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Interview: October 14, 2021

Comics writer, critic, journalist and teacher Douglas Wolk is the author of the Eisner Award-winning READING COMICS and the host of the podcast “The Voice of Latveria.” Over the course of just five years, he read all 27,000+ comics that make up the Marvel Universe thus far, from Alpha Flight to Omega the Unknown. Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, talks to Wolk about this fascinating project, which he chronicles in his latest book, ALL OF THE MARVELS. In Wolk’s hands, the mammoth Marvel narrative becomes a fun-house-mirror history of the past 60 years, from the atomic night terrors of the Cold War to the technocracy and political division of the present day.

Question: Before getting into the nitty gritty of ALL OF THE MARVELS, I have a logistical question. How in the world were you able to reread the entire Marvel oeuvre --- 27,000 comics, roughly --- going back 60-odd years? It seems as though several lifetimes would be needed to accomplish that! And when did you first set this challenge for yourself?

Douglas Wolk: I spent about five years total on the project --- reading and writing --- though I was doing other stuff for the first couple of years. I'm a fast reader, and I treated it as my job! (My spreadsheet had a bit over 27,000 issues on it.)

Q: Since I opted into the Marvel universe back in 1960 at the height of their Monsters/Aliens wave of titles, I found your discussion of that oft-overlooked period especially fascinating. Are you of the opinion that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko largely generated all of those story ideas themselves, or did Stan Lee actually draft the plot lines of these formulaic --- yet delightful --- miniatures?

DW: That is an excellent question, and I have no idea what the answer to it is. I suspect that Lee wrote very few of the stories in the SF/horror anthology titles until 1961, when he starts signing his collaborations with Ditko. Some of the earlier ones may have been scripts that had been sitting around since before the collapse of Atlas in 1957 (a handful of early Ditko-drawn stories were definitely written by Carl Wessler, who kept the receipts); some of them may have been written by Larry Lieber, possibly with plot input from Lee; some of Kirby's monster-era stories may have been plotted or entirely written by him. Nobody really knows! A lot of the Lee/Ditko stories are really visually driven, but I get the sense that the Marvel "plot conferences" in the very early '60s were much more collaborative than they were one person dictating a plot.

Q: You don’t really touch on the line of DC superhero comics that were already flourishing before Lee and Kirby created the Fantastic Four. To what extent do you think the success DC had been enjoying since rebooting their superhero universe in 1956 with the new Flash was spurring on Lee and Kirby in their return to the superhero genre?

DW: There's a legend of Martin Goodman suggesting that Lee and/or Kirby should try something like DC's Justice League of America, but the earliest incarnation of Fantastic Four is substantially more like Challengers of the Unknown than it is like Justice League. Marvel/Atlas had also already tried, unsuccessfully, to revive their superhero IP a few years earlier --- the circa-1954 Captain America, Human Torch & Sub-Mariner stuff. And both Justice League and the revived Green Lantern were only a few issues old, and still bimonthly, at the time of Fantastic Four #1.

Q: In the course of your Thor chapter, you make a provocative comment, to the effect that Lee and Kirby had long been “winging it” in their epic story arcs for that title during its late ’60s heyday. I had never heard that observation before and wonder why that improvised approach would apply to the Thor comic more so than to the Fantastic Four or any others that they were headlining.

DW: Oh, they were winging it on everything! There's very little evidence of multi-issue arcs having an end in mind at the time they began, and Marvel apparently sent Kirby photostats of finished issues so he'd have some reference when he started the next one (which he didn't necessarily consult anyway; see, for instance, Fantastic Four #88, where Ben is specifically not with Reed and Johnny, and then, as #89 begins, there he is). I can't think of any Lee/Kirby sequence of multiple issues that doesn't seem improvised.

Another example: Fantastic Four #48-51. We're halfway into an Inhumans-focused issue when that plot wraps up and Galactus appears, but in an outfit that has changed by the next issue. Then the Galactus plot ends midway through #50, and we get Johnny going to college, plus a bit with the scientist from the next issue who never gets named (he didn't get a name until an issue of Web of Spider-Man several decades later). Plus there's an interlude with Johnny and a football coach that is never followed up on at all. They're *great*, but they're not exactly through-composed storylines.

Q: Since I am of an age when a devoted Marvelite could literally purchase every single monthly title for a few dollars, I’d be curious to know if you feel the Marvel universe you grew up with some decades later was ever too much of a challenge to keep abreast of.

DW: You can still get an annual Marvel Unlimited subscription for the equivalent of six bucks a month and read everything on a three-month time delay. I think the issue is that it was no longer expected at a certain point that any one reader would want to read everything. Absolute Carnage couldn't be much more different from It's Jeff!, and that's fine. There's a broad spectrum of stuff set within their fictional world, and a lot of the fun is figuring out where your particular tastes are focused. 

Q: Let’s play “What If?” for a moment. Which of the titles launched during Marvel’s first 10 years do you wish you had been there on the ground to experience --- waiting in agony each month for that new issue to appear, as oldsters such as I had to suffer through?

DW: First 10 years? Amazing Spider-Man was just remarkably good almost all the time in that period. Now, for the second 10 years, I think it would have been Jim Starlin's multiple-title Warlock sequence.

Q: As an inveterate worshipper of the late Steve Ditko’s Marvel work from the ’60s, I’ve never managed to forgive Lee and the company for allowing him to walk away in 1966. You address that issue in the book, concluding we will never know the full story. With the perspective you have earned, what do you feel was the most unfortunate decision Marvel ever made during its first 20 years?

DW: I suspect one didn't "allow" (or disallow) Steve Ditko to do anything --- that guy very much walked his own path. But I wonder, if Marvel had poured the same kind of creative resources into their comics with women protagonists as they did for the boy-focused superhero titles, would they have had a substantially easier time of it during their lean years?

My favorite "what if?" about ’60s Marvel is imagining how it might have looked if Joe Maneely had lived (and if they'd nonetheless hired Kirby and Ditko and Heck). That guy was a creative powerhouse who was just starting to hit his stride when he died in an accident.

Q: Given the ever-expanding landscape of Marvel in this new millennium --- with multiple billion-dollar films converting the company into a true global juggernaut --- what would you say has been Marvel’s most impressive creative achievement in their comics over the past decade?

DW: It has to be the Krakoan-era X-Men titles that start with House of X/Powers of X. I don't think I've ever been this consistently and deeply invested in a whole cluster of American comics titles for this long.

Note: Michael Barson began reading comic books in 1956 and bought his first Marvel title in 1960.