Hide the children and put on your best parachute pants, it’s time for another look at the 1980s phenomenon known as The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition. This week: Volume Twelve, from Sif to Sunspot.
In this issue, editor Mark Gruenwald pens an inside-cover essay titled “Optimal Conditions” in which he upbraids readers who write in to say thanks for listing the strength level for each character, because now they know who would win in a fight.
Whoa, wait a second there, Mark says, there’s more to fighting than just plain strength levels. There’s endurance, fighting skills, the health and mood of each combatant on the day of the battle, prevailing wind direction… all kinds of stuff needs to be taken into account when deciding who would win in a fight. There’s also, he continues, such a thing as peak performance, and the fact that not everyone performs at that level 100% of the time.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about this essay. I mean, if the letters that prompted Gruenwald’s essay were written by younger readers who didn’t know much about the ways of the world, then I guess it makes sense they would assume there’s only one relevant factor in a fight. But even in the 1980s, a huge contingent of Marvel’s readers were well into their shaving years (faces or legs, take your pick), and it’s a bit disconcerting to think older OHOTMU readers back then needed to be educated about concepts like “endurance” and “peak performance.” (Or, for that matter, argue excessively over the attributes of completely fictional characters.)
Well, all I can say is it’s a good thing the Internet came along when it did to make it impossible for anyone to have a pointless argument over superhero fights ever again. 🙂
The funny thing about the Asgardian entries is how the OHOTMU writers clearly started out cribbing from whatever mythology textbook they could find, then filled in the back halves of their entries with stories involving Galactus and Beta Ray Bill. In Sif’s entry, we get a bit from Norse mythology that explains how Loki cut off all her golden hair while she slept in the hopes of sabotaging her romance with Thor — which sounds a bit too Mean Girl for the Prince of Lies, but whatever — and she ends up looking hotter than ever with her midnight-black tresses. I’m not surprised, since post-makeover Sif (at least the way Walt Simonson draws her) bears a striking resemblance to ’80s-era Sigourney Weaver. Let the record show I am highly in favor of this. B
Now, this is just stupid. First, we have to air-quotes our way around the word “Maggia,” as if nobody would possibly think we’re talking about the Mafia. Second, he’s a ruthless mob boss who is de-aged by a mystical tablet, recruited to run a HYDRA faction, targeted by a former partner who adopts a costumed identity to kill him, survives a fall from a great height “perhaps” with the help of a “rejuvenation serum” he took and gets turned into a mindless cyborg assassin who’s then used by the Kingpin to eliminate his rivals. Because nothing says “stealthy ninja killer” like sticking Abe Vigoda in a Robocop chassis. “Despite the strength of his robotic body parts, Silvermane’s remaining organic body parts are those of a frail 80-year-old man, and are hence quite vulnerable.” No shit. D
Her actual legal name is Silver Sable, and yet she has an Uncle Morty. I don’t know why I find that funny, it just is. This formidable lady was one of the better additions to the Spider-Man books in the ’80s; a mercenary with the resources of a small country at her disposal, she’s exactly the type of no-nonsense professional who has no time for amateurs like Spider-Man getting in the way. She’s also an expert shooter and fierce hand-to-hand combatant who travels with a katana sword because this is the ’80s and Christ forbid any hot woman in tights not use Japanese-themed weaponry. B-
Speaking of which. It’s hard to feel much love for this guy because it feels like so little effort went into fleshing him out. What’s his power? “He has a sword that disintegrates stuff.” How does he do that? “Mutant.” Why does he dress up like a samurai? “Because.” How does he get around without being spotted? “Teleportation ring.” Where did he get that ring? “Dunno.” Honestly, his best appearance was that one issue of Marvel Team-Up guest-starring the cast of Saturday Night Live; it’s been all downhill for ol’ Kenuichio since then. C-
