Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. It was right around this time in the re-read that The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition was published, so let’s take a look at how what it has to say about the FF.
This deluxe edition is a longer, more detailed version of a previous Handbook published a few years earlier. The Deluxe Handbook is the one most fans are familiar with. Each issue was 62 pages with no ads, and had a huge amount of text describing Marvel characters both famous and obscure. Allegedly influenced by role-playing game manuals, there’s a lot of space devoted to each character’s “stats,” and convoluted explanations for how superpowers work. One of the best things about the series is a meta-narrative going in the inside-back-cover editorials, where writer-editor Mark Gruenwald and his team frantically tries to get this insane amount of text researched and written on a monthly comic’s schedule. Also of note to FF fans is that writer-artist John Byrne is all over the Handbook, drawing all the covers, and providing a lot of the interior art. So, what does the Handbook have to say about our heroes the Fantastic Four?
Reed’s birthplace is given as “Central City, California.” He is 6’1’’, and 180 lbs. Reed started attending college at age 14, earning multiple science degrees from the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Harvard University, and New York State University. The Handbook explains in detail the whole incident with Reed’s father becoming the Warlord, and then the spaceflight that gave the FF their powers. As for his powers, he can stretch a body part as far as 1,500 feet before it becomes painful, and he can assume a shape of no greater than 1.7 cubic yards. He can assume a thinness relative to typing paper (which was different from regular paper, kids). The Handbook states that it is unknown how his organs and circulatory system operates when in this paper-thin state.
Sue’s birthplace is Long Island, New York. She’s 5’6’’, 120 lbs. We’re told she first met Reed when he was staying at his aunt’s boarding house in NYC (!). Sue later moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career (!!) where she reunited with Reed and their relationship began. Her history is then just the FF’s origin, followed by one paragraph about her transformation into Malice and back. A lot of writers over years have struggled with how to explain Sue’s powers scientifically, and the Handbook is no exception. The writers just shrug and say “energy” is what turns her invisible and gives her force fields. Then there’s an exhausting ten paragraphs describing all the sizes and shapes of her force fields over the years.
Johnny was also born in Long Island. He’s 5’10’’, 170 lbs. We’re told that his mother died in a car crash at a young age, and the book hints that this has something do with his interest in race cars. His solo adventures in Strange Tales gets a mention, and then it repeats the FF’s origin again. There are a lot of interesting tidbits about Johnny’s powers. We’re told that he draws his fire from ambient heat in the atmosphere and from plasma, which the book describes as “a super-heated state of matter that exists in the atmosphere of stars.” When he is flamed on, he burns at 780 degrees Fahrenheit (isn’t that, like, a lot?). His light output when flamed on is only 10 percent, which I guess explains why people can stand near him without having to shield their eyes. The shapes and constructs that he creates with his flame will disperse after three minutes without him giving them more energy. Johnny’s entry is the only one that describes how his costume is made of unstable molecules, even though the whole team wears them.
Ben’s occupation is “adventurer, pilot, and wrestler.” (His teammates just get “adventurer.”) He’s 6 feet tall, and 500 lbs. (A lot of artists draw him really huge, in the 7-foot range, so who knows?) We get a long description of Ben growing up in poverty and his family, a lot of which was established in the early issues of The Thing solo series. Then it’s the FF origin again, followed by Ben’s time in Battleworld, his quitting the team, and even a mention of his membership in the very goofy Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation. Ben can lift or press 85 tons, putting him 15 tons beneath the Hulk’s 100-plus category. There’s a description of his great endurance to physical harm, with quick mentions of his piloting skills and hand-to-hand combat training.
Here we learn that She-Hulk’s father is a sheriff, Morris Walters, and her mom Elaine is deceased. Through her cousin Bruce, she also has an uncle Brian and a deceased aunt Rebecca. She graduated from law school at the University of California in Los Angeles. Then we get the whole blood-transfusion-with-the-Hulk that gave her powers, and summaries of her times with the Avengers and the FF. She is 6’7’’, and she weighs 750 pounds — 150 pounds more than the Thing! She can lift or press 75 tons, and she can jump to height of 600 feet and a distance of 1,000 feet. There’s also a description of her invulnerability, specifying that she is immune to all known diseases.
Franklin is a full-time member of Power Pack now, so the Handbook insists on calling him by his rarely-used and hugely unfortunate superhero codename “Tattletale.” He’s 3’10’’, and 40 lbs. His occupation is “occasional adventurer” while the other Power Pack kids get “student” occupations, suggesting that Franklin is not yet enrolled in school. There’s a lengthy description of Franklin being born amid Annihilus’s first appearance, and the psychic dampers put on his powers. Then his time with the Pack is summarized. By now, it seems, the writers are giving up on the scientific explanations, flat-out saying it is unknown how Franklin’s new dream-based abilities work, except to specify that his astral projection is not the same method that Dr. Strange uses to astral project. Also note that while John Byrne drew all the FF’s portraits, Franklin was drawn by Power Pack artist June Brigman.
There’s an entry on the Fantastic Four as a team, which once again repeats the origin, followed by a description of the Baxter Building and how it was recently destroyed. Alicia, Franklin, Wyatt Wingfoot, and Agatha Harkness are listed as “allies” while She-Hulk, Crystal, Power Man, and Medusa are listed as alternate members. (By my count, the alternate members not mentioned are Tigra, Thundra, Impossible Man, and, on rare occasions, Dr. Doom.) Agatha Harkness is designated “deceased,” because in the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries, she burned to death at the stake! She’ll later return from the dead in West Coast Avengers. As for Alicia, she gets a lot of mentions in the Handbook, each time referring us to see her entry in the Handbook’s appendix, except that the appendix was never actually published.
Fantastic or frightful? What to make of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition? Despite its intention, it is not the definitive resource on all things Marvel. The Marvel Wiki isn’t even that. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, though, to flip through it and read about all the various Marvel characters, and the unintentionally goofy descriptions of their powers. It’s a perfect snapshot of Marvel in the late ‘80s, and a great nostalgia item for those who think regular comics just aren’t nerdy enough.
Next week: Ooh, sick burn!
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