Official Handbook Mistakes

Category: Encyclopedia
Last article published: 13 January 2020
This is the 28th post under this label

As is apparent from perusing this blog, DC's original Who's Who is my preferred comic book universe "handbook", but I also have a podcast dedicated to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition). The latter has made me realize that while I might have liked it better at the time, for its nitty-gritty explanation of super-powers and cool gadget diagrams, it made more fundamental mistakes than Who's Who did. And each successive edition did not necessarily fix the problems of its forebear(s). Let's start with the original.
A lot of the problems start here, but we can also cut it some slack given it was the first book of its kind and no one really knew what they were doing. The layouts were a bit crude, but without the bounding box around the character that would be a staple of the Deluxe Edition, the poses could include more action. Ant-Man growing to full-size in the first issue, for example, and the single reprinted panel that usually accompanied the one-page entries could break panel borders for, like, Angel's wings or something. But there were also a lot of bad drawings. The good ones were reused (and sometimes touched-up - Black Knight's helmet, Brother Voodoo's cape) in Deluxe. The worst ones were assigned to different artists and redone, along with the ones that didn't fit a panel border. By the last few issues (the so-called Book of the Dead), they had done away with reprinted panels in favor of longer histories, as those characters' were done, I guess. Which brings us to the first two mistakes.

First, there is no "history" of each character per se. Instead we have "Origin", which can be as short as a single sentence for some characters. While Deluxe Edition would go all out and give us TOO MUCH historical information (meaning the book was immediately dated in a way that "origins mostly" was not) and feel like it was droning on in a "and then this happened, and then this happened" fashion, Original Edition doesn't give us ENOUGH. Result: One line for history ("she's a mutant, the end!"), 3+ paragraphs for powers. The discrepancy is maddening and reduces characters to power sets, something the series will continually struggle with.

Second, and this one ports over to the Deluxe series, is the idea of focusing single-mindedly on the contemporary Marvel Universe. If a character was presently dead or inactive, even if such things were already proven to be pretty temporary by the 1980s, they were excluded and shunted off to the Book of the Dead (which may of may not have been an afterthought, originally). By these rules, it wouldn't matter if Marvel had an Invaders series out, or a western book, all those characters would be considered long dead or retired and relegated to that appendix. I think this was a fundamental mistake, further dating the book for ongoing characters of the present day, and ignoring Marvel's rich history dating back to the Timely era.
The Deluxe Edition doubled down on this idea to terrible effect. Inactive characters were NOT relegated to the Book of the Dead, but instead put in the main entries, in civilian attire, and under their last names first. So you're looking for Ghost Rider? Sorry, he's under Blaze, Johnny because he's (temporarily of course) lost his powers. Worst of all, unlike say Richard Rider or Jessica Drew, there are no shots of him in his former superhero identity! Just a guy on a motorcycle. This, for a guy who had his own title, had a really cool look, and has since been in two movies. (Don't worry, Iron Fist doesn't have an entry at all, but that's a glitch more than a systemic mistake.)

This fixation with the "present" carries over into sometimes upselling the current look and status quo of a character over its past, no matter how temporary that look and status quo is meant to be. So for example, the Hulk is the mindless monster with Bruce Banner physically separated from him, as per John Byrne's storyline of the time. And while the history tells more (and then this happened), all the panels used are from Byrne's run. No Mr. Hyde Hulk, no smart Hulk, no transformation shot. It's not at all consistent (Aurora is shown in both costumes, for example), in fact, the Hulk is a particularly egregious example. Even for the Byrnophiliac OHOTMU, it rarely gets this bad. But here's where all these decisions take us: We're not getting the iconic versions of the characters, and since comic book universes are long soap operas where status quos change, people die and come back, etc., an encyclopedia series, especially one that's going to come out of many months has got to be less grounded into a singular (moving) moment. I say moving here, because while Deluxe doesn't give us an Iron Fist, it repeats the Blackout entry in the Book of the Dead, because he dared get killed in between issues 2 and 16 of the series.
Another mistake repeated from the first series is the way teams are handled. Boring head shots. Yuck. The original series almost touched on the right formula with teams whose members didn't have their own entries, so say the Circus of Crime, while individual drawings, had a claim to being in the same space. In Deluxe, they decided to do give these characters quarter pages. But "name" teams like the Avengers or X-Men? Sorry, you're gonna have to do with boring ol' headshots. A ker-pow moment is thus turned into forgettable pap. Maybe if you were lucky, there'd be panels cribbed from the team's series, but you usually weren't.

The naked aliens is also a carryover from Original Flavor OHOTMU. In that volume, they ran a page of the Alien Races appendix in each issue. For Deluxe, they dumped them all at the end where its weakness is even more apparent. Why, oh why choose to put them all in the same black speedo? Focusing on their biology rather than (or in addition to) their culture doesn't just seem wrong-headed, but in the case of human-like aliens, the most boring take possible.

But Original and Deluxe flavors are still wayyyyy more palatable than the Master Edition that would come later. Like, Original and Deluxe are still beloved comic book artifacts no matter what complaints I make. Master is... something else.
DC hit the shelves with a gorgeous loose leaf edition, beautiful binders, huge splashes, themes and humor. Marvel followed suit (in a panic?) with ugly black rubber binders and what can only be described as the style guides of each character, which is even more boring than having Joe Rubinstein inking every entry of the Deluxe Edition and making sure male nipples were consistently erased. And in terms of information, wow, even more dismal. The black and white back of every card (yes card, so you know this cost a lot even if it was a bad product) had all the stats you were used to and distilled the history of each character into a list of back issues you should get to get their most important stories. So dry, you choke on each page. This one was a mistake from top to bottom. And yes, they always did that with capes to show the backside...
 In the modern era, DC let go of the handbook concept (sadly!), but Marvel reinvented it ingeniously. After coming out with a normal A to Z representing their comics characters at the time, they published mini-series and specials devoted to certain series (X-Men, for example, and it must be said DC did that with the Legion and Star Trek), themes (Women of Marvel, Horror, Alternate Universes) and most excitingly ERAS. So we got a Golden Age handbook for Marvel's 70th Anniversary, an Age of Apocalypse handbook, etc.

I love that idea and it would be perfect for DC, given how many versions of continuity it has. Perfect companion to certain lines of trades, I should think. But since we're talking about mistakes here, there's one I want to highlight, and it's those stupid video-game levels for Energy Projection even if it's not a power you have. These are pretty meaningless and gimmicky, to my eyes. Easy graphics to slap on a page, I suppose, and if I'm not mistaken, the Marvel Encyclopedia used them (originated them?). Well, it's a small price to pay for a comics series that included an issue devoted to pets, with a full page for every horse ever ridden by a Marvel cowboy. A VERY small price to pay.

I know these handbooks (from any company) are a labor of love and extremely complex projects to coordinate and pull off, so no one should feel slighted by these criticisms. Just trying to work out what the best format is for these things.


LiamKav said...

Did they really need to pick a panel of a teenage girl in her underwear to show off Kitty using her powers? Really?

Siskoid said...

That one spoke for itself.

Green Luthor said...

I think Kitty was actually in a swimsuit instead of underwear in that panel, not that it makes the choice of panels any less questionable.

(Ah, here we go. Uncanny X-Men #151. I probably spent more time than was worthwhile on that.)

Siskoid said...

The Comics Outta Context Twitter account would have a field day. Thanks for the research.


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