Daily Archives: July 16, 2016

Making the Grade: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update ’89, Vol. 1


Yep, we’re back. No, there’s no escape; the ushers locked the doors right after you came in and I’ve got Bill Cosby working the concession stand. So just sit back and accept your fate.

Time once again to start hurling bizarre non sequiturs and lame jokes at another defenceless issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This time out: It’s the first issue of the 1989 Handbook Update mini-series, from Adversary to Chameleon.

Right up front, a disclaimer: I started collecting comics in 1987. I had a box of old comics given to me by an older cousin when I was a kid and I picked up the occasional Archie or Marvel Tales once in a while, but is was the summer of ’87 that I became a full-blown collecting maniac, spending my paper route money on every new book I could find down at the local ye olde drugstore. (And yes, these were the days when someone with a paperboy’s salary could actually afford everything DC and Marvel pumped out. Shut up, I know I’m old.) 

What I’m saying is, I was definitely the main audience for this mini-series. Sure, I collected the earlier Deluxe Edition handbooks to further my education about Marvel’s cast of characters… but here was a mini-series made just for me, a Marvel reader who had just gotten on the boat and was reading all the stories starring Bird-Brain and Ammo and the rest.   

Will my rose-tinted haze of nostalgia keep me from casting a cold and objective eye on the characters that made the cut? Let’s find out. 


“The Adversary is an ancient mystical entity, possibly demonic in nature, who seeks to destroy the present universe and create a new one in its stead.” Take a number. Seriously, how many of these ancient universe-shattering entities are out there? Why don’t they all attack at once? Is there a cosmic refrigerator with a giant chore chart detailing which days each ancient entity is allowed to try and destroy the universe? And wouldn’t this guy be more in Doctor Strange’s bailiwick than a team of garishly clad mutants? As the master once said, these are the thoughts that kept me out of the really good schools. Also? The Adversary loves “overturning order for the mere sake of doing so.” Sounds like my four-year-old’s motive for doing stuff. Next. C-

Alliance of Evil
A team of mutants gathered by Apocalypse to stir up shit, the Alliance of Evil consists of Frenzy, Stinger, Tower, Timeshadow and Michael Nowlan. Like they sing on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. C

Alraune, Marlene
Perhaps as a way of acknowledging how previous OHOTMU series neglected many of Marvel’s supporting characters (especially the female ones), the ’89 Update series makes up for that, starting with Ms. Alraune, Moon Knight’s lover and confidante. Not much to say about her: she majored in art history, she once saved Marc Spector’s life, she bounces between him and her ex-husband like a ping-pong ball in a dryer. Speaking of her ex-husband: “She went back to her husband, Eric Jules Fontaine, who was now a cripple.” I didn’t know you could still call them that in 1989. C+

He’s a Vietnam vet turned biker gang leader who tried to take over New York City during a blackout. He also dresses like a poor man’s Mr. T, if Mr. T were into zebra-print leggings and opera gloves. Anything else you need to know? Not really. C-

Oh, har-dee-har-har. Get it? Because he’s into the animating of animals. He’s also “presumed single,” and yeah, with a mug like that I think that’s a safe presumption. He’s a bug-nuts scientist who got a grant from an anti-mutant group to find a way to halt mutation — which, hello, Darwin came back just to say, “Um, what?” — but he used their money to pursue his real passion: creating hideous animal-human hybrids. Fer crissakes, he even lives on a remote island with his creations and treats them like his personal slaves. How the fuck else did he expect this ripoff of homage to The Island of Dr. Moreau to go down? D

This guy got a serious bump in his Q score thanks to his “special guest villain” status in this year’s X-Men: Age of Apocalypse flick, and I gotta say… I still don’t see it. He considers himself the world’s first mutant, he was seen as a god by many ancient cultures, he’s all about culling the weak and allowing the strongest to survive, his ultimate goal is all-out war between mutants and humans… it’s all too much “throw everything in a blender and see what comes out” for me to see him as an interesting character. Then there’s the bit where this god of terror, this end times of all end times, was sent packing by five mutants, abandoning his alien fortress ship that those same mutants turned into their new Manhattan headquarters. I bet the city’s planning department had a big conniption about that. C-

Apocalypse’s Horsemen
Named for the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations, these fearsome servants of Apocalypse were so evil and dedicated to raining chaos and despair upon the land they laid waste to Manhattan as part of — wait, one of them died in battle with Power Pack? Screw this. D


