Most comic fans can remember that first, cherished comic story that got them hooked on the medium, that one 4-color masterpiece pulled off a bookstore shelf or a spinner rack that exploded in their brain like a gamma bomb, irradiating them forever with a love of comics. My personal indoctrination into comics, however, was a bit different. I wasn’t hooked by a story in an ongoing title, but by an introduction to a little publication called The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition. After absently shuffling through a friends copy of OHOTMUDE #1 during a bored moment in 6th grade science class, nothing was ever the same.
Unfortunately, an experimental exposure to DC’s counterpart encyclopedia Who’s Who did not have such an effect. In fact, I can say with a great degree of certainty that it was the relative lameness of Who’s Who that played a big part in my total lack of interest in DC comics during those formative years. Even now, decades later as I’ve embraced “brand ecch” and become hooked on DC titles like Secret Six, and Detective Comics, the shortcomings of Who’s Who still needle me. When a writer pulls some obscure DC character out of the continuity bag, I always reach for my dollar-bin acquired Who’s Whos, for a little perspective and they invariably let me down. With December’s announcement of a new Who’s Who in the works at DC, this DC-impaired fan of encyclopedic comic projects would like to put forth some suggestions on how to make this new Who’s Who the type of guide to the DC universe I always wished I had had:
A Guide Lives and Dies on its B-Listers: Guides like Marvel Universe and Who’s Who can never be truly definitive, so there is always a process of elimination that has to occur when deciding what characters will be included. Criteria like number of appearances, overall importance and similarity to to other characters are important, but these standards should never be so stringent that they prevent the inclusion of a really interesting character or a quirky oddball from days past.
It’s the villains and the supporting players who really communicate the flavor of a comic book world. When you get right down to it, unless you want to get into the nitty grity details of every adventure they’ve ever been on, The biographies of the icons tend to be be pretty staid. That’s why, in the Marvel Handbooks, a character like the Molecule Man could have a longer entry than Captain America. The stars have to stick to a status quo, but the side players can have all sorts of convoluted back stories. After all, one of the most extensive entries in OHOTMUDE was the one for Rick Jones. Who’s Who, on the other hand, was likely to shove interesting supporting characters or even major villains into abbreviated paragraphs in group entries. Sure, its important to get all the major players in a directory like Who’s Who, but it’s just as important to showcase the diverstiy of a comic book universe, especially in today’s environment of nostalgia and self-conscious irony.
Focus on Superheroes and Villains First: Making way for obscure characters is one thing, cramming in every character in a publisher’s history is another. While The Marvel Handbooks only included post Fanatstic Four #1 characters from the official Marvel suprhero universe, the original Who’s Who attempted to integrate every character from every genre DC comics dabbled in. This extreme sense of inclusiveness was admirable but misguided. Sure, superheroes dominated Who’s Who, but there was also a seemingly endless cavalcade of corny 1950‘s detectives, Buck Rogers rip-offs, boys’ adventure characters, and forgettable war comic creations. No character from DC’s past was too outmoded or embarrassing to be included in Who’s Who. In a way, it showed admirable integrity, but It was incredibly annoying to see the entry for a character like The Green Arrow truncated to a single page in order to make room for a 2 page entry for “Gemworld”. No offense to the rabid fans of Hop Harrigan or Roy Raymond, TV detective, but the new Who’s Who needs to ditch these relics and only include sci-fi/adventure characters who are not only distinctive, but who have also been firmly established as important elements of mainstream DC continuity. DC got a clue and ditched these fossils from their Who’s Who “update” in 1987, hopefully they’ll stick to that strategy for the new edition as well.
Be Specific: One of the biggest flubs of the previous DC Who’s Who was its lack of detailed, specific information on power levels and equipment. In DC editor Paul Levitz’s “DC Nation” announcement regarding the new Who’s Who, Levitz mentions how DC staffers still refer to the original Who’s Who as a resource. I found this comment rather odd, since Who’s Who told the reader so little about each character. Sure if you needed to know Hector Hammond’s eye color in a pinch, you could find it in Who’s Who, but if you wanted to know exactly how fast Aquaman could swim, or whether Wonder Woman was strong enough to lift a jumbo jet or merely a city bus, you were out of luck.
Marvel Universe, Deluxe edition, on the other hand was geekily specific. In its pages was enough definitive information to settle a thousand schoolyard arguments. Most entries in the Handbook boasted meticulously researched strength levels, skill set descriptions, and weapon specifications based on the content of the comics stories themselves. In OHOTMUDE You could find cutaway schematics of the Ringmasters Hypno-hat, stats for exactly how fast Quicksilver could run, and information on how much everyone could lift (press) under optimal conditions.
DC’s rationale for Who’s Who‘s vagaries was that knowing things like how much Captain Marvel could lift (press) took some of the fun and suspense out of the comics, but for many fans, not providing this information in Who’s Who kind of defeated the purpose of the whole exercise and also smacked of laziness. This time around in Who’s Who, let’s see some real info regarding things like the tensile strngth of Hal Jordan’s power ring constructs and maybe a sweet technical drawing of Ollie Queen’s boxing glove arrow, complete with estimated impact ratings in pounds per square inch.
