Monthly Archives: August 2016

Making the Grade: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update ’89, Vol. 4


[Terribly witty and insightful introduction to go here, just as soon as I come up with one]

[No, really, YOU try finding something original to say after writing a few dozen of these bloody things.]


Human Torch
The original Flame-Head, that is, the one who was flying around New York City years before Johnny Storm was a twinkling ember in his mother’s hot-to-trot eye. He’s also Exhibit A for the argument that even a batshit idea for a superhero could sell a million copies in the Golden Age. He made a few scattered appearances in the ’60s and ’70s until he was brought back for real in West Coast Avengers, just in time for his 50th anniversary. It didn’t take. Aside from the fact we already had a perfectly good character flying around with his name, there’s just not that much Golden Age magic to draw from here. Flying flame guy? Already got that. Android in search of humanity? That sound you’re hearing is the Vision clearing his throat. Hero displaced in time? Captain America says, “Yo.” What I’m saying is, maybe some toys are better left in the box. C-

Marvel’s Superman in an alternate dimension of Justice League types, Hyperion got trotted out whenever Marvel needed a Superman type for the Avengers to lock horns with. Most of his entry is a recap of the then-recent Squadron Supreme mini-series by the late, great Mark Gruenwald; it looked at the moral and ethical issues that arise when a superhero team decides to be more proactive, but then they have to fight other heroes who think they’ve gone too far and forgotten about individual freedoms and... heyyyyy this is starting to sound familiar. Trust me, back then it was a novel idea. B-

Let me put this out there: you’re a young and attractive woman with the mutant power to turn men into grotesque monster slaves with just one kiss. Why on Earth would you choose to call yourself “Infectia”…? Also, her goal was to possess X-Factor’s alien ship headquarters — which immediately suggests her story is bullshit, because it says right here in her entry she inherited a sweet Manhattan brownstone when her parents died, so you know she’s not hard up for prime real estate. Anyway, all she really accomplished before dying of a mutant-targeting virus (irony!) was accidentally use her power to cure Beast of a disease that was slowly taking away his intelligence. Well, that worked out nicely for ol’ Hank. C

Iron Fist
Hold on, did they forget to put Iron Fist in the Marvel Handbook until now? (checks back issues) Wow. I mean, he’s no Captain America, sure, but that feels like a bit of a blunder, especially since his best buddy and comic-book co-star Luke Cage made it in. Anyway. Bog-standard “white guy goes to mystical Asian place to learn martial arts” story here, with a dollop of murdered parents, treacherous business partners, ancient challenges, you know the drill. Let’s hope he ditches that heinous collar in his upcoming Netflix series. C+

Iron Man
Hey, what’s Tony been up to since the last time he appeared in OHOTMU? Well, along with designing a snazzy new suit, he reclaimed control of his fortune, started a new company from scratch, fought off the usual corporate saboteurs and bad guys, and engaged in “Armor Wars,” a storyline that saw him exercise extreme trademark law on others using suits with his stolen tech. His unilateral attitude (he targeted villains, other heroes and government employees with super-suits) didn’t endear him to the authorities, but lucky for him everyone back then was still falling for the “Iron Man’s just my bodyguard” line and Tony was able to “kill” his “renegade employee” and make it all go away. Oh, and then he got shot by a crazed stalker and the bullet severed his spine, but he’s all better now because a microchip allows him to walk again. So you know. The usual. A+

Jade Dragon
Hold on while I do a Google search to see how many Chinese restaurants have that name… huh. Now, then. After receiving the power of the Jade Dragon, Chinese soldier Dei Guan gains the ability to turn into an actual dragon and — you know what? He appeared in Alpha Flight. It literally doesn’t matter. He fought an acrobatic midget and got his scaly ass kicked back to China. The end. D

Jarvis, Edwin
The Avengers’ butler, and like a certain other butler to the heroes, a fellow with a (insert best Liam Neeson impression) very particular set of skills that comes in handy when managing household duties at the world’s most visible superhero headquarters. Ever wonder what his job interview was like?

IRON MAN: (glancing at Jarvis’s resume)  “Very impressive, Mr. Jarvis. Five years as head butler at Buckingham Palace… three years as personal valet to the Pope… served under four presidents at the White House… head roadie and monkey wrangler for Justin Bieber’s Believe tour…”

JARVIS: “Thank you, Mr… ah, Iron Man, sir. If I may be so bold, I believe it’s fair to say I have dealt with every domestic difficulty that one can reasonably expect.”

IRON MAN: “Excellent, excellent. Well, I think we’re almost done here, just one final test if you don’t mind. Nothing serious, we just want to see if you can handle anything that might get thrown at you.”

