Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

03 April 2006

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, v. 1

Collects: Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (v. 1) #1-15 (1983-4)

Released: January 2006 (Marvel)

Have you ever wondered what were the names of Peter Parker’s parents? (Richard and Mary Parker.) Or what Mystique’s real name is? (Raven Darkholme.) How about why Elektra is running around, alive, after Bullseye made her imitate a shish kebab? (Ninjas with magic powers, which are possibly the coolest things in the world.) Or what an Avengers ID card looks like? (It looks easily forged, is what it looks like.)

The answer to these questions (and many others) can be found in The Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. A black-and-white reprint of the original OHotMU, which was published in the early ’80s, this Essential is packed, crammed, and stuffed with information on Marvel heroes and villains who were active at the time of publication. You can’t really grasp the level of detail compiled by Mark Gruenwald and his team until you page through it; the book is saturated with histories and descriptions of the powers of the denizens of the Marvel Universe. And not only the heroes and villains: each issue had a section on the aliens that have been seen, and most issues had an appendix which listed cross references and a sentence or two report on the truly minor characters.

Yes, if you’re interested in what happened after 1984, this book is not for you. The Deluxe Edition of the Handbook (abbreviated OHotMUDE) came out a few years later, and to be truthful, is a better organized version of the same information. And the OHotMUDE will be released in black-and-white Essentials in a few months — in three volumes. For a quick reference, this is much nicer. For the fanatical devotee in you, the Essential OHotMUDE v. 1-3 might be better, but for the casual fan, this is better.

The entries contained several sections, most of which were of the brief, fill-in-the-blank variety: Name, occupation, identity (secret or not), legal status (alien, criminal records, etc.), aliases, place of birth, marital status, known relatives, group affilations, base of operations, height / weight / hair / eyes, and first appearance in comics. Two major sections are history and powers. Early descriptions get bogged down on the minutiae of the characters’ powers, straining to make the pseudoscience involved relatively plausible. (The best ones often admit there is no explanation of how the power works.) As the series went along, however, the history section of each entry grows, especially for characters that have no or few superpowers. Depending on your engineering interests, the diagrams of equipment (Spider-Man’s webshooters, Sentinels, Iron Man’s armor, etc.) might also be fascinating. I tended to skip these, but then again, I’m not a technical kind of guy.

The comics inside are more than 20 years out of date, but on the other hand, this is Marvel — there haven’t been any Crises or Zero Hours to worry about, so while it may be out of date, none of the information has been erased from continuity. The text layouts of the original weren’t as professional as the reader might like, with many entries crammed into 6-point type so it will all fit on one page. Lines are occasionally repeated or dropped entirely, leaving the reader bewildered trying to make sense of it all. The black and white illustrations obviously can’t convey skin or costume colors, although with certain skin tones, that’s probably for the best. There are a very few pages where the lack of color makes the illustration useless; the examples of SHIELD’s uniforms for different ranks is useless because all that differentiate the uniforms are the color schemes. These are rare, however.

There is a special treat for those who remember the original issues. The OHotMU (and the OHotMUDE, for that matter) featured wraparound covers with many / most of the characters within the issues rushing off toward the right. (I have no idea why.) These are reprinted on facing pages so you can see the full image at once. But the fun thing was that you could see certain features continued on the previous / next issues, like Mr. Fantastic’s stretched limbs. In the back of the Essential OHotMU, the first 12 covers are laid out as they were originally drawn, in rows of three stacked upon each other. (For instance, parts of Galactus appear on #4 and #7.) For the first time, you can see how it all fits together without getting all the issues and laying them out on the floor; characters are fill every available space that isn’t needed for the masthead. It’s remarkable. And the covers for #13 and #14, which covers the dead and inactive characters, fit together to form another image, with all the characters floating above a giant death’s head. (An additional neat touch is the dead characters all have their hands folded over their chests on the cover, and inactive / retired characters have their hands at their sides.) The cover for #15 is the also used as the book’s cover.

Overall, this Essential is an excellent buy. For the obsessive, wait for the Essential OHotMUDE. For the rest, this is a remarkable accomplishment.

Grade: B+

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