I prefer to let my featured selections percolate for a few weeks before discussing them here. It gives my brain time to process the material, jog loose any stray memories, and conduct more than a surface level survey. We’re going to put aside that informal rule for this installment, which discusses a much-anticipated tome which dropped a couple of days ago.
Given the recent spate of delays and cancellations involving comics collections, I had my doubts whether the omnibus edition of the original 1983 Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe run was actually going to materialize on the promised date. My suspicions of an elaborate (and cruel) fake-out didn’t evaporate until I tore open the shipping box and ran my grubby hands across the book’s cover.
And what a book it is — an issue per issue reprint of the entire miniseries, complete with the serialized “alien races” and appendix portions tucked at the end of each installment. (I had wondered if Marvel was going to bundle those sections for the sake of flow, and I’m thankful they didn’t.) The book is slim as far as omnibus editions go. It does raises questions of value for money spent, but it also means that the tome more physically manageable. I love my other omnibus editions but those thousand-page-plus behemoths really aren’t suitable for the casual browsing the Official Handbook demands.
Folks who visit here for reasons other than comics commentary are probably wondering what the heck the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe is and why it makes me (and scores of my peers) so swoony. Back in the early 1980s, Marvel’s EIC Jim Shooter floated the idea of doing a “Jane’s Guide” for its shared universe characters. The idea was farmed out to editor and continuity guru Mark Gruenwald, who expanded the concept into an wide-angle directory of the people, places, and things from Marvel’s Timely Comics origins to the then-present day.
Want to know how tall the Titanium Man was? Want to know exactly how Guardian’s battle suit worked? Want to know all the twists and turns of Vision’s origin story? The Handbook had that info in both excruciating and faux plausible detail. Originally planned as for a dozen alphabetical installments, it was expanded to fifteen via a two issue addendum of dead and inactive characters and a single issue guide to weapons and equipment.
To understand the significance of series to me and generational peers in fandom, you have to understand that this was a pre-internet era where documentation outside the source material was next to nil. There were times (*cough* DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes *cough*) where I went multiple issues without knowing a character’s name, never mind their powers or origin story. Occasionally Dynamite or other kiddie mags would fill in some details, but most of the time we had to rely on occasional in-story recaps, book ‘n’ record sets, or the dubious testimony of comics-reading pals.
For DC, it wasn’t that huge an issue because its upper-tier characters had a higher media and marketing profile. (For real, I first learned Wonder Woman’s origin from a Ground Round placemat.) With the exception of Spider-Man and the Hulk, Marvel info was fairly elusive. It could be frustrating for a kid lacking regular access to a spinner rack, but it also lent the Marvel Universe an alluring aura of mystery. Each little nugget of info gleaned from a flea market quarter bin purchase felt like a hard-won victory and kindled the desire to learn even more.
Prior to the Handbook, Marvel published a puzzle/activity funnybook series titled Fun and Games containing mazes, word searches, trivia quizzes and the like pulled from the various corners of the company’s fictional universe. Stray issues of it were a guaranteed quarter bin purchase for me — not for the puzzles, but for the tantalizing references to unfamiliar Marvel characters and concepts. Similarly, I doubt Jack of Hearts would’ve resonated so strongly with my younger self minus the novelty of stumbling upon a (supposedly) hot new character.
By the time the handbook debuted, I’d just discovered a semi-reliable source for new comics to supplement the stuff I was pulling from the flea market and “collector show” which popped up at the Woburn Mall on a regular basis. It was at the latter where I first came across an issue of the Handbook, and it was awestruck love at first sight. All these little mysteries and backstories had been codified with a matter-of-fact gravitas which meshed perfectly with my obsessive fanboy curiosity.
I only ended up scoring the last few issues of the main run and the “Book of the Dead” issues but I read-studied-memorized them with an almost religious fervor. The handy thing about after-the-fact prose summaries of funnybook storylines is that they can make even the most convoluted continuity cobbling seem like seamless cosmologies. The Handbook’s write-ups of the history of the Eternals and the Celestial Madonna arc outstripped the actual source materials by multiple orders of magnitude. Disposable jabronis and also-rans radiated mythic auras by virtue of getting an entry in the roster of deceased characters at a time when confirmed permadeth was still relatively rare in the genre.
It also influenced my back issue purchases, as made evident by my full runs of Bronze Age It! The Living Colossus and Torpedo appearances. My memories of reading my small stack of Handbook issues remain lucid after some thirty-five years — flipping through the second Book of the Dead during a sixth grade nature retreat and developing an appreciation for Wonder Man while sitting on a lawn chair outside my uncle’s apartment, the loose-from-wear pages and appendix layout clear as yesterday in my mind’s eye.
The Handbook was enough of a success that Marvel followed it up with a “deluxe” edition a couple of years later, which ran roughly concurrently with DC’s similar Who’s Who index. While I picked up every issue of that revised and expanded do-over on the stands, it lacked the magic of the original run. My comics fandom had entered its peak by then, thanks to discovering a direct market shop in biking distance and an uncle who gifted us his deep collection of Bronze Age Marvel stuff during a religious epiphany (a move which I’m told he later regretted).
Simply put, there weren’t as many mysteries to savor, just current plotlines and older source material which rarely lived up to the expectations established its Handbook summaries. The deluxe edition couldn’t be the magical gateway the original had been because I no longer needed a gateway. I could reflexively cite the Punisher’s first appearance or Baron Blood’s decapitation chapter and verse.
On a more subjective level, the Marvel Universe reflected in the original Handbook will always be “my” Marvel Universe — pre-Secret Wars, with Ghost Rider, Yellowjacket, Spider-Woman sidelined, Dracula and Phoenix dead, the New Mutants just arrived, Paul Smith is the X-artist, and James Rhodes is Iron Man and Monica Rambeau is Captain Marvel. My fandom may have hit peak consumption a bit later, but that particular moment was my for-real, regular basis jumping-on point. This is not to say “my Marvel” represents some artistic apex, but that the first edition of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe managed to synchronize the perfect material, perfect moment, and perfect audience in my particular case.
It’s a Proustean madeline and a geologic core sample and quasi-religious artifact rolled up in a single tome that makes for some ideal bathroom reading.
Plus, you get to see Mark Gruenwald use his professional position to resolve what I have to assume was a twenty year old playground argument.