JARVIS: “Why, I would be delighted, sir. What would you like me to do? Whip up a delightful creme brûlée? Polish your spare suits? Mend Master Banner’s trousers?”

(Iron Man pushes a button. A door slides open, revealing the menacing forms of Doctor Doom, Ultron, the Red Skull, Loki, Juggernaut, Venom, Kingpin, the Absorbing Man, Thanos, MODOK, Dormammu and — for no discernible reason — The Facts of Life’s Charlotte Rae.)

IRON MAN: “Take ’em down, Jeeves.”

JARVIS: “Mrs. Garrett! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

What I’m saying is, Jarvis is cool. He’s no Alfred, but he’s all right. B

Jones, Gabe
In a nod to historical verisimilitude, this entry notes the U.S. Army was all about the segregation during the Second World War, making it all the more impressive Jones was recruited to join the Howling Commandos. Not much else to say about the guy, who like Dum Dum Dugan followed Nick Fury into S.H.I.E.L.D. after the war’s end and climbed through the ranks of that august organization. Hey, how come Dugan gets a fun nickname but Jones doesn’t? He plays the trombone. “Jazz Man Jones” is sitting right there. Ah well. B

BWHA HA HA HA HA oh my goodness that is bad. I mean, I’m not familiar with this Jim Fern fellow and I’m sure he did great work elsewhere, but this image of Jubilee is beyond awful. Just so we’re clear, this came out slightly before her dressed-like-Doc-Brown-from-the-future look that was popularized in the 1990s X-Men cartoon, but… my God, she looks like she’s raiding everyone else’s closet here. As for her backstory, she was born rich but lost her parents and inheritance all in one weekend and lived in a mall for a year until she followed some of the X-Men home — undetected, mind — through a portal. She also managed to stay hidden in the X-Men’s Australian underground base for several weeks before the world’s greatest tracker and a not-too-shabby telepath realized she was there. Figure that one out. In short, her story started out dumb and didn’t get much better for a long time. D

She’s the queen of an underground kingdom who kidnaps Tony Stark and forces him to build stuff that she can use to conquer the surface world. Instead, he uses the resources at his disposal to build a duplicate Iron Man suit and blasts his way to freedom. Wait, this sounds familiar. You’d think the super-villains in the Marvel Universe would figure out the problem with locking an engineering genius in a room full of tools and weapons and expecting him to do what he’s told. I mean, I can’t be the only one who watched The A-Team as a kid. C-

Archenemy to the Ancient One, he popped up in a few Doctor Strange stories to give the good doctor someone to hit with magic zappy bolts. Why did he mess with dark eldritch forces? Power! Why did he enslave his people and prepare them to conquer the world? More power! Really, some guys just aren’t that complicated. C

His is a story familiar to anyone acquainted with the standard tropes of sci-fi fantasy — Martians conquer Earth in the near future of 2001; guy with sword leads rebellion against alien overlords — but I want to highlight this sentence in his history: “In 2016 Killraven sailed by raft [from Queens] to Staten Island, where he encountered a group of Freemen, human beings living outside of human control.” So to sum up: these evil aliens traveled millions of miles to conquer the Earth, including all but one of New York City’s boroughs, but when offered the chance to add Staten Island to their holdings they apparently said, “Nah, we’re good.” I’m not from New York so I don’t know if this was a sly dig against the island — like it’s so nondescript or boring that not even invading aliens want anything to do with it — or if the writer was offering a shout-out to Staten Islanders by making the place one of humanity’s last holdouts. Can I get a native New Yorker to weigh in here? C+

Killraven’s Freemen
Brief bios of Killraven’s main peeps, also known as The Girl, The Mentor and The Back-Up Hero. Throw in some droids and a walking carpet pile and you’ve got yourself a franchise. “Carmilla Frost was taken with her father Andre to the Martians’ Yankee Stadium Genetic and Clonal Complex in 2001.” There’s a joke here about how turning The House That Ruth Built into a den of mutated horrors wouldn’t make much of a difference, but I’ll let Mets fans handle this one. C+

It’s an all-powerful entity that used to be a Cosmic Cube, but to be honest I started nodding off right around the time the text mentioned Beyonders and the Molecule Man, so I can’t tell you much more than that. I did like this part, though: “The Nazi war criminal known as the Red Skull, who was then an ally of A.I.M., read A.I.M. reports about the Cosmic Cube, and succeeded in stealing it.” I can’t decide what’s funnier, the idea of super-villain scientists writing status updates from their super-villain middle managers… or the mental image of the Red Skull with his reading glasses and a cup of chamomile tea, staying up late to catch up on paperwork he brought home from the office. Wait a sec — how would he keep his glasses from sliding off his face? You know, considering. C-

