Making the Grade: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, Vol. 10

marvelhandbook-vol10

Oh, we’re halfway there! Take my hand, and we’ll make it, I swear! And if we don’t… well, at least we’ll leave behind one hell of an obituary. After all, how many people in the world can say they died from reading Volume 10 (Paladin to the Rhino) of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition? Eleven, maybe twelve tops. 

Wait a minute. We’re halfway through the series and we’re already up to R? Well, yes. That’s what happens when you decide to pull out all the dead-and-inactive-characters-circa-1986 and give them five whole issues to strut their stuff. 

But we’ll bellyache about the caped cadavers later. For now, let’s talk about “Imaginary Limits,” a column in which editor Mark Gruenwald answers some of the common questions from fans of the series.

No surprise, a few letter writers asked why the editors weren’t observing the rules they set out in the second issue for deciding which characters make the OHOTMU cut, to which Gruenwald replies “it seems I forgot to mention another of my great selection biases: uniqueness factor… [we wrote them up] because they help describe the great variety of phenomena in the wondrous place known as the Marvel Universe.” Seems like a beat-around-the-bush way of saying “Because I just plain LIKE those characters, that’s why,” but whatever. 

Excelsior!

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Paladin

Real name: Unknown. Source of superhuman strength: Unknown. Reasons for operating as a mercenary: Unknown. Source of his specialized armor and weaponry that one assumes is outside the purchasing power of your run-of-the-mill paid muscle: Unknown. Well, we’re off to a rollicking start, aren’t we? What we do know: he once teamed up with Daredevil and later with the Wasp, which led to the two of them seeing each other romantically (Paladin and the Wasp, not Paladin and Daredevil — not that there’s anything wrong with that). Oh, and he once helped the Wasp take down some Avengers foes, “despite the fact he was not being paid for it.” Not in American currency, that is (wink wink). C-

Phastos
Oh, goody, another Eternal, this time a guy who was commonly mistaken for Hephaestus by the ancient Greek folks. Let me guess, Phastos is a master builder of some type. Did I get it right? Let’s see… yep, he’s chief engineer at a steel mill. He also “believes life is meaningless” and is searching for “someone or something whose identity has not been revealed.” Do we know if this guy ever found what he was looking for? Because I would bump him up two grades if the subject of his eons-long search turned out to be something really banal, like the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago. C-

Phoenix I
This was the Jean Grey Phoenix who died in the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” then was brought back to life years later via the “it was actually an omnipotent cosmic force taking my form and pretending to be me while I lay comatose in a space cocoon at the bottom of the sea” switcheroo. You know, that old cliché. Ms. Grey then went on to a long career of dying and then not dying, to the point where the local funeral home started giving her frequent-customer punch cards (“buy nine interments, the tenth one’s on us!”). Do you think there’s a connection between this cavalier approach to death and Marvel’s descent into convoluted codswallop for most of the ’90s? Probably. B-

Phoenix II
Speaking of convoluted. I was never a big fan of the Rachel Summers Phoenix, mostly because I got into the X-books right about the time her arrival started mucking up X-Men continuity beyond comprehension. The artists also didn’t do her any favors giving her the fugliest haircuts this side of a Britney Spears breakdown. C-

Plantman
Okay, first off I want to know who they think they’re fooling with this “engages in minimal regular exercise” stuff, because this is one seriously buff scientist. Maybe that’s why his schemes never work out: too much time working the free weights when he should have been in his lab. As his unimaginative name suggests, Plantman uses animated plants, trees and vines to carry out his mental commands. Why does he use his amazing control over vegetation to tussle with the Human Torch instead of making billions from agribusiness conglomerates? Because… um… why, for revenge, of course! And while the dopey raygun-hit-by-lightning explanation for his power is bad, it doesn’t bother me as much as his motive for studying botany in the first place, which was to “increase the intelligence of plant life so that human beings could communicate with plants.” Christ, I’m already off the veal and foie gras, now this putz wants me to feel guilty every time I order a garden salad? Seriously, what amazing thoughts does he expect plants to share with us? “Sunshine makes us grow!” “Ow, that chainsaw really hurts.” “Yeah, that thing you guys do where you rip out our genitals and stick them in vases? That’s sick, man.” D-

