Greetings from the Odinson,
They are the History Books of Comics
Before the internet opened up a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, these two seminal series were the must read sources to gain encyclopedic knowledge of Comics History.
NOTE: In this piece, I am referring to the Deluxe Edition (1985-1988) of the Marvel Handbook and the Definitive Directory Edition (1985-1987) of Who’s Who because those are the most complete and comprehensive editions of the series.
The Marvel Handbook and the DC Directory played huge and important roles in the life of a young Odinson. When they were at the height of their powers, the Odinson was at the peak of his comic book awareness, that sweet spot of around 8-11 years of age, the period in life when toys begin to rest dormant in a box and before the smile of a pretty girl could turn a head.
I was very knowledgeable of the comics of my time, from the late 70s to the early 80s, religiously following the adventures of Spider-Man, the Avengers, Superman, and the New Teen Titans, but it was these tomes of wisdom that expanded my world to so much more. They presented a history and detailed descriptions of powers and abilities. They talked about magical locales like Skartaris and the Savage Land, dangerous exotic worlds I absolutely had to see with my own eyes.
That is what the Handbook and Directory did for the Odinson, they fanned the flames of my imagination. They encouraged me to seek out these comics that I had not read yet and discover that the worlds of the DC and Marvel Universes were much larger than I ever realized. I read them until the covers fell off my copies, and I have had to replace the originals in my collection several times over the years.
I devoured the content within like a ravenous eater of worlds. Even with the immense amount of information presented on the pages, I never felt overwhelmed, because both Marvel and DC did amazing jobs of breaking down that information and divvying it out in a manner that was easily consumed and digested.
The Official Handbook ran 64 pages from #1-20 in easy to follow alphabetical order. Each entry included the character’s Name, Real Name, Occupation, Identity (whether it was public or a secret), Legal Status (where they live), Other Aliases, Place of Birth, Marital Status, Known Relatives, Group Affiliation, Base of Operations, First Appearance, History, Physical Stats (height, weight, eyes, hair), Strength Level, Powers, Abilities (skills), and Weapons. Each entry would feature a full body illustration of the current appearance of the character and have key comic panels from their history sprinkled throughout their dossier.
The DC Directory ran a standard 32 pages from #1-26 also listing their entries in alphabetical order. Each entry included the character’s name, Alter Ego, Occupation, Martial Status, Known Relatives, Group Affiliation, Base of Operations, First Appearance, Physical Stats (height, weight, eyes, hair), History, and Powers & Weapons. Each entry would feature a dynamic illustration of the character with a montage of their adventures in the background.
The Marvel Handbook and DC Directory also featured the best of best when it came to creative. Renown writers like Mark Gruenwald (Captain America, Squadron Supreme), Len Wein (Swamp Thing, Batman) and Marv Wolfman (New Teen Titans, Crisis on Infinite Earths), to name a few, provided the writing and research and oversaw the projects. The character illustrations were rendered by such legendary artists as John Byrne, Mike Zeck, Art Adams, Mike Mignola, and the immortal George Perez.
The covers for Who’s Who featured these sprawling montages of the heroes and villains that would appear within that designated issue. More times than not, the Directory covers were rendered by the great George Perez or John Byrne. The Marvel Handbook series added a whole ‘nother dynamic as its covers not only featured all the characters that would be found within the issue, but all the covers of the series would connect to create an amazing poster which fans like the Odinson could use to frame the walls of his bedroom.
I always preferred the format of the Marvel Handbook over the Who’s Who, not just because I liked Marvel more than DC, which I did, but because I felt the Marvel Handbook was more detailed, with both the character’s history and the description of their super powers.
Where the DC Directory would describe powers like “…invulnerability” or “…super strength” and just leave it at that, the Marvel Handbook would describe what caliber bullet a hero’s skin could resist or what temperature of heat and cold they could withstand. And, it would tell the reader exactly how much a character with super strength could lift. The Handbook had a more scientific/real world approach that gave the dossiers an authentic feel.
This information allowed fans to make exact comparisons between characters. It was how I learned that mighty heroes like Colossus and She-Hulk were not quite as strong as say Wonder Man and the Thing. And, even more amazing, that narrative carried over into the comics. Editorial back then was really good about continuity and I’m sure a tool like the Handbook helped them keep everything in line.
The Handbook also introduced a concept like Class 100. This signified that a character’s strength was beyond measure, characters like Thor and Hulk fell into this category. This idea was expounded on even further in the beloved Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game where they added levels beyond 100 like Shift X, Y, Z and Class 1000 so fans and gamers could include cosmic characters like Galactus and the Celestials into the conversation.
The Directory by comparison would simply say “…super strength” under powers leaving the reader to decide how the strength of say Blue Devil compared to the strength of Superman. Here’s a hint, check out Blue Devil #4 to see just how the Hollywood stuntman measures up to the Man of Steel. It’s exactly what you think. A catch all word like “…invulnerability” would really give no indication as to how the fortitude of Wonder Girl compared to say Mon-El. Of course, we as longtime readers knew the answers, but it is information like this that can initiate a new reader, excite their imagination, and maybe spark a desire to discover more.
To be fair, the recent Marvel Handbooks that have come out in the 2000s are even more ambiguous than the Who’s Who descriptions. Character backgrounds and power descriptions are extremely abbreviated, and don’t even get me started on those terrible “Power Bars” that only go up to 7. Everybody knows any good level rating system worth its salt goes up to 11. It’s science.
I’m not here to break one series down to build the other up. Far from it. Both series are absolutely amazing and hold special places in the Odinson’s heart. And, both The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe come with the Odinson’s highest recommendation.
Some modern day creators could probably use tools like these to keep the continuity of the characters’ histories and their power levels in line. But, I digress.
Though there have been many Updated editions and spin-off Handbooks and Directories, Marvel and DC have never really captured that magic in a bottle they did with those original dossiers. Perhaps an avenue to explore for future installments would be to break down the information into eras.
Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe: The Pre-Crisis Years (1938-1985)
Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe: The Post-Crisis Years (1986-2011)
Like their predecessors, these should be maxi six to twelve part series that go in-depth with the storylines, the major players, the supporting casts, the locales, and all the delicious subplots. They should explore how continuity mattered and how one event would have consequences on what came before and after. These “Era” Handbooks and Directories would be perfect for all readers, old and new. Breaking it down into eras like this gives fans a chance to pick and choose either their favorite storylines to revisit or maybe even an era in Comics History they are not that familiar with but always wanted to know more about.
Retailers can sell back issues and graphic novels based on the excitement built on new fans learning about all the fantastic history Marvel and DC has to offer. Plus, longtime fans, like the Odinson, can scratch that nostalgia itch. As long as Marvel and DC do the projects with the same passion and detail they gave the originals, this could be a win for them, the retailers, and, most importantly, the fans.
The Odinson gives his stamp of approval for The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe and Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe. They are perfect for those seeking knowledge and those that want to be reminded just why these two fictional worlds are, and always have been, so amazing.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell
NOTE: Be sure to check out my book – The Survivors: A Glen Haven Tale. Available in Paperback, Kindle, and Audiobook.