I made a commitment to myself at the beginning of January — a resolution for the new year, if you will — that I would take more time for myself in 2014. More time to step back from work and struggling to make a living, time that I can use to simply enjoy things. Maybe catch up on shows I’ve been meaning to watch, or read books again for the first time in too many years, whatever. So I started by loading up an iPad with the entirety of Marvel’s New Universe comics.
I’ve been curious about New Universe ever since I was a kid first getting into comics circa 1986 and the pages of Marvel’s books were laden with enigmatic teasers. I wondered as they promoted the likes of Spitfire and the Troubleshooters and Star Brand, and watched with detachment as the roster of New Universe titles slowly thinned and eventually ended altogether. I contemplated picking up the prestige format mini-graphic novel The Pitt (nothing to do with Dale Keown’s venture several years later) but decided I didn’t have the context to understand the book, nor did I have the money to afford the comics leading into it. And so New Universe has remained a mystery to me.
Marvel’s New Universe venture was a well-meaning project headed up by former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter whose purpose was all right there in the name: He wanted to create a new Marvel universe, one free of the continuity and connections that weighed down the existing one. My guess is that it was probably inspired by DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths the year before, in which the so-called “distinguished competition” effectively rebooted their entire comics line to wipe the Golden and Silver Age heroes out of continuity so that serious Neal Adams Batman no longer had to reconcile his existence with Joker showing the world he could pull the biggest boners of all. DC’s approach was to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but the Marvel approach would be less disruptive. Its own universe, having essentially launched the Silver Age by taking a more grounded and serious approach to narrative than DC’s, was younger and less fraught with goofiness. The New Universe would allow Marvel to keep its old characters as they were while creating a separate continuity for entirely new characters.
Right away, I could see what they were going for with the New Universe franchise. The original Marvel universe stood out by giving its superheroes mundane lives and relatable aspirations and failings. The New Universe redoubled that philosophical approach, maintaining the concept of supernatural powers but at a greatly reduced scale. There was only one character in the whole of New Universe with godlike abilities, the Star Brand, and his story basically became the motive force behind the New Universe: The event from which he gained his powers caused a small fraction of Earth’s population to awaken to their own mutant abilities, and his attempt to relinquish his powers caused the cataclysmic event depicted in The Pitt (the total annihilation of Pittsburg and everything in a 25-mile radius of the city) and changed the nature of the New Universe for the second half of its run.
In fact, it quickly became clear as I read through the books that New Universe divides cleanly into pre-Pitt and post-Pitt, so for the most part at this point I’ve only read the pre-Pitt volumes. What I’ve read of the post-Pitt comics seems a lot darker and more interconnected, while the pre-Pitt books feel lighter and more frivolous.
Spoiler: It’s the one on the left.
By and large, New Universe didn’t really stray terribly far from the concepts Marvel’s existing universe was built on. You have your X-Men analogs in D.P.7, your New Mutants in the form of Psi-Force, an obvious Iron Man imitation with Spitfire, a transparent Punisher wannabe via Mark Hazzard, and Star Brand’s power cosmic pegs him as a Silver Surfer come lately. The weakest books in the New Universe line were the ones with no direct parallel to Marvel’s comics. Kickers, Inc. was terrible and mercifully short-lived, a nonsensical story about a pro quarterback who became incredibly powerful in the Star Brand’s “white event” and decided to turn his team into an A-Team-like band of freelance mercenaries while still trying to juggle weekly sports events. Justice, on the other hand, was strangely long-lived despite its high fantasy feel sitting at odds with the grounded naturalism of the rest of the New Universe line; though eventually it turned out he was actually completely delusional and his lurid fantasies (which had a ’70s-flavored dragonrider fantasy feel similar to John Byrne’s Superman Krypton backstory comics from around the same time) were the products of an insane mind.
Again, despite the main books’ spiritual connection to the Marvel universe, they took a much more down-to-earth approach. While the names of the books sounded like classical superheroes and teams, they were anything but. D.P.7 stood for “seven displaced paranormals,” a group of normal people suddenly afflicted with strange but hardly cosmic-level powers who collectively realized the institution to which they had turned for help was determined to brainwash and control them. The first year or so of the book consisted of the team on the lam, being hunted, before eventually being recaptured and forced back into the institute. Eventually a few of the team members thwarted the institute’s plans… and then decided to keep the place open as a safe haven for paranormals. Rather than venturing out into the world, they stay truly hidden. Likewise, Psi-Force‘s teens are literally forced together by a lingering compulsion imposed by the Xavier-like psychic who brought them together before he died. They eventually become friends, but again, they never venture out in search of battles, struggling instead to remain anonymous. Mark Hazzard is like the Punisher if Frank Castle’s wife had divorced him instead of being murdered: He’s more of a self-loathing burnout than a revenge-obsessed vigilante. And so forth.
Even the Star Brand himself is no hero. A self-centered 20-something loser, he’s basically just a dumb jock with no aspirations. He drifts along working as a mechanic despite having the skills and smarts to do something more lucrative; he’s involved with an older divorcée but can’t stop hooking up with his hot but simple-minded friend-with-benefits; and once he acquires the Star Brand, he wallows in self-pity and does everything within his abilities to keep it hidden. Then again, when he finally does cop to his unique powers and go public as a superhero, his nemesis finds him at a comics convention and instigates the Pitt event. So basically he kind of sucks all around.
Star Brand‘s uniquely powerful nature amidst so much mundanity would make New Universe feel like a colossal Watchmen ripoff if not for the fact that they ran concurrently. Convergent evolution or something. Watchmen is by far the better work, but I find New Universe the more interesting one. It ultimately flamed out after three years and disappeared nearly forever, with the Star Brand story folding into itself as a closed time loop to close things off, but despite being a failed experiment it was a bold one. I’m glad I didn’t spend what little money I had as a kid on New Universe books, but I’m also glad they existed, even for a short while.
Of course, Marvel eventually found much more success by doing the same thing by drawing far more transparent inspiration from the classic Marvel Universe with the Ultimate line. I suppose that once they were willing to admit all their good ideas happened in the ’60s, it became a lot easier to just roll with it.