Marvel at 80: The New Universe
With 80 years of Marvel Comics comes another unique anniversary. At the 25th anniversary of Marvel’s popular relaunch in 1961 in 1986, Editor in Chief Jim Shooter had an idea. He wanted to relaunch Marvel, much like DC had done two years prior with their Crisis on Infinite Earths. After all, continuity was both a selling point of superhero comics and a weakness. Long-time readers loved the continuing stories, while new readers could find it overly daunting to even pick up a single issue. This would end the “old” Marvel Universe and restart it, with modern story sensibilities and new creators. This idea did not go over well with anyone above or below him, and Jim Shooter chose to aim his sights differently. Shooter wanted to hire independent writers and artists, to make a new generation of comics heroes that would reignite the Marvel Comics revolution all over again. Biggest of all, royalties and profit sharing would have changed the face of the comics landscape in America. Jim Shooter took aim with a simple phrase: The World Outside Your Window.
This would mean that, until super-powered people appeared, it would be the same world we lived in. Further, heroes wouldn’t directly make themselves public, unless they had to. Shooter believed that this would make for a compelling book and theme.
The hype was rather large for New Universe. Marvel filled its own book with ads for the New Universe, and how it would change everything. Marvel’s own Marvel Age, a book on newsstands that acted as a hype center for the coming months would feature New Universe multiple times before it was released. Indie comic news magazine Amazing Heroes would also feature multiple interviews with creators tied to New Universe in issue 101. However, those interviews genuinely felt off.
Steve Engelhart, who would write several issues of Justice, commented that he had no idea what he was doing, or where he was going with the book. Instead, he was “just going to make the best of it.” Meanwhile, a recent addition to New Universe was Editor Michael Higgins brought a very weird point of view to the discussion about New Universe changing everything. Rather than talk about how stories were conveyed, or how the book would involve more characters of color and gender fluidity to be more inclusive, it was way more mundane.
“We discussed whether we wanted to use speed lines 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.”
Despite starting with a budget of $120,000 to research and hire talent, things changed dramatically in a matter of days as the project even began. With costs at Marvel soaring and funds shrinking, Marvel’s parent company Cadence Industries threatened to sell off the company to cut their losses. The budget shrank by $40,000 almost by the day until the $20,000 that had been spent was all that remained. Left with editors volunteering to work for free, promises of payment at the base rate, and people who couldn’t find any work at all, Jim Shooter’s pet project limped across the finish line.
The New Universe launched in October of 1986 with the flagship title Starbrand. Shooter himself wrote the story, and he was joined by some top talent from Marvel. John Romita Jr chose to leave the Uncanny X-Men to draw the book, while Al Williamson wanted to ink it. What results is some utterly beautiful comic book art for the era… with one of the worst written plots imaginable.
The story of Star Brand is Ken Connell in a bizarre combination of Superman and Green Lantern. A dying alien disguised as a human bum grants Ken Connell a star-shaped tattoo called the Star Brand that grants him near-unlimited power around the time of a paranormal power-granting flash of light known as The White Event. Bound only by the limits of his imagination, Ken Connell does… absolutely nothing. Ken fights an alien robot in a train yard in the first issue, only to literally fly around and slack off for the next six. He has an affair with the only enjoyable character in the book, sleeps with a random woman in France, and wonders if he should have these powers. It also didn’t help that Ken shared a lot of features and personality traits with Jim Shooter, and was often being accused of being an author insert. Being bimonthly, Star Brand was a weird central book, but it did deliver on being a different experience.
The other launch book was Spitfire and the Troubleshooters. While the plot was by Eliot Brown and John Morelli, Gerry Conway scripted the book. Marvel standby Herb Trimpe penciled the pages, while Joe Sinnott and Tom Morgan inked the pages. George Roussos colored the pages while Rick Parker lettered. Spitfire focused on Jenny Swensen, a professor at Cambridge with a set of students nicknamed the Troubleshooters. When her father, a military contractor is killed by a jealous rival, Jenny dons some knockoff Iron Man armor called the MAX-1 and strike out for revenge. The reason it’s called Spitfire, though, is because Jenny is a redhead with the nickname of Spitfire from her dad.
The book actually was more interesting than Star Brand, but Conway didn’t waste time with pleasantries like subplots. Instead, the plot raced like the book knew it was going to be canceled. The main plot was dealt with by issue 3, with Spitfire and the Troubleshooters turning into a book that dealt with the fallout of the initial plot… before killing off the entire supporting cast and turning Spitfire into a government agent.
