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The Secret Origin of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – Part 3

Issue # 15 of a 12-Issue Limited Series and Other Tales to Astonish

Just as I stayed out of Larry Hama’s way on G.I. JOE, and stayed out of Archie Goodwin’s way on EPIC Illustrated and EPIC Comics, I pretty much left Mark Gruenwald alone and let him do his thing on The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The series wasn’t what I had envisioned or what I would have done, but that was okay with me.

If an editor or a creator knew the fundamentals, had an approach that seemed reasonable and had the chops to pull it off, well, all righty then. It was never my goal to Shooter-ize everything. I just wanted to make good comics, and I realized there were many ways to go to get to that goal.

(ASIDE: For instance, Editors in Chief before me had always taken personal charge of designing the covers and writing the cover copy. It seemed to me inevitable that a sameness to the covers would creep in after a while. I’m not talking about a consistent “Marvel feel” or even a house style—I mean staleness—“oh, that again” syndrome. Didn’t matter who the EIC was, or how talented. The covers Len Wein created under his own administration as well as those he created as freelance cover editor for Marv, in my opinion, fell into a rut, to a certain extent. Too many covers featuring two big figures duking it out. To much similar copy: “Can you guess the shocking secret of…?” “This one has it all” “Not even your (enchanted hammer or whatever) can stop Name of Villain!” Archie Goodwin’s covers, too, fell into a certain pattern.

As soon as I became reasonably confident that an editor had a clue about cover design, I butted out and left the covers up to him or her. Even if some weren’t as good as I would have liked, or as good as I would have done, better to have more variety, I thought.)

Some of you commented that Gruenwald used too much copy, put in too much backstory, or too much information. Some didn’t like the way he standardized the main figures, or the fact that he had Joe Rubinstein ink them all.

I’d like to point out that the Handbook was a monumental undertaking. Having a standardized format and one inker eased the incredible degree of difficulty somewhat. Also, I think Gruenwald was letting his personal inner fan come out a little, doing it the way he, when he was a reader rather than an editor, would have liked it.

Like I said, not exactly what I would have done…

…but the results were undeniably great. A lot of people apparently shared Gruenwald’s tastes. Sales were terrific and stayed at the same high levels throughout the project.

So good, in fact, that when he wanted to add three issues to his 12-issue Limited Series, how could I deny him? If I had, it would have meant sales and finance people coming to my door with torches and pitchforks. Besides, issue #15 of a 12-issue Limited Series seemed so…Marvel.

One other detail to mention: I originally thought we’d be able to use previously published panels to illustrate the characters using their powers. Nah. In ancient days, Kirby, Ditko, Ayers and others routinely did power-establishing panels—use of the power and its effect in the same panel. Here are a few of my favorites, two from early issues of the Avengers, one from Spider-Man:

These days, they’d make the above a double page spread and still crop the figures. And shoot it from an indecipherable angle.
After the ancient guys, you couldn’t find any such panels! Cropped figures. Action in one panel, result in the next. Poor angles. Unclear. Weak. Made me appreciate the Old Masters even more. It also meant that Gruenwald had to have a lot more new art done than originally contemplated, which added to his burden. Which he handled without complaint, except for demanding another cork board in his office.
I think the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was great, and stands forever as a testament to the talent and hard work of one of our best, Mark Gruenwald. He is sorely missed.
I found these items, a memo from Gruenwald about the deluxe edition that is illuminating, and two documents that offer a peek backstage peek:
Note that this copy was made after the manufacturing estimate but before full approval.
While we’re playing show and tell, here are a few other items of interest related to things mentioned or discussed recently:

Finally, I believe this was the actress who played Mary Jane for the Spider-Man wedding.

NEXT:  ULTIMATE COMICS – All-New Spider-Man #1 Dissected and Analyzed


The Secret Origin of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – Part 2


Marvel’s 25th Anniversary in Variety


  1. Dear Petrus,

    Marvel editorial was not consulted about the changes you mention, and the licensing people cared about nothing except the licensee's check clearing.

