Making the Grade: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update ’89, Vol. 6

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Ahoy hoy, fellow carbon blobs from Sector 7-G. Time once again to check in with The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Update ’89. This time out: Volume 6, from Prowler to Serpent Society. 

So basically the characters in these Handbook issues can be sorted into four buckets:

  • newer characters (Roughhouse, Reavers, Rictor) who debuted during or after the previous two Handbook titles
  • older characters who are making an appearance because they have been significant updates to their entries (Red Skull, Red Wolf)
  • older characters who got left out of the Handbooks for various reasons until now (Prowler, Rocket Racer, Razorback)
  • supporting cast characters with no powers of their own, but feature prominently in other characters’ stories (Amanda Sefton, Jo Robertson)

I’m kind of on the fence about how Marvel went about this. When DC came out with its Who’s Who Update issues, it marked characters that had appeared before in a Who’s Who issue as “Revised,” and it grouped together all the supporting cast people in the final issue of its 1988 Who’s Who mini-series. Then DC came out with its Who’s Who binder pages that allowed you to organize the characters however the hell you wanted. That Who’s Who series also attached months and years to the character’s first appearance, which was very handy for a budding comic nerd in a pre-internet universe.   

Am I going somewhere with this? Not really. It was great to see some of Marvel’s odder characters get their moment in the sun (RAZORBACK!), just as it was nice to be reminded of how even the non-powered people in the Marvel universe like Joe Robertson have completely wild, ripped-from-Days-of-Our-Lives scripts stories to tell. But for a young nerd like me, I was still looking forward to the day when I could organize my characters the way I wanted to. 

Excelsior! 

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Prowler
A frustrated inventor, Hobie Brown tried to make a name for himself by using his window washing-inspired inventions to commit a crime as the Prowler, and then return the stolen goods as himself. His chosen target? “Breaking into the payroll department of the Daily Bugle Building, the Prowler knocked a guard unconscious and stole a payroll bag.” And while I can easily picture Jameson personally doling out dollar bills every payday just to remind his employees who’s boss, I’m pretty sure that’s not how payday works, even in newspaper offices in 1969. What do you think the Prowler could steal if he broke into a newspaper office in 2016? Tear-stained keyboard trays and snotty interns with Twitter accounts? C+

Psylocke
I’ve nothing against her personally, but Betsy Braddock is a prime example of something Marvel is often guilty of doing: not doing the necessary housecleaning in a character’s backstory. Her father is an inter-dimensional wizard tasked by Merlin to sire a champion and her parents were killed by their rogue computer and her brother is Captain Britain and she’s a fashion model by day and she used her psychic abilities for the British version of S.H.I.E.L.D. and she was Captain Britain for a while until a villain blinded her and that doesn’t matter because she later received artificial eyes from an other-dimensional tub of suet with a serious TV addiction and good gravy we haven’t even gotten yet to the time where she’s transformed into a hot Asian assassin babe. Like I said, she seems nice and I really dig the purple dye job, but at some point you have to put your foot down and haul something out to the curb. C-

Quantum
He’s an alien mook with powers based on quantum physics — which, good luck explaining that to the average Marvel reader in 1989 (i.e., me) — and that’s about all you get about him. So instead let’s rake the handbook editors over the coals for a sec. Prowler’s entry had an entire paragraph repeated twice and I was willing to let it go because that’s how I roll: magnanimously. But here in the middle of Quantum’s entry, there’s an entire paragraph from the Rocket Racer’s entry. So what do we think happened here? Overworked editors? Mischievous typesetters checking to see if we’re paying attention? Someone’s assistant taking their work frustrations out on readers? A Jim Shooter loyalist executing his final directive to take the place down from within one typo at a time? C

Quicksand
From a list I did a while back about Thor’s not-so-impressive enemies: “Quicksand didn’t set out to test her mettle against Thor; he just happened to be in the neighborhood when she was in the middle of attacking a nuclear power plant. See, Quicksand used to be a scientist at a nuclear research facility when an accident transformed her body into a sandlike substance, and so she decided to avenge her lost humanity by attacking other nuclear facilities. She dropped the revenge thing after a while and even showed signs of enjoying her newfound powers, joining an all-female cruise ship full of super-villains (which… what?) before popping up again during Marvel’s Civil War and The Initiative storylines. No matter what she gets up to, though, she will always seem the second-rate Sandman she was apparently intended to be, and given how he got his silver-screen close-up back in Spider-Man 3, don’t expect this distaff knock-off to get a call from her agent any time soon.” C-

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Razorback
Hey, kids! Did you know CB radio used to be a thing? Long before Twitter allowed humans with nothing to say to say it in poorly spelled all-caps to the world, there was CB radio — only without the poor spelling and all-caps because, you know, radio. Our movie and TV stars played truckers, politicians were peppering their speeches with “breaker, breaker” CB lingo — it was a weird time. How weird? I give you Buford Hollis, “crimefighter, trucker, astronaut.” His mutant power is super-driving skills! His first big case was busting cross-state CB equipment smugglers! He drives a souped-up space rig named “Big Pig” across the cosmos! Really, when you’re this deranged a concept, you might as well go all in and wear a giant pig’s head on your melon, and God bless him for it. B+

