In October 1986, Marvel Comics released the first of eight brand-new comic book series, all set in a world distinct from the existing Marvel Universe. They called it the New Universe. According to Marvel, there would be a more realistic feel to the series, and original characters that would challenge the status quo in comics. There was a lot of promotion and excitement among fans before its release, but that quickly turned to disappointment. Sales plummeted, and after just 12 issues, four of the eight series were cancelled. By the second year, all the titles had ended.
Over the last 30 years, the New Universe has become legendary as one of the biggest failures in the history of Marvel. The reasons why it failed range from a lack of support to the state of the comics industry at the time. Commemorating its 30th anniversary this year, CBR explores the history of the New Universe, where it all went wrong, and what could have been done to save it.
11. It Was Born Under A Bad Sign
The failure of the New Universe goes back to the very beginning, before it was even announced. The project that became the New Universe started with plans to honor Marvel’s 25th anniversary in 1986. Then-president Jim Galton met with Marvel’s vice presidents and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who proposed creating a separate Marvel universe where all the existing characters could start over without dealing with continuity issues (something that would later be realized in the more popular, but similarly ill-fated Ultimate Marvel line). At the time, Marvel didn’t care for this idea, thinking it would dilute its brand. So Shooter pitched another idea: create a new universe with new characters, not set in the Marvel Universe,and with a more realistic feel. Marvel’s management loved it.
He was originally given a $120,000 budget, and began planning his so-called New Universe. But later that year, the budget was slashed when Marvel Entertainment was sold to New World Entertainment. The project quickly went from high-priority to desperate scrambling.
10. Marvel Hated It
While the project wasn’t that popular with the comic book-buying public, it was even less-so inside the Marvel bullpen. Originally, the New Universe was supposed to consist of high-profile titles like “Speedball” and Peter Gillis’ “Strikeforce Morituri,” but there was no budget to pay for them. Shooter had to cut a bunch of titles to “free up the creative teams” to work on the New Universe. Most of the talent who ended up working on it were writers, editors and artists who were new to the industry or couldn’t get work anywhere else. For instance, Paul Ryan, who drew and co-created “D.P. 7,” had just started doing professional inking in 1985. Peter David, who wrote the first few issues of “Mark Hazzard: Merc” and eventually went on to a legendary run on “Hulk,” was at the time a Direct Sales manager for Marvel with aspirations of breaking into writing.
As for the creators of the series, Archie Goodwin developed four of the eight titles (“Nightmask,” “Mark Hazzard,” “Psi-Force” and “Justice”), but he only wrote the first few issues of “Nightmask” and one issue of “Justice.” He didn’t write any of “Mark Hazzard” or “Psi-Force.” “Spitfire” started out as a sort of Iron Man without artificial intelligence, a female lead and wacky sidekicks. But by issue six, the armor had been destroyed and the main villain killed. It seems new writer Cary Bates didn’t care for the original concept, because he turned “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters” into an espionage series, “Codename: Spitfire.” It petered out by the 12th issue.
Tom DeFalco had originally developed an idea titled “Mr. Magnificent and the Team Supreme,” about a group of traveling adventurers along the lines of “Challengers of the Unknown.” But Shooter wanted a sports book, so he changed it to “Kickers, Inc.” “Kickers, Inc.” had one of the most outlandish premises of any of the comics, where professional NFL football players moonlighted as heroes for hire, led by an artificially enhanced quarterback. DeFalco hated the new concept, and gave up on it halfway through the third issue.
9. It Lacked Consistency
The slogan for the New Universe was originally pitched as “the world outside your window.” According to an early interview with Archie Goodwin, the world of the New Universe would be identical to our own; that is until the so-called White Event, which granted humans extraordinary powers. At that point, our world diverged to become the New Universe. Marvel’s mandate had been that there would be no magic or aliens or mythological beings. There would also be real-world consequences for everything that happened. It would even take place in real-time, with each issue taking place one month after the previous issue. Fans were excited at the idea of reading comics with a more realistic and grounded feel.
