So if this year is Marvel’s 80th anniversary, that means their 25th anniversary in 1986 was 55 years ago.

§ September 25th, 2019 § Filed under marvel § 19 Comments

Not to get all Inception on you, but I’m going to address some comments made to a post where I was addressing your comments from a previous post, before returning to responding to more comments from the initial post. Got it? Good.

Anyway, I wanted to say just a few words about Marvel’s (or editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s) “New Universe” publishing initiative, in which on the event of Marvel’s 25th anniversary (counting from the publication of Fantastic Four #1) they were going to introduce a whole “new universe” (hence the name) of superheroes completely unrelated to the shared world with Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. The tagline was that this would be “the world outside your window,” with a somewhat more realistic take on what supeheroes would be like and what impact they would have on the society and people around them. Even the time scale in which the comics operated was “real time,” with a month passing in story time between each monthly issue. (Not sure how long that was kept up, to be honest.)

This dovetails nicely with a post I made recently about “realism in superhero comics, and I’m sure much of New Universe’s inspiration was informed by the success of Watchmen and Squadron Supreme. Star Brand, the one NU title I followed all the way through, had several examples of this sort of thing, such as pointing out a superhero costume wouldn’t really hide one’s identity very well, or the main character getting lost while flying around…little things, but details that commented on that nature of the genre.

Like I said, Star Brand was the one I kept on with, though I liked early issues of D.P. 7 (a superhero team) and tried out an issue of Merc or two. Star Brand, being the work of the NU creator Jim Shooter, would probably be the title that most exemplified what the whole imprint was about…at least in my opinionl, since as noted I didn’t really read too many of these titles. But it did try to tell a superhero story in a different and unconventional way. The hero’s “costume,” as such, was kinda drab, the hero himself wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, as I recall…at the very least, he was a flawed human and no paragon of perfection. He even flew funny, in an upright, “standing” position instead of the usual “one fist forward” Superman pose. Even when John Byrne took over the book for the final few issues, and it began to look like a somewhat more conventional superhero comic, it still underminded the genre here and there, even if seemingly biting a particular plot point from Miracleman.

Even the trade dress of the comics was unusual, at least for the initial couple of years, with each cover framed in a black border, like they were in mourning for something. It gave everything a sheen of solemnity, that this wasn’t some flashy comic with dudes punching each other. It was something different, something somber, with dudes punching each other realistically. Or perhaps the more obvious interpretation was that black frame was a window frame, tying back into the “world outside your window” concept…you’re lookiing through your “window” at the New Universe that’s outside it.

The imprint was shaken up a bit with The Pitt (not to be confused with, well, you know) in which “the world outside your window” was distanced from the New Universe with the destruction of Pittsburgh. And then that was follwed by The Draft™ and then The War™ and my sense was that emphasis was less on keeping the New Universe “realistic” and more “something customers might keep buying.”

Anyway, the imprint eventually came to an end, with the last issues of the series reading “# [x} of a [x]-Part Limited Series,” which was sort of clever. And that was that, ’til elements of the New Universe started to creep into the regular Marvel Universe (a crossover that was once verboten). It started with some stuff in Spider-Man 2099 and in Quasar early on, and continues even today, with reboot series and character appearances and such.

I don’t think the original New Universe was a bad idea…kinda beat the big rush to everyone starting up their own “new universes” a few years later during the Big Comics Boom/Crash. And I think, in a way, the “Ultimate Universe” was a continuatino of the idea with marginally more realistic/deconstructive takes on the standard Marvel heroes. Of course, it ended the same way, eventually petering out with shake-ups to the premise and then getting folded into regular Marvel Universe continuity. But what probably did the New Universe in wasn’t necessarily the execution, but the rejection of Marvel fans to buying new Marvel comics that weren’t part of the regular Marvel universe they’d been following. I mean, sure, the Ultimate Universe books did fine at first, but those featured the familiar characters…this was a whole new batch of weirdos and unless they were going to fight Wolverine at some point, why bother reading them?

Or maybe it was the execution. A couple of them were pretty bad.

Now this all started prior to my entering the world of comics retail in 1988, so I don’t know what initial sales/customer reaction was like at the shop. I’ll have to ask former boss Ralph when next I see hiim…or maybe I can finally start going through these stacks of ancient invoices he passed along to me for research purposes, now that my eyes are a little more up to the task.

In the meantime, you should at least read John’s comment explaining his Spitfire #1 collection.

