No, as a matter of fact we didn’t start the fire — in fact, I have it on good authority it was always burning since the world’s been turning. Time to take another look at the magical decade known at the ’80s by diving back into The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Update ’89. This time out: Volume 5, from Marauders to Power Princess.
You want to talk about the covers? Let’s talk about the covers. Mostly because I just noticed something patently obvious and wanted to share it with you. Let’s line up all the covers we’ve seen so far:
I’ve mentioned before that Marvel and DC took different approaches with the covers for their respective character indices in the 1980s. Where DC displayed all the characters within that Who’s Who issue interacting with each other in different ways, Marvel’s Handbook covers (in both the original and deluxe editions) featured all the characters running, walking, leaping and swinging in one continuous march from left to right.
Neither approach was wrong, but I found Marvel’s covers to be more static and less interesting as a result. And with the ’89 Update, the covers seemed to double down on that idea. Now there’s no sense of motion at all, just characters from the issue standing in random groups and looking up at the reader. And with the exception of the first issue, the issue’s biggest character (in terms of physical size) is standing/squatting up in the top left corner of the image.
My theory? These covers say something about the changing corporate attitudes affecting Marvel at the time. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we saw a torrent of creativity at Marvel, with artists finding different ways to challenge the idea of what a “Marvel comic” is supposed to be. Claremont and Byrne dabbled in space opera with the X-Men, Frank Miller went full-on noir with Daredevil, John Byrne created the second-best Fantastic Four run by taking them back to their explorer-of-the-unknown roots, Walt Simonson took fantasy to new heights over in Thor’s neck of the woods… it was a time when creators were invited to create, and no idea was too loopy (U.S.1, anyone?) for Marvel to run with.
But the decade wore on, there was a sameness creeping into the books. There are a couple of likely suspects: changing corporate owners demanding bigger returns on their investment, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter’s more controlling attitude towards editorial, a growing direct-sales market that catered to a more narrowed fan base that offered faster feedback than the old days of newsstand distribution. Whatever the reason, these covers are the end result: not terrible from a technical perspective, but not terribly dynamic, either.
Anyway, I contend you can draw a straight line from Marvel’s business decisions in the 1980s to the demands of new corporate owners in the early 1990s to the company’s eventual bankruptcy in 1996 — and these covers, coming out when they did, say a lot about the seismic shifts at Marvel that were happening behind the scenes.
Man, that was long-winded. Let’s get to the yuks.
Well, this is succinct. On a page that’s almost entirely filled with mugshots, we get two short paragraphs that amount to “they killed a couple of mutants and then some of them died, except maybe not.” About the only thing I can do here is make fun of the hairstyles, but let’s be honest — those of us who were there in the ’80s are guilty of far worse. Remember those episodes of Friends with flashbacks to Chandler and Ross during their college years? Yeah, even worse than that. C+
Now, here’s a fun idea. Back in the 1940s, Marvel briefly published the adventures of the Blonde Phantom, a fetching superhero who fought crime in a domino mask and full-length evening gown. John Byrne brought her back in the ’80s for his Sensational She-Hulk series; now 40 years older than when she last appeared in her own book, she offers friendship and the occasional crime-fighting hand to everyone’s favorite lime-lacquered lass. What the entry doesn’t get into is the reason why Mason shows up in She-Hulk’s book; namely, she realizes (a) she’s a comic character and (b) comic characters who don’t regularly appear in comics start to age normally. It’s the kind of fourth-wall-breaking fun that made Shulkie’s title a relief in a time when grim-and-grimmer “realism” was slowly taking over. Really, go check it out. B
Lex Luthor’s counterpart in the Squadron Supreme’s other-dimensional world. And in case you weren’t sure about that, the text explains his feud with Hyperion stems from an incident in which Hyperion accidentally caused Emil Burbank’s hair to grow abnormally fast. I can think of better things to base a lifelong hatred on, Emil, but hey, you do you. C+
