The All-New Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe is a 15-volume hardcover series of books published over the course of two years. It describes the histories and powers of hundreds of characters who’ve appeared in Marvel Comics. From the headliners to the one-issue wonders, every character you can name is in here and more.
I’ve read nearly every entry in these books. Some characters stick out because I remember reading their original appearances. Others have histories so bizarre, they’re as memorable as the Spider-Man or X-Men. So here are 10 entries from the Handbooks that I’ll always remember.
10. Black Brother (Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Vol. 2)
Joshua was an African governor fighting the sex trade and corruption of his nation of Orbia. He was ultimately framed in a phony sex scandal by government agents and his own wife. I’d like to see Joshua return in comics. He could be used to comment on the Obama Presidency, or current crisis in Africa. He could at least be a supporting character inBlack Panther. But most importantly, Joshua, the “Black Brother” should come back long enough to get a last name, and to make up for appearing in a magazine called Savage Tales.
9. Cypher (OHotMU Vol. 3)
I’m not a big fan of the New Mutants, but I know Cypher was and is one of their core members. He’d been a member of the team for years until his tragic death. So what does his profile say?
“Cypher dated Kitty Pryde. He joined the New Mutants even though he really couldn’t fight. Warlock became an armor for Cypher and the two became friends. Then he died.” That’s it. It’s barely a page long and it still feels padded out. Even if it included his recent resurrection and powers change, it would still be short! Cypher is an example of a character who never really did anything, along with guys like Microchip, the Punisher’s long-time partner. His entry is only a page long. Or Wong, Dr. Strange’s manservant. He’s almost 50 years old, and he only gets two pages. Two! Whirlwind’s almost as old and he gets three. So Cypher is my example of a character that’s fairly well-known among readers but never really did much.
8. Death’s Head Family (OHotMU Vol. 3)
To be specific, I’m referring to the original Death’s Head, (FPA), Death’s Head II, (Minion), Death Wreck, and Death Metal. These entries are as crazy and nonsensical as anything from the Silver Age.
The first Death’s Head was a cyborg bounty hunter, (though he preferred the title “Freelance Peace-keeping Agent), hired to kill the Transformers Galvatron and Rodimus Prime. He bounced across alternate timelines and dimensions, even crossing paths with Dr. Who. (That’s another great thing about the Handbook. They can’t do entries on licensed characters, but can mention them in other entries.) His attitude towards life is that of a nonchalant murderer. He kills people, but it’s not personal. Although he was ultimately killed by Minion, who absorbed his personality and became Death’s Head II, another version of him has survived. Minion, meanwhile, had many adventures which were fairly typical for a time-traveling killer cyborg built to destroy an unknown menace from a possible future. Death Metal was basically the T-1000 Terminator who worked for the bad guys until he had a mid-fight change of heart.
But my favorite of the bunch is Death Wreck. A prototype built by Minion’s creator, Death Wreck was assembled from junk and the brain of a homeless wino. According to his profile, he is powered by unleaded gasoline and has a photocopier in his torso. Driven by a desire for hooch, he steals a time traveling device that sends him careening through history searching for booze and begging for change.
A gas-powered drunken robot built from a Xerox machine. Why is he in comics limbo?!
7. Force Works (OHotMU Vol. 4)
If I had to pick one entry to represent everything wrong with comics in the 90’s, it would be Force Works. Force Works was basically the West Coast Avengers reformed under Iron Man. He wanted a more “proactive” superteam who wouldn’t just wait around for villains to attack. It’s never a good sign when your team is built around a corporate buzzword. Also, how are you going to prosecute a super-villain for something he was going to do? The team disbanded after they found out Iron Man was under the influence of Kang, (later retconned to be Immortus in disguise). So they were never really heroes; they were pawns of the pawn of a phony villain.
What makes their entry indicative of the ’90s is the art. It’s terrible! Heavily inked awkward poses take a full page of their 2-page entry. That’s right- a full page of nothing but ugly pictures of characters and places you’ve never heard of and will never see again. The topping of this crap sundae is the team picture. Usually the profile will use the best picture they can find. A drawing of the character in their most famous costume; an image from their most recent appearance; a group shot showing the entire team either standing proudly or going into battle; Something that approaches the iconic. Just look at that shot of Force Works. Everything that was wrong about the team is in that picture. Teeth gritted, clothes torn, bodies bloodied, and they’re all badly drawn. They look like crooks and they’re about to get their asses kicked. It’s a picture that says, “These guys got cancelled hard.”
6. Hate-Monger (OHotMU Vol. 5)
The Hate-Monger first appeared in Fantastic Four #21, where he was revealed to be-ADOLF HITLER! Yes, Hitler survived his death at the hands of the android Human Torch when Arnim Zola, (a mad scientist with no head and a TV set in his stomach showing his face), transferred his brain into a cloned body. Hate-Monger/Hitler has now become an energy-based being who embodies hatred thanks to being turned into a Cosmic Cube.
Comics everyone! Where Hitler has transcended his mortality to become the living embodiment of evil! Superhero comics first became popular during WWII. I think it’s fitting that one of the villains of that war has literally become a supervillain. And a second-rate villain at that. Hate-Monger is usually shown working for the Red Skull’ Hitler’s former lieutenant. So this is Hitler’s legacy: An icon of hate who’s not even his own master.