19 Responses to “So if this year is Marvel’s 80th anniversary, that means their 25th anniversary in 1986 was 55 years ago.”

  • DavidG says:

    Boy, these are comics I haven’t thought about in a long time.

    Casting my memory back, it was generally thought that the Star Brand character was at least semi-autobiographical Jim Shooter. When Shooter got canned by Marvel, John Byrne seized the opportunity to take over the book, so he could get some revenge for some wrong that Shooter had done to him in the past. He proceeded to make the character a complete dick, who then (spoiler for 55 year old storyline ahead) accidentally blows up Pittsburgh, leaving The Pitt. Seemed petty at the time, seems pettier now.

    And I agree, this was the best of the NU titles. Which doesn’t say much. But I think I was dumb enough to buy The Pitt special.

  • James says:

    I read several of the New Universe titles growing up. I think I liked DP7 the best, but that was because it was closest to X-Men and Alpha Flight, which I dug quite a bit at the time.

    But I remember how terrible Kickers Inc was, and some of the others were fairly terrible as well. I don’t know why I kept at them. Probably because I liked comics so much but didn’t feel like jumping on board other Marvel titles, and didn’t care for DC comics at the time (still don’t, but oh well). I never got into the Avengers, but didn’t mind the Defenders. Didn’t read Fantastic Four but adored Moon Knight.

    I wonder what all my collecting habits says / said about me. Hmmm….

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    THE PITT eventually turned up at that home for failed brands, Big Lots, where it was priced at 29 cents. My local store had literally dozens of copies, and they lasted for a couple of years.

    Presumably, Marvel expected this to be a big sales event, and so printed an enormous number. Also, presumably, this did not go the way the company wanted.

  • Pete says:

    I bought a few issues of Nightmask at the time, based on the art, but passed on the rest of the line. Since then, they’ve been constant staples in the quarter/dollar bins. @DavidG: What series did Jim Shooter write that wasn’t semi-autobiographical? From Korvac to the Beyonder, he was always writing stories about an omniscient being that just wanted to do good if only the rest of the world could understand his motives.

  • Chris V says:

    Star Brand was pretty much a jerk throughout the entirety of the series though.
    It wasn’t something that Byrne added to the character.
    Basically, it was all leading up to Star Brand finally messing up so badly that it caused something like “The Pitt”.

    Star Brand was one of those “what if superheroes were real people?” type stories.
    They wouldn’t be perfect paragons of justice like Superman.
    They’d be flawed people who were probably trying to do the right thing, but still messing up a lot along the way.

    I sort of hope that Star Brand wasn’t autobiographical about Shooter, because it would mean that Shooter really was an awful person.
    One who was trying to do the right thing, sure, but not very hard, and still acting like an awful person.

    Besides, do you really find it petty on the part of John Byrne?
    I mean, Shooter is the one who wrote a parody of Steve Gerber in his Secret Wars II series, simply because he was editor-in-chief so he could, and he had an axe to grind with Gerber.
    I mean, talk about petty.

  • Randal says:

    All I know is, when I have the last remaining copy of Spitfire #1, I’m going to charge John a pretty penny for it.

    I also like how Justice was totally the world outside your window – what with him being an interdimensional police officer from a fantasy kingdom with magic powers. Something Peter David took notice of real quick when he took over the book and made it readable.

  • Damien says:

    I remember being slightly disturbed when I discovered that there was a real woman called Debbie Fix (Debbie the Duck in Star Brand). The character in Star Brand was presented as a needy, dumb, manipulative friend with benefits. It seems unbelievable that Shooter would name a character like that after someone he knew and remain friendly enough that they could work together at Defiant and Broadway in later years unless he never told her which seems pretty shitty. Particularly as the Shooter stand-in treats her really badly.

  • John Lancaster says:

    I was only a few years into working at the shop when this mess all hit. I remember there being a fairly large interest in seeing what it was all about in the lead up to the release. I mean, you couldn’t escape that back cover ad for what seemed like months. But once it all started coming out, most customers were dropping New Universe titles by the second and third issues. About the only consistent sellers were DP7, PsiForce, and Star Brand. Even they had a pretty big drop off as they hit about what would be the mid-point of their runs.