“Trask created the enormous Master Mold primarily as a computer that would control the automated processes of constructing other Sentinel robots. However, Trask also made the Master Mold mobile and capable of speech and equipped the Master Mold with powerful weaponry.” Umm… why, exactly? Because you know what’s coming next, right? Yup, just two sentences later: “The Master Mold and Trask’s other Sentinels decided that they could best fulfil their programming to capture and destroy mutants by taking control of the entire human race.” Geez, this guy, every myopic scientist in Star Trek, the Skynet dude from T2: Judgment Day — it’s like I’m the only one reading apocalyptic sci-fi over here. Or aware of a little feature called an “off switch.” C-
God, so much suck on one page. For starters, he’s an alien in a loose-fitting jumpsuit with a comet symbol on his chest. He also looks like the leering, albino version of every skeevy beta male who turned a few high-school-prom rejections into a lifetime of screeching online about women playing Ghostbusters. And lest you think I’m being superficial with my dislike, he’s also an alien who’s both repulsed and fascinated by the violent aspects of Earth’s violent pop culture, to the point where he once decided to wipe out the human race “before its violent ways contaminated the rest of the sentient races of the galaxy.” Hey, Mr. Spaceman, we might have a few genocides on our scorecard we’re not too proud of, but don’t stand there and tell us your own race’s space-shit doesn’t stink. I mean, yes, any shit in space wouldn’t stink because it would instantly freeze and there’s no air to carry the smell… but you know what I mean. D-
She’s a beautiful shape-shifter, but she spent most of her young life as a furry “freak” because her younger self didn’t know she could change her appearance. “After making this transformation [into a shapely, proto-Pam Anderson blonde] her relationship with Captain Britain changed considerably, for they soon became lovers.” Yeah, there’s no way Cap comes out of that sentence sounding like anything other than a massive douche. You can do better, Meg. B
Sweet mother of mercy, what the fresh deuce is this? Okay, writers — I don’t need every detail of every comic character’s life etched in stone in these handbooks. Truly, I don’t. But it might be interesting to share with us a few more pertinent details in this guy’s entry, like how he went from looking like your average magic-wielding dude to… whatever the hell this is supposed to be. I mean, okay, he’s a disgraced disciple of the Ancient One who got caught practising the blackest of black magic and was banished for his crimes, I get that. But are we supposed to infer that the mere act of dabbling in the black arts automatically turns you into a Walking Dead extra, or were there other factors at play? No reason, asking for a friend. C-
Sigh. Sinister’s appearance coincides with the time I started to realize the X-Men writers were maybe starting to run out of ideas. He’s an “enigmatic mastermind” who looks like Colossus down at the local S&M dungeon’s singles-night mixer. He was retconned into Scott Summers’s history as a scheming, behind-the-scenes manipulator of events, up to the point of creating a clone of Jean Grey for Summers to fall in love with (because adding clones to comic stories has never not been a terrible idea!) and then trying to have her killed because reasons. He’s not a character, he’s a plot device to move the X-Men from Point A to Point B, and to give Cyclops an excuse to scream about stuff. Even the name is dumb; who calls himself “Mister Sinister” on purpose? It sounds like the name of the bad guy in an ill-advised Monster Squad reboot. D
Now this is more like it. A working-class Spidey villain with a science-derived origin, a too-convenient Parker connection (step-brother of Pete’s friend Liz Allan), and a suitably tragic my-powers-are-killing-me motive for breaking into labs and hospitals. Plus I’m pretty sure his metallic sheen inspired one of the best characters to come out of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City books. Good stuff. B+
Is he a man with the powers of a mongoose, or a mongoose with the powers of man? Trust me when I say it doesn’t matter in the least either way. Pitted his mongoose-based powers against Thor in his very first outing, which is every bit as stupid as it sounds. Just nod politely and move on. D-
So… we’re all cool with the fact he’s not wearing any pants, right? I mean, yeah, he’s furry enough to cover his junk, but even Hank McCoy puts on a Speedo before battling Magneto, you know? Come on, Comics Code Authority, you’ve only got one job here! As for Moonie, he’s a humanoid alien who saw the potential in partnering with a giant red dinosaur. Can’t say I blame him. C+
1. “Emperor Palpatine, fresh from the shower, wearing a mud mask.” I’m not the only one who first thought that looking at this image, right? Heh, now I’m picturing Palpatine staring at a medicine chest full of skin care products and wondering where it all went wrong. Quick, someone tell Robot Chicken I got a bit for their next Star Wars special.
