Mikael Angelo Francisco talks about a new organization being used for Marvel’s largely growing database of hero’s, artists, comics, movies, and much much more.


Pop quiz: What is Spider-Man’s secret identity—Peter Parker, Ben Reilly, Miguel O’Hara, or Doctor Octopus? You might be surprised to find out that all of those answers are correct. Then again, for a superhero that has endured 51 years of publication and countless interpretations across various mass media, it’s understandable that the character’s story tends to be even loopier than his own webbing.

Of course, Spider-Man is just one of the thousands of characters under the Marvel brand. Marvel Entertainment has been in the business for over 70 years, churning out book after book, continuously developing its various characters and franchises, and even expanding to films, television shows, and video games.

Over the years, Marvel’s universe has become so large that keeping track of everything via conventional means is next to impossible. Even the popular “wiki” system no longer suffices for Marvel’s stable of nearly 30,000 comics, 5000 writers and artists, 8000 characters, 60+ movies and TV shows, and 100+ video games.

However, Peter Olson, Marvel’s VP of Web and Application Development, may have found a solution to the Galactus-sized information problem that no single online encyclopedia could withstand: the power of a graph database:

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.

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