Face front, true believers! It’s time to take another look at the publishing phenomenon of the ’80s known as The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition. This week: Volume Eight, from Magus to Mole Man.
Nothing of interest in the front or back covers this issue — just a whole lot of “data corrections” from readers, suggesting someone in Marvel’s fact-checking department circa 1985 was really slacking on the job — so let’s get right to the fun stuff.
He’s a cranky “techno-organic” alien whom we are told can grow to 45 million miles in height and rip a star in two, and yet he was once driven off Earth by a tag team of three X-Men. Uh-huh. We’re also told he came to Earth because his son (the alien codenamed Warlock who would join the New Mutants for a while) had to fight him to the death in order to achieve adulthood… and yet it also says here that members of Magus’s race gave birth to “great numbers of offspring,” which makes no sense if patricide is the only way to achieve adulthood in his species. Say Warlock succeeds in killing his father; what happens to his “great number” of siblings who haven’t yet faced their father? Do they all remain in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence, leaving their misspelled racist comments on YouTube videos until the end of time? C-
He’s an Eternal who runs fast. Do we get anything else here that’s worth knowing? Not especially. He was “often mistaken” for the swift-footed Mercury by the ancient Romans, suggesting less that the ancients were superstitious about the superhuman beings in their midst and more that Kirby was feeling really lazy the day he had to come up with names for these guys. C
Malus, Dr. Karl
A “brilliant surgeon” with great knowledge of chemistry, Malus specializes in using science to help wrestlers who want to join a shady pro-wrestling federation full of drug-addicted, musclebound freaks. Any resemblance to Vince McMahon’s career trajectory is entirely coincidental. C+
So this is Black Panther’s arch-nemesis, huh? Yeah, I’m guessing there will be a few costume changes if this guy makes it into a Black Panther film. Seriously, look at him. He looks like the star of some demented sequel to The Thing With Two Heads. I don’t care if he’s supposed to be a bad-ass mercenary; you are going to laugh your ass off the first time you see someone dressed like that in real life, and rightly so. I mean… Christ, wouldn’t it get a teensy bit hot wearing a gorilla’s hide in Africa? How the hell are you supposed to turn your head in that get-up? And the weirdest part is he skinned a white gorilla and wore its hide as part of a political battle, and that’s still not as bizarre as half the things Donald Trump has said in the past year. D
Nothing at all like the result of some seriously unfortunate screenplay choices we could mention, this Mandarin has it all: a sense of destiny, a worldview diametrically opposed to Iron Man’s futuristic outlook, and the power to support his plans for global domination. The latter comes from his possession of ten magic rings, artifacts he scavenged from a crashed alien ship. This was actually a common way for Earthlings to gain instant super-powers back in the day: wait for an alien ship to crash nearby and help yourself to whatever neat stuff you could find inside. And it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because navigating through billions of miles of asteroids, nebulae, comets and other assorted space hazards? Hey, no problem. But get those puppies anywhere near the power lines out by the interstate… B+
“Marital status: Illegally polygamous.” Jee-zus, with a mug like that? Actually, yes; as explained in his Powers section, he’s a mutant with the face of a mandrill and the ability to control women through massive doses of pheromones. This explains his various schemes to overthrow governments with armies of women at his command, only to be defeated by jungle chicks who had likely seen enough mandrill action to know that wasn’t their thing. Speaking of which, there’s nothing here about whether all women, including women who don’t particularly care for men in that way, were susceptible to his power. But that’s not surprising because as everyone knows homosexuality didn’t exist in the Marvel universe until 1992. D+
Tony Stark leases out a few of last year’s floor models to the boys at SHIELD. Comes with omnium steel construction, 1.2 hours of on-board air supply, and touch-sensitive click wheels to keep all your media files handy — dammit, no, not “Settings”! I wanted “Music,” you lousy piece of… C-
Not much I can say about this entry, as it’s just a map of Manhattan with arrows pointing to prominent landmarks in the Marvel universe, such as the Wakandan embassy, the Daily Bugle, Matt Murdock’s former townhouse, and… whoa, Marvel Comics has an office inside the Marvel universe! Mind. Blown. Actually, Marvel has made a number of references over the years to their fictional counterpart’s position in the Marvel universe, where the joke is they act as glorified PR agents for the “real-life” heroes that give them license to publish fictional adventures starring them. This is actually a pretty funny concept until you hit the ’90s and realize how many of those characters would have been really pissed by what Marvel churned out back then. Susan Richards: “You want my character to wear WHAT????” Not applicable
