Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1

It's eighteen years to this day since Mark Gruenwald passed away. As a special tribute here's a look at one of his most personal of projects.

After avoiding it for a while, it's time to take a full look at the original Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe from 1983 to 1984. Originally intended as a twelve issue limited series looking at the-then active characters, it was extended during its run to include an additional three issues comprising the "Book of the Dead and Inactive" and the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia". All fifteen issues are gathered in Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1 which, like all of the reference Essentials, forgoes the standard cover design of the day in favour of a recoloured version of one of the original covers. The editor and head writer was Mark Gruenwald, with the lead writers being Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown though others also contributed, along with so many different artists that it won't be practical to do a standard set of creator labels beyond the trio themselves. Nor would it be wise to run a full list of every single character, team, place and piece of equipment covered.

The format is straightforward with an alphabetical roll of characters. Most get a full page, a few have two pages and several others share pages. There are also pages devoted to teams, albeit mainly just listing all the members, bases, locations and other critical points. Each issue has an appendix of brief text entries that list inactive, deceased and minor characters and races. Most character entries come in a pro forma with the following details:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Legal status
  • Former aliases
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual features
  • Powers
  • Weapons
Additionally there's a full frontal shot of the character.

Not all entries carry every one of these details. It's notable that at first the entries are brief and the "origin" just does what it says on the tin. Later on the entries get longer and longer, with the pictures shrinking and the "origin" getting closer to a full "biography" entry. Notable deviations from the pro forma come with a number of artificial beings such as Ultron or the Supreme Intelligence, who instead get short essays. A similar approach is taken with locations. Teams are just described briefly before a table showing the faces of all members. At the end of each issue is a section devoted to alien races. There are four entries on each page with the following pro forma:
  • NAME
  • Origin Galaxy
  • Star System
  • Planet
  • Habitat
  • Gravity
  • Atmosphere
  • Population
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Type
  • Eyes
  • Fingers
  • Toes
  • Skin color
  • Average height
  • Special adaptations
  • Type of government
  • Level of technology
  • Cultural traits
  • Names of representatives
  • First appearance

There's no standard format for the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia", with some entries in text descriptive form accompanied by a picture whilst others have detailed diagrams, sometimes with cutaways.

Initially I thought this series had only been released in the direct market as it seems the perfect example of something that would appeal to the hardcore comics fan and survive in the print-to-order environment but would not have sufficiently wide appeal to make it viable in the sale-or-return format. However it's a revelation to discover that most of the covers have the telltale "CC" on them and the newsstand format cover box, though the cover art sometimes lacks the barcode box. I guess either it had broader appeal and/or Marvel was unwilling to shut out fans who didn't have a comic shop near them. (One of the first ever actual US comics I read, albeit a DC, was from around this time and included an editorial response to heavy complaints about the inaccessibility of direct market-only material.) Curiously the covers to #13 & #14 use the direct market versions even though it seems these issues were distributed on the newsstand as well.

Although the main sources for each entry are the original comics, there's also an attempt to tidy things up, particularly in the approach to describing powers with a degree of real science creeping in. I'm in two minds about this approach - on the one hand it does help to ground the characters in a greater deal of realism than hitherto, but on the other it's ultimately impossible to explain some of the most famous origins and powers in anything but fantastical terms, and so attempts to impose scientific common sense onto Silver Age and Bronze Age fantasy just feels like an attempt doomed to fail. It gets particularly silly when trying to impose rational scientific explanations upon vampires, treating them as a disease and trying to rationalise how the stake through the heart and sunlight bring grief to them. Fortunately the powers of more overt magical characters such as Doctor Strange are left as magic.

