Thursday, October 19, 2006

COMICS: Digging into "The Marvel Encyclopedia"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingEver find yourself with a nagging need to know just how much the Hulk weighs, or where the first appearance of Wolverine was? Sure, you can flip through stacks of comic books to find out – or, you can turn to the handy new reference guide, The Marvel Encyclopedia from DK Publishing. It's a sprawling, ambitious if a bit flawed look at the colorful world of Marvel Comics stars from the Abomination to Zzzax.

This encyclopedia follows on the heels of the fine DC Comics Encyclopedia published in 2004. The detail here is less than you'll find in Marvel's similar Official Handbook publications, which tend to get into the utter minutiae of characters, but most of the summaries are more than enough to get a feel for the characters. This is more of a coffee-table keepsake, featuring brief looks at dozens of heroes, villains and allies from Marvel Comics' lengthy history. Vital statistics, origins and first appearances are all mentioned, and, as a devoted Marvel fanboy since 1982 myself, just about every character I could think of is mentioned somewhere in here.

The volume boasts the same stellar production values as most DK publications. Plenty of art from 40 years of Marvel Comics is used, with a crisp, elegant design that is information-packed but rarely cluttered. Major characters like Spider-Man or Daredevil receive full-page spreads, while hundreds of others are also covered in shorter entries. A handsome cover by Frank Cho rounds out the package.

Some fans of course will nitpick over the selection of characters – while I couldn't find any glaring omissions, with thousands of Marvel comics to choose from, I'm sure someone's favorite hero or villain didn't make the cut. The overall scope is pretty impressive, though. Besides your Thor and Hulk, you've got literally dozens of obscurities, such as Spider-Man's old landlady Mrs. Muggins or the 1950s hero 3-D Man. An effort is made to also mention spin-off Marvel productions such as the Ultimate lines and the Squadron Supreme universes.

It's a gorgeous looking book, but unfortunately, once you dive into reading it, some less-than-stellar proofreading keeps The Marvel Encyclopedia from being perfect. I wouldn't expect a publication with thousands of factoids in it to be utterly flawless, but there's a little too much sloppy editing for a $40 publication. I admit I'm going in with a little more information on comic history than some readers might. But die-hard comics fans, who do like the nitpicking, are also the most likely audience for a book like this. One would think the editors – which include longtime Marvel writer/editor Tom DeFalco – would be aware of the need for accuracy. The quite similar DC Comics Encyclopedia seemed much sharper in comparison.

Certain elementary mistakes like sentences ending in mid-word or having blank entries for height and weight on a character shouldn't have made it into the final product. Venerable Spider-Man foes The Sinister Six didn't make their first appearance in a 1987 issue of Uncanny X-Men, and the villain Empath doesn't have Captain America's powers – just some of the errors I spotted on a casual read. Some of the entries don't seem anywhere near up to date, such as Emma Frost's entry not mentioning she joined the X-Men years ago, while other entries are current enough to include last year's "House of M" crossover. Other entries even have incorrect pictures. None of these errors totally ruin the book, but it is dismaying to have it mar such an otherwise quality publication. Was this book rushed into stores too fast, maybe?

Perhaps these errors will be corrected in a future printing. Nevertheless, for anyone who grew up reading and loving Marvel Comics, this is as good of a one-volume encyclopedia as I've seen, although nitpickers should be aware it's not perfect. It's still far better than a 2002 attempt published by Marvel that was riddled with even more omissions and errors. In this version, there's hundreds of entries that are fine and more than enough comic memories to while away many a night on. Maybe next go-'round they'll get it even closer to correct.

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