My sincere apologies. This post was supposed to be yesterday’s. Yesterday’s was supposed to be Saturday’s. Prepping for the New York Comic-Con and some of the business I hope to accomplish there ate up a lot of time. Sorry.
Jane’s Fighting Ships, the Marvel Encyclopedia and Where It Went From There
Wikipedia, of course, has the origin of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe wrong. Wikipedia is great if you’re looking up fusion reactors or the Fort Ancient Culture but generally full of errors if you look up comic book things, especially any related to me.
In early 1982, I was in the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue and I came across this very cool book, Jane’s Fighting Ships. Every page or so had a clear picture of a warship plus its specifications and key information.
There were other, similar books, too, notably Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.
The succinct, info-packed pages of those books reminded me of the Night Girl “dossier” that I’d failed to get into a Legion of Super-Heroes issue some six years earlier. The little light bulb went on—why not publish a book like those featuring Marvel characters?
The next day at work, I sat down with Mark Gruenwald—as natural a choice for such a project as Larry Hama was for G.I. Joe—and told him my idea.
Gruenwald had already been thinking about pitching an encyclopedia of everything in the Marvel Universe to me.
I thought my idea was better. Simpler. Cleaner. More commercial. A definitive, glamor shot of each significant character, a panel excerpted from existing pages that showed them using their powers, and their stats—basic, dossier-type info plus how strong, how fast, etc. He was interested, make that thrilled, to do it my way (if he had to) but wouldn’t it be better to…?
I just figured that an encyclopedia that included everything would become a ponderous tome with too much trivia and inconsequential stuff to wade through.
I wrote up a new project memo for what I called The Marvel Super-Specifications Handbook and walked it through the vetting process—circulation, financial, legal….
Circulation and finance weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea, but at that point, because we were on a roll and the books were selling, the vetters usually just shrugged and went along with whatever I proposed.
Usually. But Alice Donenfeld, our V.P. of Business Affairs and in-house counsel objected.
Alice! Alice, who alone among the upstairs types knew the comics, read the comics and saw in a heartbeat the potential of the idea, said no.
Seems that at some point, before I became Editor in Chief or possibly even before I started working at Marvel in 1976, the licensing department had licensed the rights to publish a “Marvel Encyclopedia” to one George Olshevsky.
I argued that my Super-Specifications Handbook wasn’t quite the same thing.
Too close, said she.
I also argued that it seemed unlikely to me that someone not on staff and on premises could possibly create a Marvel Encyclopedia that accurately represented the Marvel Universe.
Alice stood her ground. And she was right. Sigh.
I suggested that we ask Olshevsky if he’d be willing to cancel his license in return for something else. In that case, Alice said, it would be okay.
It turned out that Olshevsky wasn’t wed to the encyclopedia idea. He hadn’t done anything with the rights, anyway. What he really liked to do was indexes. He’d previously done indexes of Marvel publications under license, some of which were published by Pacific Comics. We made him an offer to do “official” indexes to be published through Marvel on much better terms for him, and that did the trick.
So, the Super-Specifications project was approved and Gruenwald started work.
Nobody liked my “Super-Specifications” title, so we cast about for a new one. At the same time, Al Milgrom was working on developing a book that would feature one-shot stories by outstanding creators, working title Marvel Universe.
The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, the title proposed by Gruenwald, I think, seemed perfect for the series, so I pried the words “Marvel Universe” away from Milgrom. As I recall, he wasn’t all that bothered by having to come up with a new title for his book, which ended up being called Marvel Fanfare as in “Ta-daa,” fare for fans! Editori-Al is a sucker for puniness, so that worked.
The first issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was released in late 1982, cover dated January 1983.
Gruenwald had drifted away from my specifications concept and more toward his original encyclopedia idea (and continued drifting that direction throughout the life of the Handbook series), but I was okay with that. The book looked good. And it sold gangbusters. Readers not working at 387 Park Avenue South loved it. Me too.
DC came out with their answer, Who’s Who in the DC Universe two years later, though some there stubbornly claimed that DC had thought of it first. Right, and the Russians invented baseball.
P.S. Neither company invented the idea, obviously. Somebody was probably doing such things even before Jane’s, and they started in 1898.
NEXT: Issue # 15 of a 12-Issue Limited Series and Other Tales to Astonish