Despite the two premier books being met with some honestly middling ratings, sales were somehow decent. As such, the New Universe expanded with a few more comics the following month.
Displaced Paranormals 7, or DP7, was created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan. Gruenwald covered the words, while Ryan provided the pencils. Romeo Tanghal inked the pages, Paul Becton worked on the colors, and Phil Felix lettered the book. Working as a bizarre combination of X-Men and the Doom Patrol, the book focused on a group of seven paranormals on the run from the government and trying to figure out their powers at the same time.
Justice was the idea of Archie Goodwin, and he also stuck on as a writer for the first issue. However, the entire creative team from writers down to letterer would be shuffled about with inconsistent fill-in creators until Peter David was given one of his first comic jobs with issue 15. While the book began with a human-ish alien from an alternate dimension trapped in our own world, David would revise the book so that the whole alien thing was a delusion, andJustice was just a normal paranormal-powered human. At the very least, this kept the book closer in-line with the lower key New Universe but also turned the book into a more mundane adventure than readers may have wanted.
Other books featured were all increasingly weird yet derivative concepts. PSI-Force featured a group of other paranormals inspired by the X-Men and Doom Patrol, also running from the government. Kickers, Inc features a group of NFL Players who wind up acting like the A-Team after one of their team is granted superhuman powers and is desperate to do vague things of importance. Nightmask had a psychologist enter the dreams of his patients to help them recover from trauma. Mark Hazzard: Merc had nothing to do with the White Event, and was instead a Punisher who pushed his family away by being too into killing people.
It should be said though, the bizarre concept for Kickers, Inc is actually an aborted premise from Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. It would have been a Marvelized Challengers of the Unknown for this branch of Marvel, with the heroes exploring the bizarre of this new world in secret. Jim Shooter instead wanted it to be the more mundane NFL players without the NFL license and turned the book into a sports adventure comic. This was, however, the only book that creators admit changed dramatically from concept to execution.
New Universe was basically a slow-motion train wreck. While each month’s issues were planned to be a snapshot of that month in real time, Gruenwald’s DP7’s first 13 issues were a compressed half-year, with a time-jump to catch up with the rest of the storyline. Star Brand’s meandering bimonthly story also meant that Ken Connell did almost nothing with his new powers in the span of time established, while books like Spitfire fast-forwarded through their plots like a birthday clown on a gas-powered unicycle. To make it worse, creative teams of books like Nightmask and Mark Hazzard: Merc were unstable, with multiple months cobbled together from whichever artists or writers needed work that month after their original teams jumped ship.
Reader and critical response were generally lukewarm, with some people genuinely liking the different takes found in DP7 and Star Brand. Tangible sales figures no longer exist for this era, but New Universe’s flagging sales could be seen in publications like Marvel Age. They would have the top 10 books listed each month, mostly filled with John Byrne’s run on the Fantastic Four or any X-title being published. While Star Brand #1 made 7 for June 1986 (and Spitfire would sell to make #8), subsequent issues never made another appearance.
To make matters worse, DC was already experimenting with more mature takes on superheroes. 1986 featured such comics as Alan Moore’s Watchmen (premiering the same month as New Universe in September), and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both comics featured more mature takes on superheroes while keeping true to the medium of comics. John Byrne had also just made waves by updating Superman for the modern day with his Man of Steel miniseries, telling the origin story for Superman in a new post-Crisis DC Universe. Compared to those three works, the New Universe felt flat and uninteresting.
Lackluster sales and the general disastrous launch of New Universe were both distinct factors in removing Jim Shooter from his position within Marvel. There were, of course, tons of other inter-office political issues at the time, but New Universe is often thought to be the final straw on the camel’s back. When Jim Shooter was fired, Tom DeFalco took over as the Editor in Chief and head of the New Universe line. The first thing that happened was that DeFalco brought in new talent to the New Universe, mainly John Byrne to handle the ongoing adventures of Star Brand. He also canceled Spitfire, Kickers, Nightmask, and Mark Hazzard. Finally, the remaining books would be removed from newsstands and only be sold to comic shops on the direct market. With all these changes, the concept was finally allowed to expand beyond being “Just Outside Your Window.” Books began to tease that one of the major characters of the New Universe was about to kill a million people.
Anyone care to place their bets on what happened?