Reavers
Uch. And then you’ve got these guys. About the most interesting thing you can say about these cyborgs with an adamantium-laced bone to pick with Wolverine is a couple of them used to be average henchmen hired by the Hellfire Club until Wolverine messed them up. And sure, as far as motives go “revenge” is usually one of the good ones, but I would hope at least one of them found a reflective surface in that deserted Australian town and realized what a huge mistake they made. “Resemblance to one of the mutant toys from Sid’s room in Toy Story” is not usually a sign of personal success. Also? They reave, which is an old-timey way of saying “steal.” The more you know. D+

Red Ghost’s Super-Apes
Just say the words and feel the Silver Age magic wash over you. “Red Ghost’s Super-Apes.” The gorilla has super-strength, the orangutan has magnetic powers, and the baboon is a shape-shifter. But who cares which ape has which power? If loving the image of the Thing throwing down with a super-strong gorilla is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. B-

Red Skull
Basically a repeat of the Red Skull’s Handbook entry from one of the previous Book of the Dead issues, updated with new information to reflect his not-quite-dead-anymore status. Yep, capital idea putting all the dead characters in one place, Marvel. “The Red Skull decided that he would no longer utilize the now dated trappings of Nazism, which had proved effective for seizing power in 1930s Germany but were inappropriate for contemporary America.” Must… resist… easy… Trump… joke…  A

Red Wolf
Pretty much a repeat of the original Red Wolf entry, with extra details about a then-recent attack he suffered at the hands of the Bengal, an international assassin who mistakenly held Red Wolf responsible for the slaughter of his village during the Vietnam War. This led to Red Wolf feeling extreme guilt for joining the conflict in the first place, but he got better. Speaking of war crimes: which synergy-seeking ninny at Marvel ordered the writers working on the very excellent The ‘Nam series to cram a pre-Punisher Frank Castle into their stories? Because I would like a word with him-slash-her. C+

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Rictor
His last name is Richter and he makes earthquakes happen because of course he does. Pretty inoffensive as far as generic 1980s-era mutants go, though it’s too bad he chose to wear that leather vest without a shirt/fingerless gloves/studded bracelets combo to his Handbook photo shoot. It’s like the whitest white person’s idea of how a “bad boy” in the ’80s dressed (see also: Charlie Sheen, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). C+

Right
Yet another subversive organization, this time with the goal of ensuring “the freedom of normal human beings” by wiping out mutants. And to their credit, they were indirectly responsible for the death of Cypher, so maybe they’re not so bad after all. “Higher officials dress in ceremonial robes during meetings.” I wonder if the robes are a selling feature when these kinds of groups are scouting new members. Wealth, power, revenge against one’s enemies — these are entirely valid reasons for joining a secret society. But did you ever notice how so many of these groups offer up ceremonial robes as uniforms? When did that become the standard-issue uniform at society society meetings? I bet at least one person who joined one of these groups was only looking for a place where he could just relax and let his robe-wearing freak flag fly. Hell, find me a pants-optional meeting hall and I’ll sign up right now. C

Right-Winger
Did you read my previous write-up on Left-Winger? Hold it up to a mirror. Done. D

Rintrah
Rintrah rocks, period, but I still have to get something off my chest. No, I don’t care if you call me a species-ist for saying this; if you’re a sentient being and you’re running around my home dimension, then you need to put on some pants. Or at least a Speedo. I don’t care if your crotch fur is long enough to cover your twig and berries (assuming that’s where you keep your twig and berries), if you want to set up shop on my plane of existence then you show some modesty, goddammit. B-

Robertson, Joe
“Four years after he graduated Columbia, he obtained a job as a night desk catcher with a newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he married his girlfriend, Martha.” WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME? Sorry, I couldn’t resist — that line will never be not funny. Jameson’s cool-headed second-in-command at the Daily Bugle, for years Robertson  was tormented by his high-school association with the mob enforcer known as Tombstone, and he went to jail briefly because he didn’t report one of Tombstone’s crimes to the authorities. I love how in one picture Robertson is looking at cut-out newspaper articles and the headlines are all “TOMBSTONE.” That’s it, just “TOMBSTONE” at the top of the articles. I mean, I know not every headline can be “Headless body found in topless bar,” but let’s step it up, Bugle editors. B+

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Rocket Racer
And then there was that one time a guy on a jet-powered skateboard duked it out with a guy driving a giant wheel in a Spider-Man comic. That’s it, that’s the punchline. Later, when the Rocket Racer wouldn’t play ball with a crooked bail bondsman, the bondsman sent a mercenary named the Bounty Hunter out to kill the Racer to make an example of him. Okay, one, that’s not what a bounty hunter does for a living. Two… that’s a little generic, don’t you think, buddy? You’re not going to make it as a bad guy in the Marvel universe without a snazzy codename. Just ask the Rocket Racer’s other arch-enemy, the racist skinhead known as… uh, Skinhead. C

