Mark’s Remarks – Marvel Age #94 (November 1990)

Something tells me what follows may read more like a promo article than one of my usual non-commercial ultra-insightful insider’s view of some aspect of the comics phenomenon, but…I’ll see what I can do about it. My editors have asked me to give the behind-the-scenes story of the upcoming all-new all-different spin-offs from the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, and since I’m not only the principal architect of the original OHOTMU back in 1982, the improved Deluxe Edition (OHOTMUDE) of 1985, the Trade Paperback repackaging (OHOTMUTP) of 1987, and the aforementioned upcoming versions, it makes a lot of sense for me to tell the tale. Bear with me, huh?

Before I hunker down to the task at hand, let me tell you the hitherto-unrevealed origins of the HANDBOOK. Back in 1977, a year before I was even hired by Marvel, my then-roommate Dean Mullaney (now the renowned publisher of Eclipse Comics) and I came up with the notion of compiling an encyclopedia to all of Marvel’s characters, places, and things. We began by compiling a massive book-book index of names and even wrote several sample entries. It was a whole lot of work to do on spec (speculating that we could get Marvel to publish it or at least authorize someone else to) and we got distracted by other projects along the way. Soon after I was hired on as an assistant editor in 1978, I proposed the project but the powers-that-were recognized what a time-intensive undertaking it would be, and perhaps concluded I was still too wet behind the ears to put such a project together.

Four years later, I was promoted to full editor and then editor in chief Jim Shooter discussed with me an idea he was kicking around which would feature model sheets (front, side, and back views) of all our characters along with a chart of basic data and statistics about each. I said I was hot to do it, immediately scheming how I could incorporate the encyclopedic material from my unsung proposal. I was as happy as a youngster on the last day of school working out the format of the project and coming up with all of its statistical categories. As for the name, I wanted to simply call it, “Marvel Universe,” but Jim convinced me that the descriptive words “Official Handbook” would add to its kid appeal, so we slammed the two together. The end result, as all good Marveloids know, was the highly successful trend setting original edition of OHOTMU.

Now with two editions of 15 and 20 issues respectively, a 10-book repackaging, and an 8-issue update, it seemed to me that the project was doomed to be forever outdated. New characters were constantly coming into being, characters were continually changing costumes and powers, and old characters who didn’t seem significant enough to include were perennially rising to importance. The very nature of an alphabetically arranged publication seemed inappropriate for keeping abreast of the ever-changing current statue quo of the Marvel Universe. Way back in ’82, John Byrne was among the first to suggest to me we publish the pages of the handbook separately so that new ones could be inserted and outmoded ones could be discarded with ease. But at the time we weren’t sure a handbook to our characters would sell at all, so to hedge our bets we at least wanted to put the material in a format familiar to our readership.

Now, eight years later, having built a market for research projects of the sort and observed that the publishers of role-playing games have successfully adopted the modular format for the publication of the some of their material, we’re ready to publish MARVEL UNIVERSE in the best of all possible formats. But wait, I’ve got some more exposition to run through before I’m ready to get down to specifics. Having gotten a little aesthetic distance between OHOTMU and myself (by keeping my involvement in the ’89 update minimal), I was able to look at the concept and format of the HANDBOOK dispassionately and critically analyze their shortcomings. Eventually, it dawned on me that besides its inability to remain current, the OHOTMU suffered from another major problem – namely that it tried to be too many things all at the same time. And by trying to do so much, it was impossible to to them all equally well. For instance?

Well, previous incarnations of the HANDBOOK attempted to be: 1) a pinup book of cool full-figure shots drawn by top artists, 2) definitive style and color guides for characters’ costumes, 3) a compilation of personal statistics of each character, 4) a prose history of each character’s life, 5) a detailed description of each character’s powers, 6) a technical handbook for the hardware, vehicles, and headquarters of various characters, 7) an atlas of noteworthy places, 8) an encyclopedia to unusual objects and substances, 9) a bibliography to significant issues, and 10) everything else we could throw in: a glossary of technical terms, a gazeteer to other dimensions, a survey of alien races, even an appendix to characters to which we had no room to give full entries. As I said, it tried to be a lot of things at once. Some of these things took up whole lot of space, some of them got squeezed into whatever space we could find, and still others are almost at cross-purposes from one another.

My solution? To deconstruct the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE into smaller, separate entities totally devoted to a single purpose. What I’m saying here is that OHOTMU has been converted into at least five (!) separate series of publications whose formats are determined by the nature of the material we wish to present. Let’s begin with the publication that is perhaps the most direct descendant of the previous HANDBOOKS:

THE OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE MASTER EDITION (OHOTMUME) will feature full color model sheets (front, side, and back views) of each character on one side and personal data and statistics on the back. These will not be pinup shots drawn by various artists but reference shots drawn by a single art team, Keith Pollard and Joe Rubinstein. For fans of pinup shots by various artists, we have in the works both Official Marvel Trading Cards and a Marvel Poster Book, of which I’m involved with neither so someone else will have to tell you about it. The data and statistics sheet will contain information categories no previous HANDBOOK ever provided (such as “Known enemies:” and “Agility level:”), and will dispense with both theoretical explanations of powers and biographical narratives. Every month a packet of 24 characters will be published on a slick cardboard stock thicker than that used on our covers. Each sheet will be unbound and hole-punched for placement in a three-ring notebook to be sold separately. Every packet will have a wide variety of characters, some major, some minor, some living, some dead, some that have appeared in previous HANDBOOKS, some never featured before. We have a master list of over 2000 (!) characters slated for entries at this writing. Because character sheets will be published in no apparent order, you will be able to file them alphabetically as they come out. The first packet is due this October.

THE MARVEL TECHNICAL MANUAL, currently slated for four prestige format volumes, will contain nothing but technical diagrams of Marvel Universe artifacts. The first book will contain personal weaponry. Book two will feature body armors. Book three will showcase vehicles. Book four will display headquarters and buildings. Written and drawn by the intimitable Eliot R. Brown, the TECH MANUAL will finally give this fascinating material the room it deserves. Look for this to begin toward the end of the year.

THE MARVEL DATABASE will be a thick trade paperback containing a master alphabetical index to every Marvel character with a listing of every single Marvel publication in which that character appeared in chronological order. It will be illustrated with significant cover reproductions. Peter Sanderson is hard at work on this one and we expect it to be ready next summer.

THE MARVEL CENSUS will be a companion piece to the DATABASE. It will contain a master alphabetical listing to every single character who appeared in a Marvel Universe comic with a short description and first appearance. Also being written by Peter Sanderson, this is both the “Marvel Encyclopedia” I envisioned 13 years ago as well as the long-awaited “Master Appendix” cited in previous editions of the HANDBOOK. It will be illustrated with action shots of both major and minor Marvel characters.

THE TOURISTS’ GUIDE TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE will be a series of lavish pinup books highlighting the wondrous sites of the Marvel Universe. The first book will be a guide to the most interesting places on Earth, the second, the most interesting other worlds, and the third, the most interesting other dimensions. Expect full-color painted artwork and a wide variety of artistic contributors. You’ll see this some time in Marvel’s 30th anniversary year, 1991.

And when we get all these under way, I have still other deconstruction projects up my mental sleeve. Hope this inside look in the background behind some of Marvel’s most offbeat new projects wasn’t too far afield of my usual fare. If it was…uh, see you next month!

–Mark Gruenwald