Books & Art

What Do Marvel and William Faulkner Have In Common?

Think the comic book giant invented the concept of an extended universe? Think again: interconnected storytelling is a literary tradition centuries in the making.

One day in the mid-1830s, the French novelist Honoré de Balzac barreled down a street in Paris’s Right Bank. It must have been quite the sight: Balzac was a plump and rather unhealthy fellow. An exhilarated Balzac burst into his sister Laure’s house and bellowed, “Hats off! I’m about to become a genius!”

The discovery was this, as Balzac biographer Graham Robb put it: “He had suddenly realized that the same characters could be made to reappear in different novels and a self-sufficient universe created.” Until his death fifteen years later, Balzac’s entire literary output extended from this epiphany. Every novel and story he wrote from there on out existed in the same narrative world, collectively named The Human Comedy. He even revised previously published works to fit into the grand design.

Balzac understood something that storytellers have been developing ever since: an interconnected series of stories form a verisimilitude of life in a way that stand-alone narratives cannot. The Human Comedy comprises over ninety pieces of fiction—novels, novellas, and stories—and dozens of additional works at various stages of incompleteness. Its cast of characters is vast; according to Robb, “the genealogy of Balzac’s characters covers three walls of a room in his house at Passy.” The panoramic nature of The Human Comedy has led numerous critics and scholars to refer to Balzac as a historian. Part of the allure is how real, how lived in, his fictional world seems to be, which stems not only from Balzac’s keen observational skills, but also from The Human Comedy's enormous and complex architecture. As each novel and story follows the next, Balzac’s universe enlarges, finds richer nuances, and covers more subjects and styles. By referencing past events and including previously introduced characters, The Human Comedy reads as much like history as it does invention.


Marvel Comics is one of the few storytelling entities with a narrative scope to rival Balzac’s. In his new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Douglas Wolk opens with these astounding facts:

The twenty-seven thousand or so superhero comic books that Marvel Comics has published since 1961 are the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created: over half a million pages to date, and growing. Thousands of writers and artists have contributed to it. Every week, about twenty slim pamphlets of 20 or 30 pages apiece are added to the body of its single enormous story. By design, any of its episodes can build on the events of any that came before it, and they’re all (more or less) consistent with one another.

Consider how remarkable that is. No matter what you think of superheroes, comic books, or Marvel, you’ve got to be awed by the magnitude of the achievement. As any fans of the comics can attest, the weight of all this history is felt as you read. Events from past issues are constantly being cited and recapped, which turns off many potential readers. “The Marvel story,” Wolk writes, “is a mountain, smack in the middle of contemporary culture.” It’s not meant to be climbed on its surface, Wolk argues, but explored inside, through “its innumerable bioluminescent caverns and twisty passageways.” No one, not even Marvel’s writers, are meant to read every single page of every single comic. If you enjoy spelunking through these vast realms, there are always new caves for you to navigate, but with Marvel and Balzac, each new passage not only reveals more of the mountain, but changes how you see what you’ve previously explored.

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All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told

The premise of Wolk’s wonderful book is that he did what no one was meant to do: he read “all 540,000-plus pages of the [Marvel] story published to date.” It’s a dizzying, exhausting enterprise, one designed as a kind of stunt, demonstrably ill-suited to average readers. But it’s still useful for comic fans to know certain information, and to understand some aspects of the previous runs.

One solution Marvel has landed on is historicizing itself. While Balzac claimed to be a “historian of private life,” we now see a historical perspective applied to the bounty of titles in Marvel’s oeuvre. Books like Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, published in 1994, tell the story of Marvel’s first decades—beginning with the Human Torch, who debuted in Marvel Comics #1 in October 1939, and ending with the death of Gwen Stacy, which occurred in 1973’s The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122—from the point of view of Phil Sheldon, a news photographer who captured the harrowing clashes of superheroes in New York City. This year, Marvel published their most comprehensive self-history yet. Written by Mark Waid and drawn by Javier Rodríguez and Álvaro López, History of the Marvel Universe covers the entire scope of this world, going back to the beginning of time. The premise is relatively simple, if not ordinary: Franklin Richards, a mega-powerful being and the son of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Woman, converses with Galactus, the world-devouring, planet-sized villain, at the end of time. They are the only two figures left in an empty expanse of black void. Franklin asks Galactus to help him remember. “I want the history of this universe to have meant something,” he says. So Galactus tells him the story.