5. Elektro (OHotMU A-Z Update #2)
Not the Spider-Man villain, the old 1950’s robot who’s appeared in “Fin Fang Four”. Why is this one of my favorites? Because it describes
the story where he was mistaken for “Electro” and imprisoned with other 3rd-rate Spider-Man foes. They list such villains June Jitsu, the Human Computer, Demolition Derby, and Photoman. Never heard of them? They appeared in many comics. Specifically, . . .
IN HOSTESS SNACK CAKE ADS!! HA HA HA HA! Remember those old Twinkie and fruit pie ads from the 70’s that had heroes fighting lame-ass crooks by distracting them with junk food? Well guess what? Now they’re in continuity! All of them! That’s right suckers! And why stop with just Spider-Man ads? Who’s to say every ad isn’t in continuity? Why couldn‘t Captain Marvel bribe aliens with cherry fruit pies? Why wouldn’t Captain America wrest control of the Cosmic Cube from the Red Skull by offering the magic box a Twinkie? Now you’ll have to read every one of those stupid, silly, ridiculous commercials because you’re utter nerds! HA HA HA HA HA HA !
But really, it’s a cute reference and I’m glad the writers threw it in.
4. Kang (OHotMU Vol. 6)
Recording the chronological history of a character like Kang is especially difficult since he’s a time-traveling villain who’s assumed at least 5 different identities. He first appeared in 1963 in Fantastic Four as Egyptian pharaoh Rama-Tut. One year later, he returns as Kang the Conqueror in the pages of The Avengers. Two issues later, we meet Immortus, who is revealed years later to be an older version of Kang.
But wait! Between being Rama-Tut and Kang, he became the Scarlett Centurion and tricked the original Avengers into defeating other superheroes. They were all defeated by a later version of Avengers who’d already defeated Kang and Immortus, but didn’t realize they were all the same person. The Centurion was shunted to a parallel universe where he battled the Squadron Supreme. Or Kang’s time-travelling created a divergent version of himself and that Centurion conquered the future of the parallel Earth. Kang has also named many of his sons/clones Scarlett Centurions just add to the confusion.
BUT WAIT! There are thousands of alternate Earths, each with their own version of Kang. And many of these Kangs came together as the Council of Cross-Time Kangs. So there could be different yet identical versions of Kang hopping around the parallel timelines. And the same goes for different versions of Immortus. Adding to this confusion, a teenaged Kang saw the villain he would become and tried to change his fate. So he built a suit of armor and came to the 2000’s to form the Young Avengers to defeat his older self.
Oh, and he may be Reed Richards’ father. Or descended from him. Or he’s his own ancestor.
My heart goes out to the team tasked with trying to put all of Kang’s appearances into chronological order. In an attempt to present something simple, the Kang entry includes a multi-tiered flow chart listing the years where Kang was most active. One level numbers these periods from Kang’s point of view. So his life begins in the year 3000, moves to 2950 BC, and then he goes to the 40th Century before he becomes Kang. Thus I will always remember Kang as the most complicated villain ever created.
3. Motormouth (OHotMU Vol. 7)
When Paul Neary was editor-in-chief of Marvel UK in the early 1990’s, he encouraged the creation of many new characters and series. With the exception of Death’s Head II, (really just a remake of an existing character), none of these characters are remembered. Black Axe, Genetix, the Mys-Tech Corp; they all faded into comics limbo. Why didn’t they catch on? Just look to the entry for Marvel UK’s Motormouth.
Motormouth was a teenage runaway who stumbles upon a pair of boots that allow the user to travel across dimensions. This makes her a target of the Mys-Tech Corporation, the shoes’ creators. She eventually teams up with Killpower, a Mys-Tech employee sent to kill her, but decides to protect her instead. Their brief adventures are marked by random plot twists and bad jokes about Europeans that only Brits would find funny. Reading her entry is like reading a list of bad ideas cooked up during a game of telephone. You just have to ask, “Why is this taking up space?” I eventually bought Motormouth #1 in my shop’s cheap bins, and it was worse than described in her profile.
2. Kitty’s Fairy Tale (OHtoMU Vol. 6)
Remember that issue of Uncanny X-Men where Kitty Pryde told a fairy tale to little Illyana where she imagined her teammates as cute, funny versions of themselves?
But apparently that fairy tale happened in a real alternate universe that was revisited in the pages of Excalibur. It basically turned into a long Smurfs parody. I appreciate the Handbook team’s dedication to a complete listing of everything Marvel. But some things can be safely ignored.
1. The List of Alternate Universes, (OHotMU Vol. 2-5)
Marvel’s What If series presented what might have happened if major events in Marvel Comics had turned out a little differently. But unlike the “Imaginary Stories” of DC Comics, each of these stories took place on an alternate Earth. Characters of the main Marvel U could theoretically interact with citizens of these worlds. So every story every presented in ‘What If’ gets its own Earth.
And every other alternate Earth every visited by the Marvel heroes.
And the inter-company crossovers.
And the licensed books.
And pin-up books that present a different story idea for 1-2 pages.
In short, every idea ever printed in a Marvel Comic, no matter what form it takes, is catalogued, numbered, and listed here. Even joke universes where Keith Richards led the Fantastic Four, and the home world of Not Brand Ecch! ” Taking these jokes so seriously really defeats the point.