“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”
So I had a lot of fun with DC’s Who’s Who series over the past year or so, and I thought, hey, why not do a little something for all the Marvel fans out there?
In 1983, Marvel got the character guide thing started by publishing its 15-issue Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This was quickly followed by 1985’s 20-issue Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, featuring more characters and special issues devoted to Marvel’s dead characters. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m partial to DC’s approach to its Who’s Who series for a couple of reasons — but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with the Marvel Handbook, especially when there are so many Marvel characters just begging to be made fun of. So let’s get to it.
Why am I going with the Deluxe Edition and not the original Handbook series? I chose it because it was the series that appeared roughly around the same time as DC’s Who’s Who, and it seemed only fair. (Plus, the Deluxe version also offers 20 issues of fun as opposed to the 15 issues in the original series, which brings it closer in number to the 26-volume Who’s Who).
I’m going to try publishing these reviews on a biweekly schedule, as opposed to the weekly posts I did for Who’s Who because each Handbook is twice as thick with a lot more text to get through, and I nearly went nuts trying to keep up the weekly pace of the Who’s Who reviews. Dying for a cause is noble; wrecking your wrists to make fart jokes about lame super-villains from 40 years ago is just silly.
Will I be grading the writing, the artwork, the overall composition of each book, or focusing more on how much I like the characters themselves? Yes! And there are a lot of them, so let’s get to it. First up: Volume 1, from Abomination to Batroc’s Brigade.
“The radiation had an immediate mutagenic effect upon Blonsky, transforming him into the monster whom General Ross’s daughter dubbed the Abomination.” This places him among such august company as the Hulk and Thing, who were also given their names by startled onlookers early in their careers, which makes you wonder why more Marvel monsters aren’t named AAAAAUGH! or Oh My God I’m Going To Puke He’s So Disgusting. Also? He’s not completely invulnerable: “the Abomination could not survive the detonation of a nuclear warhead from ten feet away.” Only ten feet? Pffft. Wuss. C+
Everyone’s favorite shirtless super-villain, Carl “Crusher” Creel gained his matter-mimicking powers when Loki dumped magic herbs in his prison drinking water. There was no reason for Loki to choose Creel, and no explanation for why Creel would want to fight Thor on Loki’s behalf (and go back for rematch after rematch) after busting out of prison; Thor just happened to be the first hero that arrived on the scene to kick his ass. Sometimes I don’t think Loki is the big schemer that everyone says he is. We also learn the Absorbing Man was once hired by “They Who Wield Power, a cabal of power-seekers from El Dorado.” Pretty sure a more accurate name would be They Who Want to Wield Power But Are Still Bickering Over Branding Options. B
Only three entries in and I’m starting to wonder if this is a bad idea. DC’s Who’s Who confined itself to people, teams, maybe the occasional locale or vehicle, while Marvel’s Handbook regales us with the chemical properties of a completely fictional alloy famous for being the sole reason why Wolverine doesn’t resemble a rapidly healing bowl of pudding every time he jumps out a window. Still, it’s worth wading brought the pseudo-scientific gobbledygook to find out there’s something in the Marvel universe called the Overkill Horn. That’s totally going on the band name list. C+
“Occupation: Wealthy Swashbuckler.” That must be fun writing on your tax forms. True story: on our very first date, my future wife and I got into an argument over the word “swashbuckler” — we went to see The Mask of Zorro and she thought I was making that word up. And in her defense, it does sound kinda made up. Just listen to how it sounds: “swashbuckler.” Exactly what is a swash and how do you buckle it? Anyway. His name means “the eagle” in Spanish, which make perfect sense considering he’s an expert swordsman with mutant lightning powers. D+
A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics)
I frakkin’ love A.I.M. In fact, I wish they were the evil organization hassling Coulson’s crew on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. instead of those thick-necked HYDRA wannabes who think having a mythologically accurate mission statement makes them cool. They’re mad scientists who have embraced the power of collaboration, coming up with fun science projects like the Super-Adaptoid, the Cosmic Cube and MODOK. MODOK, people! That alone makes them way more fun to hang out with than a bunch of goose-stepping goons in green jammies. Never could figure out the beekeeper hats, though. B+
Sigh. Okay, it’s not that I’m ungrateful to Marvel and John Byrne for giving us humble Canadians our very own superhero team, but my God their book was a hard title to love. We’ll meet the gang individually as we go along, so all I’ll say for now is I was always a little annoyed about the fact my nation’s premier superheroes in the Marvel universe were government employees. I mean, if I wanted to see a bunch of taxpayer-funded freaks and mental cases argue with each other and get dramatic all the time, I’d… actually, that sounds exactly like Ottawa. Heh, a parliamentary subcommittee hearing on Alpha Flight’s cost overruns, now that’s something I’d tune in to CPAC to see. C+
