Since its introduction in 1961, what’s now considered the Marvel Universe of comics has captured the hearts of adults and children alike. The stories, starring pop culture icons like Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men and The Fantastic Four, have permeated society: from record-breaking blockbuster movies, to influential hip-hop artists; from mature, R-rated crime dramas, to children’s’ pajamas.
Few have taken on the gargantuan task upon themselves to actually read every single Marvel comic. But one person just unique enough to do so is Portland-based comics journalist, pop culture critic, Portland State University comics studies professor and author Douglas Wolk. By his count, Wolk read over 27,000 Marvel comics; over half a million pages of the Marvel story. 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 journeys into mystery — 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 ahead of his appearance with comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick at the Portland Book Festival.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Donald Orr: By the rules laid out in your book, you read every single comic within the Marvel Universe, beginning with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four No. 1. Just how long did it take you to read every single Marvel comic?
Douglas Wolk: It took a while — I thought that doing all the reading and then writing the book was going to take two years, two and a half years, something like that. It ended up taking closer to six years. I was doing a few other things, but it did end up taking kind of a long time to do all that reading.
Orr: How were you able to track them all down? Were there any issues that weren’t easily accessible?
Wolk: So tracking them down was not the hard part. One thing that was really useful was Marvel Unlimited, which is Marvel’s all-you-can-read, Netflix-y digital subscription service. And they have 20,000 or so issues. And I’ve been collecting comics for a long time, I’ve got friends that have been collecting comics for a long time. Tracking them down was not the hard part, the hard part was finding enough hours in the day to read them all.
Orr: Would you recommend this journey to someone else? Starting from the beginning, or…?
Wolk: [Laughter] No, I strongly advise against doing the same thing I did. I read all these comics so you don’t have to. Not only would I say, “Don’t read them all!” I would say, especially if you’re thinking about reading a whole lot of these comics, don’t read them in order. Don’t start at the beginning and try to go all the way through. That is the shortest route to boredom and frustration. These comics were designed for fun and pleasure and entertainment. And you can read them anyway you want. As a reader, coming to them in 2021, you effectively have a time machine. You can start anywhere and jump around anywhere you want. If you have a time machine, why would you not use it?
Orr: Right. You know you mention that time machine, and comics act as a sort of time capsule of the time and place where they were written. How has that helped you understand contemporary American culture throughout the last sixty years?
Wolk: It’s been really fascinating to look at how Marvel’s comics, since 1961, have reflected the culture around them at every turn — sometimes indirectly, sometimes very very directly. We think of the earliest comics — The Incredible Hulk, you think okay, that’s about an atomic bomb test, that’s about nuclear fear in the 1960s. And it’s not just about that — it’s specifically about the end of the nuclear testing ban that happened just a few months before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would have created the first Hulk story. And as you read the comics you find those kinds of connections all the way.
Orr: Most of us fell in love with these characters and stories when we were kids. Do you remember what your first comic book was, or your first exposure to your favorite character?
Wolk: Oh my first comic book was definitely an issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, back around 1979. I mean, I was a DC kid to start out 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 couple other things that looked interesting too... And then a few months after that, I realized there was a store down the street from me that sold nothing but comic books, and they got new ones every week, and I started going there every week. After a couple of years, they were just like, “Uh Douglas, we’re just gonna teach you how to use the register.”
Orr: Comics can sometimes be this intimidating venture for folks to start, with multiple continuities, team-ups and storylines to follow. What would be your advice to someone wanting to jump right in?
Wolk: You’re going to be confused at first — and that’s ok. That is a feature, not a bug. Because the wonderful thing about being confused about this kind of story, is that then you get unconfused. As you keep reading, you see things that suddenly click into place in your head. And then you have that, “Oh, I get it now!” moment. And “I get it now” moments are about the most fun kind of thing. Now if you’re lucky, the place where you start is also going to be really really entertaining on its own. And if it’s entertaining enough, it doesn’t matter if it’s confusing or not, because you’re being entertained.
Orr: You read every comic between 1961 up until 2017. Are you staying current?
Wolk: I said 2017, but that was just so I could have a nominal stopping place, I kept going. Yeah, I kept going with everything. I don’t read everything right now — after 2017 I don’t feel obligated to read absolutely everything, but I’m reading a lot of things. I read the new X-Men books every week, all of those Krakoan X-Men comics and spinoff comics. They are so good, they are so much fun.
Orr: Absolutely, I would agree. In the book, you also mention this whole endeavor was also a way to bond with your son, Sterling. How old was he when you started reading comics together, and what has it been like having these stories grow with him?
Wolk: Sterling and I have been reading comics together since he was very small. It’s something we had always done. But until he was about 10, his attitude toward the superhero comics was, “Superhero comics? That’s what my dad likes.” Which you know, 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 of the Marvel superhero comics together.” Which okay, I thought, “This is fine, this is going to last a week.” He’s a kid — he gets interest, he loses interest, fine. And then three months later he’d read a few hundred of them, and we were going great guns. And I thought, “What would it actually mean to read all of these stories? What would this 60-year long, half-million page long story look like, as a story?”
And so I plunged myself full bore into that. He doesn’t read everything, it’s fine. He reads the stuff he likes — that’s the way to do it! We still read a comic together, basically every day, and it’s been wonderful watching him growing up with the story, and watching the story growing up with him. And seeing the things that he’s drawn to, and seeing the way that it becomes one of the filters that he sees the world through — that’s wonderful to watch.
Orr: What would you say this journey has taught you about fatherhood?
Wolk: A lot of the characters in the Marvel story have difficult or complicated relationships with their own fathers, or fathers who are for one reason or another are not present for them, or not physically present for them. And realizing that that presence is so important, that it doesn’t matter what you do with your kid, as long as you’re doing something with your kid. Being there for them, being an older person, being someone who can be a guide is incredibly meaningful and valuable on both sides. It has been an absolute joy to have my son to do this with.