of the grand, accidental shape of the Marvel story and the way it reflected its times. Once you see Iron Man as a 60-year running commentary on the US’s military-industrial complex, you cannot unsee it – from the protesters picketing Tony Stark’s weapons plant in the 1970s to the drone technology he deploys in the 2000s. I noticed Black Panther’s curious history, how the gorgeous concept of Wakanda, his African home, evolved from dozens of writers and artists improvising on each other’s inventions over decades: from the Afro-technological utopia of that fictional nation’s first appearance in 1966, to the political intrigue added in the 1970s, and the regional factions that debuted in the late 1990s.
The writing process also took longer than I had figured it would: turns out it is not easy to get a solid grip on a story more than half a million pages long. After finishing an initial version, I ended up scrapping it almost completely and starting over. What made everything eventually click was realising that I could be a tour guide for readers.
The last stage of writing went painfully slowly, during the awful months when the pandemic overlapped with Donald Trump’s presidency. But my immersion in the Marvel story had become a useful lens, even in that moment. It became clear that Dark Reign, with its interlinked storylines that appeared in 2009, had been unnervingly prescient, both about what a totalitarian monster rising to power in the US might look like (in this case, the ultra-wealthy, mediagenic, murderously cruel Norman Osborn, AKA Spider-Man’s old archenemy the Green Goblin) and about what might bring him down (the reunion of a fractured coalition, here in the form of the Avengers, as well as some smart reportage).
I refuse to claim that there is some kind of canon of essential issues that everyone can enjoy. There is no such thing. What I can do is offer pathways into the mountain of Marvel, and suggest perspectives from which that enormous story can offer the joy for which it was designed: a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four that shows the frantic inventiveness of Jack Kirby and Lee in their golden era; a decades-spanning cluster of Thor and Loki comics that provide an ingenious meditation on fiction, myth and lies; a set of Vietnam war-era issues that chart the evolution of Marvel’s relationship to politics. You want to know my favourite characters? I am not going to tell you, because it doesn’t matter. What I care about is giving you the tools to find your own.
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