How Marvel’s New Universe holds up—or not—three decades later

How Marvel’s New Universe holds up—or not—three decades later

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

On April 4, 1987, The New Universe went up in flames. Or at least a few copies of it did. That night, according to Sean Howe’s excellent book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, disgruntled Marvel employees attended a party at the house of famed comic-book creator John Byrne. Byrne had recently taken over Star Brand, the flagship title of Marvel’s New Universe—a line of comics that had been launched in 1986 in honor of Marvel’s 25th anniversary. New Universe’s mastermind, Jim Shooter, had just been fired from his position as Marvel’s editor-in-chief; of The New Universe’s eight titles, Star Brand had been Shooter’s baby. As a show of contempt for their unpopular ex-boss, Byrne and his guests burned Shooter in effigy in Byrne’s backyard. Before they did, though, they stuffed copies of unsold New Universe comics, Star Brand presumably included, into the effigy’s coat pockets. Adding insult to injury, Byrne would soon have the character of Star Brand destroy the entire city of Pittsburgh—Shooter’s hometown.

Such bitterness, pettiness, and behind-the-scenes industry politics were completely beyond me in 1986. The New Universe had been launched that summer amid a fanfare of hype and hope. I was 14, and I was stoked. I loved Marvel Comics. I’d had the misfortune of being born too late to have witnessed the birth of the Marvel Universe in 1961, when Fantastic Four #1 ushered in a new era and an innovative new concept: a line of comics whose characters and storylines would closely tie in with one another. I grew up escaping into a universe inhabited by icons like Thor, the X-Men, and The Avengers, all of which were decades away from dominating the post-millennial cultural landscape. In the ’80s, it was more intimate. If you loved these characters, you did so through comics. That the men behind the comics—from legendary co-creator Stan Lee on down—might have faults as human beings never even entered into my thoughts. Who cared? Just give me the fucking comics.

By 14, though, I was starting to become a little more conscious about comic-book fandom. I’d met other kids who liked comics, and we talked about our favorites. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we argued. But at the end of the day, we bonded over our shared passion. There was no Internet that we could use to network, engage with other fans, and learn about upcoming comic-book news. Industry magazines like Amazing Heroes featured reviews of comics and interviews with creators, but those cost money—money better spent on actual comic books. The best you could hope for was to pick up snatches of gossip around the counter at a comic shop, but even comic shops were relatively inaccessible to me. I was lucky if I made it to one once every couple of months. Most of my comics came from the spinner rack at the Safeway down the street.

The New Universe hit that spinner rack like a whirlwind. All eight titles were rolled out that summer: Star Brand, about a regular Joe who’s given inhuman abilities by a mysterious alien; D.P. 7, about a group of super-powered misfits on the run from the ominous Clinic For Paranormal Research; Psi-Force, about another group of hounded outcasts who can come together to form the spirit-hero Psi-Hawk; Spitfire And The Troubleshooters, about an MIT professor who fights corporate crime in a suit of high-tech armor; Nightmask, about a coma-stricken young man who can travel through others’ dreams; Mark Hazzard: Merc, about a mercenary hired to take on dictators; Justice, about an extra-dimensional magician who is exiled to Earth and becomes a vigilante; and Kickers, Inc., about a bunch of former NFL teammates who get into the hero-for-hire business.

Diligently I bought the first issues of each. How could I not? But nothing about any of these comics excited me—even then I recognized how stale these concepts were. The only fresh angle was the fact that The New Universe was going to take place “in real time”—that is, after 12 monthly issues, a year will have passed for the characters—and that it would be unencumbered by the sprawling yet convoluted mythology of the Marvel Universe. “Realism” was the buzzword. The irony of trying to tell a “realistic” story about an extra-dimensional magician who is exiled to Earth and becomes a vigilante was lost on me. Mostly this was a chance to get in on the ground floor of, well, a new universe—just like those who had been lucky enough to do so in 1961 with Fantastic Four.

