Why Marvel’s New Universe Fizzled

Wednesday , 13, January 2016 11 Comments

Following comic books in the mid-eighties was tough for a kid. You had the choice between picking up slightly bent up copies from gas station spinner racks or else dropping a chunk of allowance money upfront so that the mailman could mangle them month to month. (And yeah, this was hard to bear either way, as everyone seemed to think comics were some sort of junk bond that would surely be worth big bucks some day.) I tended to opt for whatever looked good in the quarter boxes and ended stumbling upon some of Kirby’s weirder stuff that way without really having any idea what it was. The most current material I tended to get into was stuff that was two or three years old.

The thing that was most troubling for me was that I always had the sense that I was coming into the middle of a very big story. Having more than two or three issues in a row was kind of a big deal, but at the time, getting the whole story was flat out impossible. Without Ebay, Amazon, or a healthy set of the phone book sized “Marvel Essentials” reprints, a guy like me just had to make do. The idea of reading a coherent series of twenty-five issues all at once? Impossible!

But then Marvel announced they were going to do a new universe. I was thrilled. Though I plotted out how I might scrounge up enough cash to subscribe to all eight titles at once, I ended up having to brave the gas stations for them instead. In a matter of months, they gradually disappeared from the racks altogether, and I never heard anything about the line again until I saw something about a world war type story-line that was going to finally put the whole thing under.

Something clearly went wrong, but what…? Ron Edwards has his take on this over at Dr. Xaos Comics Madness:

  • It had no Swing. The characters did not engage in the social, political, pop culture, family, and sexual scenes that the readers themselves knew intimately, and in which the characters experienced familiar ups and downs.
  • It had no Zap. There was no implied, desired, idealized, or feared meaning to the cosmology and psychology of events, especially which subverted establishment meaing, and especially one which was directed toward the experience of the readers.
  • It had no Scream. There was no raw human alienation and trauma, especially that which arose directly from ordinary existence no matter how fantastic its immediate fictional vehicle might be.

Not being familiar with the sixties era comics that the new line was somehow supposed to invoke, this sort of critique would have been completely lost on me at the time. But the big innovation I remember being trumpeted at the launch was that, if someone picked up a building, there would be sewage pipes underneath it. Some kind of realism was what people supposedly wanted at the time. Nobody ever picked up any buildings, though.

But Marvel was oddly hung up on that sort of thing. I remember Spitfire and the Troubleshooters bent over backwards to make time move forward at the same rate as the real world. Rather than fight super-powered foes, characters from Psi-Force would end up facing completely mundane problems on the covers of their book. And on Starbrand the creators seemed to think that making the one guy in this setting that could fly around have to take time to fret about maps and navigation somehow added a great deal to the superhero idiom.

It didn’t.

While celebrating the birth of the Marvel Universe by creating a competitor for it was perhaps a fundamentally flawed idea in and of itself, the thing that was supposedly going to make it all so much better sure didn’t add a whole lot to the appeal. More “realistic” superheroes turned out to be kind of boring, actually. Still, if pre-teen me could have had a complete run of the whole thing, I would have still been ecstatic.

11 Comments
  • Astrosorceror says:

    I think what sank new universe was the lack of heroism. StarBrand was a hero, but he often did more harm than good and was wracked by angst. Psi_Force was more a persecuted victim group than a band of super heroes getting to to fight evil.

  • David says:

    I distinctly remember when Marvel launched their 2099 series of comics, that they explained the failure of the New Universe was due to the lack of any connection with the already established Marvel Universe and its heroes. Thus the Marvel 2099 universe, with its future Spiderman, Doctor Doom, etc, would succeed.

    • Astrosorceror says:

      2099 was.. OK, I guess. I never got into the Spider-man, he didn’t have the focus Peter Parker has. I did like the Dr. Doom: a man with a dark legacy, but was trying to make something better. He had what real protagonists always need: conviction and drive.

      • Jeffro says:

        I liked Stan Lee’s Ravage before the series got turned into a Wolverine ripoff by a new creative team.

      • Brian says:

        You make some good points, especially about Doom.

        Still, I have a soft spot for the Miguel O’Hara version of Spider-Man. If you look at SM 2099 as a William Gibson/Neal Stephenson style cyberpunk story and not a straight superhero yarn, you may find it more accessible.

  • Blue SFF Reader says:

    “Nobody ever picked up any buildings, though.”

    Star*Brand picked up a whole locomotive on page 1 of his debut book. Why didn’t he collapse into the ground while holding it? Because “realism”.