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Pluto

I’m sorry, I know he’s the Big Bad Scary of the Greco-Roman pantheon, but I’ve spent too much time watching Disney cartoons to find anyone named “Pluto” dark and menacing. And I’m not even sure why he’s referred to by his Roman name here — though now that I think about it, the entry on the Olympian gods had a mix of Greek and Roman names. Yes, it matters. Anyway, Pluto had a pretty interesting motive for villainy, in that he wasn’t on board with Zeus’s edict that the Greco-Roman gods stay out of human affairs, depriving Pluto of the chance to collect more souls for his kingdom. This of course leads to him trying to trick Hercules into signing over his soul by posing as a movie producer named Hayden P. Hellman. I don’t care how evil he is — the dude shows hustle, and you’ve got to respect that. B

Polaris
I run into the same problem here that I have with DC’s Doctor Polaris; namely, I see the “polar” in her name and assume she has ice-and-cold powers. But nope, she’s a female Magneto and quote-unquote “reserve member” of the X-Men. Presumably, she was given green hair as a way to make her more interesting. Didn’t work. C-

Possessor
I’ve already done reviews of all the Elders of the Universe, including this guy, and let’s just say I’m not a fan of the concept. Especially in this guy’s case. Qu0th me: “He probably wins the prize for the weirdest career story: once a humble librarian on a distant planet, he came across an alien artifact called the Runestaff, powered it up and accidentally dispatched the life forces of hundreds of thousands of students and faculty at his university into a limbo dimension, an act that drove him insane (and probably put a huge damper on that weekend’s homecoming game, too). Then, millions of years later, Hercules and Thor’s lady friend borrow the staff to save someone’s life and leave it forgotten in a hospital broom closet for months before the Possessor reclaimed it and used its power to restore his sanity and his people. Two questions: (1) Where are these hospitals in which alien artifacts of immense power can lie unnoticed amid their janitorial supplies for months at a time, and how can I avoid not getting sick near them? (2) So he possesses all the knowledge in the universe but somehow can’t access the Tim Gunn portion to know the shredded Glad bag fashion statement is a bad choice? Okay, then.” C-

Power Broker
A.K.A. Curtiss Jackson, criminal entrepreneur and head of Power Broker Inc., a company that provides super-powers to henchmen, pro wrestlers, ethically dubious military units, you name it. His entry is mostly a (very) detailed rundown of all the battles he was involved in, which brings up one of my pet peeves with OHOTMU as a whole. Who is he? What’s his background? Why does he do what he does? Is he just a glorified drug dealer, caring only for the profits to be made in illegal power enhancements? Or is he like the Syndrome of the Marvel universe, handing out powers like Halloween treats as part of a larger scheme to get revenge against all “supers” out there? Sucks to be you if you want to know. But at least he looks good in a suit. C

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Power Man

You wanna know why Luke Cage is the mack daddy of cool? I’ll tell you why Luke Cage is the mack daddy of cool. No, it’s not because he was the first black superhero to headline his own comic, though it helps. No, it’s because in one story, in which the famed hero for hire took on Doctor Doom for a client (hey, a job’s a job), he was so enraged by the cheapskate despot’s attempt to skip out on the bill that he borrowed a ride from the Fantastic Four and followed Doom all the way to Latveria, resulting in one of the most awesome exchanges in the history of ever:

DOOM:  “When my men reported a crazy black man in the Fantastic Four’s craft, I knew it had to be you!”
CAGE:  “Where’s my money, honey?”