But by the time the series launched, it had completely changed. The main character of “Justice” started out as a visitor from another dimension who spoke English, looked human and lived in a society closely resembling a romanticized Medieval Europe. He had the power to see auras of good and evil around people, and even fought an evil wizard. It violated all the rules originally set. Likewise, the series “Star Brand” started out with the main character Ken Connell getting a mystical brand on his palm from an alien warrior. Though these were later retconned, the initial launch disappointed potential fans simply because its concept immediately fell apart.
8. It Grew Too Much, Too Soon
While people take for granted the popularity of the current lineup of Marvel comics, it took decades to build up the characters and continuity therein. What we now think of as the Marvel Universe started with the groundbreaking “Fantastic Four” series in 1961. Over time, new titles were added like “Amazing Spider-Man” and “X-Men.” Some were cancelled quickly, while others caught on and became a success. By the 1980s, Marvel had a stable of popular titles in a build that looked absolutely effortless, but was the result of decades of fine-tuning.
That’s not the way the New Universe was created. Marvel tried to launch the entire line of Marvel’s New Universe series all at once. The idea of launching eight brand-new interconnected series with no tie-ins to existing material was unheard of, and Marvel was under pressure to put something on the shelves for the anniversary rather than make sure they all had quality work. This necessarily limited its impact as an unknown quantity, historically not a good thing in comics, where the power of nostalgia still looms large to this day.
7. It Had Competition
Besides the tepid response to the New Universe lineup, it’s important to look at the climate of the comic book industry in 1986. The ’80s was a decade of revolution in the comics industry. Some of the most groundbreaking and revolutionary books were hitting the shelves alongside the New Universe, and many of them did it much better without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The New Universe wanted to be a comic book series with real consequences, but didn’t try to break the formula enough. DC’s “Watchmen” (1986) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created a miniseries where world history and technology were radically changed by the appearance of superheroes. The moral ambiguity only implied in “Star Brand” was blatant and complex within the pages of “Watchmen.” The idea of a team of superheroes on the run from the establishment, as seen in “D.P. 7” and “Psi-Force,” was already being done in the highly successful “X-Men” series. “Mark Hazzard” was competing with Marvel’s own successful Vietnam-vet hero, the Punisher, who had been around since 1974. The mystical world of Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” beginning in 1982 made “Nightmask” seem positively ordinary, not to mention Doctor Strange‘s surreal journeys since 1963. So while Shooter wanted to claim the New Universe was bold and radical, it just wasn’t radical enough.
6. It Was the Shooter-Verse
It’s impossible to talk about the New Universe without talking about Jim Shooter, because Shooter himself dominated the entire project. Within Marvel, he even called it the “Shooter-verse.” It seems like he had dreams of becoming the next Stan Lee, launching a fleet of popular titles that would be remembered for generations.
He not only initiated the New Universe project and stayed with it for a long time, but personally wrote the first seven issues of the flagship title, “Star Brand.” He made “Star Brand” largely autobiographical, basing the main character Ken Connell’s appearance and hometown of Pittsburgh on himself. He even based Connell’s girlfriend “Debbie the Duck” on one of his old girlfriends.
But Shooter’s reputation didn’t exactly help the project; he was hated by many people inside Marvel. After he was fired, Marvel artist and writer John Byrne held a party at his house where disgruntled employees literally burned Shooter in effigy, stuffing the dummy with unsold New Universe comic books. Byrne also used “Star Brand” to destroy Shooter’s beloved Pittsburgh.
5. It Lacked Focus
Even though the New Universe series started out poorly, they could have been salvaged with the right creative touch. Unfortunately, the series all struggled creatively behind the scenes from a lack of focus. For example, “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters” had eight writers over the course of 13 issues. “Justice” had nine writers over 15 issues. With so many writers and artists being switched out, it was hard to build any kind of cohesive plot.
Jim Shooter, the founder and champion of the New Universe, also lost his focus on the series, because he was embroiled in office politics from his dictatorial style. While he fought to save his job, the New Universe titles lost their guidance. When Shooter left Marvel, new Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco worked with writers John Byrne, Mark Gruenwald and Howard Mackie to take over the New Universe and give it the focus it needed, canceling four out of the eight titles right off the bat. They took out the supernatural elements in “Justice” by explaining Justice’s belief in a magical realm as an illusion, and had “Star Brand” Ken Connell discover it wasn’t an alien that gave him his powers, after all. But by then, the damage was done.
