Suffering Shad and Sweet Christmas, I can’t believe it’s time for another look at The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition. This week: Volume Four, from Doctor Strange (yeah!) to Galactus (HELL YEAH!).
So if there was any doubt that this series was aimed at a slightly geekier market segment than DC’s Who Who books, the staff behind OHOTMU get their own Handbook entries on the inside front and back covers of this issue.
Among the vastly entertaining tidbits about birthplaces and known relatives, we find out that: writer/producer (and patron saint of Marvel nerds) Mark Gruenwald lists “can play rhythm guitar (a second-level adept on a five-level scale)” as one of his special abilities… writer Peter Sanderson (“Weight: Classified”) acquired “numerous graduate degrees in English literature” before dedicating his life to telling people about Frog-Man’s marital status… and technical illustrator/consultant Eliot R. Brown can “juggle, hold his breath for 90 seconds, and whistle through his nose due to an irregularity in the region around his vocal cords.” By amazing coincidence, those are the exact same special abilities I listed on my eHarmony profile.
You know him, you love him, and if you don’t then to Dormammu’s dark realm with you. I’m not big on magic-hurling heroes as a rule, but I’ll make an exception for the good doctor because of what he represents: redemption, self-sacrifice, the pursuit of enlightenment, all that good stuff. There’s not much in the text I can make fun of, but I did get a chuckle out of one sentence in his history: right after a car accident destroyed his hands, “he swiftly degenerated from recluse to drifter to drunken derelict.” First, I can think of a few college buddies who followed similar career paths. Second: how do you know when you’ve completed the transition from drifter to derelict? Is an increase in your alcohol consumption a factor, or is it determined solely by your mobility? “Yeah, I used to be a drifter, but I got tired of the commute. So I’m just a derelict now.” A+
Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum
Sad to say, there is no magical brownstone building at 177A Bleecker Street in the real-life New York City, certainly not one that’s home to such mystical wonders as “kitchen,” “foyer,” “laundry room” and “Wong’s storage cellar.” Pity. B
Check out the bonus artwork on the second page of Dormammu’s entry; prior to his current head-on-fire look, it would seem this arch-foe of Doctor Strange rocked quite the mullet back in the day. I’m not sure what to do with the knowledge that the Dread Lord of the Dark Dimension is a business-in-the-front-party-in-the-back kind of guy, but there you go. C+
“Dragon Man has the intellectual capacity of a domestic dog.” Sure, but what kind of domestic dog? Border collie? Scottish terrier? Those yipping rat-dogs carried around in purses by rich people? Actually, the part I can’t understand is how a kindly state college professor — apparently just for shits and giggles — built a 15-foot-tall flying dragon out of “high density long-chain organic polymers” and an “internal anti-gravity generator” on his own time. What the hell kind of social life did this guy have? C
Oh, good grief. How is it possible for a character whose history involves Iron Man, Doctor Doom and Frankenstein’s monster to suck so royally? I’m not mad at you, Marvel, for foisting this fourth-rate feeb on us — just disappointed. D-
A solid two pages of technical specifications and cutaway diagrams for a HYDRA-built robot. That sound you’re hearing is Eliot R. Brown’s squeals of delight echoing through the decades. “Gauntlet nozzles shoot hydrazine and liquid oxygen which is ignited by herpergolic reaction.” Herpergolic…? What does that even mean? Also: His personality simulation program takes up a whopping “330 mega-bytes,” or roughly the size of that illegally downloaded episode of Game of Thrones you thought nobody knew about. C-
Holy shit-snacks, talk about a complicated origin. Spider-Man? Spider bite. Hulk? Bomb blast. Captain America? Sweet, sweet drugs. The original Spider-Woman? A fanciful tale involving mystical mountains, uranium deposits, secret science hideaways, radiation poisoning, a super-villain geneticist, an ancient elder demon, brainwashing, HYDRA, suspended animation, artificially evolved cows, Morgan Le Fey, bounty hunting and San Francisco. You’d have an easier time understanding David Lynch’s dream journal than figuring out this gal’s early life (sample sentence: “Drew returned to Wundagore years later possessed by the ghost of the Sixth Century magician Magus, who had sensed Drew’s troubled thoughts about Wundagore and recognized the place as the site where he had helped entrap the demon Chthon centuries before”). All you really know about her is this: when she was 17, she accidentally shagged some Slavic hunk to death. And I guess that’s why they call it…
…the kiss of the Spider-Woman. (YEEEEEEEEEEEAH!) Ahem. Anyway. D+
Oh, aren’t we getting cute with our names. D’Spayre is a nasty supernatural entity who gains power by making us mortals experience feelings of hopelessness, despondency and… shoot, what was that other word again? Best part of his entry is his marital status listed as “probably inapplicable.” Probably. Leaving open the possibility of a Mrs. D’spayre out there somewhere, tapping her foot and nagging him about spending too much time hanging out with Man-Thing and not fixing her dishwasher like he promised. C
