Sweet home Alabama, we’re so close to the end. It’s time to revisit the glory that was Marvel in the ’80s with another look at The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Update ’89. This time out: Volume 7, from Set to Tyrak.
So one thing the ’89 series has that the other Handbook series didn’t have are these doodles by the editors drawn on the inside front covers:
Are these doodle silly and amateurish? Yes. And that’s the point. Where the preceding Handbook series filled the inside-cover space with long-winded editorials and long lists of data corrections, the staff behind the ’89 Update books decided to have some fun with the white spaces surrounding each issue’s table of contents, credits and indicia.
And what was nice about these doodles is they showed the readers that these books were created by people who not only had fun working at Marvel, but were maybe a little bit goofy and geeky themselves. And being a little bit goofy and geeky is never a bad thing in my book.
“Demogorge then returned to his form as Atum, and took up residence within Earth’s sun.” But it’s a dry heat. How bad is this elder serpent demon? He’s so bad, he made Thor call his mommy for help. No, for real; upon realizing he, Doctor Strange, Quasar and the Thing were hopelessly outmatched in a battle in Set’s home dimension, Thor summoned Gaea for assistance. Which makes sense, since the last time Gaea threw down with Set, their battle was so epic it caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Message received: don’t mess with Thor’s mom. C+
The god of evil and death in the Egyptian pantheon, he also established himself as the god of asshole wannabes by assuming Set’s form and tricking Set worshippers into following him, probably by putting the thumb over the H on his business cards. “Thor himself entered into battle with Set, but it was Odin who won the battle against Seth by creating a bolt of energy that obliterated Set’s right hand.” Huh. Two entries in and so far Thor is 2 for 2 having his ass saved by one of his parents. No, no snarky comments — just interesting, is all. “Helicopter parenting and why it’s ruining Asgard’s kids, on the next Oprah.” C
A secret society of ninja protectors battling a secret society of Japanese businessmen who (all together now) try to take over the world. Crossed paths with the Punisher a couple times before scoring their own mini-series, then nada as far as I can tell. “Currently, the Shadowmasters are in an undisclosed location, presumably Japan, waiting to decide on future actions.” Or trying to figure out how they can score a guest sport on Netflix’s Daredevil. C-
I’m a little surprised she made the cut; the Silver Surfer can be a brooding mope sometimes, often with little to no reason for being in the stories he’s saddled with — but at least he’s shiny. Plus, you know, bitchin’ surfboard. On the other hand, his lady love is a heaping barrel of snore, existing to give Norrin Radd a reason to mourn his lost humanity. At least Lois Lane dangles from a helicopter once in a while just to make things interesting, you know? C-
At the time this issue came out, the S.H.I.E.L.D. with the flying cars and hundreds of Spandex-wearing agents had recently been revealed to be severely compromised from within by bad guys. Hey, that sounds like it would make a great movie! Because he’s one old soldier who refuses to fade away, Nick Fury gathers a small group of people he trusts to create a “smaller, tighter agency” under UN control to fight threats to world peace. A strike team acting with the swift decisiveness of the United Nations? Sounds promising! B-
You know, until I read this entry about a Chinese mutant who defected to Canada to join a team that replaced Alpha Flight, I never gave it much thought, but now that I think about it… there has to be a lot of Chinese mutants in the Marvel universe, don’t you think? I mean, the country has more than a billion people, so you’d think that would translate into a whole lot of mutants, at least based on the number running around the U.S. at the time this book came out. And India isn’t that far behind, population-wise. Why don’t we ever see the Indian version of Rogue and Wolverine battling the Chinese version of Magneto? You’re probably wondering why I’m thinking these thoughts instead of talking about Silver. There’s a reason for that. D
Sisters of Sin
“The Sisters of Sin are the leaders of a quasi-religious cult that promotes hatred and violence.” And I’m definitely not down with that, especially the “brainwashing teenagers into becoming angry hate machines — well, more so” part of their mission statement but… does anyone know Sister Pleasure’s number? Or at least the name of the place where she shops for outfits? Asking for a friend. C+
Yet another of several young mutants introduced in the late ’80s to mostly indifferent fans, Skids was a young woman who fled an abusive home after her power to create frictionless force fields around her body manifested itself. There are a few ungentlemanly comments one could make about the utility of this power in certain situations, but since she’s a minor all I will say is this: “Skids“…? When your superhero codename conjures up images of unpleasant laundry day discoveries, you need to try again. C+
“Occupation: Drug kingpin and criminal organizer, president and owner of legitimate businesses.” I think it’s fair to say you can trust anyone who refers to himself as a “legitimate businessman” in any context. You’re probably expecting a lot of cheap fat jokes about this extremely obese Miami druglord, aren’t you? Well, guess again, Bunky — fat shaming is real and it will not be tolerated in this establishment. Instead, we’re going to make jokes about his… um, affinity for sunglasses? Yeah, let’s go with that. So… what’s the deal with sunglasses, huh? (crickets) Whoa, tough crowd. Okay, fine, you win. Um… boy, when this guys sits around his house paid with the piles of money he made by profiting off human misery and suffering, he really sits around his house, you know what I mean? No? Okay, I give up. C
1. Yeah, sure, “Solo” as in you work alone, we get it. But there’s room for only one Mr. Solo in my pop culture-soaked cerebrum, pal, and it ain’t you.
