Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 1 collects issues #1-7 of the second version of the Handbook, covering the entries from the Abomination through to Magneto. This one began in 1985 and once again the main creative forces are Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown.

The format is generally the same as before but with a much more flexible approach to entry lengths with the result that some characters have entries over two or even three pages, whilst others are small and fit onto only part of a page. The font sizes are now standardised. The character profile pro forma has been modified a bit and is now as follows:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Legal status
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin (sometimes combined with the preceding entry)
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual physical characteristics
  • Strength level
  • Known superhuman powers
  • Abilities
  • Limitations
  • Weapons
  • Base of operations
As before there's a full frontal shot of the character but in addition there are now more pictures showing the character in action, with most or all lifted from past comics and not actually credited. The entries for places such as Asgard, races such as the Lava Men, concepts such as "Gods" and some cosmic entities such as "Death" are in a simpler essay form.

This time round some of the retired and depowered characters like Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan or Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider) have been included in the main section though dead characters have been held back for the slightly renamed Book of the Dead which will come in volume 3. An editorial in issue #2 addresses the inclusion criteria and explains the rationale. It also explains that various licensed characters have been left out for legal reasons and makes one of the last known claims that the Transformers exist in the regular Marvel universe, along with the Micronauts and Shogun Warriors, even though they're not included here.

There's less in the way of Appendixes this time round, with the inside front and some of the back pages primarily given over to editorial commentary to address issues of inclusion, omission, the problems of ensuring information is up to date, and even introducing the main editorial team a bit better. One point that stands out is the involvement of most characters' then-current writer or editor on their entry, providing a strong authority to the ironing out of anomalies and the addition of any necessary information. However some writers clearly wanted to keep their options open and this is most obvious with the mini-entries for individual members of the Imperial Guard of the Shi'ar Empire. In several cases the "Known superhuman powers" entry reads "Unrevealed. It has been suggested that..." and detailing a possible power not yet seen but used by the character's equivalent in DC's Legion of Super-Heroes.

The earliest issues include a glossary and later there's a guide to Alternate Dimensions with brief text only entries in the following form:
  • Type
  • Environment
  • Usual means of access
  • Dominant lifeform
  • Prominent inhabitants
  • Comments
  • First appearance
It's annoying that the split between the inside front and back covers has been maintained here; it would have been useful to have reunited the separate sections rather than having editorials split by over sixty pages. Other than the covers there are no double-spreads and so this wouldn't have increased the page length at all.

There are some occasional omissions, and (jumping ahead slightly) not every one of these is redeemed in later volumes. An editorial in issue #7 explains that this is partially due to foreknowledge and partially a problem of space once the individual issues have had their contents drawn up. One of the most notable absentees is Iron Fist who should have appeared in issue #5, which come out between issues #122 & #123 of Power Man and Iron Fist. Another is Blade the vampire hunter, due to a lack of space in issue #2 but it stands out due to the inclusion of Hannibal King. The other big omission, and the one generating the most mail during the early issues, is the Beyonder. As explained in the editorial his final fate in Secret Wars II was known about in the Marvel office but had not yet seen print at the time the relevant Handbook issue was published and the decision was taken to hold him back for the Book of the Dead.

A few entries bring particular surprises such as the suggestion that in Secret Wars Doctor Doom only gained the Beyonder's power because the latter feigned defeat out of curiosity - and this is revealed in the entry for Klaw rather than Doom's own. The entry for "Ghost Rider" just adds to the ongoing confusion as it's for the Western character previously renamed the "Night Rider", plus his brother and his brother's descendant who both took up the mantle at various stages. The entry acknowledges the names "Ghost Rider", "Night Rider" and "Phantom Rider" as all having been used but sticks to the original (give or take a stray copy error). As this came out in a period when the demonic Ghost Rider was inactive it's easy to see why the name had been restored to Marvel's original character but it just adds to the confusion and worse was to come when a new demonic Ghost Rider came along a few years later.

Back in the mid 1980s this series served a purpose in expanding on the original edition so quickly even if the timing of its appearance suggests that it was a response to the publication of Who's Who in the DC Universe rather than a pressing need to replace the original so soon. But today the value is very different. Even more than the original edition, I am unconvinced that this series is a particular priority for the Essentials. It comes from a period that isn't especially well served by Essential volumes and the series would have first an update and then yet another edition all within the next decade. Including Update '89 there are a total of four volumes to this edition with some characters having more than one entry. The sheer length of the whole thing may make the Essential format the obvious way to reprint it but it really doesn't need reprinting at all.

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