2. “She (Llyra) ingratiated herself with the now quite elderly Naga and came to favor both through sexual favors and through their mutual worship of Set.” EW!
3. “Naga used the power of the crown to open a great chasm in the ocean floor and mentally compelled Namor to hurtle down into it.” I’m no oceanographer, but that doesn’t sound too big a threat to Namor’s health. I mean, the seawater would pour down into the chasm as soon as it’s made, right? He’s basically just telling Namor to get wet somewhere else?
4. “Set was so pleased with Naga that he instructed Naga in the way to treat the Serpent Crown with certain oils from fish that would enable the crown to preserve his youth for as long as he wore it.” Does that sound plausible to you? An ancient serpent demon who channels his vast mystical energies through a magical crown has a special crown polish recipe for anyone who wants everlasting youth? How much you want to bet Set just said a few abracadabras to make it happen but then told Naga to put fish oil on his head just for a laugh? Because I can see an ancient serpent demon being that kind of asshole. C+
“The cyborg known as Nanny was originally a scientist and inventor who made major advances in the development of cyborg technology. (Cyborgs are combinations of human beings and machines.)” Well, okay, I suppose we needed that definition for “cyborg” because we can’t assume all Marvel readers in 1989 would have known what the word meant, even with a half-man/half-robot superhero literally named Cyborg working for the competition for close to a decade at that point. Let’s read on… “In some cases Nanny has rescued children from true menaces such as Mister Sinister, but in some cases she merely spirits them away from their harmless parents, whom the Orphan-Maker then kills (thereby making the ‘rescued’ children into orphans).” Oh, come the fuck on, Marvel. C-
Can we all agree that demons as a general rule are inherently uninteresting as characters? I mean… they’re demons. The whole point of them is they’re nasty and evil and mean. There’s never a compelling backstory for them, or a streak of nobility that makes them a storytelling wild card; their only purpose is to show up, stir shit and leave. N’Astirh is no different; he’s all about stealing babies to bring hell on Earth, betraying his demonic allies and rocking a look familiar to any fan of ’80s heavy-metal album covers. One interesting tidbit: he can’t touch computers because they “explode at his sorcerous touch.” That’s got to put a crimp in his Instagramming. C-
Franklin “Foggy” Nelson is, of course, Matt Murdock’s best friend and law office partner who — at the time this issue came out — was not aware Murdock was also Daredevil. And can I just give a shout-out to the writers on the Netflix Daredevil series writers for nipping that pointless plot point in the bud? Fine, you have a secret identity to protect your loved ones from danger, yada yada yada — but as this entry makes crystal clear, Nelson got into plenty of tough spots involving super-villains, mobsters and terrorist groups just by being a New York City attorney. Maybe it was the stress of being constantly attacked by guys like El Jaguar that led Antony Weiner to send all those dick pics? I’m surprised he hasn’t tried that excuse yet. Also, I love how one of the criminals he tangled with was named the Organizer. All I can think of now is a special guest villain on the Batman TV show using giant desk blotters, pencil holders and desktop in/out trays to commit efficiency-themed crimes. B+
An agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and… that’s all we’re allowed to know about her, evidently. Oh, we do find out she majored in “efficient killing” at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. Do you think those credits are transferable? Either way, her major sounds way more practical than my minor in early Canadian history. Though if you’re looking for a slower way to make someone wish for death’s sweet embrace… C+
A group of criminals led by Shroud, a superhero who masquerades as a villain to fight crime from within. Yeah, I can’t see any flaws in that plan. “Boss, why did we team up with Captain America? I thought we were bad guys.” “Uh… to trick him into thinking we’re actually good guys, of course. Which we’re totally not.” Shroud and some of the other members have already had their Handbook moment in the sun, the rest are below:
MISFIT. Super-strong but hideously mutated by a sleazy power broker’s treatments. Insert mandatory Vince McMahon joke here. C
NEEDLE. Mute tailor-turned-vigilante who gains the power to hypnotize others after a severe beating by muggers. As one would. Carries a very large needle to sew up the mouths of young criminals. Yeah, I don’t think it’s their flippancy that’s the issue, pal. C-
