Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 1

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition volume 1 collects... entries in a different manner from before. The Master Edition opted for a loose-leaf partwork format with individual issues containing entries to be inserted into a binder in alphabetical order. For this collected edition, the entries from across all thirty-six editions have been included for the Abomination through to the Gargoyle. Where relevant the volume also includes the action sheet and supporting cast page for big name characters and team action sheets that were included in later issues. Also included in this volume are the covers of all thirty-six issues plus some of the original introductions. The entries are mainly drawn by Keith Pollard and researched & written by Len Kaminski, Jamie Tost, Mark Gruenwald, Glenn Herdling, Murray Ward and Peter Sanderson. The whole thing is edited successively by Mark Gruenwald, Kelly Corvese and Tom Brevoort.

The standard entry for a character has a full-page shot of the character from the front, side and rear. Then there's a page of text with the following pro forma:
  • Biographical Data
  • Real name
  • Other current aliases
  • Former aliases
  • Dual identity
  • Current occupation
  • Former occupation
  • Citizenship
  • Legal status
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Known confidants
  • Known allies
  • Major enemies
  • Usual base of operations
  • Former base of operations
  • Current group membership
  • Former group membership
  • Extent of occupation
  • Physical Description
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Other distinguishing features
  • Powers and Abilities
  • Intelligence
  • Strength
  • Air speed
  • Stamina
  • Durability
  • Agility
  • Reflexes
  • Fighting skills
  • Special skills and abilities
  • Superhuman physical powers
  • Superhuman mental powers
  • Special limitations
  • Source of superhuman powers
  • Paraphernalia
  • Costume specifications
  • Personal weaponry
  • Special weaponry
  • Other accessories
  • Transportation
  • Design and manufacture of paraphernalia
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Occasionally a section will be followed by a "Note", clarifying some point or other. Sometimes there is no space left for "Significant issues". The entries and art are all printed in landscape format. The first appearances for characters who originated in the Golden or Atlas Ages include both a "historical" and "modern" entry.

The partwork nature of the original means that from time to time the order is wrong. Most notably the entry for Deathlok III precedes that of Deathlok I. Sometimes a character gets two entries such as Crystal, who changed her costume during the original release run. Each entry displays a different costume and the later one adds in a few recent key issues but otherwise the two are much of a muchness, with errors repeated such as listing Quicksilver as her "cousin by marriage" instead of as her husband.

Groups and organisations are listed differently with this pro forma:
  • Organization
  • Full name
  • Purpose
  • Modus operandi
  • Extent of operations
  • Relationship to conventional authorities
  • Base of operations
  • Former bases of operations
  • Major funding
  • Known enemies
  • Known allies
  • Membership
  • Number of active members
  • Number of reserve members
  • Organizational structure
  • Known officers
  • Known current members
  • Known former members
  • Known special agents
  • Membership requirements
  • History
  • Founder
  • Other leaders
  • Previous purpose or goals
  • Major campaigns or accomplishments
  • Major setbacks
  • Technology and paraphernalia
  • Level of technology
  • Transportation
  • Standard uniforms
  • Standard weaponry
  • Standard accessories
  • Bibliography
  • First appearance
  • Origin issue
  • Significant issues
Teams usually have a Membership Roster that details each member's time with the team as follows:
  • [Identity]
  • Real name
  • Current status
  • Membership record
  • Note
The entries for the Avengers and the Avengers West Coast operate on the principle that the New York based team are THE Avengers and the Los Angeles based team is a spin-off rather than the alternate position that they were respectively the east coast and west coast branches of the organisation on an equal footing. The exact status of the west coast team in relation to the east coast was a live issue for many years but here the Handbook comes down on the side that effectively dismisses the west coast team as inessential.

As well as the teams there are also occasional entries for the supporting casts of high profile characters such as Daredevil or Captain America, with the image page showing the hero in action. The entries for each cast member list:
  • [Name]
  • Current occupation
  • Relationship [to the hero]
  • First appearance
Some of the entries stop short in covering a character's history, such as the one for Captain Marvel II. The significant issues listed only covers the first few years of her career and feels the need to include a Marvel Team-Up story which left her temporarily trapped in her energy form, but conspicuously absent are the issues covering her tenure as chairperson of the Avengers, her massive energy loss in battle and her subsequent recovery with altered powers. It's as if a longer list was prepared but it became clear there was insufficient space for all of it and so it was simply chopped short rather than carefully edited down. Another odd case is Dazzled, whose early battles with Lightmaster and the Hulk wind up as being presented as more significant than Dazzler: The Movie. At the other end of the scale some characters have such brief entries for the rest of the form such that it makes Fandral appear to be the most active character included here.

There's still the occasional attempt to use entries to "correct" information given in stories such as the declaration that Ego the Living Planet does not meet the criteria of the Elders of the Universe and thus cannot be considered to be one of them despite having been shown to be part of one of the most exclusive groups in all the Marvel universe.

At the rear of the volume is a collection of covers, introductions and guide pages. Some of the introductions use the same text and the pages chosen seem to be used only because some of the credits are reused. The single page guide to power levels and the single page special glossary are both useful but would have been better place at the start of the volume. Otherwise the introductions talk about the philosophy and vision of the series, addressing a number of comments from readers. Big debates were held about whether the covers should also be printed on durable pagestock for binding; eventually they were but at the expense of a character sheet in each issue. The action shots proved unpopular for being out of line with the project and were dropped. Otherwise the later introductions also carry a number of corrections, plus a few extended bibliographies for characters whose entries ran short.

"Its modular nature will enable us to update this indefinitely without having to start all over from the beginning of the alphabet" claims the first introduction. It's clear the project had vision to go on for a long time with regular updates but after thirty-six issues it was cancelled due to low sales and the introductions admit as much.

This edition of the Handbook has the best format for mapping an ongoing fictional universe prior to the growth of the internet with online updates for encyclopaedias and downloadable updates for file based ones. It's a sensible move to reprint it in alphabetical order rather than recreating the disparate order of thirty-six separate packs. However the format has some failings. To read this the volume has to be turned on its side and there's an emphasis on lots of art and brief information at the expense of extended detailing of the story. In a way it's very representative of some of the worst trends in early 1990s comics. The Master Edition is now timelocked to the early 1990s and so it is no longer current; nor does it have the benefit of being a historical curiosity that the original is. With very few of the Essential series having reached this period there is little need for a supporting guide from the era. Once again it is hardly necessary to reprint.

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