Peter Olson, VP of Web and Application Development presented the complex social network of Marvel’s Universe at this year’s GraphConnect New York.


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An amazing fantasy

At the recent GraphConnect conference in New York, Olson discussed the new method of identifying the connections in the Marvel universe. The new model utilizes graph theory – the use of nodes to represent objects and lines, called edges, to illustrate relationships between them – in order to establish connections across the company’s numerous characters and properties.

Using the open-source Java-based graph engine Neo4j, Olson created a rather impressive digital representation of Marvel’s continuity. The graph connects everything: comics (including alternate universes), movies, cartoons, and even live-action television shows.

The model is gigantic, with popular characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Wolverine forming their own color-coded mini-clusters.

The purpose of this extensive diagram is twofold: to keep an accurate record of each Marvel character across all media, and to help establish the “essence” of each character, making it easier to explain their iconic aspects to old and new fans alike.

“We want an uberframework – the words ‘ontology’ and ‘taxonomy’ get thrown around a lot,” said Olson. “We want characters to appear as close to as possible from all their stories and iterations but, overall, we want the characters to bubble up to archetypes.”

Olson also cited Google Maps’s methodology as a basis for comparison, saying that each street intersection could be compared to a “node” of data, which is how the software determines the fastest route between two points.

A journey into mystery

During the presentation, Olson used the spandex-clad archer Hawkeye as an example. Throughout his career, the character has alternated between being a villain, a hero, and a covert operative. Additionally, other characters have assumed the mantle of Hawkeye at different points in time, while the man under the mask himself, Clint Barton, has adopted other identities as well.

For a newcomer, getting into all of this would be a complex and even intimidating process of manual research and sorting – one which the new graph database aims to simplify.

As opposed to most databases that are relational (an example would be data organized in rows and columns – useful for answering queries based on “solid” information, such as statistical data), the new Marvel database will be able to make “smart” story recommendations for readers. This would be especially useful for new fans who want to get into the mythos, but have no time to comb through endless entries spanning decades of comic book lore.

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