History of the Marvel Universe Review

By | Monday, April 27, 2020 Leave a Comment
History of the Marvel Universe TPB
When I first started really getting into comics, my favorite was Fantastic Four. I wanted to learn as much as I could about those characters, and began hunting around for back issues and picking up other titles when they would show up for guest appearances. Soon after I started getting to know the characters, I also realized I wanted to get to know more about the world they inhabited. But, by the nature of the FF's adventures, their "world" was the entire Marvel Universe. Within the first year of reading their books, I was introduced to Galactus, the Watcher, dozens of alien races like the Skrulls and the Shi'ar, and the living embodiments of Death and Eternity! The team regularly had adventures with other dimensions, time travel, and alternate realities. I eventually came to realize that if I were to understand the Fantastic Four's "world" I had to understand the entire Marvel Universe!

So I spent the next couple of decades try to learn and absorb as much as I could about the Marvel Universe. I obviously didn't have enough money to buy every comic Marvel published, so I had to be judicious in my selections. Especially when it came to (often expensive) back issues. So I tried to focus on the bigger, more significant events. "Wait, here's another reference to the Kree-Skrull War. I should probably see if I can get that." And even though "continuity" wasn't a thing back in the 1940s, I found myself looking to dig up what I could on those as well since the Sub-Mariner was in regular orbit with the FF and the Human Torch's namesake was a 1940s hero as well.

All of which is to say that I knew a fair amount about the Marvel Universe. Maybe not the specifics of each and every event, but I knew most of how the history of the entire universe was put together. (At least however much had been relayed through the comics.) Even the stuff that had been retconned and re-retconned several times. Up until I stopped reading Marvel Comics after Civil War, I was pretty knowledgeable about the Marvel Universe.

My interest in coming to History of the Marvel Universe is two-fold. First, I'm curious to see what might have happened in the decade or so since I've been paying attention. Second, I'm curious to see how much of what I did know has been changed. I've gotten the sense that Marvel has largely had at most a casual disinterest in their continuity beyond a few key stories, so I suspect more than a few things had been added that unintentionally ran counter to whatever we had already seen. I know writer Mark Waid to be a huge continuity buff, so I was interested to see what he included and how he was able to reconcile potentially disparate histories.

The book opens with a framing device of Galactus and Franklin Richards at the very end of time and space. Galactus' energy will be used to kickstart a new universe and Franklin will be reborn as its first inhabitant, so he asks Galactus to remind him of the history of everything so that he might carry it forward into the next universe. The book, then, is Galactus relaying the history of the Marvel Universe to Franklin. It's a heavily abridged version, of course, with everything from the Big Bang up through the start of the 20th century covered in 20 pages. Most of the rest of the story covers the next 120 years with a handful of pages dropped in to remind readers this is a discussion between Galactus and Franklin, and an additional three pages to cover all the future stories. (Killraven, the birth of Kang, etc. I was surprised there was no reference to the 2099 stories at all though. Limited space, I suppose.)

I'll start by saying that I was impressed how much ground was covered in a fairly short amount of space. Even though things were abridged (every Western comic Marvel ever produced was summed up in a single panel) it touched on enough different elements of Marvel's history that someone who wasn't knowledgeable could have their interest piqued by a passing mention of a story or character. And the annotations in the back readily point to some of the specific issues in question. The teenage me who was just beginning to explore the Marvel Universe would have loved, loved, loved having a book like this back in the day!

I was also pleasantly surprised that there hasn't been nearly as much retconning as I would've guessed. There were only a handful of elements that had been changed since I was last paying attention, and some of them were in fact just changed in this very comic so I hadn't actually missed them previously. But that brings us to one of the problems: Siancong.

I recall hearing a bit about this when the monthly issue first came out, but one of the things that Waid has done was retcon several of the characters' backstories to have them fight in the fictional country of Siancong instead of whatever wars they originally might have fought in. I get the idea behind this change. Mr. Fantastic and Ben Grimm were originally veterans of World War II, but that becomes problematic if you say their first rocket flight only occurred 10-15 years ago. If the Punisher had served in Vietnam, he'd have to be at least in his 70s today. So Waid has created a war for the Marvel Universe that can move along with its own floating timeline, and is no longer tied to real-world events. You can provide characters with a backstory of military service, but it doesn't have to keep getting modified or appended from Germany to Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to wherever the next conflict is. I get that from the sense of streamlining the continuity. But it creates a couple of other problems.

