When my son was much younger, we visited his classroom one evening, to meet his teachers and to see the work he had produced over the course of the year. As he showed me around the room, I pointed to a row of books on a shelf below the chalkboard. It was a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a familiar sight, at least to people of my generation, in any classroom. I asked him if he knew what it was. “That’s the Britannica,” he told me. I asked him if he knew what the Britannica was, to which he responded “No.” It was simply a set of books in his classroom whose name he knew because it was printed in large, gold lettering on the spine. At this point in history, this is not an unfamiliar story. Such encyclopedias have either been subsumed into electronic editions, or outright replaced by the pervasive wikis of the web. I wonder, were I to point out to younger comics readers today a volume of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, if the response would be much the same? Do you know what that is? “It’s the Handbook of the Marvel Universe.” Do you know what the Handbook is? “No.” Having considered this, however, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really have a good answer for the question either.
I am curious as to the reasons why such publications have been so popular over the course of the last 30 or so years of comics (though Michael Fleisher’s three volume The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes pushes that date back considerably). Such works have, as has the lamented (by some) Encyclopedia Britannica, been supplanted by innumerable internet “encyclopedias,” from Wikipedia to Marvel.com’s voluminous index of its characters. The periodical handbook comic does still make the occasional appearance, though the recent publication of such works as the enormous Marvel Encyclopedia in 2014 makes the periodical somewhat moot. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to limit my discussion to a period covering the decade from 1980 to 1990, and to two publications in particular: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe.
The first issue of the Marvel Universe Handbook is cover-dated January 1983, and features prominently on the cover a starburst with the words “No. 1 in a series of twelve[.] Collect ‘em all!” It is interesting that the professed impetus for someone to buy this publication, according to the cover copy is not the promise of a great story, nor of a wealth of information, but simply for the fact of its collectability. And, if I’m to be honest, this is, at its most basic, the only reason I can think of for the success (attested to by the many editions that have followed) of this format. This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in the world of comics collecting, and is responsible for the modest successes of so many sub-par comic books. In the case of these handbook comics, however, in collecting “’em all,” one is provided with not only a complete run of comics, but also what purports to be a complete description of the entire fictional continuum within which other beloved stories take place. On the surface, this is exactly what the encyclopedic comic is, but further consideration proves this false. Although each issue does indeed contain a vast amount of information about the Marvel superheroes and villains, and the world they inhabit, the consequence of numerous universe-changing revamps renders much of the information, over the course of real time and subsequent editions, out of date or inconsistent. We have to recognize that this project attempts to delineate characters and worlds that exist in what amounts to, regardless of occasional universe-altering events, a static continuum. As of the publishing of Handbook #1, the Marvel universe proper had existed for approximately 20 years, yet the characters described in its pages had not aged that amount. Indeed, as something of a digression, it would be interesting to chart the rate of technological change in the pages of a serialized comic book as compared to the biological change (i.e., aging) that a character undergoes at the same time. Peter Parker, for instance, is thoroughly comfortable with a cellphone, even pre-Marvel Now, a technology undreamt of in 1962, when he debuted. His technological milieu has radically shifted, but the character himself, despite no longer being a high school student, has not aged the concomitant 50 years. This is, of course, one of the accepted tropes of the superhero universe, but it speaks very much against the purpose of the encyclopedic comics I’m discussing. Encyclopedias, at the most basic level, are collections of places and dates by which we can understand the story of history. They tell us when something happened, where it happened, and what the short and long term consequences of that something were, be it a war, a birth, or an invention. A comic book universe encyclopedia cannot do this. While it can tell us, as Handbook #1 does on the first page, that the first appearance of Abomination was Tales to Astonish #90, a factual, real world, happening, the rest of the information provided is biographical information set within the fictional universe, and is thus unable to adhere to the factual information one comes to expect of an encyclopedia. If these works cannot tell us where and when something happened with any particular accuracy (due, once again, to the nature of the fictional continuum), then what purpose do they serve?
There have been, of course, variations on this periodical theme that do indeed serve as encyclopedias and concordances. The Independent Comics Group published “official indexes” to numerous series, from Crisis on Infinite Earths to The Doom Patrol, outlining each issue in much the same way the Grand Comics Database does now (i.e., publication information, character appearances, story synopses). Marvel Comics followed suit with their own line of The Official Marvel Index of…, Index, that is, as opposed to Handbook. Thus, in the pages of the index comics, we are provided with real world information on the periodical comics themselves, as opposed to the characters and the world they inhabit, information that may actually be of use to the collectors appealed to upon the cover of Handbook #1.
