The Superhero Encyclopedias: Who’s Who and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe

Whos Who 1
The first issue of WHO’S WHO: THE DEFINITIVE DIRECTORY OF THE DC UNIVERSE. Cover by George Perez.

In 1985, I came across the first issue of Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe on a spinner rack at my local drugstore.  The cover (the front and back covers formed one wraparound image) was full of characters in bright costumes, but the only character I immediately recognized was Aquaman.  When I opened the comic, it contained these great encyclopedia-style entries on comics characters and teams, with an illustration and some text on the characters’ origins and superpowers; I was familiar with some of the characters, but unfamiliar with most.  I knew about Aquaman and was an avid fan of Atari Force (the best science fiction comic of the 1980s), but I had never heard of Animal Man, Auron, or Anthro.  It blew my mind that there was an android named Amazo who could duplicate the powers of the entire Justice League!

It was a heady experience.  I hadn’t just discovered a superhero encyclopedia in the form of a comic book; I had discovered the DC Universe.

Luthor Whos Who
Before reading WHO’S WHO, I had no idea that Superman’s nemesis Luthor originally had red hair. Art by Wayne Boring and Dick Giordano.

In the pre-Internet days of the 1980s, I had found an information resource that would help me learn about the rich history and stories of the DC Universe.  As a kid, the only comics that I knew about were the ones that were available on the spinner racks of the local drugstore; if there were comic shops around back then, I didn’t know where to find them, and my friends and I sure didn’t know anybody older who could expound on all the different shades of Kryptonite that existed, or their respective effects on Superman.  I knew Batman’s origin, and Superman’s, but I had no information about all these other characters.

It’s been said that the complexity of superhero comic books can drive away new readers.  That may very well be the case, but I want it on record that for me, the complexity of the DC Universe was appealing.  It was like I had discovered the lost civilization of Atlantis (in fact, I did discover DC Comics’ version of Atlantis, because it had an entry in Who’s Who).  What I mean is, I had discovered this cool, structured superhero universe that I wanted to learn about and experience.  Who’s Who was the comic book that converted me from an occasional DC Comics reader into a DC Comics fan.

Whos Who Cover
The wraparound covers of WHO’S WHO comics are masterpieces. Cover by George Perez.

While I noticed and admired the exterior and interior artwork as a kid, it wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated the fact that DC Comics did its best to have the original creators of a character provide the artwork for that character.  So Who’s Who has The Question illustrated by Steve Ditko.  It has the New Gods illustrated by Jack Kirby.  It has Enemy Ace illustrated by Joe Kubert.  DC Comics has rebooted and revised its characters’ origins since Who’s Who was published, so the character information is largely irrelevant to today’s readers, but it’s the artwork that makes the series a classic.  I have the entire 26 issue run of the series, and I treasure every single issue.

The Question Whos Who
An entry on The Question. Art by the character’s creator, Steve Ditko.

About a year after I first discovered Who’s Who, I started seeing Marvel Comics’ The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition on the spinner racks, another superhero encyclopedia in the form of a comic book.  At the time, I didn’t pick up on the “Deluxe Edition” wording; I thought that Marvel was copying DC Comics’ Who’s Who ( I was wrong).  I was very excited about the Handbook; it served the same function for the Marvel Universe that Who’s Who served for the DC Universe.  That is, the Handbook introduced me to the characters and story history of the Marvel Universe.  Once again, the complexity of a comic book universe was not a deterrent to a new reader (that is, me), but a magnet.

Marvel Universe Cover

Indeed, the Handbook was even more detailed in exploring the complexity of its superhero universe.  Not only did the series give a brief explanation of a character’s history and powers, but the Handbook also included diagrams of locations (like Avengers Mansion) and equipment (like Dr. Doom’s armor), and scientific explanations for many characters’ powers.  I had never given thought to the physics of superheroes, but it made perfect sense, upon explanation, that Giant Man must be be able to draw extra mass from an other-dimensional source to grow in height.  Also, the Handbook provided a strength range for its characters, so if you ever wondered if Thor was stronger than Spider-Man, the Handbook settled that question neatly for you by letting you know how many tons Thor and Spider-Man could respectively lift.  Nuff said.