Jolly decent of this fellow to choose a name that helps future juries save time, don’t you think? “Limitations: Although highly intelligent, Manslaughter is a mentally unstable psychotic.” Interesting how that doesn’t appear to be a limitation for any number of political figures who come to mind right now. D
Though when you think about it, all men are technically “things,” are they not? So doesn’t that make his name a bit redundant? The pride of Citrusville, Fla., the mute Man-Thing first appeared a year before DC’s Swamp Thing, in case you harbored any thoughts of this being an inferior ripoff of Swamp Thing (when in fact Swamp Thing is a superior rip-off of Man-Thing). Serves as the mute guardian of “the nexus of realities” that manifests in the middle of Man-Thing’s swamp, if that means anything to you. Me, every time I see a Man-Thing story, I have a quiet giggle over Giant-Sized Man-Thing and move on. C-
Located northwest of Miami and just a few klicks from Lake Okeechobee, Man-Thing’s Swamp is home to such unforgettable attractions as Steve Coffin’s Shack, Site of Captain Fate’s Buried Treasure, Site of Howard the Duck’s Arrival on Earth and — no joke — the ominously unnamed “Plastics Factory.” Meh, still better than Epcot. C
1. Only one paragraph into her history, and we’re referencing the Vietnam War, organized crime, flamethrowers, the Kree, pacifist priests, estranged fathers, Zodiac-based teams of super-villains and the capital of Hawaii. Focus, people!
2. These same pacifist priests taught her deadly martial arts, because the ’70s.
3. She was believed destined to become the Celestial Madonna who would give birth to the Celestial Messiah and excuse me but I have to go Celestial Barf now.
4. She was called “Mantis” (“after the insect whose females kill the males”) because of her prowess in defeating male opponents in martial-arts combat, because Christ forbid we should consider that sort of thing something a normal woman could do.
5. No, seriously, what is the deal with the antennae thingies in her head? If they’re merely ornamental, then what the hell is the point? For that matter, why the get-up? Even for a superhero sex object, “hula girl auditioning for Broadway adaptation of A Bug’s Life” doesn’t seem very practical.
6. We learn here that the priests, wishing for her to understand how normal humans live, dropped her in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City on her eighteenth birthday and removed all knowledge of her time in their temple. Wait… what?
7. She drifted into working for a criminal enterprise headed by the uncle who once tried to kill her as an infant (because of course), where she met a down-on-his-luck Swordsman and “encouraged him to lead a life of which he would be proud.” Because that’s what I want in my stories about ass-kicking Celestial Madonnas: valuable time spent playing Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the most useless non-Hawkeye Avenger ever.
8. There was an actual storyline in which Kang the Conqueror planned to rape Mantis and claim her predestined messiah kid as his own. Ew.
9. Her eventual husband was an alien sentient plant who placed his life force inside the Swordsman’s freshly deceased corpse. EW!
10. After their wedding, Mantis and Corpse-Swordsman were Poochie’ed out of existence with “turned into balls of energy and left Earth to start their new life” — and Marvel still brought her back to hang out with the Silver Surfer and the Guardians of the Galaxy. I mean… it’s just… ARGH! FFFFFFFFFFF-
Whew. Post-Mantis, I’m feeling kind of generous. Fortunately, I’m already inclined to like Marrina. Her first appearance in Alpha Flight was also the first time I saw my Newfoundland birthplace mentioned in any comic book, so right from the start I felt an obligation to support a gal from “down home,” even if she wasn’t, technically, born there. No, she’s a member of an alien race that conquers other planets in the laziest way possible, spreading their seed across the cosmos and letting Darwin pick up the slack. Only something else happened to her, and she “hatched” in the loving arms of a fisherman’s family, where she grew to adulthood as a normal Earth girl despite being literally green around the gills. A shame she never really took off with fans; I’d pay good money to hear a Newfoundland accent in one of Marvel’s films. Ah well. B+
Ah, the retcon. Where would characters like Jean Grey be without them? Well… yes, dead, that’s certainly true. Word has it Jean Grey wasn’t slated to die at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, just lose her powers and be sent back home to Earth. But then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter stepped in and said nope, the Phoenix entity killed billions and Jean had to die for it. Cut to Cyclops screaming “JEAN!” in one of 1980’s more shocking panels. Given how few staffers wept when Shooter left Marvel, I’m inclined to think their resurrection of Jean Grey was less about entertaining the readers and more about sticking a middle finger in Shooter’s face. In either case, she’s a cute redhead, she engages in moderate regular exercise and occasionally she looks like Famke Janssen. What more can you ask? B
