Loose Leafs Sink Ships

As the 80s turned into the 90s, the geek community was invited to buy a lot of binders. I don't know if the trading card explosion or advent of the CCG (Collectible Card Game) and their collection binders inspired others to produce binders for their products, but suddenly, both role-playing games and comics were giving us the chance to arrange information like WE wanted.

Question is: Who asked?

I think the first volley came from TSR with their Monstrous Compendium for AD&D 2nd edition.This monster of a binder was meant to replace the Monster Manual, with monsters given a full page, whether they deserved it or not, in black and white. The extra space did give the authors a chance to write more flavor for them, but as appendices were published, it seemed like they were going out of their way not to create monsters with names that would alphabetically put them in the middle of a sheet (2 monsters to a sheet, after all). The real problem, and this is true of everything in this post, was that they published more material than could fit in the two three-ringed binders they made available.

So while I appreciate the ability to pluck out the monster stats I need for a particular session and not have to drag a book with me, the overfull binder currently sit on my shelf with supplements unfiled next to them. At least TSR's Gamer's Guide to the Marvel Universe came soft bound with holes for binders. You didn't have to rip the sheets out if you didn't want to, and I never did.

Within the year, DC Comics was releasing and new version of Who's Who, also with two (admittedly gorgeous) binders.
What a frustrating product. On the one hand, the new format gave each character a full color illustration on one side, and more complete information on the back. A huge artistic improvement over the old Who's Who. However, the higher production values meant fewer characters could be features, which was what was great about the old series (which I still love best). To make sure headliners were in each "issue" (or collection of loose leaf pages), the characters came all out of order, with Superman in the first issue, for example. Since you could order them how you liked later, that shouldn't matter, but it was still confusing. Even before the '93 update, the two binders became stuffed to the gills and I started using ordinary binders to stock the overflow. Despite the problems, I could never resist a Who's Who, the proof being that I even bought the cheap Impact Comics Who's Who.
As if the DC binders weren't already full, Mayfair came out with a mirror Who's Who for their DCHeroes RPG. These came in 4 "issues" each collecting 4 of DC's issues, in the very same order so you could put the game stats and info right next to the character's Who's Who page. That's how they're filed in my collection. Frustratingly, Mayfair gave up on it before the 4th issue came out, which means the crazy Doom Patrol stuff that was in the Vertigo issue was never statted out. And I was so looking forward to using the Men from NOWHERE. Boo!

But back to DC's Who's Who release... Marvel quickly followed suit with perhaps the worst comics encyclopedia product ever. The binder, thinner but available in large quantities, was just the ugliest thing.
But the Marvel Universe Master Edition was ugly on the inside too. Always less inspired than Who's Who, Marvel Universe nonetheless offered some good art by a variety of artists. No more. Check out these multi-angled views in standardized art.
It looks like something Marvel gave their artists so they'd draw the characters the right height. The back wasn't much better. Sometimes you'd get a black and white panel, but instead of a proper history for the character, you'd just get a list of important back issues to buy. Overly technical, it lacked ANY flavor. Epilogue: No role-playing game ever made a mirror product for it.

Ultimately, binders and loose leaf were a very bad idea, and were consequently abandonned in favor of - gasp! - real books again! But I've got to live with their legacy. Overstuffed binders, pages that have strayed either from use or because their holes have been broken by the metal rings, and the lasting impression that it only really helped their makers come out with products without having to proof an index.

But I'm leaving the final judgment to someone who's been around a lot longer:


Matthew Turnage said...

Growing up, Who's Who was one of my favorite purchases and probably a big reason why I started becoming more of a DC guy in the mid-80's. (I tried one issue of OHOTMU and hated it.) I never got any of the loose-leaf version, though, as my small town was still comic shop-free when it was released. I've always been curious about it, though. Sounds like the format was a pain, but at least you could keep the entries together, unlike the 1989 update that was scattered throughout various annuals.

De said...

The man drawing the majority of the "Master Edition" was Keith Pollard. He's a capable artist but boy, were those turnarounds ever dull.

Back when these were being published, I secretly wanted a new Who's Who in Star Trek using the loos leaf format.

Siskoid said...

De: I'm not blaming him. Those were all bound to be static and uninspired.

cardboardjudas said...

I'd guess that the binder thing was probably caused by the sports cards boom rather then any ccg's (MtG came out after all the binders you've listed IIRC) which of course as we all know also produced those marvel card sets which probably had binders too.

Jeremy Patrick said...

Rights as I started getting into Marvel comics, the OHOTMU had reached the "Book of the Dead" issues--man, I devoured those and I still get a thrill whenver I stumble across a back issue with one of those characters. In retrospect, a very morbid way to get into comics.
I liked the looseleaf Who's Who, but they were just so expensive--I think something like $ 3.95 or $ 4.95 when a regular comic was $. 75 cents or a buck. I still bought some of them, but it was more of a chore than a joy.
And yeah, I have no idea what Marvel was thinking with their looseleaf set--absolutely flavorless and joyless (they would be handy as a "Bible" for comic creators starting out on a book, but that's about it).

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I totally agree with you. Who's who had the problem of following Handbook which was brilliant in its first go around. So much information to just absorb and the greatest bathroom read ever. Then Who's Who got good in its best format- the binder - and Master Edition got crap. It was very frustrating. I always wanted some other company to do ALL the major comic book characters and combine what was best about both versions because there was a real genius in having those reference materials available to the serious comic fan.

Austin Gorton said...

Man alive, I ADORE the OHOTMU, to the point that I buy any and all of the recent versions as well. When I first got into comics, a friend had several issues of the Deluxe edition and reading them was like striking gold.

That said, the Master Edition was a travesty and terribly disappointing. I could have suffered through the static art had there been ANY text at all, instead of just stats and back issue references. And Marvel even recently released an Essential Master Edition, which just rammed home how lackluster that format was.

Anonymous said...

Well, let me say I loved the old AD&D monster compendium. It gave many info about the monsters, not like the 3rd-4rth edition ugly book. With about 3 whole lines to define what a green dragon is, when not talking about his breath and such.


Siskoid said...

Later 2nd ed. products, like the Planescape monstrous compendiums, managed to put in just as much info in a perfect bound book. In color too!


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