Let me say up front: I don’t not like the Silver Surfer. As a concept, he sounds like an interesting character, a “stranger in a strange land” type who can comment on the human condition with an outsider’s perspective. In practice, though… meh. More often than not, the Surfer in his early days was a self-righteous bore, constantly soliloquizing about what a piece of work is man, what fools these mortals be, etc. And he was just too… good. Even the devil (in the form of Mephisto) thought so, always scheming to corrupt Norrin Radd so he could possess the purest soul in the universe, or whatever. Does that sound like someone who’s fun at parties? Also, I could never get past how his imprisonment on Earth made Galactus sound like the most passive-aggressive ex ever: “Oh, you say you like these humans so much? Well, fine, you can stay with them forever. See if I care! No, I’m not taking away your cosmic powers, either, because I know someday you’ll come surfing right back to me. You’ll see. You… you beast.” Anyway. A nifty idea, but we all know the Surfer was just a working prototype for Kirby’s greatest creation ever: the Black Racer. C+
Five of Spidey’s lamest villains — and think about the casting call for that distinction — team up for fun and profit. You might think Fred, James, Abner, Morris and “Name unrevealed” are the lamest five-man team to warrant an entry, the shortest in the entire OHOTMU series… but you’d be wrong about that. Oh, so very wrong (see Mutant Force). D
Did the colorist get lazy with this entry, or should we assume Sin-Eater shops at a place that sells shirts, pants, gun belts and accessories all in the same shade of purple? He’s a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent-slash-research test subject who possesses increased strength and endurance, with the small side effect of going cuckoo. And not just for Cocoa Puffs. So of course the only career option open to him is New York City police detective, where he takes an extremely proactive approach to law enforcement by blowing away anyone he felt had abused their authority. I dunno, did we need the whole mad science/super-serum background here? Isn’t it enough to have him crack under the pressure of being a cop and go on a spree? Because this kind of stuff doesn’t make S.H.I.E.L.D. look too good with the whole “keeping tabs on people” thing — which is sort of the whole reason they’re in business. D+
She’s an Irish mutant with sonic powers that somehow propel her forward in flight when she screams. You figure it out. C
These guys have gotten a bigger profile in recent years as a race of religious fanatics who use their shape-shifting powers to infiltrate unsuspecting populations and take over other cultures from within OH I JUST GOT IT. They’re like a, you know, metaphor for modern-day paranoia and shit. Actually, fears of infiltration by outsiders who look just like us have been around for a long while — ask your grandparents about Invasion of the Body Snatchers — but it’s only been in recent years the shape-shifting Skrulls received a religious motivation for swiping our identities. At any rate, I don’t care how vast their interstellar empire is, it’s hard to take a conquering race seriously when their first fight with an Earth-based superhero team ends with them hypnotized into believing they’re cows. Cows! C
Has anyone been using this guy lately? Because I can see him fitting right in with today’s crop of not-really-villains screwed over by The Man. Jalome Beecher is a chemical engineer who invents a new frictionless substance right before losing his job in a corporate takeover. After no bank will help him start his own business, he decides to take what he feels he’s owed, starting with robbing the crooked CEO who fired him. Cut to him wearing a ski mask, boots and bodysuit slathered in his can’t-touch-this miracle gunk and skating around Manhattan while Spider-Man sputters like Yosemite Sam trying to grab hold of him. So… there aren’t any other companies he could go to with his invention? I mean, I’m no business genius and even I can see the potential fortune in selling this stuff to the cookware industry, or fetishists, or fetishists into cookware. Marketing, Slyde, it’s all about the marketing. C+
“A wizard did it,” Power Pack edition. The all-purpose, all-handy sentient starship provides everything a team of prepubescent superheroes could possibly need, from transport to magic costumes — everything with the exception of a responsible adult and the phone number for Child Services. C
Oh, for the love of… NEXT! D-
Sons of the Tiger
A multi-ethnic team of martial artists, ninja terrorists, Fu Manchu attacking the United Nations building, extra-dimensional races, jade talismans bestowing supernatural powers, mind control, people walking through Central Park in the ’70s and not getting mugged… I don’t know, there’s something a little too far-fetched about this one, I just can’t quite put my finger on it. C+