    Unlike many of the 1960s Marvel books (that I tracked with as much luck as Jeffro when I was growing up on the farm), the New Universe lacked heroism, heart, soul, and commitment.

    A true reflection of the “New Universes” of comics to come.

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    I think adding realism could have worked if it were a hobby horse for the writers, kinda snuck in through the back door without disturbing the party.

    “Hey look, Superman picked up a house again, and there’s pipes underneath this time.”

    “Oh yeah, I guess there would be.”

    “That’s kinda neat.”

  • Red Comet says:

    I can give a little more background into the New Universe. It was the brainchild of Jim Shooter, the editor-in-chief during Marvel’s second great creative period of the 80s when you had stuff like Claremont’s X-men, Simonson’s Thor, and Miller’s Daredevil.

    Shooter himself, in addition to being an excellent editor, was also something of a comics prodigy. He had been writing and doing art layouts for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes from when he was 13 to around when he graduated high school.

    A big fan of classic science fiction, Shooter created the New Universe to be a realistic, sci-fi based take on super powers. The characters weren’t necessarily intended to be super-heroes like the ones flying around in regular Marvel and DC. This is why some of the stories are more character driven and there’s no real super evil Dr. Doom type antagonists.

    It all came apart when the funding for the line got pulled and Shooter was forced to get Marvel’s C-team to do most of the books when he originally intended to pay the A-list talent to produce them. Mark Gruenwald, for instance, could write a decent enough super-hero book like Captain America but he was never really able to get outside that box when writing DP7 and come up with a truly interesting take on the concept.

    The first seven issues of Star Brand were written by Shooter and drawn by John Romita Jr and they’re the only really good books in the entire line. It’s semi-autobiographical and is based on Shooter’s life from when he lived in Pennsylvania before he moved to New York to get back into the comics industry. Star Brand’s actions as a “super-hero” are thought provoking too. Since the New Universe had no costumed super-villains around, Star Brand chooses instead to fight a real life villain (Libyans at the time) and so he flies overseas and blows up a Libyan military base. I also liked the issue where he went to space and had a hard time navigating back to Earth unlike, say, Superman or Green Lantern who seem to magically know exactly where to go when they fly into the void.

    Shooter left Star Brand when he got fired from Marvel in 1987 after clashes with the company’s corporate owners. The New Universe only kept going for another couple of years after that.

    Fortunately, Shooter was able to land at Valiant Comics and fulfilled the promise of a sci-fi based semi-realistic take on super-heroics. His work on Solar Man of the Atom from that time is essentially what Star Brand could have been. I highly recommend the Valiant universe from the beginning up to the Unity crossover.

    Unfortunately, that’s all there is quality wise from Valiant as Shooter was ousted from there as well, this time by his partners in the company so that they wouldn’t have to give him a cut of the $65 million sale to video game publisher Acclaim. That acquisition is why we got Turok, Shadowman, and X-O Manowar games for Playstation/Nintendo 64 in the mid-to-late 90s.

    Shooter’s entire career is very interesting reading and I highly recommend his blog.

  • Cro-Magnon Man says:

    Speaking purely from a personal pespective, the egotistical Shooter was the sole cause of my quitting buying Marvel comics in the 80s having collected them heavily from the mid 70s. His perverse and self-defeating banning of the top flight writers from both scripting and editing their own books caused the likes of Roy Thomas, Wein and Wolfman to decamp to DC. Although a few good writers such as Bruce Jones were able to step into the breech that left an almighty creative void that Shooter was never able to fill.All the headline titles suffered badly.Remember reading an underhand crack he once made about Gerry Conway’s writing too which seemed to me unprofessional and unnecessary. To be honest I revelled in the hubristic catastrophe he wrought with his New Universe.

  • Daniel says:

    Continuity is stupid when taken to the extreme: it will never hold up unless you strip it of any soul.

    This is also why “The Death of…” is stupid too, unless you DON’T intend it as a landmark shift, but just a self-contained story.

    Batman can die 15 ways from Sunday. Different people can take up the cowl. But after a few months, it is all going to reset to Batman #1…or you are going to ruin it with yet another attempted “saga.”

    Want to do an epic in the medium? The Watchmen was 12 issues – maybe you can get away with Bone if one artist runs the show from beginning to end. If you are going to crank out 600 of a title…then enjoy the madcap, inconsistent, innovative yet reset-to-traditional ride, Batmite.

    New Universe stuff is a flag of surrender. It is a foolish consistency, and no kid wants to read small-minded hobgoblin droppings.

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