New Universe

In August 1986, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Fantastic Four #1, Marvel Comics created a new publishing imprint, the New Universe. It was the brainchild of wunderkind Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who did as much to bring joy to my childhood as George Lucas or Gary Gygax.

The imprint was a complete failure that bankrupted Marvel Comics and killed Jim Shooter's career. And the comics were, almost uniformly, godawful.

This is a page where I talk about the debacle that was the New Universe.

WTF was this "New Universe" thing?

What were the titles?

D.P. 7
Justice
Kickers, Inc.
Merc
Nightmask
Psi-Force
Spitfire
Star Brand

After the first year of atrocious sales, Kickers, Inc., Merc, Nightmask and Spitfire were canceled. Star Brand limped on for another year or so on a bi-monthly basis. Thirty-two months after it started, the entire imprint was axed and all the other titles ended. Aside from brief mentions by freaks like Mark Gruenwald (and idiots like me who hated the thing but can't turn away), it's one of the more obscure bits of comics trivia.

Did it suck? Why or why not?

Everything you need to know, from the Universe News page, cover date June 1987:

QUESTION OF THE MONTH: What do you see as the essential difference between the New Universe and the Marvel Universe?

"The characters in the New Universe age in real time."
—Jim Shooter, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, Lead Designer of the New Universe titles, Creator of Star Brand.

Got that, kids? It's just like regular comics, but if you read them for fifty years you'll see the characters age. On sale now!

Perhaps Shooter's ridiculous answer is a backhanded way of saying that there's no essential difference between the New Universe and the rest of Marveldom. Yet even that would be an admission of marketing incompetence on his part: what's the point of a separate continuity and a new publishing imprint, if there's no difference at all?

As for the change of tone, here's Ralph Macchio, editor of D.P. 7, answering the same question:

The Marvel Universe is effectively a fantasy universe with a few realistic elements thrown in. The New Universe is effectively a realistic universe with a few fantasy elements thrown in.

Wow, how enticing: the New Universe is less fantastical than the Marvel Universe! For the hordes of American Splendor readers dying to know what would happen if Harvey Pekar got super powers, maybe.

The most perceptive answer comes from Michael Higgins, who is editing a lot of the lines by this point:

The main difference to me is that the New Universe is new. Don't get me wrong. I love the Marvel Universe—I grew up on it. But I've already been there. I'm very familiar with it. The New Universe is like taking a 'vacation' in a whole new world.

It's clear from this response that Higgins, whose name I don't recall from any other comics, has been thinking a lot more seriously about this project than Shooter himself. What Higgins is saying is that by the mid-1980's, everything in normal Marvel continuity has become horribly familiar: over here you've got the Inhumans, and over here there's Ego the Living Planet. You might be able to combine them in ways nobody's seen before ("What if the Inhumans rebuilt their immortal city of Attilan on Ego?") but the pieces themselves are well-worn and unsurprising. The New Universe permits this generation of creative talent to do world-building rather than world-maintaining or world-twiddling. And the readership gets to discover something for the very first time, rather than just see some old IP get dusted off for a new crop of kids.

There are some problems with this: at least on paper, the New Universe stuff was supposed to be "our world," so that there's not a lot of wacky escapist stuff to explore. No lost civilization of cyborg-pleiosaurs living in the Marinaras Trench, no conspiracy of alien cyclad plants eavesdropping on our every move. I mean, maybe there's some crazy stuff going on now, but if so it's very recent. The regular Marvel Universe is sort of "space-age pulp," but ostensibly that's not how the New U. rolls.

So I think the fundamental problem with the New Universe is that the premise - "ordinary people get superpowers" - isn't really very interesting without more. Take a good look at Star Brand, and think about what's missing: there aren't any super villains. Ken Connell has the power of a god, but can't bring himself to do anything or get engaged. Ken has no convictions, ideals, or urgent desires, so as a character he has no motivation. He's not the kind of guy who would, on his own, try to create a more equitable society.

But more importantly, from the standpoint of setting design, there's nothing for Ken to engage with: his super powers are completely irrelevant to his life's problems. As Jim Shooter observes, super heroes are a metaphor for the reader using his or her unique talents to fight injustice, but for all of Ken's metaphorical powers there are no metaphorical injustices, like super villains or alien invasions, which his abilities could redress. Shooter & Co. designed the world so that alien invasions, and other metaphors, cannot happen.

So if you're going to be telling super human stories set in the World Outside Your Window, the stories won't work very well unless the protagonists are struggling with problems where their super powers are relevant. Maybe it's an internal problem - "I'll use mind control to impress this girl!"—or maybe it's an external problem - "Oh no, aliens!" - but without those problems you've just got a character sitting on his or her ass. Which is a frustratingly frequent scene in Star Brand. The tension's gotta come from somewhere, otherwise there's no conflict and hence no story.

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