Be Flexible With the length and content of the entries: Digging into those old Marvel handbooks, with their extensive stats and quirky character bios, the reader felt like they were peering behind the curtain of the Marvel Universe. OHOTMUDE’s entries varied in length and their contents were tailored to each characters strong points. Descriptions of equipment might take up pages for one character, a paragraph or two for others. A high-profile character like Spider-Man, for example, had a relatively small amount of biographical information in his entry but his exotic powers provided inspiration for pages of wonderfully geeeky pseudoscience. Other characters were used as springboards to divulge information about some broader aspect of the Marvel Universe. Dr. Strange’s entry, for example, was as much about the general nature of magic in the Marvel U as it was about the Sorceror Supreme himself.
Who’s Who entries, on the other hand, seemed restrictively formulaic, like the writers were too afraid to give any one character or entry too much space no matter how interesting they were. Major characters or supporting players with complicated, quirky histories got crammed into a single page, sometimes just half a page. As a result, new readers couldn’t really get a feel for the characters, and long-time fans weren’t getting any knowledge or perspective they didn’t already have. Who’s Who was the worst of both worlds. Afer all, when editorial restrictions relegate A rich, unique element of DC history like Apokolips to a single page entry with less than a quarter of a page of text why bother putting it in at all?
Supplement the character illustrations with archival panels from actual comics: Guides like Who’s Who should give the reader a feel for the current “look” of a comic book world, but they also need to put the character in context. Nothing is more fluid in comic books than art styles, so with longstanding characters it’s crucial to provide multiple artistic perspctives on characters. Its also important to give the reader an in-context look at the characters in action, preferably through an excerpt from an actual comic. A static glamour shot alone is just not enough to put a character over.
The art in the first Who’s Who consisted of original portrait illustrations of each character surrounded by a collage of uncolored images. The collage usually included a drawing of the character in action or a depiction of their origin. Sometimes these collage images were inspired by actual comic panels, but actual excerpted art from the comics was always absent. For readers being exposed to characters for the first time through Who’s Who, those simple portraits and their minute half-tone action shots just weren’t enough to really sell a character, especially when compared to the library of archival art Marvel drew upon to pimp their characters in the Marvel Universe entries. Dr. Doom’s entry, for example, not only featured a nice, contemporary portrait of the doctor by John Byrne, but also a few jaw-droppingly iconic panel excerpts by Jack Kirby, and a dynamic action shot from one of Byrne’s own FF issues. In OHOTMUDE, choice panels from a masterfully drawn comic could even make a doofus like The Stilt Man seem formidable. Who’s Who’s stingy format reduced even the most flamboyantly visual denizens of DC to one relatively static viewpoint. After all, can a DC newbie really wrap their brain around what makes the Green Lantern a great character without seeing lots of splashy panels of Hal Jordan in action throwing out viridian boxing gloves, bulldozers and other wild power-ring constructs?
The character portrait for each entry should be rendered in a modern, consistent style: Who’s Who’s criteria for selecting who illustrated each entry was an admirable, but ultimately problematic and counter-productive strategy. Whenever possible the most iconic artists who had worked on a particular character were drafted to illustrate their entry. Jack Kirby provided the original illustrations of all of his Fourth World characters, Curt Swan contributed quite a few portraits of Superman characters, and so forth. In other instances though, a contemporary artist on a related title would draw a character. This, unfortunately, made Who’s Who a mishmash of styles from the cutting edge to the obsolete. A comic aficianado could appreciate that The Flash was depicted by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson in a decidedly Silver-Age style, but to a neophyte reader, coming to comics new in 1986 the iconic look seemed corny, especially when DC had contemporary faves like George Perez, John Byrne and Bill Sienkiewicz pencilling some of the other entries. The nostalgic bent of some of the art also meant that character portraits often did not reflect the contemporary look of the characters, a pretty big oversight considering part of the purpose of a project like Who’s Who was to lure readers into trying out new titles.
At the risk of sounding like a Marvel snob, it’s this fan’s opinion that DC really needs to take their cue from those classic Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition handbooks when compiling this New Who’s Who. Reading Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition was like simultaneously thumbing through a Dungeons and dragons monster Manual while a really good storyteller spun tall tales of all the bizarre creatures inside. It was the perfect gateway drug for a comic neophyte, a wild, exhilarating crash course in an exciting world and its mythology.
Reading Who’s Who, on the other hand, was more like reading a catalog. The abbreviated entries and minimal artistic perspectives reduced a colorful pantheon of heroes to little more than a list of products. The damage done to this young comic freaks sensibilities had repercussions that lasted years.
No matter what, this particular fan will be first in line to grab issue #1 of the new Who’s Who, hoping for a detailed definitive guide that will open up DC comics today the way Marvel Universe opened up Marvel comics for me so many years ago. Do it right, and my weekly pull list might swell with a few more DC titles.