Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe

(or "The Big Picture")

"Now, wait," I hear you saying, as I begin this column. "The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe? That's not a storytelling engine! There aren't even any stories in there!"

But, I respond, refusing to use quote marks for my own sentences, that's just because you're not seeing the forest for the trees. You are correct in noting that the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe (and its Deluxe Edition and Update, reprinted in later volumes), contain no stories in and of themselves. They merely recap old stories for readers unlucky enough to have missed some of the classic issues. (The entire project was undertaken in the unlucky era before trade paperbacks, when only the wealthy could read classic comics.) But the storytelling engine isn't in the recaps, at least not exactly. The storytelling engine is in the title.

The idea of a Marvel Universe (or DC Universe, or Image Universe) is an idea so cunning and simple that we no longer even notice it--it's simply an inevitable consequence of these comics coming from the same publisher. Water runs downhill, cats chase mice, and comic book stories by a given publisher take place in the same fictional universe, allowing these characters to interact when commercial and creative concerns demand it. The Handbooks are just an exploration of that fictional territory.

But it wasn't always so. There was a point in 1940 when someone actually said, "We've got this hero, the Shield, and this other hero, the Wizard...what if we had one of them show up in the other one's comic?" There was a point when the idea of two super-heroes from different comic books meeting was a radical notion. And a "fictional universe"? Complicated and heady stuff.

By the time the Marvel Age of Comics rolled around in the 60s, it was down to a science. Even characters from mutually exclusive futures could be rolled into the package, thanks to concepts that fans had been familiarized with (like "alternate universes" and "different dimensions".) This was a storytelling boon; not only could heroes team up, but villains could be shared by multiple heroes, locations that provided stories for one comic could provide stories for another (like Counter-Earth, or the Savage Land), and storylines dropped in one book could be picked up in another.

Eventually, as we return to the topic of the title, just the exploration of the history and geography of this fictional universe could provide enough story material to fill five telephone-book sized volumes. (And a book called 'The Crossover Companion', should I ever manage to finish the thing.) In short, the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe demonstrates that just as storytelling engines can work on the microscopic scale of filling pages, so can they also work on the macroscopic scale of generating a whole publisher's worth of ideas.

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