The final issue in the Handbook Update series includes entries on over 40 characters, alien races, and universes. Highlights include the Marvel Apes universe, the Universal Church of Truth, the Intelligencia, Red She-Hulk, Mort the Dead Teenager, and Ravage 2099. (Red Ronin does not appear in the book, despite appearing on early cover art.)
You may be wondering why these handbooks are still being published in the age of the internet. If you want information on comic book characters or stories, you can just look it up online, right? Well, not always. Internet resources are usually written by fans. Fans are limited to the comics they can buy. And they’ll usually only follow series directly related to their favorite characters. So if the characters appear in other books, they’re likely to miss them. The handbooks are written by employees of Marvel Comics. That means they have access to every comic Marvel ever published. Even better, they can contact the original writers, artists, and editors of the comics for additional information. So the handbooks are the best authority for the histories and biographies of Marvel Comics.
And you can’t beat the handbooks for thoroughness. This issue alone has the complete history of the Maggia, Marvel’s version of the Mafia, the villain from 1994’s “War Machine” mini-series, an ice-powered villain from a Hostess cupcakes ad, and Ravage, the least popular of the 2099 characters.
But the handbooks are more than a research tool.. They tell the story of the Marvel Universe one person at a time. It’s a Cliff’s Notes version of comics. Reading summaries of these stories is much easier, and cheaper, than reading the original comics. And in cases like “Secret Wars II” and the Spider-Man Clone Saga, much more preferable.
Many of the entries summarize a story by focusing on a minor or unknown character. Through them, we find many of the events and organizations that shaped the Marvel Universe. Take Boomerang, for example. Boomerang’s three page entry begins with his first battles against the Hulk, follows his associations with the Secret Empire, Justin Hammer, and the Sinister Syndicate, his recruitment into Loki’s “Acts of Vengeance,” his involvement with the Thunderbolts, and his brief time with the Avengers Initiative under Norman Osborn. It’s fascinating that the Boomerang should be involved with so many major storylines and battled nearly every hero in the Marvel Universe, and still be unknown.
Personally, I use the handbooks to stay abreast of recent changes in Marvel comics I don’t follow. The entry on Robert Hellsgaard tells me why Frank Castle went from being the Punisher to a Frankenstein monster. Hiro-Kala’s biography covers part of the life of Skaar, son of the Hulk. Intelligencia and Red She-Hulk cleared up some questions raised by recent Hulk storylines. Again, it saves me the trouble of reading the actual comics or tracking down answers on the internet.
Finally, the best reason to read these handbooks is to remind yourself of the breadth and depth of the Marvel Universe. This is a fictional reality populated by superhumans, aliens, living machines, demigods, abstract concepts, secret organizations, bizarre cults, monsters, demons, angels, magicians, time travelers, and things that aren’t easily named. This issue alone features a floating brain in a jar and an alien dimension populated by insectoid creatures that provides the energy for Hank Pym’s growing/shrinking powers. It reminds us that comics are a crazy, wonderful place where anything you can imagine has already happened. And then went two steps further. That weirdness is part of what attracted me to comics and keeps me reading. I think everyone should read a handbook just to remind themselves of that fact.
Especially writers. There are lots of good ideas just sitting around waiting to come back.