If the fishnets didn’t tip you off, this gal is Zatanna’s counterpart in the JLA pastiche known as Squadron Supreme. I guess someone felt bad about leaving her full entry out of the previous Handbooks, because there’s no new information imparted here. She started out as a medium, supporting her family as a professional crime fighter while her husband raised the kids. I can dig that, but it must have been awkward discussing payment. “Yes, Mrs. Johnson, I can see your husband’s body… It’s lying in a field… He wants to come home… His spirit is saying, ‘Bring me home, Maude’… The picture is fuzzy, though… I can’t quite make out the location (makes universal “show me the money” hand sign)…” C+

A nice recap of Warren Worthington’s superhero career here, with the addition of his “and then he turned into a homicidal Smurf” phase. Traumatized by the wrenching loss of his wings, he agrees to become Death for Apocalypse’s Fab Four, gaining a pair of metallic razor-sharp wings to replace his lost feathered ones. Also some racing stripes. Can’t forget the racing stripes. Apocalypse is nothing if not an aesthete. B-

I’m at a loss to understand why she, of the 78 billion mutants trotted out by Marvel in the ’80s, deserves a mention in this issue. Apparently the writers didn’t know, either; her entry only takes up 2/3 of a page, and her history boils down to “she did some stuff.” Even the powers section of her entry doesn’t make sense: the artwork clearly shows her demonstrating some kind of energy-hurling power (explaining her “Arclight” nom de guerre), but all we get in the text about her powers is “Arclight possesses superhuman strength.” That’s… not helpful. D


“Eyes: Purple, covered by an opague membrane.” Opague…? Kitty Pryde sported this name for a while, but by 1989 she was going by Shadowcat and “Ariel” was transferred to this hedonist extraterrestrial. “Using her ability to bend space and time, Ariel transported the Fallen Angels to a distant world, where they encountered Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy.” Dibs! B

Astro, Vance
A member of the Guardians of the Galaxy from the time before a certain talking tree or rocketing raccoon joined its ranks, and therefore no one of particular interest. His last name is Astro and he became an astronaut. As Jameson once said, “What are the odds?” C-

This Elder of the Universe, who right away earns points for not looking like yet another old white guy wearing space shorts or a ripped Glad bag, “devotes himself monomaniacally to the study of astronomy.” Which sounds fine until you realize all the Elders are experts in astronomy, insomuch as they traverse the entire known universe in pursuit of their own peculiar obsessions, and presumably have relatively decent star maps to guide them. To them, this guy must be like the equivalent of someone who clicks on Google Maps all day looking for pixelated flashers. C

Banner, Betty Ross
Elizabeth “Betty” Ross Talbot Banner Hutz Terwilliger McClure has experienced more than her share of life’s shit, even for the girlfriend/spouse of a rageaholic anti-hero. For real, I’m not sure how any of the ladies in these books can open a refrigerator without wincing. Lost her mother as a teenager, sent off to boarding school by a distant father, falls in love with a literal monster, left a widow by a work-obsessed husband, kidnapped by a gamma-irradiated madman, turned into a harpy by mad scientists… but look, her entry ends by noting she’s pregnant with Banner’s child! I’m sure that means nothing but fluffy bunnies and blue skies ahead. B


Formerly known as “Bucky,” and kudos to whichever Marvel staff member recognized the problem with giving that superhero codename to a black guy. Lemar Hoskins was chosen to team up with John Walker’s Captain America when Steve Rogers quit the role for a short while. Battlestar trained, went on some missions and… that’s it, really. Rogers came back, Walker became USAgent and Hoskins moved back to Chicago. Hope he got to keep the shield. C

You know what would have been really funny? If the blank space depicting the never-seen Beyonders was credited to whichever artist drew the panel border. A whole lot of “beyond our human perceptions” gobbledygook here that boils down to “flimsy reason to kick off two 1980s crossover events that in retrospect weren’t half as cool as you remembered.” Heh, the writers didn’t waste much time after Shooter’s exit writing his Secret Wars II protagonist out of the picture, did they? “Having made no notable accomplishments of their own, the Nuwali are said to be distinguished solely for their ability to follow orders.” Feel free to make a joke at the expense of the political party followers of your choice. C+

Hel-loooooo, Hitchcockian nightmare fuel. So the Ani-Mator built all kinds of human-beast hybrids — out of which parts I don’t want to know — and then, “to determine which of his Ani-Mates were the fittest at survival,” he sent them into a dangerous maze for them to determine, Hunger Games-style, who was the strongest. Okay, first, if you’re building a slave race from scratch, I’m not sure how quality trumps quantity in your long-term plans. This feels like a huge waste of resources. Second, if you plan to treat your slaves like shit, then you might not want to whittle their ranks down to the ones most likely to rebel against you. Third: wings??? You’re building animal slaves on a deserted island and you give one of them the means to fly away? As for Bird-Brain himself: whatever. C