The mystical Asian city where young Danny Rand learned the ways of the Iron Fist. Comes complete with such sacred and enchanted locales as “Bridge of Destiny,” “Hall of Ancestors,” “Garden of the P’an-T’ao,” and “Alley.” Um… all righty, then. C

“Leech is a living ‘power damper’ who causes the cessation of powers in other living beings with superhuman abilities, mutant or otherwise.” So can we talk about the biology behind this? I mean, yeah, I know it’s just superhero comics and we should just go with the flow and enjoy the punching… but how exactly does his power work? It’s hard to believe the same outfit that gave us detailed technical schematics for Ant-Man’s helmet didn’t leap at the chance to delve into the details here, like whether it’s a psychic power to make others momentarily “forget” how to access their powers or if there’s some biochemical component here that physically shuts down whatever part of the body controls superhuman abilities. Hey, I either obsess over the mechanics of his power or I say things like “his head resembles a wad of something I hocked up the last time I got sick,” and neither of us wants that. D+

Leeds, Betty Brant
Like a number of supporting characters in Marvel comics, Jolly Jameson’s secretary and one-time love interest for Petey gets her overdue close-up in this update. And just like every other supporting character in a Marvel comic, her life is more batshit insane than a telenovela written by a manic-depressive. A brother gunned down by mobsters. A wedding interrupted by a super-villain. A husband who turns into another super-villain. A super-villain husband who frames the guy she’s having an affair with and then dies. A mental breakdown. A stay with a New Jersey-based cult. And then, because all that wasn’t insane enough, she goes full-on Ripley against demons posing as Spider-Man and her dead husband, offing them with a homemade bomb. Gal’s got guts, is what I’m saying. And as crazy as all that sounds, I would rather have seen Elizabeth Banks tussle with identity-stealing demons in Spider-Man 3 for two hours than whatever the hell Tobey’s dance routine was supposed to be. Appropriately, Betty Brant bags a big B.

So, what makes him a left-winger? “Sanders or Bust” bumper sticker on the back of his Tesla car? Excessive donations to PBS pledge drives? Spends his weekends brewing craft beers and volunteering at a community garden? Let’s take a look-see here… “The Buckies also conducted a campaign of intimidation and even physical attacks against foreigners as part of an anti-terrorist campaign” — despite having no evidence of their targets being involved in any terrorist activity. Um. D

Thor’s counterpart in the Celtic gods. We’re also told that “for ages enmity existed between the Celtic gods and the gods of the realm of Asgard,” because Christ forbid the Asgardians get along with anyone who isn’t chugging back the enchanted goat mead. There’s a quick synopsis of a wacky misunderstanding that came about when the evil god Seth sent winged lions to both Asgard and Avalon to murder a few folks, and each realm blamed the other for the deaths. This calls into question the intelligence of both pantheons, since even the dumbest CSI fan on Midgard could tell the difference between claw marks and, say, a Mjolnir-sized dent to the noggin. Anyway. He later helped Thor beat back Seth’s invading armies. Good for him. C+

Lobo, Carlos
Or “Charlie Wolf” for you gringos north of the Rio Grande. He and his brother Eduardo (RIP) built a criminal empire in Texas before setting their sights on the Big Apple. The Kingpin’s right-hand man didn’t take kindly to that: “The Arranger employed a mutant known as Roland Raymond, alias the Persuader, to take mental command of the vigilante known as the Punisher and to compel him to assassinate the Lobo brothers.” Is it me or does this plan seem overly complicated? Fly this Persuader fellow down to meet the brothers, have him command them to kill each other, boom, done. Also, the guys with the last name “Lobo” just happened to be mutants with the power to turn into werewolves during full moons because why the fuck not. D+

Living Mummy
When the Comics Code Authority relaxed its rules in the early ’70s to allow zombies, vampires and other supernatural creatures, you can bet Marvel was all over that. The Living Mummy was literally that: a mummy from ancient Egypt times who wakes up in the 20th century to go on a rampage through downtown Cairo. He started out as the noble leader of a slave revolt who for his crimes against a wicked pharaoh had his blood replaced by a “special preservative fluid” and was turned into a mummy. Me, I would have had my pet jackals tear him to shreds, since giving him the type of burial usually reserved for royalty seems a damned odd way to punish an uppity slave. And why is it always rampages with these guys? How come they never wake up only a little grumpy, or feeling slightly peckish? Ah well. C+