He wears a slippery costume that can also generate an electric charge, so there’s no question he was going for an eel theme. Further, the first Eel (yes, there was more than one) was an aquarium curator, so he clearly knew that eels are fish. And yet he joins a team called the Serpent Squad, confusing millions of impressionable Human Torch fans. Lazy taxonomy: that’s the real super-villain, people. C-
I dig Ego because he’s a living planet. And not “living” in the earth-goddess, we-are-all-one-happy-biosphere sense, but an actual sentient planet, with a 4,000-mile-wide face like Charlton Heston’s craggy mug. That’s a cool concept. Not a big fan of Galactus for obvious reasons, and the two of them duked it out, resulting in Ego getting a propulsion unit slapped on his polar ass and a one-way ticket out of the Milky Way. Sufficiently chastened, Ego later took on the Fantastic Four and — after that bout ended with him getting hurled into the sun — got his lunch stolen by Rom the Spaceknight. I’m pretty sure that last one’s only slightly less embarrassing than getting pantsed by Power Pack. B
Elders of the Universe
We’ll deal with these guys individually as we go along; all you really need to know at this point is they sucked. Not literally, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s an Elder out there who’s devoted his immortal existence to perfecting the art of sucking. Why did they suck? Among other reasons: (1) they were extremely one-dimensional, defined almost exclusively by the one talent or obsession they exhibited (2) they existed mainly as cosmic antagonists for whichever hero needed a reason to be heroic that month and (3) the Contemplator’s Buddha-like appearance notwithstanding, they all looked like variations on the same white dudes they mostly went up against. That last one especially bugged me. You can forgive a low-budget sci-fi movie that sticks latex bumps on the actors’ foreheads and calls them aliens; that’s the reality of having a limited make-up budget. But here? Geez, guys, show some imagination. At the very least, I’m sure we could find one female in the universe who’s obsessing over something. D+
Hey, I like Electro, and I won’t apologize for that. He’s a working-class super-villain with an easy-to-understand power (he’s, like, electric and shit) and he only hankers for the simple things in life: robberies, revenge, the occasional extortion. There’s nothing complicated about him, and I can respect that. So of course the Sony suits had to fuck him up completely, giving him some nonsense “bit-by-radioactive-eels” origin, a stupid hoodie and a weird obsession with his birthday. (“Hey, Joe, should we put a lid on this giant tank of genetically enhanced eels? What if someone falls in?” “Nah, that’d never happen. Come on, let’s knock off early and grab a beer.”) Ah well, at least Jamie Foxx looked like he had fun. B
Is it true that Marvel’s insistence on bringing Elektra back from the dead unhinged Frank Miller’s mind? Or can we safely assume 9/11 takes all the blame for that? Either way, it probably wasn’t a terrible idea giving Daredevil an old girlfriend who also just happened to be a ninja assassin with issues, and it probably did seem revolutionary back when there weren’t a bajillion other similar “bad girls” leaping through the comics. But I dunno. Even when I read Miller’s classic Daredevil stories and try to appreciate Elektra in the spirit of the time, she still comes across as a flat character, someone who’s only there to give Murdock something to moan about. Maybe Bill Sienkiewicz felt the same way; if so, it would explain why his image of her here makes her look like a cardboard cutout in a movie theatre lobby. C
Now, this is more like it. Thank you, Walt. Thank you very much. “The Enchantress rarely exercises any of her physical abilities except those that pertain to the amatory arts.” Do tell, Marvel writers. Do tell. A-
“The Enclave is a small band of scientists who have dedicated themselves to using technology to create a benevolent world dictatorship under their rule.” So… like Google, then? C
“Oh, you mean like the battery? I guess that means she keeps going and going, ho ho ho!” Okay, fine, you say something snarky about a six-year-old girl. Opinions are divided on whether Power Pack was painfully silly or awesomely silly, and I will say it doesn’t help the pro-awesome side when we’re asked to believe a kindergarten student can maintain a secret identity. I have a six-year-old at home, and every day after work I get a full report of everything that happened that day, up to and including other family members’ noteworthy bowel movements. So asking me to believe Katie Power is capable of keeping her energy-hurling powers under wraps? Kind of a stretch. C
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: mooks play an important role in the super-villain ecosystem. Never the top-billing villains but not quite among the nameless henchmen, either, mooks are always good for a decent fight scene, giving our heroes a quick workout before moving on the main event. The Enforcers fill this role quite nicely in Spider-Man and Daredevil stories, serving as, well, enforcers for bigger-name criminals and bringing a dollop of relative normalcy into stories involving grown men dressed up as goblins and such. Hey, let’s meet them!