Black Fox

I can get behind a guy like this. No fancy gimmicks, no psychological hang-ups, no pointless vendettas against costumed do-gooders who foil his schemes — nope, just an aging cat burglar looking to make one last score before he retires. Mostly played for laughs as I recall, but if there’s a story out there that has him finally outsmarting that web-slinging punk I’m all for it. Funny how the older I get the more I’m likely to root for the geezer super-villains. B

Hard to believe, given Blade’s later high profile, that earlier OHOTMU issues forgot to include him. Maybe they were embarrassed by his fashion choices (green pants and red jacket? Are we fighting vampires or auditioning for head elf down at Santa’s Village?). We all know the origin story, but my question is what was Frost doing hanging around a maternity ward in the first place. Was he on his way to the hospital’s blood bank and got peckish? And why bite the lady who’s going into labour? Maybe he thought her screams would be dismissed by the nurses as birthing pains? Because I’ve been near a few women in labor in my time, and vampire or no you do not want to get within their reach. B+

Blizzard II
Hey, it’s that dipshit henchman someone hired to wear another super-villain’s cold suit to battle Iron Man! Next time he shows up, put down the book and go re-watch B:TAS’s “Heart of Ice.” You’ll thank me, I promise. D

Remember that period in the ’90s when it seemed like every forgettable, testosterone-fueled character had “blood,” “death,” “strike,” “storm” or a fanciful spelling thereof in their name, perhaps to distract from the fact there was nothing remotely original or interesting about them? Yeah, like that. D-

Boom Boom
I forgot how painful it was watching comic artists depict “fashionable” teenagers in the ’80s. To be fair, though, that is how a lot of girls dressed back then. Not that the boys were any better (he says, shoving his pastel blazers, Bill Cosby sweaters and hair mousse to the back of the closet). Introduced during that burning 20-car pile-up known as Secret Wars II, Boom Boom went on to far better things as the spunky prankster in several mutant titles. As her name implies, she can generate tiny balls of energy that explode on a delayed fuse. One picture here shows her throwing one down the Hulk’s pants and running away. I don’t recall if that actually happened in a story, but if anyone would do it, it’s her. Girl’s got moxie, is what I’m saying. B

Sigh. As a red-blooded Canadian, I feel a certain duty to ingest and promote all things Canadian. I know all the words to “One Week.” I remind my Trump-fearing American friends that we did the insane racist populist politician thing first and we turned out fine. Heck, I even get lost in a haze of stubby-neck nostalgia when I hear the phrase “Molly’s Reach.” But Alpha Flight — man, loving that book was hard. Before I discovered the Byrne back issues, I came into the title at a time when guys like this feeb were the top-billing “stars” of the show. And I’m sorry if I’m upsetting any Madison Jeffries ‘shippers out there (heh, an apologetic Canadian, that’s something you’ve never seen before), but you don’t need three densely packed pages of text to say “mutant build big robot go boom.” He’s boring as hell, and totally looks like the guy who says he prefers early-era Nickelback, “you know, before they got all corporate with their sound.” Bleh. C-

He’s a 6’11”, 390-lb. covert government agent with the “highest level security clearance such an agent can hold.” Uh-huh. Dude that size doesn’t sound very “covert” to me, but what do I know. He once did the bidding of the Kingpin and arranged for the bombing of an environmental protection organization, so on top of all the other sick and evil things Wilson Fisk has done he really hates recycling. Heh, a cage match between Kingpin and Captain Planet, now that’s a crossover I’d pay to see. C

Yes, they totally left this guy out of the Deluxe Edition series. No, I don’t know why. But he’s here now, so let’s get this party sta— *urgh* *ack* *gasp* (dies from straightened paper clip lodged in trachea). Kingpin might be Daredevil’s arch-nemesis, but this guy scores points for killing Elektra and having zero remorse for the pile of bodies he leaves in his wake. There are a couple of groaners in his entry — apparently we were handing out Adamantium makeovers like they were Tic Tacs back in the ’80s — but overall this is a guy who has earned his spot on Daredevil’s hit parade, and I look forward to seeing his debut in certain Daredevil-related entertainments in the near future. (HINT!) A-

