Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – an introduction

As we’ll see as we go through the various Essential volumes, a number of them include as page filler material various entries from various editions of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. In an era before the internet developed to the point where there are endless fansites and encyclopaedias, series like the Official Handbook and DC’s Who’s Who were the main way that fans could refresh their memory or find out the key information about heroes they’d only heard about. Each of the major characters, along many minor heroes, alien races, hardware and more, would receive a dedicated entry in a standard form – a full picture of the character and text detailing their origins, powers and weapons, plus quick pro forma stats such as real names, places of birth, relatives, first appearances, heights and so forth. Click on the image of Captain America’s original entry for a full-sized example of the standard format. Spider-Man’s entry was atypical, running to two pages and including a section on his webshooters.

(The scans are from MARVEL™-Retro, specifically Captain America (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe V1-V2) & Spider-Man (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe V1).)

The first series came out between 1982 & 1984. Originally planned as twelve issues on current characters, the success of the series led to three extra issues. Two covered inactive and deceased characters, and the other weapons, hardware and paraphernalia. There have since been at least three further volumes – the “Deluxe Edition” which ran for twenty issues between 1985 & 1988 plus an eight issue “Update” series in 1989; the “Master Edition” which ran for thirty-six issues between 1990 & 1993 (and came in a partwork form to be completed in a binder); and the “All-New” edition of twelve issues in 2006 with a 4 issue update in 2007. The 2000s also saw various updates, collected editions that combined reprints with updated and new entries, and some series specific one shots but it all gets a bit confusing.

The Official Handbook is in a slightly grey area of continuity. Not only had a number of details (particularly the pro forma stats) not been explicitly set down in the actual Marvel comics but there was also a desire to tidy and clarify the origins – for instance Spider-Man’s entry tells us the demonstration was arranged by the General Techtronics Corporation, it was to demonstrate how nuclear laboratory waste could be safely handled, and used a particle accelerator. It also incorporates a number of details that were added to the origin in subsequent retellings in the likes of Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1, Amazing Spider-Man #94, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #60, whereas nowadays it's more common to take a single telling of an origin as the definitive version, at least until someone explicitly retells it. Because some of the information had not been established in actual comic stories, not all writers felt bound to follow it. And in a few cases writers felt the Handbook had either ignored or misinterpreted a particular scene and went with what was “correct”, leading to quite a bit of confusion even in the internet years when many of the same questions came up time and again. (The precise metal that Captain America’s shield is made of proved to be a particularly confusing affair for many years, even after an Avengers annual devoted a back-up story to restating various facts in an attempt to clear up the most repetitive confusions.)

Despite such ambiguities, the Official Handbooks serve as a good guide to many characters, and the older series are especially helpful for summarising what had been revealed about a particular character up to that point – Jack-of-Hearts is a good example as shortly after his entry in the original series he had a limited series with some major new revelations about his history.

Perhaps because of this, the first three editions of the Official Handbook have all been released in the Essential series, although their front covers dispense with the actual Essential trappings. The original version is collected in a single volume; then the original Deluxe Edition comes in three volumes with the 1989 update a stand alone volume; then finally the Master Edition is in a further three volumes. The original and Deluxe volumes maintain the original series order but the Master volumes go alphabetical (reflecting how it was intended that fans would arrange their folders). In addition a number of Essential volumes, not just Spider-Man, reprint some individual entries.

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