FANCY DAN. A short fellow who knows judo and karate. Still trying to figure out what makes him “fancy,” because it sure ain’t the purple suit, blue tie and yellow striped shirt. C+
OX. Like his namesake, he’s slow-witted but immensely (though not superhumanly) strong. He died, but apparently he had a twin brother who was just as strong and ethics-challenged as he was. Handy! B-
MONTANA. A guy from Montana whose nickname is Montana. What will they think of next? He’s highly proficient with a lariat, which is useful if a calf runs off from the herd, but in the enforcing business? I hope that bolo tie came with a set of six-shooters, pardner. C
SNAKE MARSTON. A contortionist (but not a super-contortionist) who dresses like a community-theatre stagehand and hails from “Ontario, Canada.” Which, yay for my homeland for birthing another sociopath (non-crack smoking mayor division) and all, but at the same time… well, it’s kind of a large province, guys. Toronto? Ottawa? Kingston? Windsor? Thunder Bay? Sarnia? Kenora? Moose Factory? Wawa? Petewawa? Penetanguishene? Would it kill you to throw a dart at the map? C
HAMMER HARRISON. Kind of a letdown, if I’m being honest. The others each have something unique that sets them apart in the competitive enforcer market; this guy’s an ex-boxer with steel thingies on his knuckles. “And lo, the Avengers doth trembled…” D
Uch. There’s a whole bunch of blah-dee-blah about aliens and DNA and secret cities and pacts with Olympian gods and immortals shagging mortals and I’m sorry, but even my Kirby love has its limits. “Secret societies full of superhuman beings” is a well he went back to way too often. Although I have to say I love how the (mostly) scowling mugshots of all known Eternals highlights the absurdity of presenting characters in this format. It’s like looking at all the driver’s licence photos taken at the world’s weirdest DMV office. C-
Fittingly, this is the shortest entry in the entire series, because what is there to say? “It’s an abstract concept representing the totality of all life in the universe. Next.” Eternity is “dependent on the trillions and trillions of beings that give it life,” but we are told it’s not a deity in the religious sense. Whatever you say, guys. C+
Ah, “Snap” Wilson. Sure, now he’s a big-shot Avenger in the movin’ pictures, but you better believe his early years are exactly what you’d expect for a black character created during Marvel’s socially earnest days. Let’s just say the Red Skull using a Cosmic Cube to help Wilson talk to his pet bird is one of the more believable parts of the story. Funny part the first: he called himself “Falcon” before acquiring his mechanical wings, which must have led to a lot of frustrating conversations about his choice of name. Funny part the second: His entry ends with us learning the Falcon is “one of Harlem’s staunchest crimefighters,” right up there with… um… you know, that guy with the thing… B-
“Reed Richards is elastic, Sue can fade from sight, Johnny is the Human Torch, the Thing just loves to fight…” Admit it, you do so know the words. Once you get past some of the obvious problems with the concept (you can launch a rocket from a building in New York City since when now?), it’s an awesome and simple-to-grasp combination of fantasy, freaks, family and fun. Which makes it all the more baffling why Hollywood can’t seem to figure them out when it’s done a great job getting at the heart of, say, Iron Man or Captain America. He’s elastic. She fades from sight. And so forth. Throw in an invasion from the Negative Zone and boom, $200 million opening weekend. It ain’t rocket science, people. A
Hot fraternal Nazi twins with super powers! I will be deeply disappointed in Disney if these two don’t show up in a future episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Their legal status is listed as “citizens of Madripoor, a Pacific Island haven for criminals.” Why isn’t there a place like this in real life? No, besides Australia. B
Any scholars of Norse mythology out there? This entry talks about some super-wolf that’s destined to eat Odin at the end of time, and it seems to check out. Only part that raises an eyebrow is where it says the wolf was the result of a union between Loki and a giant, which probably made for a good campfire story back in the day but now feels downright squicky given Marvel’s current representation of the trickster god. C
I really wish I lived in the Marvel universe. In the Marvel universe, you can be out minding your own business when “a huge ball of cold fire” (huh?) just drops out of the sky, lands ten feet from you, and gives you phenomenal heat-flinging powers. No burns, no concussions, no signs of trauma from being that close to a celestial object hitting the ground at terminal velocity — nope, just instant super-powers, please and thank you. The best part? She gains the power to project heat. In New Mexico. Coming up next: a mutant from Alaska with the power to shoot ice and snow from his nipples. C+
He’s an alien and former herald of Galactus who shoots balls of fire and wears fire-themed clothing and has fire instead of hair on his head. His birth name? Pyreus Kril, because of course it is. With a name like that, it was either “flaming herald of intergalactic planet-eater” or “whale trainer at Sea World.” C