Of course, nobody wants to live under the threat of mutually assured destruction like we did back in my day, before Rocky personally kicked communism’s ass with an inspiring training montage. But spare a thought for the real victims of the end of the Cold War: the comic writers. For many years, Soviet Russia and its Warsaw Pact mates were a convenient source of villains for our heroes, villains who needed no better motivation to fight than “because they’re filthy commies.” Even the heroes serving Mother Russia were good for a tussle, occasionally serving as useful foils for our heroes to point out how goshdarn free and awesome the United States was by compariUSA! USA! USA! Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, there wasn’t a whole lot of personality to share between these guys, who fulfilled their obligations as Soviet superheroes by rebelling against their government masters and roaming the land in search of citizens in need. Good for them. C+
“Believing themselves defenseless without the Spaceknights, the Galadorians created a new generation of cyborg Spaceknights, who were designed to be more formidable than the originals. These new Spaceknights took over Galador and eventually slaughtered all its humanoid population.” Whoops. Always a tragedy when a civilization advanced enough to create elite cyborg warriors forgets their engineering basics, like an off switch. B-
Holy crap, Frank Miller did the art for this guy? Did he lose a bet? The weird thing about Space Phantom’s race is they discovered time travel before perfecting space travel, and they spent so much time going back in time to try to screw each other over they ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and got their whole planet sucked into a limbo dimension. Yeah, there’s really no way to put a positive spin on that. One of them struck a deal with Immortus, the ruler of that dimension, to round up test subjects by kidnapping them from our dimension, assuming their likeness in the process. That… makes no sense. First, why would Immortus need to study beings from our dimension? Second, what purpose is there in Immortus granting Space Phantom the ability to assume the shape of anyone he hocus-pocused into Limbo? Third, I wonder if anyone ever had the awesome idea of making Space Phantom fight Space Ghost in a Marvel/Hanna-Barbera crossover spectacular? D+
Some douchebag chemist with a formula for gaining super-speed, literally the only interesting thing about Speed Demon is how he was once recruited by an alien geographer to help melt Earth’s polar ice caps. I guess he planned to do that by running really fast? Or something? Anyway, the joke’s on them because all the alien had to do was wait a few years for us humans to do the job for him. Never let it be said we don’t go the extra mile to accommodate visitors. C-
(1) The spider that bit him was a common house spider (Archaearanea tepidariorum).
(2) Apparently, it’s common practice for talent scouts who hang out at amateur wrestling matches and offer to represent new clients without asking them for basic information, like their names or what they look like under their masks.
(3) All a smart high school kid needs to create web fluid and mechanical web-shooters is a few days and whatever parts he can find lying around a high school physics lab.
(4) You can bet whoever wrote this entry got a cold look from Stan Lee for leaving out the “great” parts from his quote about power and responsibility.
(5) He sticks to walls thanks to his “ability to mentally control the flux of inter-atomic attraction between molecular boundary layers.” I did not know spiders could do that.
(6) His famed “spider-sense” turns on in response to a “wide variety of phenomena (everything from falling safes to speeding bullets to thrown punches).” Um… are falling safes a common occurrence in the Marvel universe? Does Spider-Man have a longstanding feud with Wile E. Coyote that I’m not aware of?
(7) His wristlets and web fluid cartridges are “mainly nickel-plated annealed brass,” so you know that’s pretty sweet.
(8) Sorry, I’m still stuck on this “inventing web fluid and shooters” thing. So a kid bright enough to come up with stuff like that on the fly still thinks the road to financial success is freelance photography? I’m starting to think Marvel villains aren’t the only ones who could use a good marketing consultant.
(9) Even though Spidey was leaping around town in his black-and-white number at the time this issue came out, I’m really glad they gave equal space to his original red-and-blues. Some looks are classic looks for a reason.