First, it's now conflating very different types of wars and very different types of experiences. War is hell regardless of when/where it's fought, but the veterans from Vietnam had a vastly different experience from veterans from Afghanistan. Both on the battlefields and upon returning home. You could argue that different regiments fought on different fronts of this Siancong War, and that could account for those different experiences, but that leads us to the second, more problematic issue. That is that this new war is presented specifically as a broad-based but geographically localized "yellow peril." That is, they've mashed together several different Asian cultures into a general demonization of the entire hemisphere, concentrated in a single, small country. Siancong was originally a stand-in for Vietnam, but assigning Chinese and Japanese characters to the same conflict while wrapping in elements of Cambodia and Korea effectively says to readers, "Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, whatever. Those Asian countries are all the same! They're all bad guys!" Further, shoe-horning Lady Lotus -- a character who was created in the late 1970s to expressly serve as a WWII era villain and thus did not have any continuity problems tied to her being in that war -- into this Siancong War seems to underscore the issue. "Let's just throw all our Asian bad guys in here!" The conflicts in those various countries at various times were different; their cultures are different; they're being papered over here and trying to be dismissive of the racism that permeated those original stories. (You can't be racist against a fictional culture, right?) And given that this was created under the leadership of an editor-in-chief who spent years writing in yellow-face -- an act which has had zero repercussions for him after it was discovered -- it's really not a good look.

I get the intent they had here with a 'floating' war, and I'm cool with that. It's a clever idea. But the execution is a bit off the mark. Had they made it a broader conflict that perhaps included parts of Europe and/or the Middle East -- a kind of World War Two-and-a-Half -- they could have included a range of conflicts that allow for very different experiences and not focus on the "evil Asian" stereotypes. As it is, they solved a continuity "problem" but doubled down on the racism present in those older stories. Even the art on the page in question has been compared to the decidedly racist movie poster for The Face of Fu-Manchu.

There are two other things I'll mention; neither of which are a big deal, but they are things that struck me. As a history, the story flows more or less chronologically, which makes sense. But there were a couple instances where some retcons were placed here when they were introduced, and not when they were supposed to have happened in continuity. The most noticeable examples I saw were the introductions of Sentry and Jessica Jones. Both characters were introduced in the early 2000s and they're presented here around the time other circa-2000 stories are cited. However, both characters were given back stories that go back to the 1960s -- Sentry is shown interacting with the Avengers from their first dozen or so issues and Jessica went to high school with Peter Parker and is expressly shown to have witnessed the events from the Galactus Trilogy. Other recent retcons -- like the First Line, a super team created also in the early 2000s and designed to fit in the nebulous time period between the end of WWII and FF #1 -- were placed according to when they would have happened; but why not all of them? It just seemed a little disconnected, like an afterthought.

The other thing I'll mention is more a curiosity: namely that this largely is not comics. The handful of pages of Galactus and Franklin interacting are, but the majority of the book is basically illustrated prose. That's not a criticism -- I think you'd be hard-pressed to present this type of information as comics and still keep any sense of story flow. This is more of an updated (and, again, abridged) version of the old Marvel Saga than comic retelling of Marvel's history. Mind you, this is much more attractive a package than Marvel Saga as that used a mish-mash of images lifted from a wide variety of sources and here Javier Rodríguez drew everything fresh specifically for this book. There are a lot of really gorgeous page layouts here, and Rodríguez's illustration skills are top notch. But, strictly speaking, I don't think they qualify as comics for the most part.

I'm genuinely surprised Marvel chose to develop this project. This sort of Gruenwaldian approach to continuity hasn't seemed to be a concern at all in the past couple decades. Like I said, though, the teenage me would have loved to have a book like this back in the day! Today, I'm obviously a little more critical of things, but I still found it refreshing to see that much of what I had spent decades learning about the Marvel Universe was still considered in-continuity, and it had not been whole-cloth dismissed as I thought it might. Do today's readers care about this kind of thing any more? I couldn't tell you. But I suspect any older fans who were into comics the way I was would enjoy learning about the state of the Marvel Universe as it stands now.
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