    Being the huge Comic Book Whore that I am, I do have full runs of the entire New Universe line. Sequestered into their own boxes and well labeled so they don’t accidentally touch anything else and rub the stink off. I keep them more as a curiosity and a warning to others. I certainly own way worse comics *cough*Day of the Groundhog*cough*

  • John Lancaster says:

    Randal – I’m not sure any price is too high to ensure that potential comic readers don’t accidentally get one of these as their first comic and then run away from the hobby screaming, never to buy another comic book again. I’d rather they get an issue of All-Star Batman and Robin. It sucks, but at least it’s Batman.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    —Even the time scale in which the comics operated was “real time,” with a month passing in story time between each monthly issue.—

    I think that a real opportunity was lost with the way this idea was handled. Each issue should have ended in a real cliffhanger–a nuclear bomb is about to explode, alien invaders attack en masse, something like that. Then, the next issue would begin with the characters involved in something unrelated. About halfway through, someone would say something like “Boy, this is almost as bad as that time the aliens invaded!,” and another character would say “Yeah, I still can’t believe what happened next,” and that would be the end of the matter.

    Further on the matter of surplus copies of THE PITT: I also remember these being VERY VERY common in those three-back-issues-for-$1.99 (or whatever it was) bags that you found in toy stores and discount shops. Basically, if you bought a Marvel bag in that period, you got THE PITT.

  • John Lancaster says:

    By 1987 when customers would ask about this New Universe thing, it was customary in the shop to answer “It’s the Pitt’s”

    I also had to buy two of The Pitt so I could file one with my King/Charlton Blondie Comics. Figure that one out.

  • Brad Walker says:

    Talking of cheap shots, Byrne wrote the fifth issue of the Legends miniseries wherein Guy Gardner takes on Sunspot, a very thinly-veiled Starboard/Shooter. So there’s precedent.

    I didn’t collect many of the NU books but I did get the Failed Universe parody as well as Boris the Bear #6, which includes the “Phew Universe” as a last-minute twist on a Batman parody.

  • Andrew-TLA says:

    Shooter really liked that real-time gimmick, didn’t he? Early Valiant operated on the same principle, and I think Defiant and Broadway did, as well.

    I don’t remember it being a factor in his Gold Key stuff for Dark Horse, but that iteration of Doctor Solar is another of his “omnipotent guy screws up a bunch” stories.

  • Adam says:

    I remember Shooter writing about the failure of the NU and pointing the finger at whoever it was that took the oriiginally slated artists and writers off all of the books. He had a grand plan for the peak of marvel’s talent at the time, but most of them never ended up working on the books.

    I did like Jeff Parker’s Star Brand book in the Tales of the New Universe revival one-shots. I noticed that he seemed to be writing an in-canon explanation for the disconnect between star brand 10, shooter’s last issue as writer, and the rest of the series, written by Byrne.

    Another byrne was a dick to shooter snippet: i heard that the reason that star brand blew up pittsburgh was that it was shooter’s home town.

  • Turan, Emissary of the Fly World says:

    Dealing strictly with personalities, with no regard to talent or effect on the medium…

    …Shooter vs. Byrne is a real “root for injuries” sort of situation, isn’t it?

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    Jim Shooter talks about the New Universe in this interview: https://www.cbr.com/jim-shooter-interview-part-1/

    You’re pretty much right, Adam. It sounds like Shooter had big plans, but the corporate owners kept cutting the budget for something so speculative, and he ended up having to go with a bunch of untested artists and writers, with he and Archie Goodwin basically editing the books on a volunteer basis.

  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    Turan, I don’t know enough about what really might have happened to have a truly informed opinion.

    But, I can’t help noticing that Shooter on his blog and in various interviews comes off as a reasonable, rational person with solid reasons for everything he’s done, yet still willing to admit he might have made mistakes. On the other hand, Shooter’s critics–especially John Byrne on his website and Gene Colan (his wife’s segment in “I Have to Live With This Guy” has a long passage about her husband’s opinion on Shooter) come off as petulant and spoiled.

    Christopher Priest’s seemingly even-handed defense of Shooter on his website also goes a long way with me.

    Those things aren’t dispositive, but they sure make me more sympathetic to Shooter’s side of things.

  • Bryan says:

    “ he ended up having to go with a bunch of untested artists and writers”

    The only problem I’ve had with this explanation is that Frenz and DeFalco had just come off Amazing Spider-Man and John Romita, Jr off Uncanny X-Men, so you had talented people with proven sales history on Marvel’s biggest sellers. They just came up with dud ideas.

  • Chris G says:

    What was the Steve Gerber slam in Secret Wars II?

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