Ken Connell, desperate to rid himself of the powers of the Star Brand, wound up accidentally turning the entire city of Pittsburg into cosmic waste. This dramatic left turn would also affect every single book, with paranormal heroes now either hunted by the government or drafted by them in order to help make sense of “The Pitt.” The only one that didn’t was Star Brand, which branched off into its own direction. In this case, John Byrne chose to rip down nearly everything set up by Shooter during his run in one of the most awkward send-ups of the former EIC imaginable.
To make matters worse, DP7’s ongoing plot would be resolved in the pages of Star Brand. Another user of the Star Brand, an old farmer named Jacob, would come face to face with the evil paranormal President of the United States, who had been hunting down DP7 to absorb their powers. Dying (temporarily) to burn out the President’s powers, this wouldn’t be touched upon or even mentioned during the final three issues remaining of DP7. It’s hard to know if Mark Gruenwald, who had written every issue of DP7 and spent a ton of time building up this plot, really approved of this or not. However, DP7’s remaining plot wound up being one-shot issues told until it ended at issue 32 with almost no conclusion to any other existing plot lines.
Eventually, the remnants of the New Universe would be sputter out in 1989’s The War. After a one-shot featuring paranormals drafted from across the country in 1988’s aptly-named The Draft, the cooling remnants of the Cold War exploded as paranormal combat began on a military level. The story is a little awkward, as it mostly focuses on Iranian religious terrorists beginning war in the name of their interpretation of religion. As such, it comes off as some really weird the Middle East fearmongering, as not one person of middle-eastern descent is shown as a decent person or even as a character... until it turns out that South African White Supremacists are the real villains. It’s not that the Iranians are a red herring, they just shuffle off the book because someone felt like filling page time.
In the end, a being that is the final user of the Star Brand shows up and shuts off all technology in a literal Deus Ex Machina to prevent the Third World War from happening. After that, every nation agrees to stop fighting, the South African terrorists are stopped, and the entire book tries to end on a happy note despite the horrifying actions that lead us to the ending.
The New Universe wouldn’t be gone forever, though. In 1992, Mark Gruenwald would bring the entire universe back as part of his run on Quasar. He would use it to wrap up an open-ended plot point from Star Brand, and also bring them into the Marvel Universe proper before having the New Universe gifted to the Watcher Uatu to look over. Peter David would actually use an altered version of the character Justice for his run on Spider-Man 2099 as an amnesiac named the Net Prophet. The universe-hopping mutants known as the Exiles would also visit the New Universe during their 2005 World Tour story arc, using the original status quo of the New Universe rather than the post-Shooter hellscape.
Finally, Warren Ellis was announced to do a reboot of the New Universe concept in 2007 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the concept, called newuniversal. While early issues sold fantastically, the book went on extended hiatus after losing some of the creative team with book 6. And then in 2009, a hard drive crash wiped out the remainder of Ellis’ plans for the story, ending it for good.
Marvel would also bring some key concepts into the main Marvel universe when Jonathan Hickman would make his own White Event to handle in 2012’s Avengers. Star Brand and Nightmask would be created as new characters by an imperfect version of the White Event that failed to make any other paranormal humans, but neither would remain for long.
With all the failed stories, mediocre executions, and even problematic themes found in the books, is there still a reason to go back to the New Universe these days?
Arguably, there is. While the books involved all wound up failing in one way or another, they’re all fascinating to read nowadays. Some of the books are great ways to see some of Marvel’s most desperate artists in their prime, and some of the new people who did get hired (like Peter David) wound up going on to do great things in the comics industry. The second half of Star Brand is a wild ride that is very enjoyable but also feels mean-spirited compared to the original issues. Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, despite a bizarre pacing speed, is actually a great knockoff Iron Man, and DP7 is a fantastic Gruenwald book.
However, most fans will need to dive through back-issue bins. A few collections have been released that collect the first year or so of their runs. Star Brand, DP7, and PSI-Force all have a collection to their name that collects up to the first 9 issues, but none of the other books can be even found in Marvel Unlimited.
In the end, Marvel wound up losing money on the New Universe, and it seems like a lot of people would rather forget about it. However, there’s a lot to learn from this as well. A lack of overall vision beyond a catchphrase, a lack of funding, and a lack of compelling content all spelled doom for one of the better ideas out of Marvel in the 80s. Marvel would learn from this in the 2000s when they launched a separate universe once more, and it would succeed where New Universe failed.
But that’s a story for another day.