Roma
“Occupation: Guardian of the multiverse.” Not going to lie, if I saw that on someone’s LinkedIn profile I’d hire them on the spot. After setting up Captain Britain with his guardian gig, she did a solid for the X-Men after they helped her with an extremely hostile takeover attempt. She also lives in a place called the Starlight Citadel, which is such a perfect name for a 1970s disco club and/or Jefferson Airplane album title I’m shocked no one came up with it. C+

Roughhouse
At the time, he had just recently been introduced in Wolverine’s ongoing comic, so there isn’t a lot here to talk about here. He’s big, he’s strong, he wears suits and dress shirts unbuttoned down to his navel. Good for him. C

Runner
One of the Elders of the Universe, the Runner is HEY WHERE ARE YOU ALL GOING? Come on, people, give him a chance. Let’s see… runs really fast… obsessed with exploring every corner of the universe… psionic ability to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain… once hung out in Galactus’s gullet as part of a master plan to reboot the universe… yeah, we’re done here. D+

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Satannish
Every time I hear this character’s name, I feel like he’s a watered-down, not-quite-there version of the Fallen One. “So he’s like Satan?” “Well, he’s Satan-ish.” He probably hates that. Satannish is one of several whatever-you-do-don’t-call-him-the-devil entities in the Marvel universe who collects human souls, which raises questions. What do these guys actuall do with the souls after they’ve collected them? Is the power of these demons dependent on the number of souls they ensnare? Do the souls require any upkeep? Are the souls of good people worth more on the open market than souls of bad people? Do demons give each other the soul of that Martin Shkreli asshole as a gag gift during their version of Yankee Swap? C+

Saturnyne
Occupation: “Omniversal majestrix.” Whatever you say, honey. Okay, I’ve read this entry a dozen times and I still have no idea what the hell is going on. We’re talking about alternate Earths, multiple multiverse doubles, stories in which Saturnyne may or not be taking the place of her Earth double, baffling subplots involving guys with names like Doc Croc… what, did Zack Snyder intern with Marvel in the ’80s? Because this kind of disjointed storytelling sounds right in his overwrought wheelhouse. D+

Savage Land
Now we’re getting somewhere. A lost land of dinosaurs and prehistoric tribes living in an artificial tropical enclave in the middle of Antarctica — doesn’t get more comics than that. It got wrecked for a while, but then one of Marvel’s godlike beings brought it back because even godlike beings can appreciate the sight of Spidey running for his life from a snapping Tyrannosaurus Rex. B

Scalphunter
Yet another in a long line of “extraordinary master of firearms” types that popped up with depressing regularity in the comics starting about the time the Punisher scored his own monthly title. We’re told he “has been known to carry and use” pistols, rifles, shotguns, laser guns and miniature cannons, but why stop there? I’m sure we can cram a bazooka, surface-to-air missile launcher and ICBM up his bunghole if we tried. It’s called “finesse,” Scalpy. Look it up. Heh, “bazooka.” That’s a funny word. D

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Scarlet Centurion
Note to Handbook editors: “2950 A.D.” has happened yet, so I’m note sure how the Fantastic Four can “journey back to that time.” Aside from that, what else can we talk about here? He’s one of those time-traveling future guys who conquers reality by going back in history and creating divergent timelines, and yet not once do we get a scene of him inventing rock-and-roll or fending off the advances of his hot-to-trot mom. Pass. C-

Scrambler
Hey, it’s a bad guy in a suit and tie! We need more of those. Like Scalphunter, Scrambler is a Marauder about whom nothing is known, so his bio is a recap of X-Men stories in which the Marauders killed people. His talent is “scrambling” systems with a touch, causing immobility, unconsciousness or death when he touches a living being. “Of course, if he induces death, the effect is permanent.” And if there’s one thing our X-Men comics have taught us, it’s the permanence of “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” (Wolverine: A Midsummer Bub’s Dream, Act II, Scene iii). C

Sefton, Amanda
Nightcrawler’s girlfriend, who also just happens to be a Gypsy sorceress and occasionally helps the X-Men fight evil magician aliens. It’s nice when couples share common interests. Know what would be even funnier? If the X-Men found her other job as a flight attendant more useful than her mystical talents, and we got all these scenes of Cyclops and Wolverine fighting over the last overhead bin, or some poor schmuck with a middle seat between Colossus and Blob. C+

Serpent Society
Hey, it’s these guys again! I love these guys. So what’s been happening since the last time we talked about this snake-themed outfit with health benefits? Not much, just your basic betrayals, hostile takeovers, reversal of loyalties, awkward resignations, plans to mutate innocent people into snake-monsters. Just another day in corporate America. B+