These were the Inhumans’ slave workers, a race of sub-intelligent beings bred to live beneath Attilan and perform the menial tasks needed to keep the city running. The words “clean out the shitters” don’t explicitly appear in the entry, but it’s strongly implied. They were given their freedom in one story, but “having no culture and no knowledge of recreation, many of them have gone about their tasks as usual.” Well, that worked out nicely for the Inhumans, didn’t it? C
Jason Strongbow, proud Navajo warrior and superhero, uses that most traditional of Navajo weapons, the crossbow. Next! C-
Her name is Blanche, she’s a 6’2″ steelworker from Pittsburgh, and she has the power to elongate her limbs by gorging her muscle tissue with blood, “swelling the limbs so that each looks like a massive, powerful snake.” It’s not often you meet a woman who rates her own category on Redtube. C
This Defender ally is an Atlantean warrior who, believing she couldn’t advance any further in her people’s military forces, decided to make a fresh start up here in the surface world (or, if we were making a Disney musical out of her story, “up higher where it’s drier”). She came up here because she believed she would be free of all the sexist bullshit that keeps women down, down in the deep blue sea. So… do you want to break the news to her or should I? B-
Angar the Screamer
He’s a “radical social activist” from San Francisco whose super-power is a scream that induces hallucinations and/or psychotic rage in anyone who hears it. I’m sure this kind of thing was a lot more terrifying back when Squeaky Fromme was running free. D+
The first of many members of the X-Men family we’re going to meet, Angel is a mutant with wings growing out of his back, allowing him to soar like a bird. I think it’s fair to say — and I mean this with all due respect, Warren — this is not the most impressive mutant power to get stuck with, but he made up for it by being good-looking, obscenely wealthy and an immensely popular fellow (if his list of team memberships is any indication). Trust me when I say his good fortune didn’t last long after this handbook was published. The incidental art is by John Byrne — who in 1985 was riding high on Byrne-mania — and not by Angel creator Jack Kirby. Get used to seeing a lot of this. B-
Speaking of Kirby getting the shaft, here’s another of the seventy billion awesome characters he came up with for Marvel, this one being an other-dimensional insectoid foe of the Fantastic Four. All you really need to know is Annihilus ruled, literally and metaphorically, and his marital status is “single, perhaps inapplicable.” But only perhaps. Line forms to the left, ladies! A-
Three pages! Three freakin’ pages to say “he shrinks and talks to ants.” This is why the uber-nerds in the ’80s preferred Marvel. Everything you need to know about the star of this summer’s Ant-Man movie is here, from his criminal past to how he inherited the Ant-Man costume from Dr. Pym to many sentences containing such important details as what happens to his excess mass when he shrinks, how far his signals to ants can travel, and the precise method by which he releases his shrinking and enlarging gases. Riveting stuff. Warning: this entry contains the first of many blueprints and technical schematics included in the Handbook series. The cutaway illustration here shows all the components of Ant-Man’s helmet, which you’ll be thrilled to know contains both “cybernetic frequency brain wave pattern logic analysers” and both high-density and low-density padding. B-
“Occupation: Prophet.” Sure, let’s go with that. Hippie-dippie alien Jesus/Superman ripoff who “acted mentally and emotionally retarded” because of his lack of experience and education. No comment. There’s more text involving Man-Thing and the Cosmic Cube, but I’m still stuck on the part where Aquarian’s father rocketed his infant child into space to survive a planetary cataclysm that never actually came to pass. That must have been an awkward conversation when his wife came home. D
Not being an expert on Middle Eastern culture, I have no idea if placing a Saudi Arabian Bedouin in a cave in Egypt is offensive or not. What I do know is, damn, this is a man who knows how to accessorize. Not only does he have a magic flying carpet that puts that dustrag in Disney’s Aladdin to shame, his sash can “also be animated by mental commands” to serve as a whip, lariat, emergency wingman on Ladies Night, you name it. Even his sword is no ordinary scimitar; it can “emit beams of concussive magical force” and discharge magical energy against anyone else who uses it. But don’t worry, we’re assured it can also be used for “slashing and stabbing.” It’s interesting the editors felt the need to say that, as if the chances of a sword in the Marvel universe meeting the basic qualification for being a sword are 50-50 at best. C
A full page devoted to the flying horse that saved the Defenders’ Valkyrie from having to haul her ass around on public transit. It’s not a super-intelligent horse or even a horse that gets the occasional thought balloon; it’s just an oat-loving taxi with wings. And it gets a full page. You just know Comet the Super-Horse is somewhere going, “The fuck you say…?” D
Murderous amusement park death-traps, hilariously outsized bow-ties, platform shoes with stars on them, obvious pride in his craftsmanship, a sexy assistant in the form of Miss Locke… how can you not love this guy? Although I will say it’s odd a comic that expects us to know what a “cybernetic frequency brain wave pattern logic analyser” does also feels the need to provide a definition for “hit man” (“an assassin for hire”). A-