Lumpkin, Willie
Theory: Stan Lee came up with this guy solely because he wanted the perfect cameo role for the future Fantastic Four movie he knew was going to happen. You know, he’s actually quite selective about the roles he plays in films. “A mailman for a small Midwestern town, Willie Lumpkin always dreamed of working for the U.S. Postal Service in a major metropolitan area.” Reach for the stars, Willie. C

MacKenzie, Al
Not a lot to work with here; he’s a guy who signed up with Nick Fury around the time S.H.I.E.L.D. was taken over by body-swapping duplicates (betcha stuff like this never happens to the gang down at the National Parks Service) and “nothing has been revealed” about his past. What we do know is he’s your standard super-spy dude from Austin, Tex., who once hooked up with Nick’s longtime gal — which does not sound like the healthiest decision a guy can make, to sleep with the girlfriend of the guy who literally knows where the bodies are buried. It’s always bros before, Al. B-

MacTaggart, Moira
She’s a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize, some sweet Scottish real estate and (at the risk of being sexist) is a fine bonnie lass to boot. Charlie was a bloody fool to choose the bird-lady empress over her. Though I have to say: Kevin? One of the most powerful and dangerous mutants the X-Men ever faced is named Kevin? That’s adorable. It’s like finding out the 21st century’s answer to Hitler will be named “Mabel.” B

Madame Hydra
“Occupation: Subversive.” Works for me. Not to be confused for the previous Madame Hydra now known as Viper (which I did before reading this entry), this Madame Hydra tried to capture Nick Fury for her Deltite masters before rebelling and temporarily allying with Fury’s forces. In gratitude, he arrested her and had her shipped to a mental institution. Did anything else happen to her? I don’t really care, because now that I know she isn’t the gal who poisoned the Washington, DC, water supply and turned the capital into a city of snake-people, I’ve kind of lost interest. What? I like the bad girls, okay? C

Madame Web
This gal, on the other hand… uch. Here’s the thing: I like my Spider-Man when he sticks to the basics: street crime, mobsters, science-derived freaks, the occasional animal-themed lunatic to liven things up. Having him deal with magic and psychic powers makes as much sense as having Doctor Strange drive around in a battle van while shooting at drug dealers. Cassandra Webb (ho ho!) is a clairvoyant who learned — psychically, natch — that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same person. Which begs the question of what’s stopping all the other less scrupulous psychics and mind readers in the Marvel Universe from blowing his cover. Also, her late husband designed a life-support system for her ailing body that resembles a giant spider web, because he was a guy who understood the power of branding. Like I said: uch. C-

Maddicks, Artie
I honestly have nothing good or bad to say about this character. I have achieved the Nirvana of indifference. Of all the mutants introduced in the 1980s, Artie was definitely one of them. Moving on. C

A Pacific island nation where everyone is corrupt, anything can be bought, laws are more like polite suggestions and the wealthy elite living in “Hightown” have zero interest in helping the hopelessly poor in “Lowtown.” Obviously, Marvel made up this fictional country to avoid angering residents of actual Asian nations, and I can’t fault them for that. I kind of wish this place did exist in real life, though, if only to dare those “keep your government hands off my Medicare” libertarian yahoos to go live there if they don’t feel free enough. Also? I love how Wolverine puts on an eyepatch and thinks he’s fooling anyone by calling himself Patch. “No, never heard of the guy. What, this haircut? Um…. we must go to the same barber.” B

Maison Alpha
That’s “Alpha House” for you non-French types. And you have to be Canadian to appreciate the irony of Alpha Flight setting up shop in Alberta and giving its headquarters a French name. (Hint: that’s not where we keep our French people.) Come for the library and Olympic-sized swimming pool, stay for the “combat simulacrum” that in no way infringes on the X-Men’s Danger Room copyright. We’re told the building sits on sacred Sarcee ground and Talisman uses the room in the middle of the basement to increase her “mystical abilities.” How much you want to bet said she made that up to score herself a sweet yoga studio? “Never open the door when I’m there… um, communing with the spirits. Also, you might hear Depeche Mode playing while I’m in there sometimes. The spirits like it. Don’t ask why.” B-

A member of Alpha Flight for a brief time, he had the power to generate past and future selves in the form of a teleporter, caveman and giant blob of protoplasmic goo. The end of his entry reads as such: “Knapp returned to his medical practice and has not participated in any of Alpha Flight’s exploits since then.” Translation: “Yeah, this was a mistake. Someone dared us to come up with a character too cockamamie even for Alpha Flight, and we went way too far. Christ knows but we’re sorry. Let us never speak of this again.” D