Some kids has their baseball cards, but us nerds had our Marvel Handbooks.

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (1982) was a 15-volume comic series that detailed the fictional Marvel comics universe like an encyclopedia. Each Marvel comics character received a one-page spread that gave a detailed, definitive biography of the characters as if they were a real person. A few years later (1985-1988) a twenty-issue Deluxe Edition was published and it was as rad as the original.

Long before the Internet, the OHotMU was the only way you could refresh your memory on a character’s backstory or get some biographical data on a character. Major characters like Cyclops, Doctor Doom, and Captain America were included, of course, but minor heroes, alien races, hardware, vehicles, and more were as well.

It was thorough and detailed, and one-stop shopping for anyone who wanted an accurate, enthusiastic overview of their favorite superheroes. Each character entry followed a standard template that included:

  • a full picture of the character,
  • a smaller image that illustrated their powers in action
  • text detailing their origins, powers, and weapons,
  • quick stats such as real names, places of birth, relatives, first appearances, heights, affiliations, and more.

Some entries like Spider-Man’s was atypical, as it ran two pages and included a schematic drawing of his webshooters.

Marvel EIC Jim Shooter had the idea for the project, riffing off the baseball card idea. He appointed Mark Gruenwald as editor of the project and it was Grue who was the true visionary that gave the OHotMU a wonderful life all its own.

One thing that Marvel Comics did well in the early years was to take the concept of the shared universe and give it more depth than had been done before. Marvel superheroes would often cross over into each other’s titles, or even migrate from series to series. So how do you keep track of things when many writers might have added to a character’s story across different titles?

Well, Mark Gruenwald used The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe  to create a vast reference library that accounted for every character. All of Marvel’s history was chronicled across 15 volumes of awesomeness.

Then it was taken a step further. The links were made from one character’s history with each other character’s history, no matter how convoluted it was. The locations in the Marvel Universe were detailed. Finally, the workings of heroes’ super-powers and tech were detailed.

It was glorious. So many young comic fans spent literally days combing through the pages of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. So much of nerd culture is steeped in nostalgia anyway. But OHotMU ranks right up there with the most nostalgic of them all, as anyone who was around at that time has nothing but find memories of the comics.

Peter Sanderson worked with Gruenwald on the OHotMU and he recalls that just before Mark passed away, he had gotten approval to do another Marvel Handbook update series. Alas, Gruenwald never got that chance due to his untimely death.

Of course, Marvel resisted doing a new Marvel Handbook for a few years, but with all things Marvel, they ended up going back to the well. They did supplements and one shots and redux and 3-ring punched version and collected volumes…and, just like all things Marvel, something that was meant to be a simplification quickly turned into something unwieldy and a quick cash grab.

But the Internet came along anyway, effectively killing the usefulness of the OHotMU. As quickly as continuity evolves at Marvel, any comic like this one is bound to be dated as soon as it comes out. Wikis aren’t bound by page count and print runs like comics, and they are able to be hyperlinked, so newer digital tools are objectively better at doing the type of work that the OHotMU was created to do.

But wikis simply aren’t as cool. And wikis simply don’t capture the imagination and vision that oozed from the original Gruenwald Marvel Handbooks. Yet, times change and while nostalgia is wonderful, it’s no good to cling to it.

But the next time you are puzzled by a continuity issue with Marvel, or you have questions about the particular powers of a hero, or you simply need a refresher on the details of your favorite character, spare a thought for Mark Gruenwald, the last comic creator who was able to bring order, clarity, and structure to the Marvel Universe, yet never, ever strip it of its wonder.

Letter from Mark Gruenwald to Jim Shooter, seeking budget approval for the OHotMU.