4. It Was Boring
Another one of the reasons the New Universe failed is that it stuck too closely to the “world outside your window” mandate. Creators tried to mimic reality as a result of the line’s original vision. Nothing could happen that wouldn’t end up in the morning newspaper, such as massive battles with giant robots through the streets of New York. The existence of paranormals had to remain a secret to the general population, since that would inevitably change the world. No huge and revolutionary technology could be created that wouldn’t affect the rest of civilization. The end result was a comics line where the stakes were low, and there were none of the world-shattering events readers were used to happening in traditional comics. Compared to other books where literal gods were trying to destroy the universe, the New Universe felt pretty dull.
When Gruenwald, Byrne and DeFalco decided to shake up the New Universe, they took the exact opposite approach. They decided to make the New Universe change from our own in a big way. They started by destroying Pittsburgh, leaving a crater full of toxic waste known as The Pitt. The U.S. government began rounding up paranormals and drafting them into a war against the Soviet Union and New York became a ghetto for paranormals. Unfortunately, this led to a backlash from those who complained the New Universe no longer felt realistic. They just couldn’t win.
3. Readers Wanted Marvel
The other big problem with the New Universe was one of perception. Readers didn’t want a brand-new universe with brand-new characters from Marvel. They wanted the Marvel Universe. Why read about Mark Hazzard when you could read about the Punisher? Why read about Psi-Force when you could read about the X-Men? Also, the promotion made the New Universe seem like it would be the best thing in comics, which left the question of why anyone would read the Marvel Universe if it wasn’t the best. The New Universe was competing directly against Marvel’s other titles, and as we all know, a house divided itself cannot stand.
Decades later, Marvel managed to succeed where the New Universe failed with its Ultimate line of comics, starting with “Ultimate Spider-Man” in 2000. By taking existing characters and rebooting them, Marvel was able to get rid of all the continuity problems of the Marvel Universe, and start over without losing readers. The Ultimate Universe eventually became a smash hit, and inspired its own legions of fans. Meanwhile, the New Universe faded into the obscurity of history.
2. It Was Too Derivative
Another charge thrown at the New Universe is that none of the titles felt very original. The New Universe had been pitched as being a completely new world with bold new ideas that redefined comic book storytelling. In an interview in “Amazing Heroes” #101, editor Michael Higgins said creators even questioned whether they should use traditional “speedlines” in the artwork.
But when the comics actually came out, they felt anything but revolutionary. The speedlines were there, and so was every other trope of comic book heroes. In fact, all the titles felt like retreads of comics we had seen before. “Spitfire” felt like a female Iron Man. “Mark Hazzard” felt like the Punisher if he still had an ex-wife and son to deal with while shooting up foreign governments. “Star Brand’s” story about a regular guy given superpowers from an alien felt like Green Lantern. “Psi-Force” and “D.P. 7” had the “team of rogue heroes” cliches that made “X-Men” popular in the ’60s.
If the New Universe had delivered on its claims to be original, it might have succeeded. In the end, it copied far more than it innovated.
1. It Had Bad Comics
By far, the biggest problem with the New Universe was that most of it just wasn’t that good. “D.P. 7” and “Star Brand” are considered the best of the titles, but even they struggled. “D.P. 7” was about seven “paranormals” who escaped from a secret facility, and were on the run. Although it took a more realistic approach to superpowers, there were too many characters and storylines. “Star Brand,” about a car mechanic who gains god-like powers, tended to focus more on the main character (who some readers found unlikable) and his personal life, rather than his abilities.
The rest were hit or miss. “Mark Hazzard: Merc” was about a Vietnam veteran turned mercenary, which had nothing to do with the paranormal events of the other titles. “Nightmask” was about a comatose patient traveling through people’s dreams, helping with emotional problems, which some readers found too surreal. “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters” was about an MIT professor in an armored exoskeleton, along with a team of college students with science bordering on magic. The less said about “Kickers, Inc.” the better. Apart from the weak premises, the comics also simply weren’t written well. Fans didn’t embrace them the way they embraced the Marvel Universe and that, really, is what led to its untimely (yet justified) demise.
What do you think about the New Universe? What do you think was the biggest reason for its failure?
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