The most useful way of considering these strange, ephemeral comics documents is to place them beside a particular type of academic publication. An example of this sort of publication comes from that most academic of publishers, Routledge, whose Who’s Who in Classical Mythology even bears a titular resemblance to DCs handbook periodical. It is from this comparison that the encyclopedic or handbook comic comes into focus. The entries in the Marvel Handbook or the DC Who’s Who read very much in the same vein as the brief encapsulations of the characters and events of classical mythology in the Routledge publication. Thus, then, we can consider these periodicals as recapitulations in brief of the volumes of myth that have accumulated around particular characters of the course of their sometimes up to 70 year histories. Further, by comparing the details provided in successive editions of these publications, we can glean what the most fundamental qualities of these particular myths come to be.
By way of an example, I offer a few passages from the entries in both the 1985 and 1990 editions of DC’s Who’s Who for Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. While the 1990 edition switched formats to a 3-ring binder, and thus allowed more room for information, some of the facts of Dibny’s history undergo subtle revisions, and the contrast of these revisions reveals the important mythic features of the character. For instance, the 1985 entry reads “When Ralph Dibny was nine years old, his parents took him to a travelling sideshow where he met an Indian rubber man.” In contrast, the 1990 edition (a space of only 5 years, post-Crisis, probably not quite enough time for the character to have had a full revamp), tells us that “[a]s a teen-ager, Ralph finally found something to take halfway seriously when he went to a carnival side show. There Ralph became captivated by the show’s contortionist..” The details are, really, quite different, from Ralph’s age to the setting of his discovery of the contortionist, and even the racialized aspect in the earlier description. These changes are likely reflective of editorial pressures, to put Ralph’s age in line with the DC timeline, to update from travelling side show to carnival for an audience who might not recognize what a travelling side show is, and certainly the erasure of the race of the contortionist as consciousness of such Othering became more widespread. But the similarities between the descriptions are the mythic seed from which the different versions of the tale are concocted. Later in the entries, we have these two passages, from the 1985 and 1990 editions respectively: “Ralph and Sue spent their time travelling through America and the world, enjoying lives of leisure. Often in the course of their travels, Ralph, a brilliant amateur detective, found intriguing mysteries that he solved using his wits and powers.” Compare this with “For the better part of a decade, they traveled around the world, and everywhere they went, Ralph sniffed out a bizarre mystery or strange small-town crime that cried out to be solved by the Elongated Man’s special brand of amateur sleuthing.” Once again, the changes are subtle, but meaningful. In the second entry, Ralph and Sue are no longer living lives of leisure. The implication is that they travel in order to solve the “bizarre mysteries,” rather than these mysteries happening almost as afterthoughts to their leisurely travels. Similarly, in the second entry, Ralph solves mysteries using his “special brand of amateur sleuthing,” the mention of his powers coming into the practice in the first entry having been excised. From these contrasts, we can argue that the Elongated Man was inspired by contortionists (though when this happened, and the specific identities and locations of the contortionists are subject to change), and that he and his wife traveled the world solving crimes (though the reason for that travel is also subject to change), that these, among other things, are the seeds of the myth which are fashioned into stories.
Once more, for reasons of brevity, I have used the example of a character who has played a smaller role in the DC Universe than some of the more iconic figures. As the aforementioned Fleisher’s Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes attests, it is possible in the cases of the big names to devote entire books to the warp and weft of myth through a character’s fictional history. A comparison of the entry for a character such as Wolverine in the original Handbook, circa 1983, with that in the 2014 Marvel Encyclopedia would undoubtedly reveal, in the later document, some omissions, due, of course, to the ensuing 30 years of stories the character has undergone. What would be salient, then, from the point of view of the mythic and much as we just have with Ralph Dibny, is to note what the two entries would have in common, what details are retained over the course of 30 years, and it is these details that come to form the very basics, and the very basis, of the myths of these characters.
In some ways, then, these comic book ephemera are only really useful in comparison with one another, but the replacement of one edition by another clouds that usefulness. In answer to my opening question, I’d have to make the claim, as this article has attempted, that these encyclopedic comics are, in comparison with one another, a useful resource to delineate the “official” portions of the myths of superheroic characters, the seeds from which such profusions of stories can grow.