That’s Raoul Bushman, of course, no doubt of the Southampton Bushmans. He’s the murderous mercenary whose actions led to slightly less murderous mercenary Marc Spector adopting his Moon Knight identity, and I know this because this is the second time in this issue a Moon Knight character’s entry has been largely given over largely to detailing Moon Knight’s origin. I have a feeling this won’t be the last, either. But hey, doesn’t he look scary? Rarr! C

Oh, now this is beyond stupid. First off, there’s the giggle-inducing name. Second, we’re told he’s a former priest turned CIA agent, which is one hell of a vocational leap that no one even tries to explain, nor does anyone bother to explain why he’s targeting mutants with an artistic bent. Third… his arm is a freaking gun! And not in a “we amputated his arm and stuck an AK-47 on the stump” way, either; no, his right arm has been bionically altered so that he can shoot bullets from the place where his right hand is supposed to be. Who would do this to a human being? Who would allow this to be done to them? And can we acknowledge the flesh-colored elephant in the room and ask how does he perform certain manual activities that require a fellow to touch body parts that one wouldn’t want to see get accidentally blown away? What? No, I was talking about how he washes his hair in the shower. Why, what were you thinking? D-

Yet another Atlantis power-seeker seeking to usurp Namor, he resorted to mind control and earthquake machines to turn public opinion against the Sub-Mariner and seize control of his kingdom. If you’re wondering why he didn’t just demand to see Namor’s long-form birth certificate, that’s why he’s the charismatic warlord and you’re not. Also? Because I’m still 12: “Byrrah had gigantic crabs” — hee. C-

Cabe, Bethany

“Occupation: Bodyguard.” I’ll just bet she does. Guard Tony Stark’s body, I mean. A decent person and a badass in her own right, she was also smart enough to see through Tony’s “Iron Man is my bodyguard” bullshit long before everyone else did. Her only flaw — and it’s not really her fault — is she got dragged into a silly revenge plot involving a Freaky Friday-style mind swap between her and the malevolent Madame Masque. Let’s keep that one out of the next Iron Man film, okay, Marvel? B+

Captain Britain
“Captain Britain’s superhuman powers and life force are mystically dependent on the land of Britain. He will grow increasingly weak the longer he is away from the United Kingdom.” Considering the jolt the recent Brexit referendum gave the political forces pushing for Scottish independence and Irish reunification, I have a guess about which way Captain Britain would have voted. Ah well, there’s always Otherworld, Brian. B-

“Agile like the cat!” Any Arrested Development fans in the house? No? Okay, then just picture David Cross getting bitch-slapped by Bruce Lee. You’re welcome. This guy showed up a lot in Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu to function as someone for Shang Chi to fight, usually over secret documents of one kind or another. Which is weird, because I don’t usually associate kung fu masters with government paperwork. I mean, sure, we need some kind of MacGuffin to get these stories started but what, no mystical gems or sacred scrolls? Not even one enchanted sword? That’s kind of a letdown. B-

Cat People
Memory/All alone in the moonlight/I can smile at the old days/I was beautiful then…” Trust me, you would rather have me sing old Broadway tunes than tell you anything about this bizarre attempt to retcon a 1970s heroine’s origin story into a demented saga involving the Black Plague, wizards, HYDRA, magic mountains and a tribe of other-dimensional cat demons. Still, it could have been worse; I’m totally a dog person, but even I have to admit a society of upright-walking Scooby-Doos would be infinitely dumber. “Ruh-roh, Roctor Range! Rormammu ron’t rike rat!” D

Okay, here’s a guy who first showed up in Amazing Spider-Man #1, and he’s made his share of return appearances since then. The editors missed including him in the first and second OHOTMU go-round, but no problem because they’re making up for it here. So what do we get? Name: “Unrevealed.” Identity: “Presumably known to authorities.” Place of birth:” Unrevealed.” Marital Status: “Unrevealed.” What he actually looks like: “Unknown.” History before he showed up messing in Spidey’s business: “Fuck if we know.” But hey, it says here he once tangled with Torpedo! Bet you’re kicking yourself for missing that titanic clash! Here’s the part that pisses me off the most, though: you’ve got this classic Spidey villain with the not-too-shabby ability to disguise himself as anyone in the world thanks to his impressive acting and make-up skills, and they “upgrade” him by giving him a disguise-making doohickey that creates holographic disguises around him. Now, call me an old fart, but I submit a super-villain is way more impressive when he has to do the heavy lifting himself, and not rely on some device that any monkey can operate. No, Handbook, don’t try to win me over with some choice pre-Image McFarlane artwork that my 15-year-old self couldn’t get enough of back in the day. You messed this one up, editors from almost 30 years ago. Let’s do better in the next issue, ‘kay? B