by KC Carlson
Need to know if Deathcry joined the Avengers before or after Darkhawk? Can’t remember if the Brothers Grimm are related? Can the Cosmic Cube make another Cosmic Cube so big and so heavy that no one could lift it? Want to know just what the deal with the Beyonder was anyway? Sounds like you need the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: A to Z!
The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (OHOTMU) has had an interesting history. Originally conceived in 1982, the first OHOTMU was a 15-issue standard format (32 page) comic outlining the ins and outs of the Marvel Universe, including two issues covering dead characters and a complete issue devoted to Marvel technology, vehicles, and other equipment (a showcase for tech artist Eliot R. Brown). The Deluxe Edition followed in 1985. This series doubled the size of the individual issues and lasted through 20 issues, an additional 5 issues of dead characters (proof positive that superhero comics were darkening), and an 8-issue update in 1989. Both the original series and the Deluxe Edition have been reprinted in the Marvel Essentials format.
Then, in 1990, the Master Edition appeared, eliminating the A-Z format of the first two series for a more scattershot affair, and presenting the entries on three-hole punched cardstock, so that fans could rearrange the pages any way they wanted. Marvel also offered special three-ring binders to hold the cards. Despite this major advantage, the series was heavily criticized at the time due to the sameness in artwork (each character was presented in basically the same pose). The information provided was also much skimpier than the previous Deluxe Edition. The 36-issue Master Edition did not even come close to gathering up all the then-current MU characters and info, and the OHOTMU concept fell dormant for more than a decade.
Revived in 2004, and largely written and coordinated by Jeff Christiansen with a small army of writers, editors, and production folks, OHOTMU came storming back into the Marvel Universe. Between 2004 and 2007, there have been 27 “themed” issues of OHOTMU (all the “big guns” plus fun books like Golden Age 2004 and Women of Marvel 2005), 12 issues – plus four updates – of A to Z listings, four “Legacy” handbooks spotlighting specific decades in Marvel history, as well as many not-quite-Handbook projects (including Marvel Atlas, All-New Iron Manual, and the oddball – and out this week – Marvel Pets Handbook). I’ve been enjoying most all of them the past few years, although the methodology occasionally puzzled me. The 12-part All-New OHOTMU was notably lacking in “big gun” characters, most of them already previously covered in the earlier themed Handbooks. Of course, the location of these previous listings was well documented (on the inside cover of each issue), but it still seemed like a very piecemeal and unwieldy way of going about things. Until I finally realized their ultimate plan…
Most of what has gone before (since 2004 anyway) is currently being presented in the projected 12-volume set of 240-page OHOTMU Hardcovers (eight volumes available to date). But they’re not just straight reprintings from the previous projects – many of the entries are massively updated with new artwork or expanded copy or both! Plus, all the big-gun (or long-lived) characters are getting greatly expanded entries of four pages or more. The Captain America (Rogers) entry (in Volume 2) is now eight pages long, with an additional three pages on Bucky as Cap.
I can’t recommend these OHOTMU projects enough. Besides the massive amount of good ol’ superhero history being documented here, these books also represent – to me anyway – an indirect chronicle of the legacy of hundreds of talented writers and artists who told these stories in the first place and made them memorable enough to be documented in this way. Granted, it would be great if somehow they could all be credited in the book. (At least the artwork used is credited to the original penciller.)
OHOTMU is also an extremely useful tool for me to fill in the gaps of my reading. Unfortunately, I no longer have the budget to purchase all the MU books, nor time to read them all. And since the modern-day practice of eliminating informative footnotes from the stories or text pieces from lettercols (since there are virtually no lettercols left, either), the OHOTMU is the ideal place for me to find out what’s the deal with this other Ghost Rider (it has been a long time since I read that character!) or which mutants still have powers after M-day. Or, frankly, which mutants are currently dead or alive! (They come and go so fast…)
Frankly, they give me a great opportunity to catch up on the complete history of a character in a few minutes rather than trudging through an entire run of some not-so-great-series (fill in your own blank). Thanks, OHOTMU! Saving the world from bland comics!
One thing I particularly enjoyed about the current OHOTMU was the Bibliographies, which listed the key issues of a hero’s history, if you felt inclined to go back and read the original stories. Unfortunately, these were dropped from the Handbooks due to space considerations in 2006. But I was very happy to discover that they are still being made available on the official – and extremely useful – OHOTMU website. (Although you guys really need to update your FAQ!) Also recommend, for the super-obscure characters that haven’t made it into the Handbooks yet, is the “unofficial” Appendix to the OHOTMU also primarily written by Jeff Christiansen.
One other thing: once, info books like OHOTMU were written off as “just lists of stats for gamers.” Granted, the power stats are still here, and still widely popular from my understanding. But the current OHOTMU is so much more than just facts and stats. The expanded histories are informative and well-organized. I very much appreciate the work done here in boiling down the essentials for some of Marvel’s more complicated or mind-numbing concepts. (The Eternals are a pet bugaboo of mine – or keeping all the Atlantians straight in my head.) There are even Appendices listing all the Marvel Alternate Universes and Worlds (Core Continuum), even though this makes my eyes spin around and around in my head, although not quite as much as the entry for Corps, which delineates all of the various Captain Britain’s, does. Yikes!
And yes, this is a big geeky project for big geek boys like me. But I gotta tell you that reading OHOTMU entries for gonzo Steve Gerber concepts like Doctor Bong, the Band of the Bland (including Tilly the Hun, Dr. Angst, and the Spanker), Pro-Rata, Bessie the Hellcow, and the Elf with a Gun (two pages! Complete with conspiracy theories!) make me giggle. A lot.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.