Way back in the year 1983, just a few years before what was then known as Marvel’s 25th Anniversary, the publisher affectionately (and none-too hyperbolically) referred to as “The House of Ideas” released a series of comic book-sized encyclopedic guides to the characters, places and unique items all found within their own fictional continuity. This series, known as The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (commonly “Marvel Universe” for short) cost about the same as a comic book and was more than a little bit informative for the big time comic book fan out there and provided an excellent reference for that era’s stories in the pre-internet, pre-Wikipedia days. Marvel’s Distinguished Competition soon followed suit with Who’s Who in the DC Universe, rounding out the resources for the other half of the “Big Two”.
The issues were traded and loaned out like baseball cards between rabid young (and not-so-young) fans who were hungry to know the histories of their favorite characters. In that I was 12 years old and a Marvel addict during the “Marvel 25th” event when The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Vol. II hit newsstands (back when that was a thing), I should know. Over the years, the Marvel Universe has expanded exponentially and has become much more of a multimedia juggernaut than we ever dreamed during the events of the “Marvel 25th”.
And now, the references have grown beyond the issue by issue Marvel Universes into the big, hardcover, $40, 432 page Marvel Encyclopedia. This most recent edition has just been released in the first quarter of 2014 for what is now being referred to as “Marvel’s 75th Anniversary”. For those of you reaching frantically for your calculators and screaming “It just don’t add up!”, don’t worry, Marvel is now counting its age differently now than it did in 1986.
In 1986, Marvel counted from the debut of “Marvel Comics” as a company brand name in the middle of 1961. Now, Marvel is counting from the founding of its predecessor, “Timely Publications”, which launched in 1939 with an ongoing series called Marvel Comics. The jump from the Marvel Universe comic-sized mini-series (published by Marvel Comics) to the big, bulky coffee-table volume (published by DK) also fails to quite add up once the reader gets past the admittedly beautiful cover and glossy interior.
The cover is immediately striking with such Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernauts as Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Red Skull crowding for attention. If those Marvel juggernauts weren’t enough, the characters from other Marvel movies are also vying for the spotlight, with Doctor Doom, Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, Magneto, Sabretooth, Venom, Storm and Spider-Man clearly visible on the front cover. And if the hint that DK is using Marvel’s biggest juggernauts to entice potential buyers isn’t quite clear enough, the one remaining Marvel character gracing the front cover happens to be “The Juggernaut”. Subtle.
At first the interior pages of the Marvel Encyclopedia feel like just as much of a “Wow!” as the cover is, with brilliantly colorful, glossy pages that cover just about every Marvel character a rabid fan could possibly want to look up. However, after a few scores of page turns, the Marvel Encyclopedia starts to feel a lot less substantive and a lot less “complete” than a true rabid fan might require. In fact, even compared to the Marvel Universe entries of the ‘80s, the entries here feel remarkably truncated and less structured.
For one thing, we most assuredly are in the internet age now, and one can obtain a more thorough biography of each character on Marvel.com or even Wikipedia without having to pay the hefty cost for this thick volume. Unlike the previous Marvel Universe issues, these entries aren’t broken down into the orderly sections that are consistent throughout. Secret Identity, base of operations, powers and weapons and, most importantly, creators have all been inconsistently included here. Further, at $40, one must wonder whether the book is quite worth it. Especially considering its cost and size, it’s hard to imagine kids trading and borrowing the Marvel Encyclopedia.
Those shortcomings aside, it’s impossible not to note that this coffee table volume is incredibly beautiful and presented in ways that online searching can’t quite match. Though the pictures do skew largely to the modern (with classic illustrations taking a back burner if at all), the pictures that are included are nothing if not eye-catching. Any true Marvel fan would love to have their hands on this book as a gift. New fans should also appreciate the brevity of most of these entries (with more complexity given to the longest-running and most popular characters), especially with the Marvel Movies as backdrops.
This is truly a beautiful book and a thorough reference, though not at all the most thorough version created for this purpose. There is (and will always be) something truly satisfying about holding such big reference books in your hands and flipping through pages to immerse yourself in an impressive universe like this one. Marvel Encyclopedia provides an aesthetically stunning visual experience to go with this guide.
However, when moviegoers see the previews for Guardians of the Galaxy and wonder “Who exactly is Star Lord?” it’s hard to imagine them waiting to go home and open up their luggable Marvel Encyclopedia for the answer as opposed to whipping out the iPhone and taking a quick look. That said… those moviegoers would be missing out on an impressive book.