I don’t remember falling out of love with The New Universe. Then again, I wasn’t in love with it in the first place. At some point, I simply stopped paying attention. So did everyone I knew. I wasn’t quite cynical enough at 14 to say, “This doesn’t live up to the hype.” But that must have been it. The New Universe had promised so much: “New Heroes, New Legends, New Universe,” boasted one full-page advertisement in Marvel Comics titles back then. “Beyond the edge of your imagination begins a… New Universe,” claimed another. With that kind of a rollout, I was expecting a blockbuster. Instead I got whatever.

Granted, The New Universe had some big competition in 1986. Star Brand may have been trying to grapple, however remedially, with the moral implications of unlimited power, but Alan Moore had begun doing that in ’86 with his new 12-issue miniseries Watchmen. The psychopathy of vigilantism may have been flirted with in Justice, but it was explored to the hilt in Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns. Also from DC—Marvel’s main competitor—came The Man Of Steel, the highly publicized Superman reboot by future Star Brand writer/artist (and Shooter-burner) John Byrne. I’m not sure if I ever consciously said to myself, “The New Universe sucks. I’m going to stop buying The New Universe.” It’s just that my attention—and my meager babysitting income—was justifiably drawn elsewhere. Being 14 didn’t help. The New Universe may have called itself new, but something about it didn’t feel that way. And when you’re 14, newness is everything.

Last month I placed a mail order for the first three issues of all eight New Universe titles. A week later the package came. It had been many years since I’d ordered comics through the mail, and I felt like a kid as I tore open the package. I felt even more like a kid as The New Universe tumbled out. There they were, just as I remembered them—only a little more faded from 27 years of newsprint decay. The covers were like yearbook photos of half-forgotten high-school friends: the unmistakably Superman-like image on Star Brand #1; the retro-Fantastic Four caption of “WHERE WALKS THE ROBOT!” on Kickers, Inc. #2; the Doctor Strange-esque dreamscape of Nightmask #3. Then it hit me: These were derivative as shit. Spitfire looked like Iron Man. Justice looked like Longshot. Merc looked like The Punisher. D.P. 7 was such a bald-faced X-Men rip-off, it was embarrassing. For that matter, so was Psi-Force. In fact, D.P. 7 and Psi-Force were the same comic book, really—slight variations on the pariah-hero archetype that Marvel had flogged for so long before The New Universe came around.

Then I re-read them. They were not good.

Psi-Force is overwrought, and every character looks chronically constipated. Spitfire is not only offensively derivative, it naturally stars a redheaded female character, because why else would it be called Spitfire? Nightmask kept reminding me of how, just three years later, Neil Gaiman found infinitely greater success with Sandman, another comic about an enigma in dark robes who travels through dreams. Justice’s protagonist looks like a character from a Duran Duran video game, if there had ever been such a thing. Kickers, Inc. is just plain ridiculous; while re-reading it, I kept imagining a team of NFL heroes made up of Michael Vick and Richie Incognito. Merc can’t disguise its basic premise: a white guy shooting up a bunch of sinister, grinning brown people. D.P. 7 is the least crappy of the eight, but its attempt at juggling a cast of broadly sketched characters quickly turns clumsy and monotonous. So does the art. The artwork in The New Universe epitomizes the bland, innocuous, workmanlike superhero style of the mid-’80s. It was made by an array of artists (with only Star Brand’s stellar John Romita, Jr. truly standing out), but it may as well have been drawn by a machine.

That’s all just on the execution level. Conceptually, The New Universe was flawed from the get-go. Shooter described The New Universe glowingly as being “the world outside your window”—in other words, it was going to be utterly like the real world, only with the addition of these few choice, carefully introduced fantastical elements. Only that’s total bullshit. A phenomenon called “The White Event”—basically a three-second whiteout of reality that permeates the multiverse—is the point in 1986 when our universe splits from The New Universe. That wound up happening after the first three issues of these eight series, but it was never fully realized during their original runs. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had. Syncing all the titles up to real-time chronology is a terrible idea, as it severely hampers what a writer can do in an ongoing series. In the long run, a superhero who ages with his readers is not going to fly. Realism is one thing, and escapism is another—and that disconnect does not make for good superhero comics. It’s easier to suspend your disbelief when there’s a fundamental level of unreality in the background.