X-Men Jet The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe #12 (1983) 004
As a kid, with this diagram from the HANDBOOK, I just knew that I could build my own X-Men jet one day.

Although I discovered the deluxe edition of the Handbook in 1986, at the time I was unaware that the original Handbook series was first published in 1983.  The origins of the The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe begin in the year 1981, with the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15.  This issue had a three page comparison of the strength levels of various Marvel superhero characters.  According to comics historian Jason Sacks in American Comic Book Chronicles:  The 1980s, the annual generated a large amount of positive fan mail, and when Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter came across a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships (which provided detailed specifications on various battleships), he was reminded of the reader interest in the strength comparisons provided in the Amazing Spider-Man annual; Shooter was inspired to create an encyclopedia of the Marvel Universe.

Amazing SpiderMan Annual 15
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #15 – the first official attempt by Marvel to categorize the comparative strength levels of its heroes.

Inspiration is one thing.  The work that went into creating the original Handbook was heroic.  As comics historian Sean Howe notes in his book Marvel Comics:  The Untold Story:

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was not only the culmination of all this geekery; it was the point at which the staff’s dedication became astonishingly evident.  An initial twelve issues of encyclopedic entries for hundreds of characters – something like player’s stats on the backs of baseball cards – were followed by two issues of “dead and inactive” characters, and another of “weapons, hardware, and paraphernalia.”  OHOTMU was an enormous undertaking requiring more labor than anything Marvel had attempted before, and although the entire staff felt the burden, the project was spearheaded by a core suicide squad:  Mark Gruenwald, who’d become the caretaker of the narrative continuity within the Marvel Universe; his assistant, Mike Carlin; Eliot Brown, who was skilled at drafting architectural plans for, say, the Avengers Mansion; and Jack Morelli, a member of the production team.  They dragged pillows and sleeping bags out at night, stole couch cushions from the reception area, endured wintertime all-nighters by the heat of the Xerox machine, and secretly commandeered Marvel president Jim Galton’s private office shower.  The intensity of the project ramped up as it went; eventually they’d be cramming more than 50,000 words of text into each issue.

These superhero encyclopedias from both Marvel and DC Comics were my entry points into two large, captivating fictional universes.  Contrary to the frequently expressed opinion that the complexity of ongoing superhero narratives are a barrier to new readers, these superhero universes were fascinating to me and inspired me to learn more about their characters and history, an endeavor which continues to this day.  I appreciate the difficult creative effort that went into making these encyclopedias, and I am grateful for them.

 The images above are the property of their respective owners, and are presented for educational purposes only under the fair use doctrine of the copyright laws of the United States of America.




18 thoughts on “The Superhero Encyclopedias: Who’s Who and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe”

  1. “It’s been said that the complexity of superhero comic books can drive away new readers. That may very well be the case, but I want it on record that for me, the complexity of the DC Universe was appealing”
    First of all fuck yeah. I haven’t even finished reading this yet but already this is spot on. The complexity will drive away certain kind’s of fans but it also brings in other kinds of fans as well and I think that is in equal measure. Having all that structure and rich detail to the tapestry makes it more interesting for me. Ok going to keep reading sorry.

    1. Thanks. The irony is that even as I was first reading WHO”S WHO and becoming fascinated with all these great characters and stories, DC was in the process of destroying its continuity and many of its characters in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. One of the reasons given for CRISIS was that the DC Universe had to be made more accessible to readers. 😦

      (Don’t get me wrong – I love CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, but mostly because it’s the “last hurrah” for all these awesome characters.)

      1. You know I think it’s more making stories accessible as opposed to established continuity. Like I said I think that people that want to read comics are generally more pre disposed to dropping down the rabbit hole of large scale continuity but making comics that are accessible to anybody that is interested. One thing that I think Marvel has done well in the last two years is create comics that pretty much anybody could pick up (for the most part) if they are interested in the character without having to dive deep into back story but also have that as a feature if the reader wants to go back and read more or connect with other parts of the universe. Books like Thor God Of Thunder, Captain America, Deadpool, Moon Knight, Captain Marvel, Black Widow ect are easy to pick up and start reading with minimal knowledge of the protagonist but also allow for readers to go back and read more of the previous stories if they so desire.