Look, I’m not saying I can’t get behind the idea of an elite prep school having a secret underground complex that serves as a training ground for a group of adolescent mutants. I just have a hard time believing the “secret” part of this set-up, is all. At least with Professor X’s school, the whole student body is hip to what’s happening down in the Danger Room; I can’t see how the non-mutant students at a prestigious New England boarding school would not notice little things like their friends’ frequent disappearances, or doors that lead to mysterious places, or the occasional tremor from a raucous training session. Plus try to imagine how long something like this would stay secret today, with the youngsters all doing their snapchatting and instagramming and bleep-blopping and whatever else they’re into these days. Shut up, I’m old. C
He’s a member of Power Pack, and his name is Jack Power. Which would work fine as the name of an action movie character that Tom Cruise plays less convincingly by the day, but not here. Plus he’s the designated hothead of the team, which when you’re eight years old translates into “spoiled little shithead.” Pass. C-
Master of what, you may ask? Why, master of his domain, of course. By which of course I mean the spaceship he took over as his home base, since that’s about as far as he got with his plans for global domination. This cat has a lot in common with DC’s Vandal Savage: both started out as prehistoric alpha males, both saw their lifespans greatly prolonged by extraterrestrial means, both believed it was their destiny to rule the rest of us puny humans, and both knew what the ladies really love is a sexy beard. But where Savage spent his time Forrest Gumping through world history, the Master spent thousands of years getting probed and dissected by an automated spaceship before mastering its controls and plotting revenge against the aliens who sent it, starting with Marrina from Alpha Flight. And then a midget acrobat snatched his helmet-shaped remote and the spaceship blew up in his face. It wasn’t one of his better days, let’s leave it at that. C
Ah, Jason Wyngarde — just further proof of my theory that everyone named Jason is a lying, deceitful bastard (I’m watching you, Mr. Bateman). This guy’s career highlight was the role he played in the Dark Phoenix Saga, using his power to create illusions (“Il-LU-sions, Michael!”) that brought Phoenix over to the dark side. He did this as part of his initiation into the Hellfire Club — which makes no sense since he could have used his powers to do-si-do through the doors anytime he wanted, but we’ll let that slide. Instead, here’s my favorite part of his entry, right after Phoenix realizes what he did to her mind: “Unable to cope with (the images placed in his mind by Phoenix), Mastermind fell into a catatonic state. The Inner Circle, of course, rejected his application for membership.” Of course. C+
So, the avatar of all things orderly and law-abiding in the universe is the floating head of a bald, middle-aged Caucasian dude. Uh-huh. I’m just going to leave this link here for anyone who’s interested. D
“Occupation: Former actor, now demon commander.” There’s a career arc for you. Martin Preston was a successful Hollywood star who, in the immediate aftermath of a brutal drunk-driving accident, ended up with demonic arms and a pentagram-shaped hole in his chest after trading his soul to the devil in exchange for his life. On the bright side, at least the Scientologists didn’t find him first. C-
Masters of Evil
The Masters of Evil? Trying to battle my boys? That’s not legal! What, I’m the only one here who remembers Ghostbusters II? Fine. A grab-bag term attached to a number of super-villain teams over the years, the best of them being the one under Baron Zemo that stormed Avengers Mansion and beat the crap out of Hercules and Jarvis. Artwork by early-career Kevin Maguire shows he had a knack for depicting effective sneers and lip curls right from the start. Masters of Evil I: B-, II: C, III: C-, IV: A-
Living proof that you can genetically perfect the shit out of any society and there will still be at least one asshat only too happy to muck things up for everyone else. You know, Black Bolt — can I call you Black Bolt? — I get the whole “but he’s family” thing, but how many palace coups and attempted sales of Inhumans to off-planet purchasers do you let slide before you take your useless brother out for a boat ride? Imagine if Prince Harry spent most of his time plotting the demise of William and Kate while negotiating the sale of healthier Brits to militaristic aliens on the side (“No, you take all the Welshmen with you or the deal’s off!”). Actually, now that I think about it, that might be preferable to some of the things he’s been getting up to lately. At any rate. The needs of the many, Your Highness. D