  2. Thanks for the clarification.

    Editora Abril did a great job with Marvel. They had this enormous task of picking up were previous publishers left the characters and try to put some order in "their" MU. I remember reading my first comic in 1985 that featured a story of the X-Men originally published in 1980 while in the same comic you had a Daredevil story published in 1984. Then a year later I bought a comic with the Avengers (featuring none other than The Korvak Saga) which had come out in the U.S. in 1978. This continuity problem was practically solved a few years later, but they had to resort to “leapfrogging” several issues of the original run of several titles.

    You think that what you mentioned about poor coordinating between merchandise and publication licensing was probably the cause of the heavy-altered Brazilian Secret Wars?
    The series came out a year after its original publication in the U.S., but by then the brazilian Marvel timeline was still way behind the point where the limited series took place so the editors had to resort to heavy (and I emphasize the heavy part) editing, both to the original script and art. I remember them explaining Storm’s mohawk and new costume as the Beyonder psychically altering the “gentle” nature of Ororo to a more warlike mood (!) and the deleting of Rogue and Captain Marvel from the series(I recall a scene where Marvel was spying on the enemy and was replaced in the Brazilian version by Professor X). I read later that the cause of this was the insistence of the Brazilian company in charge of the Secret Wars toys that didn’t want to wait until the chronology was right to start commercialize the toy line.

    Was Marvel consulted before these changes or, after licensing its titles, left the foreign publishers to their own devices?

    Pedro Pacheco

    PS: Here are the covers of the US and Brazilian covers of SW, so you can see an example of the editing made:


  3. Dear Petrus,

    Marvel licensed publishing rights title by title, territory by territory, usually. That caused trouble sometimes because of crossovers and guest appearances. Some of Marvel's international licensing people had never actually read a comic book, and didn't understand the "Marvel Universe" concept. One licensing person actually thought the Amazing Spider-Man and the Spectacular Spider-Man were two different characters. Another person made a publishing deal for Wonder Woman, not realizing that we didn't own WW. Strange, indeed.

    Sometimes the licensing people would make a deal for a publisher to be the exclusive Marvel publisher in a certain territory. I think we had a deal like that in Italy. Maybe Spain, too.

    There was precious little coordination between the international merchandise licensing and publication licensing, which also occasionally caused problems.

  4. Thank you, Mr Shooter, for taking me back to the glory days of discovering superhero comics as a youth of 11/12. To this day, I'm a fan of Marvel because of the work being published under your watch as EiC.
    By the way, what was Marvel's policy on licensing for foreign publication? Did they sell rights for characters individually or as a whole? I remember reading back then that Abril couldn't publish the X-Men or some other character/team right away because the rights were being held by another company. That sounded strange because they were already publishing lots of characters.

    Pedro Pacheco

  5. Dear Pedro,

    I was frequently involved in dealings with Editora Abril and knew well the terrific people there, but time has stricken their names from memory. I wasn't aware of the encyclopedia-style entries you linked to, but they're pretty groovy. Thanks for presenting them.

  6. Hello, Mr. Shooter

    I'm from Portugal and found your blog quite by accident some time ago, but it quickly turned out to be a favourite of mine.

    First, I'd like to say that I am loving all the stories so far and am hoping that you could keep them coming for a long time.

    The reason why I’m writing here is because the title of this post got me back remembering to when I started collecting (and consequently fell in love with) Marvel comics, back in 1985.
    In Portugal, Marvel was published under license by a Brazilian publishing company (Editora Abril) that issued these comics with 3/4 stories in them, by different characters/teams. In my case, my first comic was Superaventuras Marvel (Marvel Super Adventures) #34, which starred Frank Miller's Daredevil, Kirby's Eternals and Claremont & Byrne’s X-Men. And, yes, it was quite an introduction to the Marvel Universe, being exposed to the work of such luminaries. For me, the story that stuck the most was the X-Men’s. It was the burial of Jean Grey/Phoenix, the epilogue to the Dark Phoenix Saga, and in it Claremont and Byrne did a synopsis of the “history” of the X-Men so far. The combination of such new, mysterious characters and the fact that they had quite a long “history” that I was only getting a glimpse of, so enticed me that I became a X-Men fan for life.