History of the Marvel Universe is an astonishing work of scholarship; the amount of research and summation that went into it must have been staggering. The result is the feeling that the Marvel Comic Universe is so vast and complicated that it merits its own history books. Similar guidebooks have been written for other literary universes, like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, which connects to many of his other novels.

Such scholarship seems natural in literature, but it’s less expected in big-budget Hollywood franchises. These are supposed to be nothing more than expensive and mindless bombast, but the MCU, which has made billions on a complex universe instead of mere sequels, has begun to receive similar historizing. This began with Avengers: Endgame, which many rightly characterized as a kind of victory lap through the previous twenty-one entries, as the heroes time-travelled back to them. In the recent slate of shows on Disney+, characters constantly scrutinize and deal with the fallout from past events, often literally revisiting them. In WandaVision, Agatha Harkness guides Wanda through her memories, where we see moments that take place around the time of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. In Loki, Loki watches actual clips from his life, all of which are scenes from previous Thor and Avengers films.


History of the Marvel Universe


The MCU has long risked becoming too convoluted and geekily arcane for mainstream audiences, whom Marvel Studios must court if they want to sustain the overwhelming output of Phase Four (the films are grouped into “phases,” which usually build toward a crossover film, like the first Avengers in Phase One). Whereas Phase Three featured eleven films (compared to the six of Phase Two), the current phase is made up of eleven films and twelve Disney+ shows. Moreover, Phase Four’s ambitions seem to revolve around the concept of the multiverse, which will only complicate things further. Will audiences still show up for interdimensional, cross-platform, meta-narratives? Will they feel as if they have to watch every show and every film in order to keep every story strand straight? How much of a risk is Marvel taking by banking on the multiverse? And how has the most profitable film franchise been built on interconnected storytelling rather than the more digestible and straightforward sequel system?

At the beginning of my MCU journey, I remember feeling alienated by the lengthy list of entries. It seemed like I had to watch all the films in order to grasp the later ones, but my brother Graham convinced me to watch Captain America: Civil War. The moment that Scott Lang (Ant-Man) appears to assist in Steve Rogers’s resistance against the Sokovia Accords, instead of feeling irked by the presumption that I’d already watched Ant-Man’s solo outing, I was intrigued. There was a sense of suggestive scope to Lang’s inclusion. It reminds me of something Terry Gilliam said about making Brazil. In a commentary recorded for the laserdisc edition, he talks about the pneumatic tubes used throughout the film’s hyper-bureaucratic setting, and how he remembers seeing them in department stores as a kid. “They fascinated me,” he says, “The idea that you put money, receipts [in them] and they went off to somebody else. There was somebody else, somewhere beyond the walls, up somewhere in an attic, where other things were happening. They always implied a much more elaborate world out there of things going on.” For a film in which budgetary concerns weighed heavily on the production (as they have for nearly every Gilliam film), figuring out ways to suggest a bigger world without actually showing it was particularly useful.


In terms of the MCU, each crossover from one movie to another strengthens the sense of cinematic unity. Now that I’ve seen Ant-Man, when the van door slides open in Civil War to reveal Lang, the whole of his solo movie rushes through my head. In the MCU, you are continually reminded of a much more elaborate world out there.

The MCU’s constant crossovers can be seen—and not incorrectly—as mere marketing savvy. Each film, and now show, is effectively an ad for all of the others. What happened when I watched Civil War is precisely what the corporations behind it wanted to happen. But this characterization isn’t the whole picture. First of all, in order for the marketing to work, the films have to be good enough to warrant the interest, so even if it’s all crass advertising, Marvel spends a significant amount of effort producing quality films, which are precisely the products they promise. Is marketing just marketing when so much effort is exerted making the marketing artful?

I don’t love Marvel movies because they make money. I love them because the story is never over.

Much of the dismissive criticism aimed at MCU fans centers around the fact that Marvel and its parent company Disney are enormous corporations, as if fans aren’t aware of this fact. We don’t support Marvel because it’s corporate; if anything, we support Marvel despite this. I understand the complaint that Marvel’s dominance has diverted financing away from smaller, less conventional fare. Critics point to companies like A24 as examples of preferable films—but A24 is still a corporation (and based on their reported asking price, a corporation valued around $2.5 billion). These days, what popular entertainment doesn’t come from a corporation? I’m not defending capitalism; rather, I’m defending fans whose fandom happens to come from capitalistic enterprises. Loving the product isn’t the same as endorsing the producer. Or, as Wolk puts it in All of the Marvels, “A story can never leave you; a corporation can never love you back.”


