This one’s long, but worth it. In one fell *swoop*, or rather *Wiki!*, Marvel Comics has dealt with a nagging editorial problem and created an amazing goodwill generator. Best of all, this was done at little-to-no editorial cost to Marvel, using resources who are not financially compensated (in fact, many whom have been writing about Marvel charaters for years, just elsewhere). All Marvel had to do is trust their fans. Allow me to explain:

Like any comic company, Marvel struggles with the daunting issue of continuity – the convoluted histories of its characters. While Peter Parker might not have aged much since his introduction in 1962, he’s had a heck of a lot of adventures. Since his story is told as an ongoing epic, each episode building on the past one, that means there’s a lot of history, filled with villains, allies, clones, and costumes, all of which have come and gone, died and come back from the dead (yes, even the costumes). Now, take all of those continuity issues and multiply them across the countless characters in Marvel’s comic “universe.”[1] What you get, at least according to industry pundits, is a daunting barrier to entry that intimidates new comics readers.

Marvel’s original solution was annotation and cross referencing. When the Sandman lamented a previous defeat at the hands of Spider-man, it would be accompanied by a plucky editor’s note like, “* See ASM #140, True Believer!”[2] Later, in the 1980’s, Marvel came up with the brilliant idea of doing an encyclopedia in comic form –  a 32 issue series called The Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe. Based on the style (genre) of Baseball cards, each issue was made up entries featuring an image of the character accompanied by their stats (Name, Age, Height, Group Affiliations, etc…) and a biographical sketch. The handbooks sold like gangbusters and were incredibly popular while I was in Junior Highschool. But, they were only a “snapshot” in time and continuity. As soon as they were published, they were out of date.

Today, the problem is just as bad, if not worse (as there is another decade plus of continuity to deal with). Trying to keep up with an ever expanding continuity is a full time task, let alone trying to come up with an easy method of keeping it all avaiable for new readers (epsecially given the fact that, according to recent stats, overall circulation numbers are down across the industry). And, most importantly, how could all of this happen with a minimal amount of time and investment?

The answer, turn to the people who would be doing it any way. In otherwords, *Wiki!* (note that *wiki!* has that nice Marvel sound like *snikt!* and *thwip!*) Some savvy person at Marvel realized that the folks who have the best handle on their continuity are their readers, who, like the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy,[3] were already obsessively documenting and discussing it online. 

Now, using the base Wiki engine (and some great .css work), those folks can go to and compose and edit character profiles. Over 800 character profiles have already been added. And that’s not counting other fan created entries on various topics like Marvel places, things, and storyline summaries.

This plan is a win for everyone. Built into the structure of the system is validation for the fan qua contributor. If your work is approved by a Marvel editor you get “Hero Points:” accumulatable tokens of social capital. Acquire enough points and you can approve and edit other fan submissions. Also, points can be used to access yet to be specified “super-cool and exclusive stuff” on the website.

From Marvel’s perspective they get good will and, more importantly, free content creation. Instead of maintaining a writing staff, all they have to do is edit the work generated by these fan "freelancers.” Further, they being to establish more control of properties in the online space. For years, fans have undertaken similar projects on personal webpages. Google “Amazing-Spiderman” and what comes first is not but:

Amazing Spider-Man .Info
The Definitive Spider-Man Reference & Image Web Presence featuring News, Covers, Rogues Gallery of Villains, Heroes & Allies, History, Entertainment, – 37k –
CachedSimilar pages

While these fansite might have generated good will and some publicity, Marvel couldn’t capitalize (or rather monetize) on the content they contained. With the Wiki, Marvel owns everything. While I haven’t dug into the legal agreements, I’m sure that they’ve sewn up all of the distribution rights for anything that is created for In otherwords, they’re building a vast database of information (at low cost) that can quickly and easily be converted for publishing in other media, including future print updates of  The Handbook to the Marvel Universe.

Now, will there be background squabbles between hero editors? Of course. But, judging from the success of similiar projects like the Homestar Runner Wiki, what they’ll gain in content will be worth far more than any related headaches this creates (provided the legal side has been handled correctly). In fact, the argument can be made that this would be far more successful than any internally created project as they’ll get an “unbiased” (at least internally speaking) perspective on their own properties. Chances are that the fans will document things that Marvel never even considered.[4]

Now, the next question is: what other media providers will get it and jump on this bandwagon? How soon until we see ABC hosting a Wiki for Lost? Or perhaps General Hospital is a better choice. After all, aren’t comic books and wrasslin’ just soap operas for boys[5]?

For more information see:

[1] This problem isn’t unique to comics. Any serial media production has the same issues. And any genre production can utilize the same solution as Marvel (if they’re smart).

[2] “ASM” stands for “Amazing Spider-Man” (of course), and flourishes like “True Believer” can all be traced to Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s flamboyant (at least linguistically speaking) creator.

[3] Not a knock on comic book people at all, especially since I’m one of them. It’s just that character embodies the entire genre perfectly. He’s the sort of person that, when asked who his favorite member of the Fantastic Four is, responds “Which incarnation of the Four are you asking about….”

[4] It already appears that fans are coming up with categorization tags that one wouldn’t necessarily expect. Do you really think that Marvel would have launched with a feature that allowed you to filter just for Canadians? Yeah, yeah, I know there’s Wolverine, Puck and the rest of Alpha Filght (who at last count are deseased)…. Seriously, who else but fans would think that Canada necessitates its own filter.

[5] Note: I don’t actually believe that, I just couldn’t resist.