Stillborn

newuniverse2This is the fourth post in my accidental series regarding several retries to recapture the early Marvel spirit, including Give me liberty, I, said the Fly, Striking twice, some day, and here, as promised at last, the New Universe.

The first thing that surprised me was, I thought it came a bit later, even misstating the date in a previous post or two. But that’s because I read it a lot later, when a friend lent me every issue in the early 1990s. As it turns out, the New Universe is the first of the phenomena in this series, not in the middle, having been developed in 1985 and released in July of 1986. For those who don’t know, it included eight titles which were soon cut down to four, and those were cancelled in late 1989.

The eight titles were Mark Hazzard: Merc, Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, Kickers Inc, Nightmask, Justice, Psi-Force, Star Brand, and DP Seven; the latter four are the ones which lasted past twelve issues. These are all over the internet so feel free to look them up; e.g. Mark Hazzard covers.

Spurious fandom narratives – in which I include most trade or industry publications, whose job is to promulgate such things – are easy to predict: “it sucked,” “Jim Shooter, ehhhh,” “the timing was bad due to Image,” “it was too realistic, people want super in superheroes,” “it wasn’t realistic like they promised,” and so on and on, each delivered with that particular nasal self-assurance well-known to anyone who likes comics.

My first step for getting past this is, as usual, Howe’s account from Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Here are some key points from there:

  • Marvel was in shambles in the mid-80s; its apparent dominance of comics due to Secret Wars II didn’t match the practical reality. Sheldon Feinberg was assiduously trying to sell it off, and the editorial hierarchy was breaking down. Its main creators – Byrne, Miller, and briefly, Starlin – were either decamping or playing both sides of the DC/Marvel fence with some effectiveness.
  • The Lee/Kirby fandom wars were at their hottest, with Marvel becoming badly tarred with Feinberg’s nasty refusal to cede Kirby’s art to him (and to keep selling it). Soon, too, Marvel would eat Hollywood crow with the release of the Howard the Duck movie.
  • (Me, not Howe: For perspective, I’m describing things just before and during the beginning of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and the media hoo-ha about “comics finally grow up.” DC’s biggest thing at this point was still Teen Titans.)
  • Shooter was initially promised $120,000 to fund the new project, which doesn’t seem like a lot to me even in 80s dollars, but during development in 1985, the budget was steadily cut down and eventually canceled well before the new series’ release. His main ally and co-editor for it, Eliot Brown (a steady Marvelite/editor who came in with Gruenwald), understandably had a lot of trouble organizing teams for the titles and was fired from Marvel before the line was released.
  • As mentioned above, the New Universe titles were launched in July 1986 to poor orders and sales. Marvel was sold to New World Pictures in November 1986. The new bosses fired Shooter in April 1987 and that’s roughly when the line was cut in half as well.

… says no New UNIVERSE

I don’t even know why this is a mystery. When management changes, let alone ownership, the first thing the new regime does is kill off anything the old one was specially working on. Not because it might fail, but because it might not, and to make damn sure it does through every infrastructual means available. It’s pissing on turf, plain and simple. I’m not claiming the New Universe was genius betrayed, but I’m saying it was betrayed period. Note too Howe’s counter-narrative observation that the four remaining titles were selling pretty well.

Since there’s no mystery or problem to be solved, my notion isn’t to generate some grand narrative, nor am I going to pick at the various scabs which are well-known and many. Talk about whether Peter David saved Justice with his conceptual reboot or not, or about John Byrne’s authorship of Star Brand somewhere else; all the possible fan-palaver about it has been done and done again, and you don’t need to bore me in the comments about it.

Remember: I didn’t read it as it came out, and did not then, no do I now, have any stake in judging it from a fan review perspective. Instead, I want to look at its attributes as a member of this rather grim trend I’m writing about, because there is a relationship among pop fiction, content, and settings to uncover. I want to know about how it was less than great.Talking about it is tricky because listing various titles’ shortcomings is not the same thing. Certainly nothing was wrong with the New Universe that wasn’t wrong with twice as many titles at Marvel which faced no danger of cancellation; if anything, it benefited from being a straightforward line of stories without being knocked askew almost monthly due to McFarlane or whoever thinking they could write.

