Monday, June 14, 2021

History of the Marvel Universe by Mark Waid, et al.

Epic fictional chronology from Big Bang to distant future
Billions of years in the future, the universe is coming to an end. The only eyes present to see this momentous event belong to two of the most powerful beings to ever exist: Galactus, consumer of worlds, and Franklin Richards, creator of worlds and son of Reed and Susan Richards of the Fantastic Four. Before the universe collapses, Richards, the younger of the two, asks Galactus to tell him the story of this universe from the beginning, and the elder cosmic entity obliges him.

Such is the premise of History of the Marvel Universe, a six-issue limited series published in 2019 that has since been collected in a beautiful full-color large-format Treasury Edition. The story that Galactus relates begins with the Big Bang (while acknowledging that other universes did exist before this event). He then proceeds to summarize the entire fictional output of Marvel Comics in chronological narrative order, placing all the retconned back stories in their proper sequence. Starting with the first cosmic beings to populate the chaos of primordial space, the saga then proceeds through the formation of Earth, the ancient world, medieval times, the Wild West, World War II, the 1960s explosion of superheroes, and onto the future of Marvel 2099 and centuries beyond. Waid’s overview provides a fun look at the cosmic characters, multiple worlds, and alien races of Marvel, but, not surprisingly, most of the action takes place right here on Earth.

The artwork consists entirely of collage-like splash pages, intricately designed and beautifully drawn by Javier Rodríguez and Álvaro Lopez in a style that combines the pen-and-ink charm of the Silver Age with the digital coloring of today’s technology. A typical page may show a dozen characters, with a text box explaining each one’s relevance to the particular time period, event, or crossover. The ensemble cast goes far beyond the pantheon of hallowed heroes to include all manner of obscure B-list and C-list heroes and villains, though it doesn’t include every kitschy passing fad that Marvel embraced in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Paging through this lovely retrospective, the Marvel fan can not only admire the genius of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company, but also chuckle or scoff at some of the stranger and sillier plot lines that Marvel has published over the years.

What really makes this book excellent, however, are the “Annotations” for each issue, gathered in the back of the book. These are essentially illustrated footnotes consisting of paragraphs explaining important events in the Marvel Universe accompanied by reprinted panels from past comics, both old and recent. Each annotation helpfully cites the titles and numbers of specific relevant issues. Armed with such a reference, the Marvel fanatic could look up most of these old issues at the Marvel Unlimited website, allowing the curious reader to retain his or her bearings while diving into the confusing timeline midstream. This is really an invaluable companion volume to Marvel’s entire line, and more importantly it’s just a lot of fun to read. I stopped buying comics regularly in the 1990s, but this volume has gotten me up to speed on all the bizarre crossovers, spin-off characters, and visits from the multiverse that Marvel has dreamed up since then.

History of the Marvel Universe is a fine idea superbly executed. It’s one of the few celebratory volumes put out by Marvel in recent years that could be considered a must-have for the diehard fan.
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