Since Dawn of Time (technically the 1960s, to be precise), a story has been building: a single connected narrative involving thousands of characters and millions of comic pages. The Marvel Universe, says writer Douglas Wolk, contains the greatest story ever told. “Everything happens on the same stage,” he said. “Stories that happened in 1961 or 1962 have consequences in the comics that come out this week.”
Wolk, a Marvel insider, patiently explained to non-comic book correspondent Luke Burbank that Marvel might be the longest, voluminous story told in human history… and it’s all connected, Which means if the Hulk stubbed his toe in 1979, Captain America could be dealing with the fallout in 2022.
“All of those events are his story, his past, which he can tap into for this ever-evolving story,” Wolk said. “Not just an ongoing story that unfolds over six decades, but an ongoing story that unfolds in many, many threads at once that can intersect with each other at any time.”
Marvel began publishing comics in the 1930s, but according to Wolk, it was only in the early 1960s that, and Jack Kirby pioneered the idea of all the characters living in the same universe.
Wolk had been a fan of Marvel Comics since he was a kid, but his son, Sterling, didn’t start out sharing his love of (as he calls it) “spandex violence.” But then, Wolk recalled, “Eventually he said, ‘Oh, but superhero comics are a complicated system. I like complicated systems. Hey, Dad, I’d like to read all the comics in the Marvel Universe, not in the order that they were “. published, but the order of events succeeded the characters.’ I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a pretty hard task!'”
So, they embarked on a father and son adventure, facing a seemingly impossible challenge.
“You just have to find a way to get in and wander around inside it,” Wolk said. “There are a lot of weird, boring, arcane, confusing parts, and there are beautiful, magical, fascinating parts.”
They found themselves jumping from comic to comic, devouring page after page, issue after issue. “But I started thinking: What would it really be like to read this half a million pages of comics, to read the 27,000 superhero comics that Marvel had published since 1961?”
It was at this point that Wolk began to transform from the mild-mannered Portland Writer to Dr. Marvel Brain (aka, one of the few people on Planet Earth who reads “all the wonders”). That became the title of the book he wrote about the experience.
Wolk said, “Superhero comics are stories about our world that became much larger than life and became this huge, never-ending soap opera.”
It seems hard to imagine now, with Marvel movies regularly breaking box office records, but for years they struggled to adapt their work to the big screen. In fact, the first Marvel movie was actually “Howard the Duck,” a box office bomb so bad it was literally declared “The Worst Movie of 1986.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since then, churning out hit after hit. But of course it all started with the comics, which is where things took an interesting turn for Douglas Wolk:
“On the last page, we see Dr. Strange hanging out in his home study, and on his bookshelf we see a copy of ‘All of the Marvels.’ The book I wrote exists within comic book history. I couldn’t be happier with this!”
An unusual origin story, but proof that there is room for everyone in the greatest story ever told.
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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editing: Mike Levine.