Shooter didn’t understand this, and to be fair, neither did I when I was 14. All I knew was that The New Universe felt less realistic, not more realistic, than the Marvel Universe. In the Marvel Universe, all this crazy shit was supposed to happen. In The New Universe, I was being told, it wasn’t. In his “Universe News” editorial that ran in the first issues of The New Universe titles, Shooter brags about how he and his cohorts made the oh-so-revolutionary decision to “put to use a universe hitherto unused in comics. Our own. The one we live in. Real pipes. Real people.” The allusion to plumbing came from his earlier claim that the Marvel Universe was so radical because, after 1961, superheroes used the bathroom—“Off panel, of course.” Now he was going to show real plumbing and not that phony, fantastical Marvel Universe plumbing. Or something. Looks like someone forgot to tell Shooter that sometimes pipes are just pipes.

Amazing Heroes #101 came out in the summer of 1986, just as The New Universe was being launched. In it, a handful of New Universe editors and creators are interviewed. Reading that article today is telling, and at times chilling. A high amount of turnover went down in the New Universe bullpen during the line’s creation, with some editors, writers, and artists being switched out just before or just after a first issue’s release. In the Amazing Heroes interview, the surviving staff already sounds jaded and defeated—not to mention peremptorily ass-covering, with Justice writer Steve Englehart going so far as to state for the public record, “I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing or where I’m going, but I’ll try to make the best of it.” Now that’s how you sell it. And according to Howe’s book, Marvel was undergoing its own corporate turmoil at the time, which caused The New Universe’s startup budget to be slashed repeatedly—and then eliminated, leaving Shooter to make cutbacks across the board in order to fund the project.

What ultimately made The New Universe stillborn were its editors. Shooter has long been painted as a narcissist and borderline megalomaniac by his many detractors over the years, but one thing that can’t be disputed is his hubris. Says Howe in his book, Shooter called The New Universe “The Shooter-verse” behind closed doors. His attempt to build a New Universe from the ground up—like a planned community, or New Coke, or a New World Order—is as ambitious as it was top-heavy. Then take into account editor-writer Mark Gruenwald, who was so fixated on consistency that he once “obsessively catalogued the continuity of Marvel’s story lines in pseudo-academic, self-published journals.” Trying to shoehorn an entire line of overlapping comics into a rigid continuity just isn’t possible—not if you want to allow the creators of those comics free rein in which to create.

Into this Soviet-style work environment was injected editor Michael Higgins, who told Amazing Heroes, “The basic idea [of The New Universe] is to look at what has gone before, realize what’s good about it, but not be bound by the clichés.” What are these egregious clichés that The New Universe was going to shatter? Heteronormativity in mainstream superhero comics? Lack of racial diversity? Gratuitous, glorified violence? Nope. Speedlines. You know, those little lines that artists draw—the ones that flow from the arms and capes of superheroes, indicating that the superhero is running or flying speedily. “There are certain ways people have always flown in comics—you may not see that in [The New Universe],” added Higgins. “There’s a shorthand that’s become involved in drawing comics. […] We discussed whether we wanted to use speedlines when people fly. This is something that everybody does—but when you’re trying to break new ground, you have to think about things like that.”

After reading that quote, I went back and looked in my newly procured, soon-to-be-resold New Universe back issues. Higgins and company couldn’t even commit to that one “groundbreaking” innovation: abolishing speedlines. There they were, coming off everything.

The New Universe limped along after Shooter’s departure from Marvel in 1987. First half the titles were canceled, then the remainder. By 1989 they were all gone. Various attempts have been made to revamp some of the characters, including Warren Ellis’ newuniversal, and even to incorporate some of the characters in to the Marvel Universe—the exact opposite of what The New Universe was supposed to be all about. But it’s hard to see what the point is, besides fruitlessly milking a barren cow of nostalgia. The New Universe was envisioned as a noble demonstration of godlike mythmaking. But the most noble thing The New Universe ever did was to go up in flames, Viking-funeral-style, in the pockets of a Jim Shooter dummy.

Filed Under: Books

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