The longstanding appeal of super-hero comics is arguably as much about their wider narrative tapestry – the sprawling universes they take place in and the rich history that represents – as it is the individual stories. And, whether you’re sympathetic to fannish concerns or not, it remains the main reason a large number of readers become so invested in them and, as a result, so defensive of anything they interpret as contradictory or disrespectful to the continuity they value.
Something as unashamedly self-indulgent and almost retro as History of the Marvel Universe then, with its remit of bringing together decades of stories into a coherent timeline, was always going to be a project with the potential to divide. The much lauded X-Men: Grand Design, a similar recent Marvel release for example, was hugely impressive in design but had moments of Spider-Man: Chapter One-style re-imagining that could never appeal to all tastes. Despite pre-publicity distancing History of the Marvel Universe from the 1980s Marvel Saga (a comic with a similar goal but one that took original panels from its source material as visuals) that latter title is the nearest comparative series. This debut issue absolutely succeeds in its stated aims, treating the vast Marvel catalogue of back content with due reverence and careful attention, while providing newer readers with plenty of background information to investigate further.
History of the Marvel Universe #1 begins with a neat framing sequence featuring a reflective Galactus and Franklin Richards at the end of time, awaiting the birth of the next universe. It’s a device that acts as a catalyst for an MU retrospective, taking us back to the genesis of this fictional reality and, in this first instalment of six, tracing events from its formation through to the days of Marvel’s Western heroes. It ranges from the cosmic and metaphysical – the formation of the abstract entities that govern the MU and the rivalries of the various alien empires that have so frequently threatened the Earth – to the origins of such Marvel staples as the Eternals, the Inhumans, the Savage Land, vampires and the various godly pantheons. In the process we’re introduced to many of Marvel’s historical characters like the Black Knight and Merlin, and witness the anachronistic antics of notorious time meddlers like Kang. Curiously notable by its absence, though, is any reference to Conan and his era…
Mark Waid does an incredible job in pulling this all together. Thanks to penciller Javier Rodríguez and inker Álvaro López the book flows from one awesome spectacle to another, throwing mindblowing concept after fantastic scenario at us time and again. Waid interweaves content from the 1960s through to continuity implants made in just the last year or two, noting the various inconsistencies and contradictions that have built up over the years where appropriate but not feeling the need for laboured attempts at unravelling them. An extensive annotations section at the back of the book gives an opportunity for further elaboration and issue references. In short, he works with what’s been established rather than extensively rewriting and shifting the nature of events, and History of the Marvel Universe is all the better a read for it.
Rodriguez’s layouts emphasise the majesty of the Marvel Universe, crammed full of extravagant Marvel lore, equally at home showcasing the celestial elements as they are the more human aspects of the story. Page designs spotlight historical vignettes over strict panel-to-panel sequential storytelling with characters and happenings overlapping and merging into each other, and symbolism floating across spreads. It’s a truly beautifully illustrated affair with Rodriguez’s vibrant colours reflecting a Marvel of yesteryear, and imbuing each section with a vivid splendour that a certain strand of modern, murky colouring practices on super-hero comics could never replicate.
If you’re a lapsed Marvel reader, a refugee from the corporate comics ethos, or an eager nostalgist, History of the Marvel Universe will remind you of that sense of awe and wonder that first overwhelmed your imagination on discovering the MU. There’s something Gruenwald-ian about this opening issue and, if you’re jaded with a contemporary Marvel Universe where everyone (including several mass-murderers) seem to have been Avengers, where endless and tiresome crossovers provide regular jumping-off points, and where constant resurrections ensure a lack of narrative jeopardy that makes it impossible to invest in characters, then this History of the Marvel Universe will give you at least a six-month reminder of the very best of what an ongoing, serialised, fictional reality has to offer.
Reading this comic was like being 12-years-old all over again.
Mark Waid (W), Javier Rodríguez (A/C), Álvaro López (I) • Marvel Comics, $4.99
Review by Andy Oliver