Friday, October 26, 2012

Falling Stars

Your comics reading experience is about to change with this

Marvel Trivia Question

What major event in comics did this teasing ad herald?

As it turned out, one of the most failed experiments in comics history:

The new universe line of comic books from Marvel, coinciding with the company's 25th anniversary, was designed to supplement Marvel's regular books with over a half-dozen new titles featuring brand-new characters. These characters would live in a more realistic version of our world--where no other Marvel super-beings existed, nor any of its other concepts like alien beings or gods or hidden races. It had similarities to J. Michael Straczynski's later series, Rising Stars, particularly since each series is precipitated by an "event" which invests select individuals with abilities/powers. In Rising Stars, the event is a descending comet; in new universe, it was the "white event," where a being's attempt to divest himself of a powerful force inadvertently transfers fragments of that power to various humans on Earth.

new universe was a victim of both its own timing, and a somewhat flawed concept. Marvel got its wish for such a "different" universe later with its Ultimate books, but of course the difference there is striking--keeping basically the same characters, but giving them different histories and twists that totally separate them from their earlier counterparts. In essence, you were still reading your favorite characters, yet they were clean-slate versions of them with a different take. With new universe, you had to become vested in totally unfamiliar characters. Of course, readers do that anyway, when a new book hits the rack--but an entire line of new titles at once? In addition to sticker shock, it's really asking too much of a reader. Jack Kirby did something similar when he returned to Marvel, but with the difference that he wasn't grouping them all under one banner he was trying to launch.

Once you take the marketing leap, though, you then have to bank on your characters catching on. Tell me if any of these grab you at first glance:
  • Nightmask, who enters his patients' dreams to deal with their trauma.

  • Mark Hazzard: Merc--"merc" as in "mercenary," a sort of Paladin with a rougher edge, who can't reconcile his lifestyle with his family's needs.

  • Psi-Force, teenagers with psionic powers running from government control. And just in case one group of paranormals isn't enough for you:

  • D.P. 7--"Displaced Paranormals," this time on the run from a medical clinic that wants to form them into an army led by the clinic's super-powered director.

  • Star Brand--not the name of the lead character, but the tattoo "branded" on the lead character which gives him unlimited power. (The brand is later revealed to be the crux of the White Event itself.)

  • Justice, a delusional former DEA agent who thinks he's an alien police officer. Sort of a Punisher but without the revenge factor.

  • Spitfire and the Troubleshooters--the line's Iron Man, I suppose. A kid who steals her father's construction armor to prevent it from being used as a weapon. I never read the comic, so I don't know who the Troubleshooters were. Apparently, neither did Marvel, which changed the book's title twice--becoming just Spitfire after 7 issues, then Codename: Spitfire after two more issues.

  • Kickers, Inc., former pro football players who become heroes for hire--their leader being the only super-human of the group.

Almost all of these (the exceptions probably being Justice and Merc) focused on the premise of having the reader identify with characters who have to deal with the confusion and complexities that come with suddenly being given a strange power. Ken Connell (in the Star Brand book), for instance, can't just fly somewhere if he doesn't know where he's going, so picture a super-being actually having to follow road signs to get to his destination:

Of all the books, I could probably see Justice and Nightmask (and possibly Mark Hazzard: Merc) as having the greatest potential and lasting power, as they were mostly self-sustaining and didn't have to rely on other super-powered characters to drive their plots. With the others, there was too much of a sense of the NBC series Heroes, which eventually lost steam and collapsed under its own weight of conspiracies and third-party control.

Further complicating matters was that the line was launched as Marvel was undergoing new corporate ownership with New World Entertainment, which imposed new budget constraints resulting in a shifting of creative teams on the books. In addition, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, one of the main driving forces of new universe as well as the writer of Star Brand, was fired from Marvel a year after the new universe titles were launched, which effectively threw a wrench into the steady direction such a line of titles needed to succeed.

Add to the fact that readership of these books wasn't exactly stellar, and the fate of the new universe titles doesn't come as much of a surprise. Four of the titles--Nightmask, Mark Hazzard: Merc, Kickers, Inc., and Spitfire--ended after a year (with Spitfire actually hanging on an extra month, perhaps to avoid the appearance of the axe falling on new universe en masse). Star Brand (now titled The Star Brand) was cancelled seven months later. The final three--D.P. 7, Justice, and Psi-Force--had their respective plugs pulled after 32 issues each. I don't remember any buzz or outcry at the time about these last remnants of new universe ending their run and effectively bringing to an end the entire line. The books hadn't caught on with me from the beginning; perhaps for most of us, nothing really meaningful in comics had passed on. Though in the broader sense, it's interesting to note the coincidence of a "new universe" taking shape with Marvel Comics itself at this time, going through the first of its corporate buy-outs. The company would subsequently go through a number of divisional splits and liquidations over the years, before finally ending up as an acquisition of Disney in 2009.

Aside from some of the early work of artists like John Romita Jr., Ron Frenz, and John Byrne, we arguably didn't miss much with the fizzling of the new universe books. Collectively, the series amassed 174 issues, which may elicit something of a heavy sigh when you think about how this concept must have been excitedly pitched at its inception.

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