Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 2

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition volume 2 collects issues #8-14 of the Handbook, covering the entries from Magus (that's the father of Warlock not the future of, erm, the other Warlock) through to Wolverine. Again the main creative forces are Mark Gruenwald, Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown.

There's not too much to say about this volume as it's the same format as the first volume and is still working through the main section of current living characters. The Appendixes in each issue are continuing to work their way through the various Other Dimensions. The editorials contain various errata under the heading of "Data Corrections". I don't know how much work it would have involved but it's to the edition's credit that each issue is reprinted as it originally was, mistake warts and all. Also surprisingly retained is the entry on Rom. The "Data Corrections" also explain why some assumed errors are not such as the first in-continuity issue to feature Firestar or whether Galactus's hair colour is known or not. In addition the editorials discuss policy and address some points from letters such as why some of the heights and weights have changed from the original edition, whether the strength levels given settle arguments about who would win in a fight, various details of editorial decisions and also explaining the decision to switch to bi-monthly frequency from issue #15 onwards.

A few entries are surprising in hindsight because some fundamental relationships of a character had yet to be revealed, resulting in histories that now feel like the writer had no idea what was to come. The entry for the Rose presents him as a standard middle ranking crimelord whose identity is unknown, in contrast to what was about to be established. More surprisingly Sabretooth and Wolverine's entries which merely state that they have known each other for a long time but doesn't elaborate. It's a reminder that Sabretooth had been around in comics for nearly a decade before he and Wolverine were first shown clashing.

Some characters are particularly complicated because of wildly differing portrayals and backgrounds that it becomes hard to determine if there is actually one single person involved. The entries for Merlin and Morgan Le Fay are good or bad examples of this. Merlin's entry struggles to reconcile up to three different individuals who were all originally presented as the character from Arthurian legend. Just to add to the problems some portrayals have been based on the popular version of the story generated by literature and screen, whilst others have gone back to the original legends. A similar problem has affected Morgan Le Fay, with some retellings having merged her with Morgause as well as the contradiction between her parentage and her half-faerie heritage, leaving a mess that has been copied into the Marvel stories.

Perhaps the ultimate example comes with the entries for Olympia and the Olympian Gods which are on facing pages. It's clear from both these overviews and the individual entries that the Eternals of Olympia are one of the biggest continuity headaches for Marvel, not least because when their series began it was never intended to be part of the mainstream continuity. The problem is that the series took an alternative approach to mythology by presenting the mainly Greek (but also other mythologies') myths as distortions of the exploits of the Eternals, rather than the Marvel norm of treating them as the straight-up histories of actual beings. When it was determined that the series actually was part of the mainstream Marvel continuity the result was massive confusion about which mythological events had involved the actual Gods and which had involved the Eternals. The various entries try to explain the situation away but it's a recipe for frightful confusion and the Handbook entries are unlikely to be the final word on the matter.

Just as confused are the entries for Thor and the Valkyrie due to attempts to establish them as having unknowingly had the identities of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Norse and Germanic mythology, best known from the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga saga and later from Der Ring des Nibelungen though there are variants within them all. Valkyrie's history had already been a mess due to major retcons but this hidden history just makes it worse and so the entries challenge the reliability of the source, a sentient disembodied eye of Odin.

Not every entry is so complex. The one for the second Spider-Woman reflects the fact that next to nothing about her background had been revealed at this stage and so the history is little more than a synopsis of her few appearances up until publication. The entry for Sunder is similarly hampered and so just offers up a very short paragraph and leaves it at that, doing a little bit to save ink.

My comments on the overall series from the first volume are reproduced below:
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.
Reading this volume has not changed them.

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