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Imagining a Return to “Who’s Who”

By | January 25th, 2022
Posted in Longform | % Comments

Last year, DC published the first of two planned “Who’s Who” omnibuses. For those unfamiliar, “Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe” was released, originally, across 1985 and 1987, providing encyclopedia-like entries for the heroes, villains, and normies of the DC Universe. Obviously, not every last character was included, but DC went to great lengths to make this as definitive guide as they could under the circumstances. This meant entries for the Golden Age Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, for instance, as well as entries for their post-Crisis incarnations. From 1987 through 1993, the book reappeared in various forms, sometimes as looseleaf pages, others focused on specific characters/imprints (Star Trek, Impact Comics). But since 1993, with a few homages notwithstanding, DC has not had any major “Who’s Who” titles.

Now, let’s get the major caveat out of the way: with the internet, “Who’s Who” seems about as useful as the 1991 Encyclopedia Brittanica if the goal is to get the most up to date information on a character or team. When I was getting these comics from the corner coffee shop with my dad when I was 4 years old, just learning to read, this was the source of information for these characters. You couldn’t crosscheck what was in these pages with any other ‘official’ source, and so this was the most efficient way to learn the facts about DC’s superheroes.

Not only that, but the pages were presented in an amazingly satisfying way. New art was often commissioned, paired with baseball card-like information and a rich and detailed written entry. You may learn more about Mon-El from his write-up than from years of reading “Legion of Super-Heroes” comics. The series had such care put into it; it truly feels like a source of pride for all involved.

When I was a young comics collector, this was quite literally my favorite comic book. As the dad of a 9 year old who is obsessed with fact books and other reference texts, I see that this is simply baked into my DNA. “Who’s Who” is the only series I have entirely in singles while also owning the first Omnibus (and eagerly anticipating the second). A good part of that is nostalgia, but there’s something else at play here, because I know plenty of comic fans who love “Who’s Who” but did not read them at the same impressionable age that I did. And with the publication of two huge hardcover volumes, it is clear that DC sees the value in the series in some way.

Is it enough to see the book return?

Dan DiDio had a few times mentioned the book’s imminent return, including once giving a date of May 2011 for the first issue. This never happened. And aside from some backmatter in the New 52’s #0 issues, the concept has long been abandoned by DC.

The truly sad New 52 backmatter

When I first began imagining a return, I wrote it off as impossible. The series wrapped up pre-Zero Hour, and so there are now four or so generations of DC that would need to be caught up with. But when you look at it by years, the last “Who’s Who” came out in 29 years ago. When “Who’s Who” debuted, it was covering 46 years of DC comics. So it’s not impossible to imagine a similar timeframe for a new volume.

As much as it would pain me, as I would likely have to print out all the pages and bind my own volumes, DC seems to have the solution right in front of them: DC Universe Infinite. A digital release of a new volume, perhaps made available in print sometime later, would be a great way to handle this. For a universe that is constantly getting retconned and tweaked, I understand the hesitation to write history in ink rather than pencil, but again, this has all happened before.

Maybe the best way to approach it is to break it down by era. A volume of “Zero Hour” to “Identity Crisis,” another of “Infinite Crisis” to “Flashpoint;” A “New 52” edition, followed by a “Rebirth and Infinite Frontier” volume. This would allow fans of certain eras to pick and choose, while the hardcore collectors among us could pick up all of them.

But aside from looking great on a shelf or scratching the nostalgia itch, this is an opportunity to create something close to a ‘definitive’ version of DC Comics, at least from a looking back function. Try reading the Wiki entries for “Zero Hour” or Fate, the late 90s Dr. Fate dude with an ankh on his face. They can read, to borrow a phrase from Beetlejuice, like stereo instructions. Let your writers and artists trot out quality, well edited, ‘official’ bios, and everything becomes a little easier to follow.

Now, there will always be missing parts: licensed characters that are no longer there (like the Atari Force characters being removed from the Omnibus), favorite obscure characters that won’t make the cut, problematic past creations. But at a time when DC is embracing its past like never before, this seems like the perfect time to do this. It’s not going to sell a million copies, but there are dozens, nay, hundreds, perhaps thousands of us who would love something like this.

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).