    The other thing that caught my eye (and which is the reason of this post) was that, at the back of the book, there was a page of the “Marvel Dictionary”, an initiative of the Brazilian publisher to make readers old and new more knowledgeable of the characters, villains and heroes, of the MU. The page was detachable from the comic(they were glued, not stapled) and you could collect the entire Dictionary by buying all the other Marvel titles they were publishing.

    Here are some pages of the Dictionary:

    Although not quite as thorough on the back-story of the characters, the description of their powers/abilities (and the only illustration being a headshot of the character) as the OHOTMU, the dictionary was very fun and I enjoyed immensely reading and rereading its pages (which I finally managed to get in its entirety after a joint venture with my best friend).

    Pedro Pacheco

  7. Contest of Champions is in the queue.

  8. Dear Jim,
    Please tell us the origins of Contest of Champions. I'm sure many of us would be interested in the tale!

  9. Anonymous

    I didn't know if I was coming or going with this whole mini series.
    Marvel didn't know if it was a 5 or 4 issue mini until the end. LOL

  10. Dear Cassie,

    There were a few other similar humorous taglines on covers of final issues in the years leading up to Transformers #80: e.g.,

    "#32 in a thirty-two issue limited series":

    D.P. 7 #32
    Justice #32
    Psi-Force #32

    Maybe other readers could mention further examples.

    Not quite in the same category from a few years earlier is "Because you demanded it — the LAST issue of the Dazzler."

  11. Being the Transformers fan I am, I wonder if this is what inspired the "Issue 80 of a four issue series!" at the top of the page.

  12. Dear Lee,

    I forgot all about those brief bios in the Contest of Champions. There was no direct connection between those and the OHOTMU. Still…it's amazing how many things Contest of Champions presaged, including Secret Wars. I don't think we've discussed COC here in detail yet. It had an interesting genesis.

  13. Dear Jim,

    There's one thing I'm curious about that I haven't seen mentioned yet. How do the mini-bios from the back of Contest of Champions fit in with the evolution of the Marvel Universe Handbooks? (For those who don't know, back in 1982, Contest of Champions featured bios of about 1-3 sentences for every major hero in the Marvel Universe at the time. A select few also had headshots, mostly taken from the corner boxes, IIRC.) From what you've said previously, Jim, the mini-bios were probably being written at the time or right after you got the idea from Jane's, so perhaps they also played a part in the Handbook's genesis? (And while we're on the subject, I'd like to see a future blog post on the story behind Contest of Champions, unless I'm forgetting a past one that already covered it.) Thanks.

  14. Dear Jim,
    As you said Marvel Universe wasn't as you'd have done it, or what you'd envisioned, I'll highlight the errors I mentioned. If you identified with the project, I'd feel like I was impugning you. But, as you don't, I suppose it's okay to let rip. I can't seem to send my critique of Marvel Universe to the blog(too long, I suppose), so here's a link to a review I did on Amazon:


    It's the third one down (ignore the other reviews – e.g. chess books!)

  15. Anonymous

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you sir, for all your time spent sharing your amazing history/memories, and your awesome insights and knowledge.

    I'm looking forward to your review of the new Ultimate Spiderman comic. If at all possible, please read issue 1 & 2.

    Issue 3 was just released today, but I understand you may not have it readily available to read and review.

    Thanks again for all your efforts to share with us, your fans.

    -C. Jay Jones

  16. Urk

    I was falling away from mainstream comics around 84-85, after years of being really devoted to Marvel. Not because I was dissatisfied, just because my taste started changing, and I was finding different stuff, buying (if memory serves) Cerebus, Love & Rockets, Reid Fleming, American Flagg, etc. That must have been why I didn't buy these. I wish I had, I'm really enjoying reading about them.

    Continuity, or universing maybe i'd call it, within comics is interesting. In the early decades its just not a factor, partially because the medium's intended to be disposable. That begins to change with Marvel in the 60s, right? and then becomes a real force as a group of pros emerge from fandom & becomes a kind of shared concern between fans and creators. it changes the industry & the art form.

    it has interesting effects. I think that, as a reader, it made it easier for the stories & characters to live in my mind & memory after the initial act of reading was done, & more rewarding to go back to more often. It also created the need to resolve things, like the discontinuities that have to crop up when I group of creative people are turning books out month after month. & Jim, while I'm certain you tried to eliminate discrepancies, & in doing so helped make that memory-world much more vibrant, it might be better that no one could do that entirely. Trying to resolve slight discrepancies is part of the mental involvement of fandom & can be great fun.