“Where’s my money, honey?” To Victor von freakin’ Doom. That? Is friggin’ awesome. If they include that scene in Luke’s upcoming Netflix series, I just might wet myself. A+

Power Pack
I’ve said my piece about these kids in a previous post, so go check it out if you want. All I’ll say here is that the concept of children as superheroes is for me an idea that dwells somewhere at the intersection of “just insane enough to to be awesome” and “no way in hell can it work.” And the entry acknowledges the inherent problems with sending children into danger, saying they’re too young to act as professional adventurers and instead use their powers “when the occasions arise.” Even so, I recall an awful lot of adults in the Marvel finding out about the Power siblings and being a little too okay with it. I guess my biggest beef with the original series is that — like everything else Marvel pumped out back then — it had to not only fit within the official Marvel universe, but it also had to adhere to the storytelling style (“crossovers! crossovers! crossovers!”) that Marvel insisted on for all its superhero books back in those days. In its own universe, and with a stronger focus on speaking to younger readers, I can see Power Pack being a pretty neat idea. A tough grade to assign, but I’ll honor the potential in the concept with a B-

Primus
He was a shape-shifting artificial being created by one of Captain America’s mad-scientist enemies to sabotage the hero’s personal relationships while Cap was being held captive. Instead, Primus decided the parts of Cap’s life that featured cuddles and smooching were worth disobeying his master’s commands. I bet mad scientists hated it when that happened. C

Princess Python
“The princess has had a very close relationship with her pet snake, and she has at times preferred its company to that of human beings.” Down, filthy mind. Down! Actually, what really cracks me up here is the artwork showing her pet python coiled around Iron Man, with his body language and teeny lines of expression suggesting a certain level of panic on Mr. Stark’s part. Maybe he fell in a train car full of snakes, too? C+

Professor X
It’s a good thing they chose beloved British ham Patrick Stewart to play him in the movies, because my God the X-Men’s leader could be a real prick sometimes. For instance, there was the time he needed a break from the X-Men to prepare for a big battle, and instead of telling them “Hey, I’m taking some time off,” he recruited a shape-shifter to impersonate him while he was gone. Smart, right? Except for the part where the impostor died while impersonating Professor X, and Xavier let his students live with that grief for a few months before showing up at the school (probably while taking a shower and convincing them the whole previous semester was just a dream). Something else that this entry doesn’t get into is how, early in the first X-Men series, Professor X silently mused about his attraction to Jean Grey — a 16-year-old student more than half his age — and told himself it could never work because of his wheelchair. Yeah, Charlie. Sure. It’s the wheelchair that’s the problem. X-Men #3, people. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. C

Project: Pegasus
No, this wasn’t a government project to genetically engineer flying horses… though I don’t blame you for assuming that’s possible in a world where someone spends actual tax dollars on giant mutant-hunting robots. Standing for “Potential Energy Group/Alternate Sources/United States,” it’s a research facility studying non-fossil fuel energy sources that branched out into examining superhumans whose powers caught the interest of the feds. Wait, a government-sponsored initiative that turned into a quagmire of human-rights violations and shady behind-the-scenes happenings that were kept secret from the general public? Now that’s just too far-fetched. C

Psycho-Man
It doesn’t really matter who he is (alien scientist conqueror) or where he’s from (Sub-Atomica), all you really need to know is the “Psycho” part of his name is short for “psychology,” not “crazy” or “fan of Alfred Hitchcock.” Oh, and he absolutely sucks at product design, holding a giant tablet gizmo with three huge buttons reading “FEAR,” “DOUBT” and “HATE.” Come on, Psych! Are those really the only emotions an alien conqueror would find handy to manipulate? What about “apathy,” “ennui,” “indifference,” “lust,” or “batshit giddiness”…? Hell, turning “angst” all the way to 11 would be enough to keep Spider-Man in a fetal position until his next film reboot. That’s the problem with most alien conquerors: no sense of innovation. C-

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Puck

Every super-team has to have one, eh? You know what I mean: the scrapper, the misanthrope, the guy with the secret past, the fellow whose wisecracking and/or gruff exterior masks the pain and anguish he keeps hidden from his teammates. The Doom Patrol gets Robot-Man, the X-Men get Wolverine, Care-A-Lot gets Grumpy Bear… and Alpha Flight gets Puck, the cartwheeling wonder. There wasn’t anything hugely obnoxious about him — nothing particularly cool about him, either — though I have to say the “lack of height stops him from professing his love to his teammate” subplot doesn’t sound terribly PC in these modern times. Try to imagine someone like Peter Dinklage reading for this part in an Alpha Flight movie and coming across that tidbit right before going home to lie on a mattress made of supermodels. (Not that I’m suggesting Mr. Dinklage does any such thing; it’s just what I would do if I were half as awesome as him.) C

