I wonder if the New Universe had launched the way it was supposed to, with top of the line creative teams and more support from Marvel, would the superhero fans of 1986 have embraced it? These days “continuity” may be a dirty word for business development executives at the Big Two, but it’s magic for the average superhero comic book reader. DC is relaunching their entire line yet again because of those average comic book readers who hold continuity to be the be all and end all of superhero stories.
But has it always been this way? The demise of the Ultimate line supports my statement above, but it’s relative longevity suggests that there was a point where stories didn’t have to “matter” to us. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the superhero comic book audience has shrunk over the years, leaving just those of us who are crazy about continuity, that go online to argue why Spider-man couldn’t possibly be a member of the Avengers or that Tim Drake really was Robin once.
The audience for comics in 1986 was substantially larger than it is now, so it’s not unreasonable to think that a fully polished, quality product that existed outside the proper Marvel universe could have done well for a number of years. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, because what we got was nothing like that.
As the story goes, Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter wanted to do something big for Marvel’s 25th anniversary. His initial idea was to reboot the entire thing, starting over with modern versions of the same characters. The people above Shooter, who saw how well the current version of the Marvel U was selling, shot down his idea, so he came up with a new one: try to repeat the magic of 25 years ago, but with a twist.
This new universe would hem closer to the real world, focusing on one single moment in time that changed everything. The White Event would imbue a finite number of people with fantastic abilities, but that would be it. There were no gods, no monsters, no alien races. And all of this would happen in real time: a year’s worth of stories would cover a year of time.
These are interesting ideas for shared universe superhero comics, but the initial conceit was undermined by one of the inaugural titles (Justice was an alien from another dimension) and the books didn't last long enough for the real time aspect to matter.
The New Universe was supposed to launch with heavy financial investment from Marvel. But Marvel's owners at the time were int he process of trying to sell the company, and it's much easier to sell and company when its profits are high. Investing in an unproven line of comics was too risky of a move, so the big budget for the New Universe was drastically cut.
The end result was creative teams made up of Marvel staffers, newcomers, and veterans that had been pushed out by the Big Two. Even worse, few of the titles had consistent creative teams. It wasn't just the art teams, either, from issue to issue you never knew who was going to be the writer. It's hard to generate any kind of coherent narrative when different people were putting the stories together every month.
The eight titles that formed the New Universe were:
Spitfire and the Troubleshooters
Since the New Universe was supposed to stick with technology that was relatively close to what existed in our world (in 1986), a comic about an Iron Man-style power suit was going to be problematic. Yes, it was bigger, bulkier, and less advanced that Iron Man's armor, but it was still well beyond anything that actually existed in the non-fictional world. As will be a reoccurring theme, the book was plagued by meandering stories due to rotating creative teams. It went from being about a college professor, her students, and a super suit, to that same professor and the government organization she now worked for (the the name change to Codename: Spitfire with issue #10).
The book also had 10 different artists, which included legendary artists like Herb Trimpe and Marshall Rogers, as well as early work by some guy named Todd McFarlane. Both the Spitfire armor and it's original pilot, Jenny Swensen, would play big parts in the New Universe even after their title was canceled.
The flagship book and explanation for the White Event, the Star Brand was the name of the tattoo that gave Ken Connell super powers. It was given to him by the Old Man, who originally claimed to be an alien which, again, went against the core tenet of the New Universe.
There's a fairly entrenched belief online that Star Brand was actually good, but having no re-read it multiple times I can state without a doubt that this isn't true. Is it better than most of the others? Definitely, in part because it has a regular creative team, at least for the first six months. The art by John Romita, Jr. goes a long way to making the uninspired story by Jim Shooter more enjoyable.
Star Brand is similar to Roy Thomas' run on Infinity, Inc. in that it's a story about relatively young people by a writer who is not. There's an attempt at edginess in Star Brand that falls flat every time. You get the impression that we're not supposed to find Ken Connell's flaws problematic, we're supposed to think they're cool. His biggest flaw is that he's unable to stop sleeping with attractive women. He has a girlfriend (who has two kids) and a friend with benefits (who is dependent upon him to an unhealthy degree), yet he still ends up sleeping with random women whenever he can.
He's not just an asshole, but an idiot, to boot. He is every guy that ever shoved a comic book reader into a locker and for some reason we're supposed to be interested in what happens in his life.
Short for Displaced Paranormals 7, DP7 is the story of a group of people trying to deal with their new conditions, specifically by signing up for an institute that claims to be able to help them either control their new abilities or remove them.
