Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Page 616: The Dated History of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Update ’89

A few years ago - I can't remember specifically when or where - a comic shop gave me a free copy of the Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update ’89. I don't know if this was a case of one particular store trying to unload surplus books or a more widespread promotion a la Free Comic Book Day.

Anyway, it sat on my shelf unread for a long time, passed over for many a novel, graphic or otherwise. As happens though, eventually I ran out of things I genuinely wanted to read and grabbed any old printed material I could find. So, the handbook.

The ’89 Update served as an appendix to the Deluxe Edition printed from 1985 to ’88. It included new-at-the-time characters and all the nonpowered characters ignored by the Deluxe Edition. Finally, all my questions about Willie Lumpkin and Dr. Valerie Cooper answered!

Seriously though, reading the ’89 handbook in 2014 is like reading a history textbook that pats the U.S. on the back for funding Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the ’80s. Here a few of my favorite observations about the book:

EVERY ENTRY INVOLVED INFERNO: OK, not every entry, but a fair number reference that year's major X-event, which affected New York City as a whole and therefore drew in many non-X characters, such as Spider-Man, Power Pack, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and the Avengers. So the handbook was filled with entries for involved characters such as S’ym, N’astirh (all the cool demons had apostrophes back then), Magik, Madelyne Pryor, Nanny and Orphan-Maker, Wiz Kid, Cameron Hodge, Hobgoblin (who was possessed by a demon somewhere in all this), Mr. Sinister, etc. Many of these characters, of course, ceased to be relevant not long after this crossover. I hadn't read Inferno until it was printed in Essential Uncanny X-Men Vol. 8 in 2007, and I just remember thinking it had more endings than Return of the King. “Now, let’s tie up the Limbo demons thread. Now, let’s tie up the stolen children thread. Now, let’s tie up the Mr. Sinister thread. Now, let’s tie up the Madelyne Pryor thread. Now, let’s tie up the this-is-the-first-time-the-X-Men-and-X-Factor-have-seen-each-other-since-the-X-Men-were-presumed-dead thread.”

EVEN IN THE 80s THERE WERE TOO MANY X-BOOKS: My comics-reading career having started in the ’90s, I thought my generation cornered the market on market saturation. After all, the speculator bubble burst on our watch. We were the reason you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a copy of New Mutants 98. But we had to learn that behavior somewhere. The mid-to-late ’80s gave us X-Factor, which in turn gave us X-Terminators and Fallen Angels, both of which were breeding grounds for new mutants not quite good enough for the New Mutants, until some of them actually joined the New Mutants. Relevant characters include Ariel, Boom-Boom, Chance II, Rusty Collins, Devil Dinosaur, Gomi (and his cybernetic lobsters, Don and Bill (no, seriously)), Leech, Artie Maddicks, Moon Boy, Rictor, Skids and Wiz Kid.

NO POWERS? NO PROBLEM! One of the big holes in the preceding deluxe edition was the lack of nonpowered characters: the Aunt Mays and Mary-Jane Watson Parkers of the world. Now, I'm not saying these characters aren't important. I'll go to bat for Dum-Dum Dugan or Moira MacTaggert any day. But I still have to laugh at information such as "Willie Lumpkin possesses the normal human strength level of a man his age, height and build who engages in moderate exercise." Besides carting around a mailbag that looks like a prop from the courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street, I don't quite picture the Fantastic Four's mailman hitting the gym. I mean, bro, do you even lift?

ROBERT REDFORD HAD A MULLET IN THE 80s: Redford's character in the most recent, most excellent Cap movie was Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD higher-up who (eye-muffs, spoiler-phobes) leads an insurrection within the organization. In the 1987 series Nick Fury vs. SHIELD, a brunette-mulleted Pierce is a member of a very small, Fury-led SHIELD team that takes down a robot insurrection from within. Think of it as a reverse Victoria Hand, if you've been watching Agents of SHIELD. Seriously though, look at this dude's picture. It's like GI Joe's Duke starred in Roadhouse.

SPEAKING OF CAP, I FOUND SOME STUFF BRUBAKER LEFT OUT! In my March 18 post on Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, I praised Bru for thoroughly mining the hero’s past to weave his overarching plot about Bucky’s return, Cap’s death, Bucky taking Cap’s place, Cap’s return and the two Caps working together. With all that history, some stuff had to get left out, though, and in this case, it was the era of John Walker, the man who would become U.S. Agent, and his trio of sidekicks, the Bold Urban Commandos, or BUCkies, all of whom got their powers from the Power Broker and came up through the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation, because watcha gonna do, brother, when fervent patriotism runs wild on you?! This Mark Gruenwald-helmed era wasn’t all washed over, however. The homegrown terrorist outfit Walker fought at the time, the Watchdogs, feature prominently in Brubaker’s “Two Americas” storyline, starring the crazy 1950s Cap, William Burnside.

JOE ROBBIE ROBERTSON HAS AN ARCHNEMESIS! While Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson has long thought Spider-Man a menace, it’s editor-in-chief, Joe Robbie Robertson, has a history of being menaced by an actual bad guy, the Spidey villain Tombstone. The handbook tells us the two first crossed paths when Robertson was editor of Harlem High School’s newspaper and was trying to uncover the criminal activities of Tombstone, then an albino fellow student named Lonnie Lincoln. To repeat, a high school student was intelligent enough to write hard-hitting crime exposes about another high school student, who was intelligent enough to organize an extortion racket without being sent to detention, let alone the police. Tombstone assaulted the young Robertson and got him to pull the article (and, I guess, the newspaper’s faculty adviser didn’t bother to pursue the matter? What a great school!). The two would go on to have run-ins in Philadelphia, where Robertson worked for the Inquirer and Tombstone was the Kingpin’s regional crime manager, and then again in New York, because high school never ends, really.

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