Puma
A self-made billionaire who built a major corporation from the ground up while also training to serve as the guardian of his Native American tribe, Thomas Fireheart turned to mercenary work because (all together now) he was bored with corporate life and needed new challenges. Of course! Because that’s what every board of directors appreciates, a CEO who moonlights on the weekends as a mob enforcer for kicks. Introduced around the time Secret Wars II came out, this ambivalent Spider-Man villain quickly got sucked into the vortex of suck that surrounded the Beyonder, and he never really got pulled out of it. Pity. D+

Punisher
Oh, Frankie. What are we going to do with you? First, let’s accept the fact that a guy with his M.O. and choice of cities to operate in wouldn’t last more than a week travelling around Manhattan in a souped-up van while sporting a giant skull on his tummy. And let’s face it, the whole “family gunned down while witnessing a daytime mob execution IN THE MIDDLE OF CENTRAL FREAKIN’ PARK I MEAN HELLO” origin always did seem a bit far-fetched. That said, in the right hands (Garth Ennis, say) Castle can be an entertaining, even darkly funny, character. And he works great as a foil for other, less murderous vigilantes, which is my way of saying I’m psyched as hell about his showing up in the next season of Daredevil’s Netflix series. So who cares if he’s a rip-off of every dime-novel vigilante who blows away nameless goons for 400 pages? He’s the Punisher! Jigsaw couldn’t take him down, Kingpin couldn’t take him down, and Dolph Lundgren’s “acting” sure as hell couldn’t finish him off. Face it, sometimes happiness really is a warm gun. B

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Puppet Master

Annnnnd then you’ve got this guy. Good God, he’s a creepy little shit, isn’t he? He looks like Gollum after a shower and a visit to a day spa. And lest I be accused of looks-ism, let’s look at his scorecard: kills his business partner out of jealousy over the other guy’s family, marries the widow on the rebound, directly (albeit accidentally) causes the blindness of his stepdaughter, uses his magic radioactive clay to create little puppets of people that he mentally controls, and joins an alliance of super-villains to blackmail the U.S. with an orbiting satellite that fires deadly laser beams. Charming. Oh, yeah, about that magic clay; we’re told his family brought it with them from the old country when he was eight years old, and he still had it in his adult years when he discovered its mind-control properties. What, were his parents characters in a Bram Stoker novel? Who the hell travels with clods of mud from their hometown? D

Purple Man
He’s a spy turned criminal whose name is Zebediah Killgrave, and yet he decided to go with “The Purple Man.” Yes, he’s purple — but that’s not the point. Who in their right mind would call themselves “The Purple Man” when Killgrave is right there on the table? Marketing, Zeb. It’s all about the marketing. D+

Pym, Dr. Henry
I feel like I gave this fellow enough abuse during our recent Ant-Man Month, so I’m going to rant about a general beef I have about comic-book scientists. Under Abilities, we learn he’s one of the world’s foremost biochemists with “considerable expertise” in subatomic physics, robotics, cybernetics, entomology and the design of AI systems. And he would have to be a master of all those disciplines to come up with all the stuff he’s invented over the years, his shrinking gas and ant-helmet being two of the more obvious examples. But look at the smartest people you know and think of the effort it takes for them to master just one field of study. Stephen Hawking isn’t out curing cancer when he takes a break from space stuff. Einstein wasn’t a physicist who also learned how to splice genes in his spare time. Yeah, I know : it’s just comic book science, don’t try to find the logic in it, etc. But I think it takes away from the achievements of real scientists when we make their fictional counterparts these super-scientists who pick up entire fields of study with the same ease that you or I might learn a new way to turn our body parts into musical instruments. Anyway. Purely because Michael Douglas rocked that role, C+

