Friday Flashback: OHOTMU (1980s)

Today’s Flashback takes us once again into the 1980s.  We’ll be taking a look at a time when companies realized that we wouldn’t just buy stories about characters, but that we would also buy text simply telling us about the characters!  This well and truly begins with The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which kicked off in 1982.

1982 in general:  1982 was a year of conflict, including The Falklands War between Britain and Argentina and the 1982 Lebanon War. Barney Clark becomes the first recipient of an artificial heart.  Wayne Gretsky scores a record-setting 92 goals in the NHL.  The Commodore 64 debuts (leading to the supremely awesome “I adore my 64” series of commercials; witness one here:   Ironically enough, it’s also the year that Time Magazine gives its man of the year award to a non-human: The Computer.  Cal Ripken Jr. plays his first game in the majors, significant because he’d go on to play 2,631 more in a row without missing; that last game, in which he decided to rest, was played in 1998 (Ripken continued to play until 2001).

1982 in Movies:  Without a doubt, the biggest success was  . . . “Grease 2”.  Okay, not so much.  1982 was the year of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, and all other films were very distant also-rans in terms of box office.  Best Picture would eventually go to “Gandhi”.  Other significant entries were “Blade Runner”, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Conan the Barbarian”, “Swamp Thing”, “Poltergeist”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Tron”, “48 Hrs.”, “Porky’s” “Rocky III” (one of the direct tributaries to the first Wrestlemania, when you think about it), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”,  “The Last Unicorn”, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”, “The Thing”, and “Tootsie”.

1982 in Music: Familiar acts that formed in 1982 included Public Enemy, The Smiths, Skinny Puppy, James, They Might Be Giants,  Voivod, The Pogues, Faith No More, The Fat Boys, Corrosion of Conformity, and A-ha.   Albums of note included “Thriller” (I think it did well), “The Concert in Central Park” by Simon & Garfunkel, “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads”, “Sonic Youth”, “Walk Among Us” by The Misfits, “American Fool” by the then-named John Cougar (then Cougar Mellencamp, then finally just Mellencamp), “Rio” by Duran Duran, “Combat Rock” by The Clash, “Built for Speed” by The Stray Cats, “Billy Idol”, “Screaming for Vengeance” by Judas Priest, “Vacation” by The Go-Gos, “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush, “Forever Now” by The Psychedelic Furs, “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen, “H2O” by Hall and Oates, “Eagles Greatest Hits Vol. 2” (notable for eclipsing “Thriller” for all time sales for a time), “Violent Femmes”, “TV Party” by Black Flag, and many more.

And now, your handbook: Marvel had a pretty decent 1982 planned already.  They dropped their first mini-series, “Contest of Champions”.  They debuted the New Mutants.  Epic Comics launched.  “Wolverine” got his own mini-series.  “G.I. Joe” stormed stores with a TV commercial at its back.  And that’s just a snapshot.  But along with all of that, Marvel began producing an offbeat little project for the very end of 1982 that would become something of an industry standard.

The project reportedly had its genesis with then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter.  Shooter’s notion was actually rooted in the concept of baseball cards, giving fans access to facts and stats in comic form.  The editor was Mark Gruenwald; he was an appropriate choice, given his beginnings in comics fandom.  It was fortuitous (and perhaps not coincidence) that “Contest of Champions” introduced a number of new, international characters for Marvel.  In fact, the “Contest” books boasted entries for said new characters that would look something like the OHOTMU.  Among those heroes making their debuts were Shamrock, Defensor, Talisman, Collective Man, Blitzkrieg and Peregrine.

The format for the series was pretty simple.  It moved in alphabetical order.  Each entry had a shot of the character (or vehicle or location) accompanied by stats, text, and an occasional extra action shot.  For the original run, issues #1-12 covered active heroes and villains A-Z.   Issues 13 and 14 were reserved for the “dead and inactive”, and issue 15 covered equipment and tech (the issue also had SHIELD and Avengers membership cards inside the cover that you could photocopy).  As an added bonus, all of the covers could be spread out to form one giant picture of the Marvel Universe.

While Marvel might have expected the book to do reasonably well, it was actually a huge success.  It almost certainly inspired DC’s “Who’s Who” (more in a moment).  The first series ran through 1984.  A second series (called the deluxe edition) launched in 1985 and ran 20 issues into 1988.  An eight-issue update was published in 1989, followed by a 36 issue series (Volume III Master Edition) that began in 1990.  By 2004, the concept was redefined into one-shots (which still continue).  Over time, the Handbook spun into hardcover collections and inspired a separate line called “The Marvel Encyclopedia”.  There are, of course, the books published by Dorling Kindersley, aka DK Publishing, that include “The Marvel Encyclopedia” and their various “Ultimate Guides”.

Like Marvel, DC built several series off of “Who’s Who”.  The original volume appeared in 1984, one month before the first issue of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”.  The concurrent runs allowed younger fans to learn about older characters, and helped everyone keep track of deaths, rebirths and changes.  The first 26 issue series ran until 1987; shortly thereafter, the five-issue ’87 update included new heroes like Booster Gold.  Also in 1987, DC published a two-issue “Who’s Who in Star Trek”; as the then-license holder, DC had numerous original characters to cover as well.  1988 brought a 4 issue update, the fourth issue of which detailed supporting casts.  Also in 1988 was the seven issue “Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes”.  DC adopted a new loose-leaf format for the version that ran from 1990 to 1993, with 21 issues spread between a core series, an update, and a set devoted to Impact Comics.  In recent years, DC’s “Secret Files and Origins” books have more or less replaced “Who’s Who”, though a new one has been announced.  Incidentally, DC also boasts a “DC Encyclopedia” and “Ultimate Guides” from DK Publishing.

So, what’s the engine that drives the popularity of books like these?  Frankly, comic readers are a curious lot.  We’re obviously readers by nature, and we tend to just like to know things.  These series made everyone a student of characters history.  And they were just plain fun.  How many characters did you first meet in their pages?  How many creators were inspired to bring back or revamp a character that they saw in the guides?  Clearly, the desire for these books is there, given their ongoing iterations and the cross-publisher success of the DK books.

What say you, readers?  Fond memories here?  Dig the portions of the company websites that do the same things?  Let use hear it.  They were the guides to your collective youths, and they’re your Friday Flashback.

What are your memories of the early OHOTMUs? What are your memories of the early OHOTMUs?

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