I could list some obvious stuff to criticize, specifically that all eight titles displayed derivative and often weak concepts: Nightmask offered nothing that the film Dreamscape hadn’t done a couple of years before, Psi Force and DP Seven had the same premise, Kickers and Spitfire had the same premise, Justice was suspiciously similar to Nexus down to the zap on his chest … but I want to stress, despite my prejudices otherwise, that none of this matters. Originality or intrinsic properties of concept are not the issue in superhero comics. All of those observations could be true or even truer and the line could still have been excellent.

What was the oft-mentioned, oft-revered lightning in the bottle, anyway? What was it that we presume a whole new world of young readers wanted, but probably didn’t know how to say it by a whole dimension? Did it have anything to do with what I’d thought I’d seized and watched evaporate between my fingers exactly a decade earlier?And at this moment of blogging, I think I can identify the content problem, which is to say, the core principles that were cleanly missed.

swing

zap

scream

  • It had no Swing. The characters did not engage in the social, political, pop culture, family, and sexual scenes that the readers themselves knew intimately, and in which the characters experienced familiar ups and downs.
  • It had no Zap. There was no implied, desired, idealized, or feared meaning to the cosmology and psychology of events, especially which subverted establishment meaing, and especially one which was directed toward the experience of the readers.
  • It had no Scream. There was no raw human alienation and trauma, especially that which arose directly from ordinary existence no matter how fantastic its immediate fictional vehicle might be.

Without these things, you can’t have villains, only threats – which in comics are, as such, empty – and obviously, without villains you can’t have villains with Pies, which means you have no stories.

This is not the bad guy.

One could bring it back to Jim Shooter at this point. To get personal very briefly and speaking only as a reader with no claim to an informed position, I think that as writer and editor, his skillsets had been harshly shaped by Julius Schwartz back at 60s DC. This was a very different context of characters whose pop culture status and media presence had been settled for decades, and whose ownership was never in flux, completely different from Marvel’s first fifteen years of almost-underground freewheeling madness … or from the twin tyrannies of Mob and mob after he became chief editor. He excelled at plots with Pie, especially as a writer, but was always dismissive about these three big things in favor of – and this is reasonable!  – more reliably skilled, accessible, and consistent plots.

Count me right out of anti-Shooter fan rhetoric. It’s not the editor who brings these things in anyway, but the direct creators, usually ablaze with philosophical and/or psychedelic weirdness, entirely pissed-off about society, shameless about their own hang-ups, and unable to repress their sense of humor. Furthermore, I can totally see Shooter’s position; he really was advocating for good readable comics, and the fact is that at the ‘Versed-up Marvel of Secret Wars II, there weren’t any. His instinct was absolutely right in that the actual content at Marvel was played-out, no longer inspiring to its immediate creators, and too subordinated to putative movies and to toys to sustain actual storytelling.

Maybe you can’t do both: provide solid mainstream kids’ fare the parents, distributors, and licensing entities will like, especially in the toy and cartoon dominated, ROI-obsessed 80s, and unleash the Swing, the Zap, and Scream to say who knows what, who knows how, and God knows for whom, again, especially in the establishmentarian, Pentagon-sponsored, Cold War II 80s.

One may ask whether any creator at Marvel had that ability or inclination to do these things, which I suppose is rhetorical (NO), and whether on-the-block and then especially New World Pictures Marvel itself was any kind of venue for that kind of psychedelic, psychological, political content (DITTO).

All of which, and in conclusion, leads me to think the New Universe was also cursed by its positioning relative to a ‘Verse in the first place. A turn off a wrong road doesn’t help if you’ve gone down it too far already. I like the phrase “the world outside your window.” By that point though, I don’t think anyone had any idea what it should have meant, and that hairsplitting about realism/fantasy had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Links: The TV Tropes page is pretty good

Next: Eat hot lead, comics reader

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 3, 2016, in Commerce, Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. OMFG WordPress. OMFG.

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  2. (This is James, posting from an old-timey account that took forever to find)

    Maaaaaan, something I have been waiting to talk about for a while.

    You’re right that there’s no mystery about how or why this thing got killed. Even if you didn’t know the exact corporate shenanigans, by ’87 or so Shooter is out as EiC, DeFalco is in, and Shooter’s pet projects are going to be, if not deliberately pissed upon, than subject to neglect like a wilting house plant. Marvel was a huge mess; why bother assigning exact responsibility on any single actor?