The actual best book of the bunch (at least through the 1st year), DP7 had the advantage of having a regular creative team in the form of Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan. It also featured a relatively diverse cast for the time, something it did not shy away from: race was foreground in the series towards the end of the first year. The characters were also a variety of ages and came from varying social and economic backgrounds. Simply from a stand point of life experience, this was as diverse as they came in 1986.
This was also a series that regularly denied its readers a happy ending. There were few concrete climaxes to these stories, because there couldn't be. These seven characters were living with strange conditions that weren't going away. And this was the New Universe, the "real world," so simply putting on a costume and fighting crime wasn't a realistic option.
Justice is the aforementioned alien from another dimension (where everyone looks like a human and speaks English) who can't get home so he decides to fight evil on our world.
This series had a regular creative team or even, apparently, the slightest idea what it was really, which makes the fact that it would ultimately be rebooted after its first year completely understandable. John Tensen aka Justice had a strong visual look, or at least the beginning of them. His powers looked great, but most of the time he ran around in horrible 80s clothes fighting other people in horrible 80s clothes. And he often fought drug dealers, which made this perhaps the most "of the moment" of the New Universe titles.
Super powered former football players! Honestly, this concept was surely doomed from the start, regardless of the fact that it had 7 different writers and 6 different pencilers over the course of just 12 issues. Apparently, Co-creator Tom DeFalco wanted to do a book more like Challengers of the Unknown, but Jim Shooter wanted a sports comic, which is what Kickers, Inc. became. This was another title that went against one of the basic tenets of the New Universe, in that it featured futuristic science which gave Kickers, Inc. leader, Jack Magniconte, his powers.
Mark Hazard: Merc
Hard to believe, but this was about a mercenary named Mark Hazard.
The initial crux of this series was that of the titular character trying to balance his professional and personal lives, the latter prominently featuring his ex-wife and son. Hey, it's not easy to make it to a soccer game on time when you're busy killing people for money. That angle was mostly put on the back burner after original writer, Peter David, left the book, replaced by Doug Murray, who focused more on Hazzard's merc adventures. The series had 7 artists over 12 issues and an annual, with the legendary Gray Morrow handling the art for five issues, so at least those are nice to look at.
One of the more thoughtful titles, Nightmask could slip into people's dreams to help them recover from trauma. It made for some trippy stories, although it mostly just dabbled in slightly modified fantasy and horror tropes. Again, the quality was all over the place because the book had 5 different writers for a 12 issue run. Even more impressive? There were 11 different artists! Only Mark Bagley drew more than one issue.
Nightmask would go on to make regular appearances in other New Universe books after his ended.
If Star Brand was the critical darling (for some reason) and DP7 was actually the best book from the get to, Psi-Force had the most potential, although it wouldn't realize it until well into its second year. It's the story of five teenagers with psychic powers, hunted by various government organizations, hiding out in a halfway house in San Francisco. Oh, and they have the ability to merge together into a creature called Psi-Hawk, who looked somewhat like the man who brought them all together, Emmet Proudhawk, although he died pretty early on.
The essential core of the Psi-Force story wasn't the hackneyed "five merge into one" aspect, which was, thankfully, done away with eventually, but the anti-establishment sentiment running through the team. There was a righteous anger towards authority in these characters that made you wonder why the X-Men were so lax about the fact that they were feared and hated. These kids were feared and hated, too, but they were pissed off about it.
The cast was great, too. You had a white trash kid, a rich Asian girl, a nerdy white boy, an African American jock, and a Russian girl. Yeah, that was weird, the Russian girl, but it gave the title a global feel. The other characters, though, felt like intentional stereotypes, brought together for the purpose of up ending those ideas. And it worked. The white trash kid became the leader, the spoiled rich girl became the muscle, the African American jock was the heart of the group, and the nerdy white boy...well, he left, actually. The stereotype that no doubt hit closest to home with both the creators and the audience was also the one they couldn't undermine.
This was the punk rock X-Men. Even though it had five different writers over the course of the first year, it managed to feel cohesive. This was in no small part thanks to Mark Texeira, who handled the art for half of that first year. His work was a big reason why Psi-Force managed to survive into year two.
It was clear early on that the New Universe was doomed. A lack of editorial guidance and rotating creative teams made it impossible for any of them to build up any kind of momentum with fans. After the first year, half the line was canceled.
What remained was actually pretty good...