One of those rare instances (see also: “Quinn, Harley”) in which a Marvel or DC character appeared in another medium first before being introduced in the comics. From what I’ve heard, the animators of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends wanted a fire character to balance out Iceman and couldn’t get the rights to the Human Torch, so they made one up. I kind of wonder why they even bothered porting her over to the Marvel universe; there was nothing interesting about her story (innocent girl with mutant powers led astray by evil mutants, etc.), her power set wasn’t unique, and even after she joined the New Warriors team her big story arc was “my microwave powers are making me barren and/or giving me cancer.” It’s like every Lifetime movie you’ve ever seen, only with Spandex. D
He’s a super-intelligent child prodigy who turned to crime because his superior engineering skills craved a challenge he couldn’t find working in lawful professions. And suddenly I’m wondering why the writers of The Big Bang Theory haven’t gone down this route. I dunno, he seems like a very discount-brand villain to me, with no real motive and weaponry that includes whatever the writers decide he’s carrying that day. Even his name feels half-assed; he doesn’t so much “fix” things as invent them, which brings up the same questions you want to ask every other bitter inventor in the Marvel universe. C-
His occupation is listed as “former student, now terrorist,” a career path that shocks no one when you realize he studied at Columbia. As his name implies, he’s on a crusade to destroy all symbols of nationalism that in his mind “promote disunity among the family of man.” Kind of a lame villain when you really think about it — how did he expect to force the whole world to unite in peace under threat of violence? — but he gave Captain America the chance to give a few patriotic speeches while they tussled. Good for him. C+
“Occupation: Former student, now psychopathic killer.” That sounds more like a hobby than an occupation to me. They were two of them; they were both mental cases who went around killing anyone they deemed “fools.” One is dead, the other is locked up. Do you need to know anything else? Not really. D
Okay, here’s the thing. Despite my reservations about the whole premise of the X-Men team, I can see how the idea of being born with the potential for amazing powers would appeal to comic fans. And to give credit where it’s due, longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont had a lot of good ideas during his run. Forge was not one of them. “Forge isn’t just really good at inventing things; his MUTANT POWER is inventing things!” The whole point of the X-Men (to me, at least) is that these are dangerous and/or odd-looking individuals shunned by a society that fears them (and sometimes not without reason); it dilutes the concept when more mundane skills like “inventing” or “deciphering languages” (in the case of Cypher) are posited as mutant powers. Oh, and he’s also a Native American who “developed considerable mystical powers” studying under a shaman because God forbid we have one Native American who isn’t in touch with the spirits. Uch. D-
Yeah, there’s a reason for that. Joined the Avengers for about five minutes, in case anyone cares. D
Big chin? Check. Devilish smile? Check. Snazzy retro outfit? Check. Presence of handgun not in use since before the Second World War? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, Howard Chaykin is in the house. Not much you can say about this wartime adventurer who later came out of retirement to help Spider-Man beat on a batshit super-villain; they don’t even mention the traumatizing childhood that one assumes led to his life of adventure and product-whoring. Not that I’m disappointed; I’d rather know more about Raven Sabbath, his “lover and landlady” to whom Fortune was constantly in debt, and who may or may not have been involved in intelligence operations behind enemy lines. Tell me she wouldn’t be perfect in an episode of Agent Carter, flustering the prim and proper Peggy with her Brooklyn girl ways. B-
Also known as Black Goliath during his black superhero career, Black Foster grew up in Black Watts and earned a black degree in black biochemistry. While helping Dr. Hank Pym cope with a black side effect of his black Giant-Man formula, Black Foster devised a black cure for the ailing superhero, and then decided to try the black cure on himself. As Black Goliath and, later, Black Giant-Man, he had several black adventures, working solo and with other superheroes, before the black strain of his black transformations convinced him to return to a black life of black scientific research — which is probably where he should stayed during that whole Civil War brouhaha. RIP, Black Foster. C