    I think that, as a reader, what I'm looking for & likely others is something that's convincing, in terms of a world or universe making continuity or interaction between books, more than something that's too-tightly sealed. We want a moving piece of music rather than a note perfect recitation, if there's a trade off to be made.

    We know that what you're reading is part of an ongoing series that has been and will be written/drawn by many different people & which, produced monthly or bi-monthly over decades, will put those characters and places through changes that are hard to resolve through any reasonable causality or continuity. We know this, but as long as we can be convinced to forget it, its all good. And the surest way to forget it is for that comic & the world its set in to make emotional sense. That's what made me want to put it in order in my head after I had finished a comic. And that's the kind of stuff that there was a surplus of at Marvel in the late 70s through most of the 80s.

  17. dan

    I loved the fact that Joe Rubenstein did so much of the inking. It evened out the art. The book was a handbook, not a pinup book. This is another reason I preferred OHOTMU to Who's Who. If I didn't like the art, I tended to not like the character.

  18. Mark Gruenwald had his ashes mixed in.the ink of Squadron Supreme trade

  19. Anonymous

    Love how Kirby would draw something like the Hulk throwing a caboose at Thor and Iron Man in a tiny panel … the amount of action he would pack into one comic would constitute a maxi-series nowadays.

    His bit about the Hulk being in the circus always reminds me of that old song 'Goodbye Cruel World' by James Darren.

    Pete Marco

  20. Shelby

    Dear Jim,
    In 1986(?) I wrote Marvel and asked permission to write a fanzine. I was 14! Mark Gruenwald responded with that same letterhead with Spider-Man on it. It is a fond memory of mine opening that letter from Marvel comics!

  21. Firestone

    One of the great things about OHOTMU was slowly trying to find all the issues that the panels were taken from. They tended to be pretty good stories, too.

    Anyone else ever do that?

  22. Dear Marc Siry,

    Staff costs weren't considered part of the direct costs, although I always generated a "fully loaded" budget including staff costs on unusual projects. Those were for my own overall departmental budget purposes. No one saw those except me.

  23. Loved the Handbooks and the fact that my old friend Don Drake got to draw the AIM character in the second series made it just a little more special.

  24. I just added the Marvel History project memo that Jim forgot to send me earlier. So check that out if you didn't see it yet.

  25. The feeling I got from the Handbooks is that it was a true labor of love for all involved. Definitely Mark's baby, yes. His Omniverse years helped bring the handbook into fruition, big time. Ed Hannigan and Joe Rubinstein provided excellent work on their parts. Eliot Brown's diagrams alone blew my mind. All that detail! Mark really put together an excellent team that delivered quality material. In my mind, it has yet to go unsurpassed.

  26. Marc- sorry, "greek up" is a bit of an old-timey publishing term, meaning to create something that looks authentic but isn't actually real. It's a nicer way of saying I'd ask James Fry or Phil Lord to "fake" a shot in the style of another artist, so that it would flow with other action shots from that issue or series.

    Of course, Wikipedia has a page on it:


  27. ja

    I'm betting that Tara Shannon was hired first for her nipples poking through that sheer blouse, and then coincidentally, for her being a beautiful redhead.

    I know how the male mind works… it's a miracle I've not had any restraining orders filed against me.


  28. Anonymous


    A quick Google search confrimed that Tara Shannon was the model who played MJ. Here's a nice blog that recaps the event at Shea Stadium (with video!) if you or anyone else is interested in delving deeper.


    Thanks for all the years of fun!

  29. Dear Jim,

    Echoing David S, as a teenager I preferred the actual format of the Deluxe Edition because I doubt I could have gotten the paperbacks. I didn't start buying TPBs until I went to college.

    Marvel Saga was the next best thing to complete reprints of the original stories. I never dreamed in the 80s that one day I would own nearly all of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, and X-Men on official DVD-ROMs, or nearly every Marvel 60s superhero story in black and white.