Given that some characters have appeared in a variety of stories from either different creators or the same forgetful creator, there are often contradictory depictions of origins and powers. The Handbook entries try to cut through the mess with comments such as "contrary to some accounts" to tidy up powers and occasionally rationalise the origins by adding explanations to cover multiple versions and differing details. However the entries don't always match one another - there are three separate entries for Rama-Tut, Kang and Immortus but the details don't always match up, most obviously in relation to just how long Rama-Tut's first reign lasted or whether or not they have any known relatives. Elsewhere the entries can't agree on the correct term for the relationship between the Sub-Mariner and Namorita (they are first cousins once removed). But some entries do their best to seek to explain continuity errors and a failure to learn from past mistakes such as the Kang et al ones noting that repeated time travel has resulted in numerous temporal divergents. It's one way to sort out differences in characterisation and more imaginative than the Kingpin's entry which just declares his personally taking part in a theft to have been out of character. There are some omissions in the tidying up - in particular there's a lot of confusion stemming from the Eternals being originally conceived as standalone characters in their own universe but then dropped into the Marvel universe where they heavily overlap with a lot of characters taken directly from Greek mythology. Oddly it's only the entries for Thena and Zeus that really tries to explain the relationship between the two.

The Handbook generally sticks to the position that the Marvel universe began with Fantastic Four #1, even giving this issue as the first appearance of "Earthlings" aka humans. Most of the Golden Age, Atlas Age and western heroes are given a "First modern appearance" entry, side-stepping whether or not their adventures happened. However I note that the Rawhide Kid's first appearance is given as Rawhide Kid #17, which came out over a year earlier than Fantastic Four #1. So this would make the Rawhide Kid the founding member of the Marvel universe. That'll make for a fun rewriting of the history books.

Some of the location pages are eye-openers such as the entry for Europe that shows most of the real world borders of the time, although someone forgot the UK-Ireland border, as well as where the various fictional countries such as Latveria slot in. Curiously Transylvania is shown as separate from Romania - had a Transylvanian separatist been using Marvel as a propaganda tool? Sometimes the diagrams show influences that have been less obvious on the comics themselves. For instance it was only when looking at its depiction here that I spotted just how blatantly the Guardians of the Galaxy's spaceship Freedom's Lady has the shape of an upside down USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Black and white only rarely makes things hard to follow but it's amusing to see panels showing the uniforms for all eight levels of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and they're all identical uniforms; presumably colour is used to distinguish between them.

The changing plans for the series result in a handful of characters such as Dracula and Banshee receiving entries both in the main run and also in the Book of the Dead and Inactive. Usually the former entries are just a few lines in the appendixes, but Dracula has full page entries in both sections as the last few issues rapidly caught up with a major change in the status quo of not just Dracula himself but of all vampires on Earth.

Who gets an entry can be surprising at times - it's particularly odd to find the one-off Spider-Man foe Belladonna with a half page entry but I guess at the time there were plans to reuse her, especially as Spider-Man had so few recurring female foes. And the reprint offers its own surprise by including the entries for Rom, his armour and weapons - either nobody spotted them or someone at Marvel cut through the uncertain ownership & costs and shelled out for a licence just for those pages or else they found a good enough legal explanation to include the pages without it.

The "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia" contains a wide variety of pieces of equipment, ranging from Spider-Man's Belt Camera to the Ultimate Nullifier. It's an odd addition for the final issue of the series and seems to have come from the fan enthusiasm of the likes of Mark Gruenwald. I can't imagine an equivalent appearing in most comic companies' or franchises' character guides but its presence here is a nice final touch for fandom. In general this whole volume serves hardcore fans best, offering a chance to get to know all the obscure details about so many different characters.

Back in 1983 to 1984 this series must have been amazing for Marvel fans. Today I'm less convinced about its usefulness, since there have been several subsequent editions and the rise of both computer databases and the internet has provided far more detailed information than paper encyclopaedia style books can ever hope to carry. Since this volume came out in early 2006 at the start of what turned out to be the most intense year for releases of the Essentials, it's doubtful that this one's release denied a story volume a slot so it can't be blamed for the failure to produce final volumes for some of the series. This is also not a volume that's best read continuously but rather one to dip in and out of as and when is needed which just increases the questions about its usefulness. There is an argument that this is a snapshot of the Marvel universe at the very end of the Bronze Age. But that's not the most necessary thing needed and so this still feels rather excess to requirements.

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