(10) Despite whatever nitpicky fun I had with this entry, I think a good 40, 45 percent of my childhood superhero memories involve May Parker’s wheatcake-snarfing nephew. And you want to know why? Because he’s a goddamn icon, that’s why. Only because I can’t award a higher grade, A+
Not the female arachnophile you’re probably thinking about right now, this Spider-Woman is Julia Capenter, a hero about whom very little was known at the time this issue went to press. What little that was known didn’t exactly scream “boffo box-office,” either. Consider: her motive for super-heroing was to be just like the Avengers, and so she signed up for a government gig with Freedom “We’re a Brotherhood That’s More Into the Legally Sanctioned Evil Stuff Now” Force. Unimpressed with her teammates’ amoral attitudes, she nonetheless goes with the flow until they’re ordered to arrest the Avengers… and then she mopes about whether she should break them out of jail, until she accidentally sets off an alarm and whoops now we’re on the run from the law. Probably for the best they gave the franchise back to Jess. C-
“Occupation: Warrior sorceress, aide to Mojo, U.S. government agent.” That’s a CV you don’t see on LinkedIn every day. Comes with six arms, which you might think would make her somewhat more interesting than someone with two arms, but no. D+
“Sprite physically appears to be a young boy, despite his great age, due to his total mental control over his physical form as an Eternal: he looks like a child because he chooses to do so.” And I’m not one to tell someone else their business, but wouldn’t that choice severely limit your… ah, recreational pursuits? Then again, maybe he realizes he owns the most smugly punchable face among all the Eternals and hopes others will think twice before striking a child. Think again, Spanky. D
Okay, picture in your mind a master spy. Who are you imagining? James Bond? Emma Peel? Jason Bourne? Maxwell Smart? Is the person you’re picturing wearing anything remotely like a ski mask, little pockets up the side of his tights, a belt buckle with the letter S, and a picture of a knife on his chest? No? I wonder why. D-
Hyperion: Superman. Nighthawk: Batman. Whizzer: Flash. Power Princess: Wonder Woman. Doctor Spectrum: Green Lantern. Skrull: Martian Manhunter. Amphibian: Aquaman. Black Archer: Green Arrow. There. I just blew the mind of every comic fan (all two of them) who never figured this shit out 30 years ago. C-
Why no entry for Stark International? Because shortly before this issue came out Tony’s company had been taken over by Obadiah Stane, who probably saved a fortune by only replacing two letters in the corporate signage. “Stark maintained the fiction that Iron Man was his bodyguard and security chief at the plant.” Can I just say how much I approve of the Marvel movies doing away with that secret-identity nonsense? Because there is simply no way to explain how Tony could pretend there’s an extra body on his payroll without Glynis from Accounting busting his lying ass. Trust me, nothing gets by Glynis. I told you I’d get my expense reports to you by Friday, GLYNIS! B
Right at the top of the list of former Avengers who ain’t getting a scene with Scarlett and friends anytime soon, and for good reason. Quoth me: “Among his powers is the ability to stimulate the pleasure centre of the brain — always a handy trait for a planet-hopping hedonist and/or date rapist on the go. A recent She-Hulk story in which Shulkie discovers she herself was once manipulated by Starfox’s mental powers (albeit without his knowledge) underlined the inherent challenges the Avengers — and Marvel Studios — would have in allowing a living, walking Roofie to join their team.” Yeah, try slapping that on the side of a Burger King cup. D+
An inter-species group of outer-space rebels led by a swashbuckling human in launching guerrilla-style attacks against an interstellar empire? Nah, I can’t see this working as a movie. C
Long before Frank Miller showed up to give Daredevil some dignity, our poor hero was given the saddest bunch of putzes you can imagine to fight. Put it this way: if Miller hadn’t come along to give Daredevil his special brand of noir, that Netflix series would have been an NBC sitcom full of guys like Stilt-Man spouting their catchphrases at a live studio audience (“up, up and a-waaaaaaay we go!“). His shtick is a special suit with telescoping legs. That’s it. He can grow to 290 feet tall and even walk around Manhattan at that height, and somehow that gives him the (highly elevated) balls to challenge Thor in a fight. To its credit, Marvel recognized the inherent silliness of the guy and treated him as a joke, as any just universe should. D