DIGGER. A gravedigger who uses a shovel as a weapon. It’s like they say, do what you love and the money will follow. His skin is listed as “chalk white” even though he’s shown sporting a Kermit-envy shade of green. A blatant mistake in a Marvel Handbook entry? It’s like I don’t know what’s real anymore! C+
DANSEN MACABRE. A former exotic dancer who uses her mystical powers to… I had you at “exotic dancer,” didn’t I? B
TICKTOCK. A nondescript bald dude who can see into the future, but only for 60 seconds at a time. Which sounds like a power that would come in handy (think about all the dumb things you’ve said that you immediately wished you could take back), but seeing 60 seconds into the future was clearly not enough time to help him avoid the mistake of pairing those white shoes and belt with a purple leisure suit. C
Comics books starring private eyes have been few and far between since the glory days of Slam Bradley; even when they get a starring role, they tend to have a gimmick, like the Human Target, or overt connections to the superhero set, like Jessica Jones. In the ’80s, fans of straight-up gumshoes could turn to the likes of Nathaniel Dusk and Jonni Thunder at DC, Ms. Tree and the Maze Agency at various indie publishers… and this improbably named gal at Marvel. Her own title was short-lived (five issues), and when it was cancelled she moved on to become a regular guest star in the Marvel Universe, once teaming up with the Punisher and Power Pack in a story that sounds like the result of an ill-advised bar bet. C+
A benevolent “universal guiding spirit” whose only purpose is to awaken sentient beings to “the wonder in the universe,” which she does by searching for beings in desperate situations and bringing events to “an improbable but awe-inspiring conclusion.” Her first recorded activity saw her help four Earth youngsters with super-powers and a spaceship save an alien queen. Suck on that, genocide victims who didn’t show enough desperation! Generally a chill cosmic entity, you still don’t want to mention that one time she starred in a movie with crime-fighting, talking T. Rex. Kind of a touchy subject with her. C-
In case you missed it in the Nanny entry above, the Orphan-Maker is so called because he “makes” children into “orphans” by way of killing their parents. There’s a remedial study group after class if you need further help understanding these incredibly complicated codenames. C
Hey, this guy looks nothing like James Franco! What gives, Marvel? Harry is probably the best example of the Peter Parker Perpetrator Proximity Probability Index, or PPPPI — namely, that the likelihood of a Peter Parker acquaintance having a super-villain connection grows exponentially higher the closer you get to Parker’s inner circle. As Parker’s best friend/college roommate, Harry is not only the son of a major Spidey villain, he also periodically took up the Green Goblin mantle himself after his father’s death. (Aunt May is closer to Parker than Harry; her super-villain connection is the pact she made with Satan for eternal life, no matter how many times she teases us with the promise of her pained demise.) At the time of this entry’s writing, he had put all the goblin stuff behind him and was focused on being a good father and husband. Trust me when I say that happy shit didn’t last long. B
Hey, gang! Let’s play a fun game called Guess When Frank Miller Got His Hands On This Character. Hmmm… receptionist at Nelson and Murdock… rescued multiple times by Daredevil… has a super-villain father… leaves her job when Murdock won’t reciprocate her love… moves to California to become an actress… hooks up with Johnny Blaze for a brief time… needs rescuing again from Daredevil and Ghost Rider… ends up a drug addict and working in porn when she sells out Daredevil for a hit of heroin… DING DING DING DING WE HAVE A WINNER! In fairness, that “Born Again” arc was a pretty good story, but I’m putting you Netflix guys on notice: no needles for my gal Deborah, savvy? B+
Speaking of reasons to take drugs. If I come down hard on the old gal, it’s not because I dislike her personally, just the lousy scripts the writers keep giving her. She’s either an apron-wearing delicate flower on the continual cusp of death who exists mainly to give Parker a reason to worry about paying medical bills… or she’s a sassy-grandma type, prone to giving Parker cryptic pep talks that may or may not prove she’s hip to the whole Spidey thing. (“Knowing there are heroes out there certainly makes this place feel like a ‘friendly neighborhood,’ wouldn’t you agree, Peter? No, I’m not winking — just a seizure, nothing to fret about.”) And when she’s not pushing plot points around, she’s marrying guys who make you wonder what the hell kind of dating app she’s using: Doc Ock, her degenerate-gambler retirement-home hook-up, J. Jonah Jameson’s dad. Wait, does that make Jolly Jonah and Parker step-brothers? Because that is a buddy comedy starring Will Farrell I would happily pay to see. Yeah, I know Peter’s her nephew. Still. C+
