Daily Archives: March 2, 2010

Who’s Who, That’s What

6 Slightly Subjective Reasons Why Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe Outclasses The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe

1. The table of contents for Who’s Who is right there on the cover.
Long before the likes of Wikipedia and marvunapp.com came along, comic fans had to get the scoop on the many characters inhabiting the Marvel and DC universes. In the mid-1980s, that task got a little easier thanks to the publication of DC’s Who’s Who and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, both presented as alphabetical guides to the origins, powers and abilities of our favourite heroes and villains (with a few pages devoted to weapons, headquarters, pieces of geography and the like). Fans of either Marvel or DC would find their own reasons to prefer one compendium over the other, but in any objective survey there is simply no comparison: Who’s Who was clearly the better product. For starters, Who’s Who demonstrated an obvious commitment to getting the little details right, like placing the issue’s cast of characters right on the front cover for easier referencing (as opposed to issues of Handbook, which put the list on the inside front cover, making it more cumbersome to scan the books). It was a small thing, but it showed that, from a design point of view, Who’s Who was given a tad more thought than Handbook, which also used a standard typeface for each character’s name (as opposed to their individual, stylized logos, which Who’s Who provided) and went with static, full-body portraits instead of the action-oriented poses more commonly seen in Who’s Who. And just what the hell were all the Marvel characters running/flying towards, anyway?

2. Who’s Who, to a much lesser extent that Handbook, didn’t cater to the “obsessive fanboy” mentality.
The Who’s Who writers were careful to give only as much information as necessary, especially when it came to outlining each character’s arrays of powers and weapons. For instance, in describing the powers of the Golden Age Superman (both he and his modern-day counterpart received separate entries), Who’s Who had this to say: “Superman has tremendous strength, near-invulnerability, super-speed (which can even break the time barrier), flight, super-breath, and various super-visions, including X-ray, heat, microscopic, and telescopic visions.” In contrast, the “powers and abilities” description for Aurora, a member of Marvel’s Alpha Flight team, ran to 512 words, turning “she’s a super-fast mutant who generates light” into a long, pseudo-scientific essay on the source of her powers; what her powers used to be like; why they changed and who was responsible for the change; how fast she can travel; how fast she could theoretically travel; to what degree she can light up like a beacon; how fast she travels when carrying someone; how exactly she generates her light bursts (by “varying the acceleration of the molecules of her body out of phase with one another, thereby generating a cascade of photonic discharges”… as one does), and so on. This… er, definitive approach may have satisfied the cravings of a small cadre of obsessive Marvel fans with advanced science degrees, but it left Marvel open to criticisms of setting way too much in stone and limiting the ability of future writers to focus on telling good stories.

3. Even by Marvel’s standards, the marketing plan for Handbook was a wee bit over the top.
Who’s Who came along at a delicate period in DC’s history; commissioned to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, the 26-issue series debuted just months before Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it ended shortly after that series had completely updated the histories of dozens of DC characters. The result was a Who’s Who that was almost out of date before it had even ended. Rather than start fresh, DC published two smaller “Update” mini-series in ’87 and ’88, and later published a new, binder-friendly Who’s Who in 1990. (In the Internet era, DC has opted to publish “Secret Files and Origins” one-shots instead, highlighting new and updated characters within specific titles and storylines.) Compare that to Marvel, which inexplicably published its “Deluxe” 20-issue Handbook series just a year and a half after finishing its original 15-issue series, released the Deluxe edition again in trade paperback format shortly thereafter, followed that up with an eight-issue “Handbook Update” in ’89 and a 36-issue “Master Edition” in 1990, and then released a few dozen title- and genre-specific Handbooks throughout the 2000s (everything from “Hulk 2004” to “Alternate Universes 2005”). In short, it was a lot of trees felled to chronicle the very detailed and rapidly changing lives of fictional characters… characters most readers were, by the late ’90s, looking up on the Internet.

4. And since we’re talking about that Master Edition…
In 1990, both Marvel and DC shifted the formats of their Who’s Who and Handbook projects away from the typical saddle-stitched comic to character indices that were a little more interactive for the fans. Both came already three-hole punched for easy placement in binders (“official” binders for both series were sold separately at comic shops), and the pages could be easily separated to allow fans to sort by name, team affiliation, etc. But that is where the similarities end. Each oversized Who’s Who page featured an action pose on the front and a biography on the back, with different border colors denoting heroes, villains, supernatural characters, etc. The “Master Edition” Handbook pages, meanwhile, sported a front, side, and rear view of each character on the front (because we needed to see the Punisher’s ass why?) and personal statistics/bibliography on the back. While the front/side/back views may have been a boon to aspiring artists, it was a monotonous slog for the rest of us, and it didn’t help dispel the “for serious comic geeks only” label that Marvel was slowly slapping on itself as the ’80s gave way to the ’90s.

5. Who’s Who was positioned as an introduction to the DC Universe and beyond. Handbook? Not so much.
To be sure, there were a few glitches in the original Who’s Who project. As already mentioned, the pre- and post-Crisis timing of the series rendered some early entries obsolete by the time the last issue rolled off the presses, and readers could sense DC’s marketing department having a hand in some of the editorial decisions — Batman, for instance, gets just one page in the second issue, while the then-new Atari Force team (remember them?) got a two-page spread plus one-page entries for each team member. Beyond these inconsistencies, though, it was clear that DC was trying to position Who’s Who as a gateway book for new readers, introducing them to not only the many characters within the “official” DC universe but also the many characters in its out-of-continuity titles, such as Camelot 3000, Watchmen, and various sword-and-sorcery books. Handbook, on the other hand, concerned itself solely with those characters within the canonical Marvel universe — not a wrong decision, necessarily, but it only served to heighten the perception that Marvel was a company where out-of-the-box thinking was out of the question.

6. Who’s Who conveyed a sense of history; Handbook didn’t.
In the editorial for the first issue of the original Handbook, editor Mark Gruenwald had this to say about Marvel’s position in the comic-book cosmos:

“The Marvel Universe began twenty one [sic] years ago with the publication of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 in November, 1961…. Before the Marvel heroes came along, comics characters seemed entrenched in their own private, isolated worlds, seldom to intermingle or even acknowledge another’s existence. But the Marvel heroes from the beginning were different. Their adventures were set in a common universe.”

While it’s indisputable that Stan Lee & Co. took the “shared universe” concept and ran with it, it seems a tad disingenuous to claim Marvel was the first to introduce the idea of heroes sharing one world, given that DC’s Justice Society was debating Robert’s Rules of Order as far back as 1940. And, as Who’s Who aptly demonstrated, many DC properties have been introduced over the decades since, including a wide range of Golden Age heroes (Red Bee! Little Boy Blue! Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks!), Silver Age detectives (Roy Raymond, TV Detective! Mysto the Magician! Captain Compass!) and other memorable characters (Rex the Wonder Dog. ‘Nuff said.). By pegging the beginning of the Marvel Age at 1961, Handbook gave short shrift to Marvel’s Golden Age characters who didn’t make the transition into the Silver Age, such as the Blonde Phantom or the Golden Age versions of Angel or the Vision, a slight disservice to the budding comic historians out there. Again, it wasn’t necessarily a wrong decision on Marvel’s part… but if your goal is to impress readers with the scope of your imaginary universe, then why insist its Big Bang took place in 1961?