On History: No More Handbooks

By | Tuesday, October 10, 2017 2 comments
Back in the early 1980s, then Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter came up with the idea of an encyclopedia style series detailing notes about all of Marvel's characters. He handed the project to Mark Gruenwald, who himself had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of comics, and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was born. The first edition started in late 1982 and ran for fifteen issues. It was successful enough that a more expansive "Deluxe Edition" followed in 1985 and ran through 1988, with a series of eight "Update '89" installments the following year. DC followed Marvel's lead in late 1984 with their Who's Who in the DC Universe.

Marvel clearly recognized the appetite fans had for basic information about their characters and the universe they inhabited, so they came out with other books targeting the same audience. The Official Marvel Index titles began in 1985 (though writer/researcher George Olshevsky had, without Marvel's seal of approval, independently published essentially the same thing beginning in 1976) and late that same year saw the debut of The Marvel Saga: The Official History of the Marvel Universe written/researched primarily by Peter Sanderson. These later series were successful enough that they were really only canceled because they had caught up to then-current continuity, and there was essentially no more content. The Handbook itself got a "Master Edition" starting in 1990.

My impression is that, while fans generally enjoyed all of these books, the Deluxe Edition of the Handbook tends to be the one people loved the most. That could be partially because of my own bias towards that series, admittedly, but I've heard more fans talk reverently about that version than any other. I suspect a lot of that has to do with Gruenwald, and the obvious care and attention to detail he made sure was in the book, managing to not only condense each character's biography very well, but also managing to explain apparent discrepancies and correct mistakes that had accumulated over the years. It seemed like more of a deeply devoted fan effort with respect to the actual content, but the it still had the professional veneer a large publisher like Marvel brought to the table.

And while there have been more modern versions of these books recently, with multiple character-specific versions over the past five or six years, and Dorling Kindersley carving out a nice niche for themselves in comics by doing both Marvel and DC versions of the same basic thing, it seems to me unlikely that we'll see another book quite like the original and Deluxe editions again. I have several reasons to believe this.

First, of course, is the internet. Pretty much every character has a Wikipedia entry that's longer and more detailed than any of these books could hope to cover. There's no page count to worry about so things can get as detailed as they need to without concern about creating a book that's too heavy to be lifted. Additionally, being online means that all of these articles can easily cross-reference one another. Rather than including a footnote to see some other page, you can just click right over to it without even losing your place.

Somewhat related is that now, with a huge proliferation of TV shows and movies, there are many more versions of characters that might be a reader's/viewer's first look at a character. Back in the '80s, you did have a few different versions of the biggest characters, but there was little permanence to them. No one was playing the Kirk Alyn Superman serials anywhere. Even Fred and Barney Meet the Thing, which debuted in September 1979, was completely gone by 1980. (I mean, thankfully gone. It was horrible. I'm just saying that, in 1980, the only version of the Thing you even could concern yourself with was the one in the comics.)

But now, with characters showing up in a variety of shows and movies AND cable and the internet allowing those shows and movies to be called up pretty much at any time, that means the first time a person might encounter Thor is in the Avengers movies. Or maybe The Incredible Hulk Returns made-for-TV movie. Or maybe one of those old Grantray-Lawrence not-really-animation-but-we-still-call-them-cartoons shorts. Or maybe one of any number of video games. Someone picking up one of those encyclopedia style books could easily become confused since they all have their own internal continuities that only vaguely bear any relation to one another. There's no longer one "prime" version of any given character.

Further, even within the comics themselves, Marvel and DC have largely ditched long-term continuity altogether, even going so far as to completely re-set their universes multiple times. While the danger of having character entries outdated by the time they're published was certainly a concern back in the '80s, the stakes have been raised considerably. Now the whole universe can be thrown out, which would require a rewrite of the entire book, instead of just a few entries.

The more fluid nature of how Marvel and DC approach continuity, combined with the speed and capacity available online, all make the notion of publishing physical Handbooks somewhat limiting from the start. Where I think a lot readers bought and read the '80s versions because it helped make sense of a grand universe in a way that was not available anywhere else, I believe trying to replicate that today would fall short compared to other (free) materials and would only serve to confuse as many readers as not.

Which is why, although publishers may continue encyclopedic books along these lines, there's not likely to be a version as "definitive" (both from a content as well as an emotive aspect) as the originals were back in the 1980s.
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Matt K said...

I remember all of this stuff. The Saga series and issue guides and of course handbooks. I don't exactly miss it, deeply, but I well remember how happily I soaked up every one I could get my hands on.

A glorious, complex rabbit hole of 30 (or more) years of continuity. All of it taken absolutely seriously, with very few exceptions.

This article is a very nice reflection on those days, and on all the ways things are different.

Thanks! I was just trying to figure how/why that Deluxe Edition book still captivates readers in a way that pretty much none of the other books do.