These days we're used to getting a new Marvel Encyclopedia every year. Sometimes a couple every year. But sit back now and let Grandpa tell you young whippersnappers all about when he was a lad, back in the 1990's. Back in those days, we were lucky if we got two big, bright Marvel coffee-table books in a decade.
The first real, full-sized, illustrated glossy hardback "Guide to Marvel Comics" ever produced was Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades from back in 1991, which covered Marvel Comics chronologically, with a very broad brush covering the history of the company, its successes, and its failures.
And while that earlier book did also describe Marvel's most notable creations, it was first and foremost a book about Marvel as a whole, and not a guide to the characters.
Another five years would pass before we received this "companion volume", which in eight chapters exclusively focused on the most important heroes (and a few villains) of the rapidly-expanding "Marvel Universe".
Physically the book is essentially the same size as it's older brother, being hardback 9.8" x 11.9" with 256 pages.
The chapter breakdown is:
Spider-Man gets a solid 21 pages, which is barely enough to give a precis of his 30-year career to date.
There's a superficial hand-wave of half-a-dozen classic villains, a walk-through of his origins, and a few of his early highlights. His supporting cast is mentioned, and then we're into recent events such as The Wedding, Todd McFarlane's arrival, Venom and Carnage, Kraven's Last Hunt, and the Death of Aunt May.
Spider-Man 2099 is introduced, and then we're done.
There's a mix of "Characters", "Equipment", "Creators", and "Events". The sequence is pseudo-chronological, and the style is part-article, part-essay, and part illustrations, comic panels, and issue covers.
In hindsight, it's easy to dismiss this book as being way out of it's depth.
Even in the 1990's, Marvel's "Universe" was already so large as to defy any single book to adequately contain it. A mere decade later, it would take 14 volumes of the Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe just to summarise the major characters.
A book like this was doomed to some level of failure before it even began. Truth in Advertising would have necessarily plastered a "Very Heavily Abridged" sub-title on the cover.
But while Sanderson's work does not earn the "Universe" title it claims, it is still ground-breaking and laudable attempt to define and describe Marvel's creations to date. Until the turn of the Millennium when the flood gates opened in 2001, this book was quite literally "the best guide to Marvel's characters" that money could buy.
I give it a very fond four webs.
The 1998 reprinting has a new ISBN but seems to be otherwise identical in cover and content.