Three cheers for public-domain copyright laws! I know it shouldn’t be surprising that a universe with aliens and mutants would find a place for an 18th-century doctor dabbling in re-animated corpses, but it’s still weird learning the Silver Surfer once fought the actual Frankenstein monster. It’s like finding out Christopher Robin attended Xavier’s academy to master his mutant power to bring stuffed animals to life. There’s some text about how generations of the Frankenstein family tussled with the monster throughout the centuries, but here’s the part I don’t get: “The monster confronted Frankenstein and requested that he create a mate for him… Frankenstein began work on creating the creature but, fearing that the two creatures would become parents to a race of monsters that would terrorize mankind, Frankenstein destroyed the female creature before bringing her to life.” Um, Vic, I don’t want to tell you your business or anything, but… that seems a bit drastic, don’t you think? I mean, if your big worry is the monsters will bump uglies and make monster babies, then all you have to do is make sure your lady monster doesn’t have the parts required for making babies, right? Which should be super easy since you’re the one who decides which parts go inside her. B
This was the government-sanctioned group of mutants formerly known as the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I love how in the text the writers go out of their way to explain the team chose the “evil” part of their name ironically, as in “Oh, you all think we’re evil? Well, we’ll just call ourselves evil, how do you like THAT, huh?” And then Magneto would go to his room to sulk and listen to his Depeche Mode mix tapes and write a poem about how no one, like, really understands him, man. Anyway. B-
I’m sorry, I know I’m supposed to have a good chuckle about how goofy this character is, but I just can’t get into the spirit. He’s a high school kid who “borrows” his dad’s super-villain costume and tries to redeem his father’s name by embarking on an “earnest if somewhat clumsy battle against crime.” Fair enough and fertile ground for some good storytelling potential… but for crying out loud, he’s dressed up like a frog. And calls himself “Frog-Man.” And possesses the normal human strength of a boy his age, height and build who engages in minimal regular exercise. Of such things are sagas not made. D+
“Hey, what’s with the geriatric cracker?” I can hear the movie-watching youth of America ask. Ah, youth. Long before Mr. Jackson made the extremely lucrative deal to lend his likeness to an alternate-universe version of the character, there was OG Fury, the grizzled army sergeant-slash-grizzled spymaster who scored his own flying car. And if you’re wondering how someone who served in WWII was still kicking ass and chewing gum many decades later, it’s because of something called the Infinity Formula, which he has to inject himself with every year. “How come no one else has access to this amazing formula for prolonging health and vitality?” you ask. Why, it’s because… um… wow, that Frog-Man sure was dopey, huh? B-
“Sometimes known as Mother Nature or Mother Earth, she is the embodiment of the spirit of life, growth, harvest and renewal on this planet.” And boy, does this mother have a few things to get off her chest re: how humanity has been taking care of its room. Not a bad track record, all things considered: she birthed a son to kill all the other Elder Gods who threatened to destroy the first instances of life on Earth, her dalliance with Odin resulted in a champion with ties to both Asgard and Earth, and she used her life essence to create a race of new gods that impressed a bunch of busybody Celestials just enough to keep them from blowing up the planet. Thanks, Mom! B+
1. He’s got Kirby magic coming out of his ears, starting with those tuning-fork helmet doohickeys coming out of his ears.
2. He eats planets, people! PLANETS!
3. He’s not some vengeful schemer or petty tyrant with a bone to pick; he’s simply an implacable force of nature who doesn’t even believe himself to be evil — just very, very hungry and entitled to the occasional biosphere to banish his munchies.
4. PLANETS, I tells ya!
5. His imminent arrival is always announced by heralds, and who wouldn’t love having one of those announcing your arrival all the time?
6. There’s a bit in his entry where it says he only appears humanoid when humans see him, and other alien races see him in their own image, which quite nicely renders his “cosmic fart” cameo in that goddamn movie even more ridiculous than it was.
7. PLANETS!!!!! A+
So, let’s look at this logically. The Big G has existed since the dawn of the universe, sustaining himself on the delicious chewy centres and crunchy nougats of countless worlds. Then one day, he decides he needs scouts to help find planets for him. The Silver Surfer was the first, and he served Galactus for “an unspecified amount of time” before rebelling, after which Galactus went through six more heralds. We don’t know how long the Surfer served him, but we can surmise it wasn’t that long since the Surfer’s old girlfriend (the one he left behind on Zenn-La when he agreed to be a herald) was still alive and available when he returned from his Earth exile. (Yes, yes, they’re aliens and “extremely long-lived” according to the Surfer’s bio, but still — you’d think she would have moved on after a few centuries). So even though Galactus survived for billions of years without anyone else around him, we’re supposed to believe he now can’t survive long without having someone around to do his heralding. Maybe — just maybe — it’s not planets that Galactus is really in search of. Maybe all Galactus is really looking for is… a hug. C