    Thank you for sharing the memos. All those numbers appeal to the same part of me that loved the detail in OHOTMU. I was accustomed to the detail of Michael Fleisher's 70s encyclopedias — here are samples of his Batman volume — so I thought Mark Gruenwald's approach was perfect.

    Dear Marc,

    Thank you for your first-hand account of the work that went into the Deluxe Edition. I'll look at its action shots with an appreciation for the Raiders who cleaned them up.

    Could you explain what you mean by "'greek' up"?

    Dear Ole,

    It's been a few years since I read D.P.7 #32 (and the rest of the New Universe line — I bought it all), and I had forgotten about Mark Gruenwald's promise. I'm touched that he came through.

  30. Jim,

    Your "He is sorely missed" clued me on to the shocking fact that Mark Gruenwald is in fact dead. I actually didn't know until ten minutes ago (surely because I've been more or less gone from regular comics reading since about '94 until recently). I understand now that he's been gone since 1996, but when you don't know, it still comes as a shock, and I was sorry to learn that.

    I loved Mark's writing (Captain America and D.P.7 specifically… and hey, it was great to see Quasar traveling to the New Universe!), and he always seemed very enthusiastic as an editor. While I used to… ehm… "question"… a lot of Tom DeFalco's choices and decisions as EIC of Marvel, Mark Gruenwald seemed to make the years after you were pushed out bearable.

    Somewhere around here I have a postcard he sent me after I'd written in about the last issue of D.P.7. (he promised to "send a postcard to every person who writes in a letter about D.P.7 # 32", and he made good on that promise… even though I seem to recall that it took a while). I think I need to go and dig that postcard out…

  31. "Bottom row, third image to the right I see something of Miss Shannon that would not pass the Comics Code Authority"

    Thank you for noting this, wise pervert with x-ray eyes!

  32. Anonymous

    Tara Shannon has a picture of herself from the Spider-man wedding on her web page: http://goo.gl/4zauD


  33. Great post, brings back my time working for Mark and Howard Mackie (later Greg Wright) on the deluxe editions as an editorial assistant back in 85-86.

    Which brings up a couple of points:

    1) I know there were a couple of other editorial assistants dedicated to this project (David Wohl and Marcus McLaurin), but I don't see us as part of the budget. I know we also used a lot of Romita's Raider's help, as well as Brenda Mings in typesetting. Were editorial/bullpen staffers (and temp help) a different line item than direct book production costs?

    2) As an editorial assistant, the majority of my job was looking through the "bound volumes" for action shots, and then pulling the b&w proofs for those issues, getting Robbie in the stat room to stat them, and then having the Raiders art correct them to remove balloons, captions, sound effects, fill in blanks, etc.

    We ended up falling back on a lot of the "old timers" where possible for precisely the reason you describe- they drew very straightforward cause & effect panels. Newer guys would draw a punch being thrown in one panel, and a character flying backward in the next. Made it tough to pull action shots for recently created characters, and we often ended up having the Raiders "greek" up comic panels in the style of a pro, where a power was more clearly demonstrated.

  34. Bottom row, third image to the right I see something of Miss Shannon that would not pass the Comics Code Authority

  35. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for the story of the Handbooks, very interesting to read Mark Gruenwald's original idea for the format of the Deluxe Editions. The idea of having the four books in a slipcase is so appealing, but I think the comic-book format that was used was the best idea, simply because it kept the series affordable for readers like me who would buy monthly comics but (probably) couldn't have afforded to buy 200 page books.

    I have a real softspot for the Marvel Universe handbooks since, in my early days as a Marvel reader (having mostly been used to Marvel UK reprints), I discovered an issue of the original series and an issue of Marvel Saga in a second hand bookshop and read literally every word in them – they opened my mind to how huge the Marvel Universe actually was, the depth and sense of history behind the characters fascinated me and drew me in and let to the stand in the newsagents with the American comics on it, which introduced me to Simonson's Thor, John Buscema and Tom Palmer on the Avengers, John Byrne's FF and so much more.

    Thanks again for the story, hope today is being kind to you.

    best wishes

  36. Jim


    I'm not sure I am following the memos correctly. Were those last two memos in regards to the first Index or the Deluxe version?

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