2. His tag line is “While I live, terror dies!” and he said it so often I wouldn’t be surprised if he applied it to all of life’s situations. “While I live, laundry stains die!” “While I live, traffic dies!” “While I live, telemarketing calls just as I’m about to sit down to my freshly heated Swanson’s dinner die!”
3. He wears a mask so that “terrorists would not know what country, religion or political ideal he represented, leaving him free to strike.” One: Most people who see someone coming at them with guns blazing don’t stop to assess that person’s citizenship or voting record. Two: he’s a guy speaking English… wearing a mask that reveals his white skin, brown eyes and reddish brown hair… and uses guns to resolve tense situations. I’m pretty sure most can make an educated guess.
4. Captain America once mistook Solo for a terrorist and flung his shield at him, allowing the bad guy to escape. The way this guy dresses, I don’t think that one is on Cap.
5. He sneaks up on terrorists by teleporting to their position. Where did a lone wolf guy like him get his hands on the means to teleport, you ask? Fuck you, that’s where.
6. He once chased a bunch of terrorists to their secret base in a ski lodge. You know what, I’m just going to say it: I’m on the terrorists’ side on this one. Why bother with caves or abandoned amusement parks when you’ve got a ski lodge? It’s easy to defend, the hot chocolate flows fast and free, and who wouldn’t want to relax on the slopes after a hard day of terrorizing? No one I wanna know.
7. Pouches, pouches and more pouches! Just once, I’d like one of these guys to reach in the wrong pouch at the worst possible time. “We’re surrounded on all sides but no problem, I’ll just pull out some flash grenades to cover our escape and SPARE CHANGE FOR THE BUS DAMMIT NOT AGAIN!”
8. Wow, he gave Spider-Man a chance to lecture someone on the importance of not killing bad people! I think I speak for everyone when I say I did not see that plot twist coming. D
Hey, I thought Speedball was great, and I don’t care who knows. Steve Ditko came up with him just as the rest of the business was lurching towards the “to the ex-TREEEME!” excesses of the early ’90s, and he was a delightful dollop of Silver Age silliness at a time when we badly needed it. Teenager Robbie Baldwin worked part-time in a research lab when an accident bombarded him with technobabble technobabble boom, he’s got super-bouncing powers. Cue the sudden appearance of bad guys in his hometown of Springfield (d’oh!) with names like Basher, Sticker and the Bonehead Gang. His book didn’t last long, but he hooked up with the New Warriors to help them meet their comedy-relief quota. So of course someone (presumably someone with serious daddy issues) later had to turn him into a guilt-ridden masochist whose powers were activated by the spikes lining the inside of his armor. Man, the 2000s sucked. B
Huh, this is rare: a character I’ve never heard of from a 1980s series I’ve never read. Doesn’t look like I missed much. Think “discount Amethyst with costume that looks like she just got home from her aerobics class” and you’ve pretty much nailed it. Oh, and then there’s this absolute gem of a panel starring the main character’s kid brother:
Practising his “David Lee Roth moves.” So he can make money as a breakdancer. In 1988. Lord have mercy. D-
His name is “Spyder” — which we’re told is the “English equivalent of his name in his own language” — and he comes from an alien species that “resemble large versions of the spiders of Earth.” What are the odds of that, huh? But if it’s just a translation of his name, why not just call him “Spider”? Whatever, he’s a four-armed alien asshole who gets high on “effluvia,” chemicals containing the drained psychic energy of his victims’ emotions. This is such an important aspect of his personality that we get no less than three close-ups of him huffing snot-green vapor. I feel like the New Mutants stories featuring him were trying to impart some kind of anti-drug message, but I was too traumatized by Power Pack talking sexual abuse that it never really sunk in. D+
Storm, Alicia Masters
“Storm,” you say? Well, yes. For those who don’t recall, this issue came out after Secret Wars and the Thing deciding he wanted to stay on that planet because he could revert to human form there — not a terrible reason for him to make that choice, all things considered. With everyone on Earth assuming he was gone for good, they went on with their lives, with Alicia and Johnny falling in love and getting married. There’s a whole other story here that I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t read their early-’90s Fantastic Four issues; let’s just say I hope Johnny didn’t spring for the monogrammed his-and-her towels. As for Alicia: Benji could have done a lot worse. B