        1. The recaps at the beginning of the Marvel Comics are helpful to understanding what has gone previously. Even if I pick up an issue for series that I haven’t followed in a while, I”m never completely lost.

  2. Yeah anyway this is fantastic. I don’t remember if I owned the hardcover encyclopedia or just perused it religiously at the comic shop but I remember reading the marvel collection that you mentioned from front to back as a kid. I still have a floppy single issue the dead character version for the official handbook.

    1. I ate up the Marvel Universe collection like crack and being blown away when I conected all the covers into one giant poster. When they released the Marvel book of the dead I was like holy shit I can’t believe they have something like this out especially showing how each character died.

      1. I love those handbooks as well; I never owned a complete run, but I wish that I did; the effort that went into making them was amazing.

  3. Great article, Reed. My favourite was the weapons and paraphernalia issue. I think I might still have that someone.

    Some great looking covers there. Perez on the DC handbook, Byrne on the Marvel book. Great to see The Angel in his best looking costume flying side by side with Ant-Man.

    And Ditko’s Question… Beautiful.

    Credit to Patrick for always saying this (call it an homage, Dude), comics were better in the eighties.

    1. The weapons and paraphernalia details in the HANDBOOK were awesome. As I kid, I thought that when I grew up I would be able to use the diagrams to make my own Dr. Doom armor. 🙂

      The scientific explanations were also eye-opening. The HANDBOOK was teaching me about physics years before I ever studied the subject in school.

  4. I never read the marvel handbook but I’m pretty sure I have a couple of Who’s Who in my attic. I remember reading them with my friends as a kid thinking it was the coolest thing ever to have all of this info on my favorite characters and also learn about characters I knew nothing, or very little about.
    I’d like to have that issue with the diagram of the X-men Jet, I love shit like that.

  5. I still have ALL of these sitting on a shelf in my office including the new ones released a few years ago. The Byrne covers were the best. He put some much effort into them. I can’t believe Marvel never made a poster out of them back in the day.

  6. I have lots of the Marvel Universe issues from way back and the more recent series that was coming out a few years back monthly. Very cool stuff. The internet has probably spoiled this now though. The Marvel trading cards that came out in the early 90s also come to mind here as well with all the power levels on the back (i loved those).

    1. Those Marvel trading cards with the power levels were awesome as a kid. I would go to the flea market and buy as many of the packs of 10(?) cards as I could. It took a while to collect them all. Funny thing, it was actually cheaper to buy it that way at the time because comic shops were charging outrageous prices for full collections of anything. Hologram cards going from $25 to $50 dollars. The greed of 90s comic book boom is one of the major reasons the industry nearly crashed approaching the turn of the century. Comic companies were putting out a lot of crap, too, and dressing it up with foil covers and flooding the market with #1 issues. So many “collectors” of the time were just in it to turn a quick buck because Action Comics #1 and other golden age classics were selling at auctions for LOTS of money. They had no love for the game. It was a sad time invested with snakes in the grass.

      1. Ya those power level cards were amazing. My parents wouldn’t by me enough to complete sets (as most parents wouldn’t) because they were expensive, ya. They used to have them in the early 2000’s at conventions as whole boxes for like 20 bucks instead of the original 100 so I snapped them up. Was so much fun opening those packs even as an adult.

        Ya I used to know some kids that would buy multiple copies of stuff; I found it pretty ridiculous. They have long since fled the hobby thankfully.

  7. I love Who’s Who. Oddly, I only have one issue in print still, but it did open my eyes to a glimpse of the complexity of the DCU and expose me to new characters that I found fascinating.
    I’m not too familiar with the Handbook. When it came to Marvel, those trading cards that came out in the early 90s were glorious. I have through series III or IV. I actually still have card collections from DC, Image and Valiant, as well. Those weren’t as good as Marvel’s.

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