He’s an oceanographer with a super-diving suit who occasionally helps out the Avengers, but that stuff is boring so I’m going to talk about one of his early cases: “Federal agent Edgar Benton enlisted Newell’s (Stingray’s) services to investigate the siphoning of waters from Earth’s oceans by reputed extraterrestrials. Benton suspected the Sub-Mariner was collaborating with the aliens against the Earth, and wanted Newell to locate Namor and bring him in for questioning.” Sure, makes total sense. But of course, the guy who leads a kingdom of water-breathers would be first in line to help aliens steal the water they need in order to breathe. I mean… seriously? It’s like the world’s biggest Packers fan accused of helping aliens steal our planet’s supply of cheese-shaped hats. C
No offence to Mr. Jackman, but we get it, Marvel. We believe you, Wolverine has led a very interesting life. You know what we wanna see now? X-Men Origins: Storm. Because she is by far the most interesting member of the team, is why. And I’m not even talking about her African heritage or her status as the pre-eminent black female superhero, either. I’m talking about the fact she possesses enough power over weather systems to be a god. Hell, before Xavier signed her up she was a god, or at least worshipped like one by the Serengeti locals. How does that shape a young woman’s view of the world? How does she resist the temptation to see herself above everyone else? Is there a story in her past that helps explain why she joined the X-Men to fight Juggernaut and Magneto when she can see there are other problems in the world to deal with, problems that she alone has the unique tools to combat? Come on, overpaid movie execs. Enough with the excuses and greenlight this biopic, already. A
Oh, yay. Another buttinski, all-powerful alien without pants who decides to muck around in Earth’s affairs because we’re apparently the only planet in the universe with superhuman beings. He’s an “enigmatic being” who acts with “unfathomable motives,” which is comic-speak for “I have a deadline and I need someone for the Thing to punch for 22 pages.” D
“Imperius Rex!” Namor is not the cuddliest character in the Marvel stable, and even when he’s in one of his nobler moods he can come across as a dick. So why is he one of the few Golden Age Marvel characters to have survived for so long? I think part of the reason is he’s an ornery cuss who likes to smash things (always a market for that among Marvel’s core audience), but on a deeper level he’s very much a Superman figure: a man whose strength comes from being the product of two worlds, the old and the new — someone who is forever searching for that balance between honoring his heritage and forging his own destiny. There’s something uniquely American in that. Also? Pointy ears. Don’t ask me why, but them geeks sure do love their pointy ears. I’m not sure how they feel about teeny ankle wings, though; someone should score a research grant and find out. B
Minions! It’s those little yellow guys from the Despicable Me movies! Short, bug-eyed, yellow-skinned, fiercely devoted to their masters, skilled at performing tasks they’re trained to do, usually found in underground places… I don’t know, I’m thinking someone at Universal might owe Lee and Kirby some serious coin, or at least a little gratitude. At any rate, I don’t see the point of a movie starring a bunch of unintelligible lackeys and I sure as hell don’t see the point of a Handbook entry devoted to same. D+
He’s a seven-foot-tall mutant living beneath Manhattan who’s superhumanly strong (“the exact extent of which is unknown”)… and that’s all we get. Well. That was… enlightening. D
Bitten by a radioactive Pontiac car, Sunfire vowed to… no, no, just kidding. He’s a mutant, natch, with his heat-generating powers coming from his mother’s exposure to nuclear radiation at Hiroshima. Blaming Americans for killing his mother (and thousands of other people) during the war, he goes on a rampage in Washington, D.C., and clashes with the X-Men before listening to reason and going home. Oh, and he was on the “all-new, all-different” X-Men team for five minutes before bugging out. Anything else we need to know? Not really. C
One of the original New Mutants, his shtick was converting solar energy into superhuman strength. I don’t know which editor thought Marvel readers really wanted a detailed explanation of how normal human body cells stores food and converts it into energy — “this energy is stored through converting molecules of adenosine diphosphate (ADP) in the cells into molecules of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)…” — but bless ’em for trying to educate us. C+