Pyro
Yet another mutant with a flair for the dramatic, he’s an Aussie with the power to shape any fire into “living flame.” He’s also the author of several “torrid Gothic romances,” which seems like an odd personality trait to throw in there; does he talk rewrites with his editor in between battles with the X-Men? Also odd: his entry says that before he joined Mystique’s team, he only used his pyrokinetic powers for emergencies because he “could not think of a way to use them for profit,” leading me to wonder why joining one of the many travelling circuses in the Marvel universe was out of the question. Sawdust allergies? C

Quasar
After making highly successful movies starring talking raccoons and ant-men, I’m pretty sure Marvel Studios could put out a movie titled Bullpen Bulletins and still haul in $100 million on opening weekend. This guy, though? I dunno. Don’t get me wrong, he enjoyed his own half-decent series for a few years in the late ’80s and ’90s, and he’s been a solid second-stringer (give or take a death) since then… but if Feige and company give him the green light, they might need to make some changes to the script. For starters, the whole backstory about his Marvel Boy predecessor going to Uranus to pick up those nifty crime-fighting wristbands will have to be reworked (unless you want your audience snickering every time someone says “Uranus”). Second, Quasar’s chief power is making giant light constructs from the energy inside his colorful fashion accessories, and we’ve already spent enough money on movies about that. So… yeah. Still a decent character, though. B-

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Quasimodo

I know what you were trying to go for, Marvel. He’s ugly, misshapen, prone to fits of destruction, saddled with a ridiculous acronym-derived name (Quasi-Motivational Destruct Mechanism, whatever the hell that means)… but he’s no MODOK. Because there can only be one MODOK, that’s why. D+

Quicksilver
So, are you Team First Class or Team Age of Ultron? Either film version of Quicksilver is a great improvement on the original, whose handlebar hairstyle and Namor-like anti-hero attitude both seemed forced. (And don’t even try to tell me there was an Ultimates version of Quicksilver because he did not exist, okay? He. Did. Not. Exist.) At least Quicksilver can’t take the blame for that hideous baby-blue-with-lightning accents number he’s wearing; according to this entry, Magneto was the one who discovered and outfitted Quicksilver and his sister. Hey, the man’s out to conquer the world, not Project Runway. B-

Radioactive Man
This guy first showed up as one of Thor’s first dancing partners in the 1960s and… yeah, he hasn’t aged well. I mean, sure, technically the Chinese still have a Communist(-ish) government, but we’ve learned a lot about radiation since the days of duck-and-cover, which is why you might notice most modern-day heroes don’t include it as a healthy part of their complete secret-origins breakfast. What does he do? He’s radioactive! How did he get so strong? Radiation! What does he want? To take over the world! How does teaming up with guys like Egghead and Baron Zemo get him closer to his goal? Excellent question! A product of his time, for sure. C

Rama-Tut
Speaking of time. I really don’t know if the writers were being clever or insane whenever they plopped time travel into early Fantastic Four or Avengers stories, but I can tell you it was a real headache keeping track of who was where when. This cat, for instance, was — depending on the time period and/or alternate reality — an ancient pharaoh, Kang, Immortus, Doctor Doom’s ancestor, Doctor Doom’s descendant, Doctor Doom himself, the Scarlet Centurion, and for all I know the Thing’s other college buddy and Lockjaw’s favorite chew toy. I’m surprised he didn’t get run over by a silver DeLorean, the way he kept zig-zagging back and forth through time. D+

Rattler
Yup, he rattles, all right. Another Serpent Society member, there’s not much personal info on this rattlesnake-themed villain, so let’s talk about his bionic tail. Now, I’m sure at the time it seemed like a good idea — handy sonic powers, functions as a battering ram, etc. — but I wonder how soon after the operation he started to think that maybe he had made a mistake. After all, if it’s grafted right on to your spine you can’t just take it off when you want some downtime with the kids, or want to take a few loads to the laundromat without attracting curious stares. Nope, you’re pretty much a snake-guy villain 24/7, which at the very least would limit your Tinder options. Not that I’m suggesting guys like him should make rational life decisions; superhero comics would be a lot less interesting if everyone started doing that. C+