“Moondragon reconciled with Cloud, Sundragon and the Gargoyle, and Demeityr and the latter four continued traveling through space, riding the plasma dragon.” Believe me when I say this is the most coherent sentence in her entry. I get the feeling someone was riding the plasma dragon when they came up with this one, if you get my drift, and I know that you do. D+
He once fought the West Coast Avengers and he’s got solar-based powers… and that’s all we’re cleared to know, apparently. Moving on. C-
It’s guys like this who make me want to know more about how superheroes come up with their codenames. I mean, sure, we don’t need to explain where his super-speed came from or what motivated him to go fight Nazis and Communists; it’s Marvel, there’s product to crank out, not every character is destined for a three-picture Disney deal, etc. I get all that. But “Super Sabre,” what’s the deal there? I guess there’s kind of a connection between speed and a bladed weapon with his “Mach One” arm-slice maneuver that knocks opponents on their ass, but still… I don’t know, it feels like a stretch. Maybe he’s a big fan of Buffalo’s hockey team? At any rate, I would definitely reconsider the slicing-sword chest symbol. Time to move with the times, Gramps. C
Aw, man. Just looking at these fresh, hopeful faces proudly serving the Motherland — in a book printed just two years before their Motherland folded like a cheap deck chair — makes me sad. We don’t get a lot about their personal histories, as befitting a country that liked its secrets. We do find out they once fought a giant shadow bear, so there’s that. Have Fantasia sent up to my room at the end of the show. I, uh, have some blue jeans and bootleg Beatles tapes I want to give her. C+
Hey, it’s everyone’s favorite sentient swarm of Nazi-flavored bees! What’s he been up to since we last checked in? Not much; he reassembled himself when someone at Peter Parker’s school mucked around with a queen bee lodged in Fritz’s skull and accidentally “awakened” Swarm. It’s always something down at Empire State U., isn’t it? What kind of impact do you think the constant super-villain rampages have on alumni donations? What? Someone has to worry about these things. B-
So we’re all hip to the Cerebus thing, right? Just checking. He’s a demon in Limbo, so we don’t get much about his childhood, motives or career highlights; demons are simple that way. Instead, most of his entry is given over to recapping the events of “Inferno,” a late ’80s crossover that saw Manhattan transformed into a hellish landscape of complete insanity (no, not Jersey). Wears a black Speedo and a vest, in case you were wondering. He may be a baby-murdering demon, but he’s not a pervert. Who does the tailoring in Limbo? C
Pointy shoes, people. That’s what we’ve got here, scary pointy shoes. Make him as freakishly buff as you want, Erik Larsen, there’s no getting around the fact this is a guy whose big claim to fame is Scary. Pointy. Shoes. Best part? “Spider-Man turned Tarantula over to the Department of Immigration as an illegal alien, and he was subsequently deported to his homeland.” See? The system works. Fuck off, Trump. D+
Tarr, Black Jack
I guess with a name like “Jack Tarr” it was either a secret agent or pirate. Think James Bond’s older, more ornery cousin — or even Bond himself after he ditches the Aston-Martin and tailored suits — and you get the idea. I mean, they even give this MI-6 agent the same gun-pointed-at-viewer pose they use in the Bond movie credits. Best part of his page is the incidental art in which he pistol-whips a bunch of knobs wearing leopard masks and claws, like he can’t believe the shit he has to put up with from wankers like this. I think I like this guy. B+
Alphabetically, the next entry should be Technet, but they have a two-page spread for their entry so they get pushed back one page. Yeah, editors, we noticed; an obsession with details is why your fans picked up Marvel comics in the first place. An acronym for Total Elimination of Super-soldiers, TESS-1 was constructed as a fail-safe against the possibility of super-soldiers running amok, though that plan went out the window when Project:Rebirth yielded exactly one enhanced human (Steve Rogers). No matter, the scientist who designed the robots was looking for a fun weekend hobby anyway. Cut to years later when TESS-1 is re-activated and joins an alliance of artificial beings who call themselves Heavy Metal, which is such an awesome name and concept I can’t believe they haven’t showed up in a Marvel movie yet. B-
“Interdimensional bounty hunters.” That’s the elevator pitch, but the beauty is in the complete bonkers-ness of the characters’ designs. Had this team come out in the ’90s, they’d all be hyper-muscled, sword-flinging, over-pouched types with buzzcuts and perma-sneers, with perhaps a light blue skin tone to make them look alien. But they didn’t, so we get a gaggle of gloriously goofy misfits that make the Mos Eisley cantina look like an IBM training video circa 1962. If you can gaze upon China Doll or Joyboy and feel nothing resembling giddiness or glee, then I feel for you, friend. I really do. B