Ha! Take THAT, DC Inc.! You’re not the only one who can play in the public-domain Greco-Roman pantheon sandbox! Actually, I always thought Marvel was greedy calling dibs on the Norse myths and then, apparently because they couldn’t think of what else to throw up against their Fabioesque thunder god, introduced Ares and Hercules and the rest of the Olympian clan to Thor’s adventures. But it’s a decent piece of Paul Smith art, so I’m not complaining. C+
Follow this if you can. A carbon-copy Conan from an alternate dimension needs energy to re-ignite his planet’s source of power, and his scientists tell him that an atomic explosion with enough power to destroy the Earth would do the trick. Shut up, that’s how. So Arkon tricks the Scarlet Witch into reciting a spell that allows him to travel to Earth, where he kidnaps both her and a bunch of atomic scientists and brings them back to his home dimension to build a bomb that will create an Earth-shattering kaboom. But as it turns out, he didn’t need to do any of that because Iron Man builds a machine powered by Thor’s lightning that solves the energy problem. Later, when Thor isn’t available and Arkon needs more juice, he asks Storm to use her lightning powers to reboot Iron Man’s machine — which, by the way, broke down thanks to Fuck-Knuckles McGee messing with it — and she does. So science would seem to suggest the only thing required to fix his planet’s energy problem is an occasional bolt of lightning… kind of like the lightning bolts Arkon carries in his quiver, each with sufficient force to “shatter a medium-sized mountain.” Wait… what? D
Are armadillos scary? I don’t live in a place where they hang out, and the only time I see one is when I’m reading But Not the Hippopotamus to my daughter. I hear they roll into a ball to protect their soft underbelly from predators, so they can’t be too terrifying. And yet here we have a dude who undergoes genetic experimentation that turns him into a literal armadillo-man (“does whatever an armadillo can”), just so the same mad scientist that proposes giving him claws and scales will keep his promise to cure the guy’s critically ill wife. I guess what I’m saying here is, if I’m going to let someone go Doctor Moreau on my ass to save my wife, I’d at least ask him to turn me into an animal that inspires fear, or makes me some serious coin on the furry circuit. D+
Were you blown away by that scene in The Winter Soldier where Cap and Natasha learned that Arnim Zola downloaded his evil-scientist mind into a secret bunker full of ’70s-era super-computers? Well, hold on to your porkpie, Pedro, because you’re about to experience pure Kirby insanity. Hitler clones! The Bio-Fanatic! Primus and Doughboy! Secret jungle labs! The Cosmic Cube! TV cameras for heads! Torsos with holograms of giant faces! Goddamn, I love comics. A-
I discussed Asgard in a past post about the Nine Worlds, so allow me to plagiarize myself: “There’s nothing to discuss. Asgard is it. It’s the alpha and omega, the ultimate destination, the skybox seat, the mack daddy cool of all divine abodes. You can keep your craggy Grecian mountaintops and cloud-infested harp recitals; show me a place where I can sit in a golden dining hall and drink mead from an enchanted goat’s teat for all eternity and I am one happy dead guy. Asgard’s only real drawback, aside from the slow progress on the representative democracy front, is the constant attacks from trolls, frost giants, and other assorted monsters who want in on the enchanted teat mead action. And really, can you blame them?” A+
“Deploring violence, she has never learned traditional methods of hand-to-hand combat.” Her distaste for violence is, of course, what leads her to pursue “freelance assassin” as a career, with the artwork showing her non-violently trying to kill Captain America with one of her “venom-bolts.” C-
Once we get past the usual Handbook mumbo-jumbo explaining all the physical attributes that allow the Atlanteans to survive in the ocean depths, we get a quick survey of Atlantean society itself, which we’re told is roughly equivalent to the late Roman Empire in terms of technological and social progress. Which is, with all due respect to the writers who came up with this stuff, bullshit. Simply put, you cannot have a Bronze Age culture without bronze, and you can’t get bronze without basic metallurgical skills, and you can’t develop those skills without ready access to fire. Which, you’ll note, is hard to come by underwater. There’s some hand-waving in the text about how Atlanteans salvaged their swords and armament from “the ruins of surface Atlantis or sunken ships of human construction.” If that were the case, then Atlantean warriors would look more like the Smokers from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld — i.e., wearing a mishmash of whatever armament they could scavenge instead of identical, underwater-theme-appropriate helmets and breastplates and such. What, I’m the only one who will admit to seeing that film? Fine with me. C-
See scenic Attilan! Marvel at the Arena of Judgment! Glory at the grandeur of the royal family’s palace! Stroll down the Avenue of Stability, followed by a leisurely saunter down the Avenue of Harmony! Walk past the entrance to the sub-city of Alpha Primitives, never once giving their ceaseless toil in the depths of subterranean darkness a second thought! Interesting how, when the Inhumans created a refuge to escape “centuries of persecution by their more primitive parent race,” they found room to bring along a few of those primitive types to fix the plumbing. C