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Red Ghost

“Kragoff launched his spaceship, and during a cosmic ray storm similar to the one that empowered the Fantastic Four, he gained the ability to make himself intangible at will. His three trained simians — a gorilla, an orangutan and a baboon — gained super-simian abilities at the same time (see Red Ghost’s Super-Apes).” Except I don’t see them, because when I turn the page I see a shapely woman in red who is definitely not a super-orangutan. Maybe the apes are listed among the dead characters? (goes to check) Nope, not there, either. How am I supposed to make fun of Commie phantoms in red parkas when I don’t know the marital status of his ape companions, who may or may not have the strength levels of apes who engage in moderate regular exercise? Boo, editors! Boo, I say! As for Ivan here: meh. C-

Red Guardian
Speaking of the woman in red. She appears alphabetically after Red Ghost because she, like him, called the former Communist USSR her home. She’s a brilliant neurosurgeon who was motivated to become her country’s masked symbol of liberty to protest its Communist masters, and later gained super-powers when a bug-nuts scientist kidnapped her and threw buckets of radiation at her. I love how she immediately turned to costumed vigilantism as her first option to protest government policies; C-SPAN would be a lot more interesting if more people did that in real life. C+

Red Ronin
“The Red Ronin is a hundred-foot-tall robot” — okay, I’m listening — “designed for the express purpose of subduing the mutated dinosaur known as Godzilla” — ohgodohgodohgodohgod yesyesyes — “although it was intended that the robot would be piloted by an agent for SHIELD” — uh huh, yeah yeah yeah — “Takiguchi’s young grandson Robert sneaked aboard the huge automaton and donned the cybernetic helmet by which the robot’s actions are controlled” — uh, okay — “making the robot inoperable by anyone except the young Takiguchi without time-consuming programming.” Wait… what? Okay, bad enough the scientists built that somewhat serious design flaw into their creation, but who the hell is in charge of security around here? And while little Robert got a stern tongue-lashing after his first unauthorized adventure, he somehow managed to climb aboard Red Ronin a second time to go fight more monsters alongside his big-lizard buddy. I’m starting to see how SHIELD got caught with its pants down in Winter Soldier. C

Red Wolf
Not a Soviet agent as his name might suggest, he’s actually a Native American with a moniker that sounds a teensy bit politically incorrect today. Pretty standard “protector of his people/motivated by need to avenge slaughtered family” stuff we’ve seen in just about every Western ever, this time with wolves as both pets and fashion accessories (speaking of which, I wonder how Lobo here feels about his human buddy’s choice of headdress). He possesses “no known superhuman powers,” which frankly doesn’t speak well of the Cheyenne wolf-spirit that supposedly picked him to receive the spirit’s essence. I’m asked to time-share my body with a wolf-god, I expect to get at least one decent super-power out of it. C+

Reject
Though considered handsome by Human and Eternal standards, the “youthful being known as the Reject” was born into Deviant society, where his smouldering eyes and symmetrical features marked him as ugly by Bizarro-world standards. He was trained from childhood to be a killing machine in the gladiatorial arena, which strikes me as a waste of a pretty face (you’d think having at least one member of your race who can travel among humans without causing mass heebie-jeebies would be handy), but whatever. C

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Rhino

Oh, Rhino. I don’t care how many crashed space shuttles and Counter-Earths they stick in your personal history, to me you’ll always be the guy on the Spider-Man cartoon who was defeated by your own sneezing. That’s a hard thing to come back from, but at least that wasn’t as embarrassing as his cameo in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Honestly, I think his original Romita appearances and subsequent cartoon outings are the only reasons he’s one of Spidey’s more fondly remembered villains. Because when you get right down to it, he’s just a mook dressed like a rhinoceros. A tough mook, yes, but a mook all the same. C+

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One response to “Making the Grade: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, Vol. 10

  1. “Xavier let his students live with that grief for a few months before showing up at the school (probably while taking a shower and convincing them the whole previous season was just a dream).”

    LOL… that was Patrick Duffy who did that, not Patrick Stewart 😛

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