Give Marvel this much credit: however you feel about their storytelling style, you can’t deny they allow their characters to grow. Thompson is a perfect example; originally cast as the bullying bane of “Puny Parker’s” existence, he grew up, realized what he did wasn’t cool, and decided Parker was an okay guy after all. Yes, of course, the quippy dialogue and all-out action-packed brawls were the main reasons we tuned in, but I think we should also acknowledge the quieter lessons Spidey’s books imparted on their adolescent readers: people change, high school isn’t forever, everyone has baggage, it gets better. Oh, and never hook up with the wife of a goblin-themed super-villain. B+
Speaking of high-school horrors. Young Lonnie “Tombstone” Lincoln was an outcast in his Harlem neighborhood because of his albinism, so he turned to weightlifting and petty extortion to fill the void. I remember the stories that introduced him, and I thought he was some kind of rock-hard mutant based on his name and ability to give Spider-Man a decent workout. But nope; his entry says he’s just a normal, non-powered guy who lists “whispering,” “strangling” and “dressing like the world’s scariest funeral director” in his eHarmony profile. You know what? I respect that. Smack that wall-crawling punk, Lonnie! Smack him good! B+
She’s a blue-eyed blonde girl who spent time as a street urchin in India, Mephisto feared her because she possessed enough of “the power of love” to destroy even him, her arch-nemesis is a powerful mystic named Doctor Glitternight, she spent part of her life with a segment of her soul trapped in a glass egg and she worked with the Sisters of Glastonbury Tor — the same outfit that nursed a gravely wounded King Arthur after his final battle — to learn more about magic (hopefully she skipped the “how to care for injured people” lesson). You know, I’ve never been a big advocate of employee drug testing, but in this case… C-
Another goddamned Elder of the Universe, this time a short dude with a huge nose and bushy eyebrows who’s obsessed with commerce and trade. Yeah, I’m not even going to touch this one. Next! NOT APPLICABLE
He’s the trick archer who taught a young Clint “Hawkeye” Barton everything he knew. He was also a criminal working at a traveling circus. Huh, I wonder if he ever hooked up with Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. Anyway, we’re told he “learned from a doctor that he was dying of some sort of cancer,” which doesn’t make his doctor sound very good at what he does. “Mr. Trick Shot, I’m afraid you have cancer of the ‘some sort’ kind. We’ll just blast your whole body with radiation and see where it sticks.” Made his peace with Clint, so good for him. C+
“Burning bright, in the forest of the night…” Give it up for my English major homies! Is there a reason offered for why she’s named twice? Nope. Do we need one? Hell, no! All we need to know is this: she’s a crime lord with a conscience who helps Wolverine maintain a semblance of order in the lawless island nation she calls home. Also, her occupation is listed as “former bank executive, now crime lord” — wait, what? An ethically challenged bank executive? Come on, Marvel, I know we’re dealing with super-healing mutants and all, but some ideas are just a little too far-fetched. B-
Boy, Matt really has a soft spot for the bad girls, doesn’t he? Or maybe “soft” isn’t the word I’m looking for here. Hired by the Kingpin to seduce Matt Murdock and break his heart, Typhoid Mary is (to the best of my knowledge) the only person who has ever slept with both Daredevil and Kingpin, and you’re welcome for that ménage a trois image in your mind. Seriously, though, I hope the writers work her into future seasons of that Daredevil show, because her split personality and uncanny ability to completely change her physical being when she moves back and forth between personalities — to the point she even fools Daredevil’s heightened senses into believing she’s two different people — makes her a fascinating character. Though I have to say: “murderess“…? In 1989, we were still using feminized nouns? If she had a pilot’s license, would the Other Abilities column note she is a “skilled aviatrix”…? B
“Tie rack.” That’s all I keep thinking when I read the profile of this Atlantean goon working for Attuma. I know I shouldn’t be thinking of closet renovation ideas while soaking in all this fascinating stuff about breastplates and sedative gas sprays, and yet here we are. Wait, he fights underwater; how would he even use a sedative gas spray? D