She’s a New York cop who was betrayed by corrupt officers and left to die while inhaling a strange green gas. That gas gave her the power to come back from the dead and excrete her own toxic green gas (yes, I can hear you snickering in the back), which she uses in her second career as a green-haired vigilante who targets drug pushers and dirty cops. She can also levitate and fly “through unknown means” (translation: “we’re not paid enough to write 500 words on the physics of a chick who farts green gas”), which is good to know. I mean, it’s already silly enough picturing a zombie ex-cop gassing evildoers with her natural body musk, but having her hailing cabs while she’s out doing it…? D+
Let’s be clear: no publisher has a lot to brag about when it comes to how women have been treated in the comics, especially in the ’60s when it was still a common practice to get a waitress’s attention by calling her “Toots.” So I’m not singling out Marvel for being especially egregious on this front, but my God those Silver Age books are hard to take sometimes. If it isn’t Susan Richards whimpering in the corner or the Wasp eye-raping every Spandexed hunk within her sights, it’s the Scarlet Witch filing abduction with amorous intent under “foreplay.” And then there’s Medusa, royal consort to the Inhumans’ Black Bolt. He is a tragic figure, forever cursed to silence because of his destructive powers, and she… well, she was his resident crying towel, rushing to cradle him every time he got a case of the pouts. “If only I could help,” she once said to herself during one of his no-one-understands-my-pain hissyfits. “How it pains me not to embrace him, comfort him… but I would not have my love mistaken for pity!” Barf. And I haven’t even mentioned her super-power. There’s a reason for that. C-
A discount-brand Professor X, Marvin Flumm is a telepath who can read minds and project his thoughts into a few people at a time. This would be more than enough to set someone up as a carnival mentalist, or a successful psychologist, or maybe a wealthy self-help guru on the lecture circuit. But no, because this is the Marvel universe he has to put on a magic hat and plot to overthrow SHIELD. Got his astral ass handed to him by Professor X, as one would expect. D
So, who’s the protegé? I mean, that’s how it works, right? You can’t be a professor without students, and you can’t set up shop as a “mentor” without having someone eager to lap up your wisdom. I mean, sure, he’s ruler of the Eternals on Titan, but that’s a bit of a stretch, no? I live in a country led by a prime minister, but it’s not like I look to him for life coaching or career advice. He’s also the man who brought Thanos into the universe, so trust me when I say no one is looking to him for parenting tips. C- (He gets a C because despite all that he still reminds me of Martin Landau and you know that’s all right, and he earns the “-” because he doesn’t sport Highfather’s awesome muttonchops. My list, my rules.)
AKA Satan. Yes, I know the entry specifically says he’s not “the” Satan of Biblical lore, but let’s face it: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and shops for souls to dwell for eternity in his hellish realm, then it’s the Duck of Darkness. I’m not surprised Marvel wants to dance around the question of whether the Christian concepts of God and the devil actually exist in the Marvel universe — some folks can get a mite squirrelly about these kinds of things — but if they’re going to insist that Mephisto only pretends to be Satan once in a while to play to some people’s religious superstitions… then at the very least be a little more creative with his look than the red tights and cape. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider film got it right: the devil is a seducer, someone whom you feel you can trust to honor a deal right up to the part where he twists the knife in your back. Look at this guy’s fanged, leering mug and tell me that’s him. C-
Speaking of wardrobe clichés. A goddamn wizard’s hat, guys? Really? Why not give him a hat and robe covered with stars and moons while you’re at it — oh, wait, there it is on the following page. Sigh. Lots of public-domain cribbing from Arthurian legends here mixed with accounts of modern-day heroes either fighting or accepting aid from various figures who called themselves Merlin; it’s not known what happened to the actual Merlin after the fall of Camelot. My guess: he changed his name, laid low for a while, and then started up a boarding school for wizards and witches. Why not? It makes about as much sense as that time-turner thing that’s conveniently forgotten after the third book. Seriously, people, make a few thousand turns, go back to when Voldemort was a kid, “Avada Kadavra,” boom, problem solved. C
Jee-zus, Mesmero. I know that the green-and-purple thing is kind of a motif for a lot of super-villains, and I won’t dwell too much on superhero color theory here. But good grief, man, exercise a little restraint. At the very least, don’t wear clothing that’s the exact shade as your skin. A master of mesmerism, Mesmero got out of the costumed super-villain game to start a new career as a stage hypnotist when apparently the temptation to mess with Spider-Man’s head was too great. And yeah, that wall-crawler can be a bit of an asshat sometimes, but come on, Mesmero. Priorities, man. C-
