CCI, Day 4: Ellis talks "newuniversal"

Anyone who has followed Warren Ellis' career knew this day was coming: Complete mastery of the universe. At the moment, however, his control over time and space is confined to the universe formerly known as Marvel's New Universe.

In 1986, Marvel Comics sought to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Marvel Universe by starting a new self-contained universe with a more realistic feel to its superheroes. The eight comics met mixed reviews and worse sales, despite heavy promotion by Marvel and the freedom for writers to make substantial changes to the world impossible in the Marvel Universe, most notably the destruction of Pittsburgh.

The previously self-contained New Universe has trickled into Marvel Universe stories over the years, including appearances in "Quasar" and "Exiles."

In January of 2007, Warren Ellis will reboot the New Universe and tell the story of a realistic Earth suddenly experiencing the appearance of superpowers his way.

"Well, this all started when [Marvel editor-in-chief] Joe Quesada had me read through a pile of old Marvel stuff," he told CBR News. "It was his request that I find some old Marvel properties that I could make 'mine,' as it were -- set up a little corner in the company for myself. This is how I came to read through the old New Universe stuff, which I'd paid little or no attention to at the time.

"What immediately struck me was that which I don't think the original creators and editors realized until it was too late -- it was all a single story. It shouldn't have been eight books (or whatever) that were eventually consolidated into ensemble miniseries. It was a single story that should've spun new series and serials off of it.

"The central concept isn't original to New Universe, of course -- some massive event sets off the emergence of superhumanity. [J. Michael Straczynski's] 'Rising Stars' is only one of the most recent iterations of the idea. George R. R. Martin and his collaborators got an interminable series of books out of the idea, the 'Wild Cards' sequence (though I have to say that the first one was very good, with sections written in the styles of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe).

"So I sat down with this stuff, and re-read some of the other things that used the concept, and, in realizing I was remixing more than inventing, cast around for an interesting half-logical way to frame the central notion, that the White Event -- the sky going white all over the world -- somehow creates or triggers out a superhuman subspecies. Which is always tough because, you know, this stuff defies the laws of physics. Which reminded me of a cheat the author Vernor Vinge used to get past faster-than-light travel -- he simply had his universe contain zones in which our laws of physics do not apply. Vinge has written extensively about the Singularity, also known as 'the Rapture for nerds' -- and what is more Rapture-like than a handful of selected people ascending into superhumanity?

"This shabby process is, I'm afraid, how my brain works sometimes. But right there is the kernel of 'newuniversal.'"

The problems with the Old New Universe are part of the appeal for Ellis.

"This kind of remix project is good for the muscles. It comprises an entire stack of technical challenges. It's rewarding in a different kind of way [than] original creator-owned work. If a piece of business in something I created is simply too stupid to live, I'm in control and can replace it. On a job like this, I'm hired to make a property work, so I have to meet the problems head on and solve them.

"And I've never done a remix project on this scale -- taking an entire line's worth of properties on. I kind of thought I should do one before I die, or become so old and crap that I'm not offered work anymore."

Readers of the original New Universe will recognize some of the faces - but not all of the names - of the characters in "newuniversal."

"Some will be recognizable, some not. The original books featured an awful lot of people with similar names, which I found odd -- Swensen, Remsen, Tensen. I almost made something out of it, but I decided in the end to [individualize] them. Keith Remsen becomes Izanami Randall, for instance, a Japanese-American girl in San Francisco. The first sequence revolves around the old 'lead' books from New Universe - 'Starbrand,' 'Nightmask,' 'Justice,' 'Spitfire and the Troubleshooters.'

"But if there are any surviving fans of the New Universe, there are some things in there that'll be new to them, too. This isn't some amorphous 'new universe.' This is Earth 555 in the multiversal structure, down the spiral from 'Marvel-Earth' 616. It's an alternate world where America is somewhat isolationist, Soviet Russia fell apart early and China took the lead in spaceflight. Ordinary Americans fear Chinese bases on the moon and Chinese invasion-by-culture, with all the kids reading manhwa translated by B-Bop and listening to pop from the Pearl River Delta. It emerges in the first sequence that, by pure fluke, the spin of the planet had America facing the astronomical incident termed The White Event, and so the first superhumans emerge in America. By the second and third sequences, this begins to cause its own [international] strife ..."

Seemingly every universe has its major Superman-like character, a role that Starbrand played to a certain extent in the Old New Universe. But Ellis' take on the character is a little less "super" and a little more "man."

"I don't see the Starbrand character as a Superman figure. I mean, Jim Shooter's original writing of the character makes him out to be a bit of a dick, and as we all know, Superman is a dick. But this is a spectacularly ordinary American kid from the Midwest, not too bright, who is sent magic powers from space. The alteration I've made is to bring him more in line with the Marvel 'style,' and inject some tragedy into the moment of transformation. It kicks off what is the worst day of the poor bastard's life. He doesn't get to be a superhero. None of them do. Their central motivations are to work out what the hell is happening to them -- and only one of the characters knows that -- and to survive to see tomorrow. You see, this isn't the first time this has happened. And certain people are waiting for them.

"This isn't something where I'm using analogues. I've done enough of that. That said, you will see things from the Marvel Universe leak into the book. I'm also, in the early issues, using elements from a very old Barry Windsor-Smith job for Marvel called 'Starr the Slayer.' And long-time X-Men readers will know what a Cypher is."

Ellis will be giving artist Salvador Larocca a lot of room on the title, he said.

"I'm really opening it up for Salva to make his own statement. His work has evolved dramatically over the last couple of years, taking on European influences and becoming much richer than previously. So what I'm doing is staging the scenes to draw more of that out of him, and encouraging him to emerge out of the superhero vocabulary and get crazy."

"newuniversal" invades this reality later this year.

CBR Staff Writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this story.

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