I don’t love Marvel movies because they make money. I love them because the story is never over, because with each new movie, there is potential for the filmmakers to redefine what has already occurred, to extend stories I would never expect, to explain prior moments I didn’t realize required explanation, to reach back and make a seemingly minor scene retroactively become major. Just as Balzac went back and revised his earlier novels to fit into The Human Comedy, Marvel can not only change the world of the films, but they can change the films themselves. A more recent example of this is the character Trevor Slattery from Shang-Chi, whose arc totally enhances his original appearance in Iron Man 3 by expanding upon his story.

The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

NYRB Classics

Marvel’s considerable largesse allows them to dominate the industry, yes, but it’s just as true that they’ve stumbled not only onto what their fans want, but also how they want it. We are in an era of TV shows and limited series, and the MCU functions like a show. Even if the particular movie you’re watching isn’t as good as you hoped, you still get its contribution to the larger narrative. Not every episode of a show is successful, but the plot points learned in them are still necessary. Going to see, say, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings guarantees something pleasurable for fans, even if they don’t enjoy the movie on its own.


I always find it so strange that a culture which celebrates mega-shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and The Sopranos can complain about the “homework” required to participate in the MCU, especially when you consider how hard the directors and writers work at making each film stand alone. If you’ve never seen a single minute of Game of Thrones and watched a random episode from season four, it would not work as well as it would for a person who’s never seen an MCU film seeing something from Phase Four. Sure, you’d miss some of the references, but you could follow the story easily (after all, these are superhero films).

But even if all the “homework” were required in order to enjoy an MCU film, why are we so immediately annoyed about art that asks a bit more of us than passive witness? Compare this to, for example, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County universe, which isn’t exactly inviting in terms of entry points. As English professor Michael Gorra wrote, Faulkner “didn’t write in sequence and liked to throw his readers into the middle of things. That’s famously true of The Sound and the Fury, which opens in 1928 before diving back to 1910 and even earlier, and yet it’s also true of his densely interwoven oeuvre as a whole. He will begin a plotline in one book and finish it in another, and sometimes a novel’s action seems predicated on that of a story he hadn’t yet written.” Faulkner expected a lot from his readers, and the more “homework” they did, the more meaning and wisdom they found in his fiction.


For me, when considering the vastness of the MCU and the comics, coupled with the storytellers’ efforts at creating stand-alone narratives, I see more advantages than drawbacks. The sense of history that comes with interconnected universes enriches the experience of its component parts. But the best aspect of an entity like the MCU is that it affords Marvel the chance to tell stories that couldn’t exist without a hefty amount of expository work. Just as Lucien’s aborted suicide at the conclusion of Balzac’s Lost Illusions carries its motivations and complexities over into A Harlot High and Low, the MCU can lean on other entries to create bewilderingly complicated epics.

Consider Spider-Man: No Way Home. Its plot will focus on Peter Parker’s attempt, via the magical assistance of Dr. Strange, to undo the damage done by the outing of his identity. Strange’s spell to erase Spider-Man’s true identity from the world backfires and opens up the multiverse. Peter’s motivation is brought over from his previous film, Far From Home, so NWH depends on another entry. Moreover, the relationship between Peter and Strange (the fact that Peter feels comfortable asking Strange to perform major magic for him) stems from their experiences together in Infinity War and Endgame. Finally, the notion of the multiverse has been introduced piecemeal by Marvel in their Disney+ shows before arriving full force in the new Spider-Man movie. A single film trying to tell such a story without previous films on which it depends and from which it can borrow would be nearly impossible. Judging by the record-shattering viewership of the trailer (some 355.5 million views in 24 hours), fans are eager to jump into lofty and mind-bending concepts like parallel universes.


Balzac and the MCU both give credit to their publics by creating vast universes that don’t require completism but certainly reward it, because they know that even if a person doesn’t understand a certain scene or reference, they can still enjoy the story anyway. Or, better still, they’ll seek out whatever was mentioned, which won’t feel like homework, but rather a continuation of the tale they were just told. It’s rabbit-hole storytelling. You can enter from wherever you choose, and any direction you go will lead you, eventually, through every corner of the universe.

The conclusion of All of the Marvels is a touching chapter on how Wolk bonded with his son during the process of his daunting undertaking. It’s a poignant punctuation on everything that precedes it, a testament to one of the primary reasons comics—any art, really—outlast the eras they were written in: the joy of communion. This is especially true of the immersive worlds of Balzac and Marvel. Awe is greatly enhanced by the presence of others. So are stories.

FromEsquire US

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Jonathan Russell Clark
Jonathan Russell Clark's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
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