Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Ever since I began collecting the Star Wars Essential Guides, handbooks and guidebooks have been on the top of my reading list. There’s something compelling about getting all of your information in one place, especially if it gives you an expanded view of its fictional universe. It’s also a great way to save money if you don’t want to search for expensive or hard-to-find works which may or may not have anything to do with what you’re reading.
When it comes to comic book guides, Marvel is at the forefront. Compared to DC’s paltry Who’s Who in the DC Universe (which hasn’t been updated since the early 1990s) and Secret Files issues (which are few and far between), the Marvel Official Handbooks are constantly updated.
One of the problems with these kinds of guidebooks is, naturally, that they’re covering a work in progress. The Star Wars books are already starting on Volume 3 of their guides, while Marvel has had at least half a dozen major revisions. Even as they published fourteen (!) definitive Handbook hardcovers, they had to put out update issues with character updates and minor things that they missed. As of the writing of this review, those hardcovers have now been published as softcovers with the updates collected within them ... and there are still monthly update issues. However, this has an upside: you can track the history of Marvel Comics through the various retcons and changes. The original Handbook, for instance, is collected as an Essential volume; read through its “Book of the Dead and Inactive” chapter and see how many characters have been resurrected since then.
The subject of this review, Marvel Legacy: The 1960s-1990s Handbook, takes this approach to the history of the Marvel Universe. While the original Handbook series comes from the 80s, the four issues collected here use era-specific entry designs; the '80s issue resembles the original, for instance, while the '90s issue uses the current design. The Avengers and Captain Marvel have entries in all four books to really see how much they have evolved; the X-Men, Iron Man and Spider-Man appear in three of them. Instead of lumping everything together, I’ll go through each book separately and point out some interesting bits.
The '60s book includes Bull’s Eye, Colossus, Dr. Strange, Death’s Head, the Exiles and the Wrecker. In this case, however, they are respectively a stealthy sniper (with a different spelling); a robot and a computer (two different beings); a evil sorcerer; a radioactive man on a radioactive horse; a bunch of old evil World War II veterans; and two different criminals. Name reuse is nothing new, but it’s interesting to see how far back some of the names go.
Many of the entries are for one-shot aliens and monsters, along with some of Marvel’s non-superhero women such as Patsy Walker (who later became Hellcat) and Chili Storm. At the end of each book, there’s a “Where Are They Now” featuring further appearances and retcons. If they never appeared again, they are listed at the top along with the authors asking where they went, almost as a challenge to writers out there. The Avengers entry is, naturally, very short, with the newest members being Black Panther and Hercules. Captain Marvel is in his original green-and-white costume.
The '70s book features profiles on a number of corrupt organizations, including the back-to-back Committee, Conspiracy and Corporation. (I’m surprised no one has retconned those into one giant evil group that's probably run by Hydra.) Watergate was the cause of many of these, as well as the infamous Royalist Empire of America, Marvel’s second-most insidious organization of people in funny anachronistic costumes; they can’t hold a candle to the Hellfire Club, of course.
There are also many entries dealing with the supernatural side of the Marvel Universe, centering around Dracula and Werewolf By Night. These include some great ideas, such as the mind-controlling Devil’s Heart, and some odd ideas, such as Steve Gerber’s brilliant Bessie the Hellcow. If Bessie can’t sell you on this book -- or on Essential volumes of Dracula -- then there’s little else I can do.
Here, the Avengers are in the “pick seven members” era, with new members such as the Falcon, Hellcat and the entire Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, I’m not making any of this up. Captain Marvel, meanwhile, is in his famous red and black costume, and is joined by Ms. Marvel in her own entry.
On the topic of name reuse, there’s a weird case when it comes to the name “Star Thief.” There’s one each from the '70s, '80s and '90s, and all of them have yellowish-green coloration, but they have no other obvious connection. Is it just synchronicity and a popular name, or was there an attempt to create a villain dynasty that just never went through? We may never know. [A secret invasion, perhaps? -- ed.]
On to the '80s book, from an era which was dominated by Secret Wars. As such, the Captain Marvel presented here is Monica Rambeau, an African American light-controlling woman best known from Nextwave. The Avengers introduced in this era include a personal favorite line-up: Captain America (as “The Captain”), Thor, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and Gilgamesh the Eternal. It’s not that I really enjoy those stories; it’s just such a bizarre membership, and it also makes Johnny Storm the only member of the original Fantastic Four to have never served on the Avengers.
Characters from Marvel’s New Universe imprint, such as Nightmask and DP7, have entries here, as do the main characters from Shogun Warriors and Rom: Spaceknight. These latter entries do a fairly elegant tapdance around Marvel’s lack of character ownership, with Combattra, Raydeen, Danguard Ace and Rom never even shown. She-Hulk and the famous Thor-Frog both appear in this book, which is only worth pointing out because I was sure that both took place in the '70s.
In my opinion, one important character missing from this volume is Venom. While he has a profile in other Handbooks and he is discussed in the Spider-Man entry as part of the black costume era, Venom helped define modern super-villains and the late '80s in comics in general.
Finally, we come to the '90s, which was even weirder than the '60s. The Captain Marvel here is Genis-Vell, who was killed a few years ago in Thunderbolts, which means he’ll probably be back by the end of whatever crossover comes after “Fear Itself.” While the Avengers entry is weighted more towards the excellent Busiek and Perez title, it would have been great to see a picture of the team-jackets era of the mid-'90s. Unfortunately, the entire Modular Armor era of Iron Man is ignored in favor of Teen Tony and “The Crossing,” a crossover which basically never really happened thanks to Avengers Forever. The entry on Force Works member Century is the only place which tells the story of my favorite Iron Man era.
Other '90s replacement characters include the female Dr. Octopus, Phil Urich as the Green Goblin, Lobo knockoff Lunatik, Lady Punisher, Paradox (half of Dr. Strange) and Vengeance, the Purple Warthog Ghost Rider. There’s some truly bizarre characters in here including Stunner, who was Otto Octavius’ overweight girlfriend piloting an Amazonian virtual reality body, and Stephen Loss, who … well, let’s just say he’s from Warren Ellis’ Hellstorm, which out-Vertigoed the weirdest Vertigo comics. That’s without getting into the time when the Punisher died and became an angel, which was so stupid that it doesn’t get mentioned at all.
One of the great advantages of the Marvel Legacy Handbook is that you don’t need to know anything about Marvel Comics. In fact, it almost helps to not know a lot, since you can learn so much about such interesting, little-known facets. The “Where Are They Now” chapters direct you to even more stories.
The only unique illustrations are three covers by Sal Buscema and one by Ron Lim (for the '90s book). All are group shots, and the title page is a great mash-up of Buscema’s '70s characters and Lim’s '90s characters. Otherwise, the art comes from the original comic books, for better or for worse. There’s art from Kirby, Perez, Adams, Liefeld and even Unknown, that classic '70s penciller for minor Spider-Man titles.
Twenty dollars might seem like a tall order for profiles of characters you’ve never heard of, but if you want to get into the history of the Marvel Universe, this book is a wonderful way to dive in head-first.