He’s French. He flies. Sometimes he works for Silver Sable. Do we need to know anything else? Not really. C
Zebediah Killgrave, aka the Purple Man, has the ability to compel others to do whatever he wants. So one day he induces a young woman to marry him, but she flees to Canada when she snaps out of it and realizes what he has done to her. Fast-forward 13 years and her daughter develops the same powers of persuasion and joins Alpha Flight. It’s a pretty neat idea, and now that I think about it I’m surprised a guy like Killgrave doesn’t have dozens of persuasive purple progeny all over the place. Especially since he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who worries about paying child support. Then there’s this: “Weight: 107 3/8 lbs.” Sigh. Really, people? She’s the only teenage girl in the issue and you give her a weight count down to the closest tenth of a pound? B
Pierce, Alexander Goodwin
Oh, you go, Rambo. “Alexander Pierce majored at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy in civilian surveillance and served in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Accounting Department before becoming a sleeper agent.” And suddenly I want to see an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off titled Accountants of S.H.I.E.L.D. “The Director trashed his artificial hand again? Doesn’t he know we’re already over budget this quarter for cybernetic enhancements?” “So, the chick who got stuck on that alien planet for six months — do we count that as vacation or overtime?” “Yes, I’m sure you and the Avengers discussed business when you went out for shawarma, sir, but I still need that receipt if you’re going to expense it.” C+
Havok’s arch-nemesis. Bet you didn’t know he had one, did you? She was a nutty cultist who needed Havok to hit her with his plasma energy blasts in order to boost her own powers. So they fought, and Mr. One-Trick Pony gives her exactly what she wanted until Wolverine showed up and shut that shit down pronto. This is why he’s the face on the franchise, people. C-
The late ’80s and early ’90s was a time when the big comic publishers were trying to figure out the next big thing, throwing all sorts of new characters at the wall to see what stuck. More often than not, these new heroes were laudable attempts to diversify the line-up in terms of race, ethnicity or gender (just in case anyone out there thought this was a recent phenomenon). Sometimes they clicked, mostly they didn’t. Poison… mostly didn’t. A Cuban refugee living in Miami who scored super powers when a dying alien offered her a mutually beneficial body-meld, Poison targeted “destroyers of the heart:” drug lords, human traffickers, etc. She had the potential to highlight social issues that rarely got play in superhero comics, but for the most part she just floated and got lectures from Spider-Man about responsibility. Then there was her power set: the standard generic flight and strength powers, plus she can “psionically alter the shape of the flesh of other people.” That’s just gross. D+
Power, Dr. James/Margaret Power
I’m lumping these two together because the only difference between their two entries is their personal details. “Little is known” of their early lives before they became the proud and occasionally baffled parents of four child superheroes. The bulk of their text is devoted to explaining how these parents are so clueless as to not realize the children living in their house have super-powers; like a magic genie that just keeps on giving, the same alien race that gave the kids their powers also tinkered with their parents’ brains, making them highly suggestible to any pat rationale offered up by their kids. Not only does this sound ethically iffy, I can say as a parent (and as someone who knows a lot of other parents) it’s completely unnecessary, because when it comes to our kids our capacity for self-delusion knows no bounds. Besides, think of the bragging rights you’re denying these people. “I’m so proud of my little Aidan; he just got accepted into the preschool program at the Little Prodigy Institute and he can count to 20 in Mandarin Chinese.” “That’s nice. Our children just saved Earth from an alien invasion right before helping a homeless man reunite with his long-estranged son. Plus we scored the Fantastic Four for next Thanksgiving.” “Oh.” C