Some numb-nuts Atlantean warrior who keeps throwing himself up against Namor because someone has to. Is there anything else worth knowing about him? Not really. Though if he ever shows up in a future Marvel movie, I will squeal with delight if Tony Stark uses his best Schwarzenegger impression to say “It’s not Attuma!” C-
A member of Alpha Flight whose life was shaped by a shitty upbringing in a Catholic orphanage and then a series of highly coincidental life events that led her to Alpha Flight’s door. But let’s not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about how the writers were able to turn “she flies fast and generates light” into a full half-page of pseudo-scientific gibberish, with phrases like “generating a cascade of photonic discharges” and “accelerate her body in a velocity in direct proportion to the amount of kinetic energy she has tapped.” Who wants this kind of information? Who needs this kind of information? She’s hot. She’s crazy. She flies. What else matters? B-
A mutant who causes avalanches, duh. Actually, not just avalanches — he can generate powerful waves of vibrations from his hands to cause avalanches, earthquakes, new dance moves, you name it. Mostly hung out with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, except that one time he went solo and fought the Hulk in California. Went about as well as you’d expect. Hey, am I the only one who wonders if mutants ever use their powers on themselves when they’re masturbating? I am? All right, moving on. C
Four things the Marvel movies didn’t tell you about the Avengers:
1. They were the first team to get official sanction from the National Security Council, the United Nations and S.H.I.E.L.D. Suck on that, Defenders!
2. After their first adventure together, it was Ant-Man who suggested they stay together as a team. It’s to their immense credit that Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk didn’t all look down and smirk, “Yeah, sure, no problem, we’ll totally call you and your little gal pal the next time we need your help. ‘AAAAH! Ants at our picnic! Ant-Man, save us!'”
3. The informal dividing line between the turfs of the East Coast and West Coast teams is the Mississippi River, which means it sucks to be you if you’re on a sinking riverboat right in the middle.
4. John Byrne provided the art for the members’ mugshots instead of the then-current artist on the Avengers book because this is 1985 and nothin’ got done at Marvel in 1985 without ol’ Johnny B. gettin’ a taste. B+
“The financing and maintenance of the Compound is made possible through the Maria Stark Trust Fund and several private grants.” And by the generous support of viewers like you. C
Avengers Mansion/Avengers Quinjet
Bad news for delusional Marvel fans: plugging “890 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan” into Google Maps does not bring up a mansion of wonder full of gods, super-soldiers and convicted wife-beaters. But find comfort in the seven goddamn pages of blueprints and technical schematics for the Avengers’ headquarters and mode of transport. Also? We’re told that a “games room” is also known in some circles as an “arcade.” The more you know. C
The young punks running Marvel today aren’t fit to wash Walt Simonson’s paintbrushes, is all I’m going to say about that. Balder (“Balder than who?” wokka wokka) is a decent chap even by Asgardian standards, with his nobility, decency and respect for life serving as an inspiration to everyone in the land. Naturally, that shit don’t fly with Loki, who once tricked a blind archer into shooting a piece of mistletoe, Balder’s one weakness, at Asgard’s resident god of light. Some quick thinking by Odin saved his life, but not without Balder’s soul traveling to Hel and encountering visions so frightening his hair turned white from the shock. Tough break. On the upside, though? Hel-looo, silver fox! B+
Do yourself a favour, put aside your distaste for paint-by-number characterizations of villains who really don’t add much to the “power-mad sorcerer” trope, and just bask in the awesomeness here that is early-era Ditko art, with a heaping helping of Paul Smith on the side. That’s good comics, y’all. “Physical teleportation across time rather than space is the most power-draining type of journey of all.” Just in case anyone had a bet regarding that topic. C-
I don’t understand why he’s a baron. At least Mordo had some land back in Transylvania; Zemo is just the bug-nuts son of a Nazi scientist who thinks tufts of ermine on his boots and shoulders make him look boss. Does he call himself a baron to alert everyone to his badness? Because let’s face it, you can be a prince, a lord, a duke, an earl, or even a viscount, and the coin might land on either good or evil. But slap a barony on a kid and you might as well fire up the Kickstarter for his future bail fund, because there ain’t no way that kid is headed for a life of puppies and campfire sing-alongs. C+
A French mercenary with a Dali mustache who thought being a half-decent kickboxer was enough to go toe-to-bemused-toe against Captain America. And now you know why he’s a running joke over on that Ultimate Spider-Man show. As for the tools he hired to be his friends: if you figure being Batroc’s hired gun is the path to success in the mercenary trade, then you need an intervention to help you see the serious vocational errors you’ve made in your career. D