Holy crap, someone at Marvel was sweet on this girl. How else to explain three text-heavy pages to say “she’s a mutant who can make people see things what ain’t there?” Not that the love isn’t undeserved: she’s a rare example of a strong Native American comic character whose powers aren’t based on some mystical connection to the spirits. Nope, she’s a mutant with the ability to draw mental images from people’s mind and make realistic illusions out of them, with a side order of Valkyrie-derived imminent-death-sensing picked up during a field trip to Asgard. Nothing shabby about that. B
It’s hard to make fun of Reed Richards, mostly because he’s such a dad type: older, a bit of a square, prone to lectures about responsibilities, always puttering down in his workshop while “Mom” deals with the squabbling kids. And dads as a rule aren’t that funny, unless they’re acting against type and making their kids look like the mature ones by comparison (see also: Homer Simpson, Phil Dunphy). I suppose I could make a lewd “he can stretch any part” joke that amazingly no one has ever come up with before, but again: he’s a dad, and my fragile psyche is precariously perched as it is. So I’m left with the only form of approval that’s endorsed by the National Dad Institute: a firm nod of the head, followed by a tousling of some young scamp’s hair before turning back to the sports section. A-
There is nothing I can say that will top the first few sentences of this story, so I’m just going to write them out: “Zoltan Drago (was) a sculptor and amateur scientist who suffered delusions of grandeur. Drago was the proprietor of a wax museum and had tried several times to develop a chemical which would transform his wax figures into living beings, so that he could create an army of slaves. By accident, Drago concocted a chemical gas which instilled extreme fear in him when he breathed it.” And that’s just the first guy to call himself Mister Fear. There are three more of these goobers waiting in the wings. And yes, they’re all goobers because no matter how hard you try to spin it, discount Scarecrow is still discount. D-
“Calvin Zabo, a brilliant medical research scientist, had always been fascinated by the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.” Well, I’ll give Marvel this much, at least they’re not shy about admitting who they’re ripping off. So this fellow spends all his time trying to create the fictional formula that unleashed Mr. Hyde, and when he succeeds he figures it’s time to do some revengin’. First name on his list: Dr. Donald Blake, Thor’s alter ego. And, yeah, he’s a right proper bastard, but man, talk about the fates being against you: “I’ve decided to begin my murder spree with you, Dr. Blake, a crippled doctor who I trust will offer me no resistance. Prepare to die! (One thunderclap later) Oh… poopies.” Following that Asgardian ass-whupping, we are then told he has “since become a nemesis of such New York crimefighters as Daredevil, Spider-Man and Captain America.” Smart move, Cal. B-
I know the chances of the casting director for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I..E.L.D. reading this are slim, but in the event that he/she is reading these words: on behalf of admirers of Adrianne Palicki around the world, THANK YOU. Now, then. It’s tempting to write Mockingbird off as a pale imitation of DC’s Black Canary (blonde, archer boyfriend, bird-based codename, martial-arts expert), but in actual fact… no, I take that back, she’s a pale imitation of Black Canary. And who the hell decided those billowing sleeves made sense on a street-fighting superhero? It’s like watching an Olympic gymnast perform while wearing a kimono. C-
Modred the Mystic
“Modred was left in the care of an evolved cow called Bova on Wundagore Mountain.” Yeah, I definitely should have stopped reading before hitting this sentence. “Note: Modred the Mystic should not be confused with Mordred, the illegitimate son and archenemy of King Arthur of Camelot.” Thanks for that, but if you were so concerned about people getting them mixed up, then why the hell call him Modred in the first place? “Morton the Mystic.” “Marty the Mystic.” See? Problem solved. D
Do you think that at any point Chris Claremont was describing his idea for the “Mojoverse” to everyone in the Marvel bullpen someone told him how really, really dumb it sounded? Probably not. D
Not a lot of fans of this guy, which isn’t surprising since nobody’s gay for Mole Man (puts another quarter in the “Unnecessary Simpsons References” jar). It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him, though; long before Reddit and Fox News offered sanctuary for embittered, rejected freaks, he spent years shunning the rest of humanity in search of an underground kingdom to call his own. And even after he found one, he still had to deal with asshat pretty boys and scheming women with their own subterranean realms trying to push him around. That’s rough, man. Mind you, it doesn’t excuse his occasional foray into attempted genocide, but still. C+