    There are several things about the New Universe that bugged me as a 10 year old reader and seemed very poorly thought out. But there is one thing that drives me crazy as an ADULT reader . . . . how did anyone walk out of the pitch meeting unclear of which titles they were supposed to be working on? “Okay, I’m doing the X-Men rip-off title. Wait, Gruenwald, YOU’RE doing the X-Men rip-off title?” “I am going to have a thing where Scooby-Doo and the gang investigate mysteries, wait, someone else is doing that as well?” Like, I understand that large organizations are dysfunctional, but come on, these guys had been working together for years, obsessing over continuity nonsense, and nobody even takes notes??

    I’m going to break my comment into two pieces because the organizational shit storm is really a bit different from the content of the titles.

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  3. With respect to the actual content on display in the titles, there is something weird and creepy going on across the line broadly, but I do think one title deserves praise.

    There were clearly some personal hang-ups going on in the first six issues of “Star Brand,” the Shooter/Romita title. Shooter presents a semi-autobiographical character who is a serial womanizer, completely unable to reciprocate his best friend’s feelings, to the point of exploiting her feelings a few times.

    Ken Connell, the Jim Shooter stand-in, the Superman of this universe, is sort of an asshole, and I think Shooter intended us to view him as a (mostly well-meaning) asshole. That takes some guts. Much of this gets obscured by the “A Plot” of most issues, which are pretty boring. But the “B” plots where Ken displays almost zero responsibility or moral character are kind of interesting in a, “They were probably building toward something” sort of way.

    The Zap aspect of it – assuming I’m using your damn terminology correctly – was deliberately and consciously avoided, in my view rather stupidly. “Uh, so, on a particular day, a bunch of people randomly get powers for no discernible reason” is just about the shittiest explanation for a supers universe I’ve ever heard. It completely shuts down any attempt at exploration, explanation, or meaning.

    In fact, you get a kind of anti-cosmology, a sort of anti-politics. “Uh, we have these amazing gifts, but we don’t know why we have them, and the ability to cling on walls isn’t actually particularly useful in the real world, so we’re going to sit around and talk.”

    (My half-ass explanation of a cosmology: in the dream-world of Spring and Winter, they predict some kind of astrological event, and send Tensen through at the same moment Connell gets the Star Brand. Meanwhile the CIA, which is pretty much explicitly the bad guys in several of the issues, are running drugs which give power to the forces of Winter, in exchange for Kirbytech to make a difference in Afghanistan / Latin America. And the only guy who knows is Shaquille O’Neal, who nobody takes seriously. But I’m sure with a 45 min pitch session between a few people one could do a lot better.)

    It’s the alienation aspect of it where the series really falls down. The connection to both the rapidly spreading AIDS epidemic, and the demonization of black crack addicts as “super predators,” was staring them right in the motherfucking face, and they deliberately whiffed.

    Ugh, the whole thing. It makes me so upset even 30 years later; I don’t know why.

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    • Entirely agreed about the anti-politics. One of my perceptions at the time was that the writers had clearly taken contemporary cinema as the guiding light for content.

      I was expecting a little bit more raw grief out of you, actually, given your previous comments.

      Not knowing every issue of every title, and as I think about it, probably having missed at least a couple of the titles entirely, I don’t grasp what you mean about the “something weird and creepy.” Can you elaborate?

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  4. Oh, and how the hell you screw up a title like “Merc,” which is basically “G.I. Joe” or “Sgt. Rock” but with moral ambiguity. Find some conflict somewhere that the U.S. doesn’t have an official position on (ha! good luck!) and deposit Mark Hazzard there for 3-4 issues for a mini-arc as he educates readers on some of the history and regional players, while murdering whole hordes of people.

    And if it turns out he does some bad things, or works for some bad dudes, and the audience gets upset, he’s a mercenary–it’s the title of your damn magazine!

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  5. Communism was dying, even if only Reagan knew it. All the dreams of the Sixties were dying. Its like Vinge’s Singularity stories, they ripped up SF space empire stories for a number of years afterwards.

    I know expecting Marvel to do true counter-culture is about as likely as me finding the Star Brand (Hey, what’s that shining…?).

    Dean Koontz with his Odd books seems to get the Swing, Zap, and Scream.

    I did like Justice *before the reboot; DP; Psi Force; Nightmask, and Star Brand.

    They needed some sort of Justice Universe which you could reach via way of the Nightmask Universe or the Psiforce Universe (an astral plain filled with archetypical creatures and miniature lands with a sunnier feel than the nightmare ridden Nightmask world.).

    And calling the Reagan era ‘establishmentarian’ is a sign of cluelessness. Reagan turned the status quo upside down. Bush Sr. was establishment. John Boehner also. Hillary Clinton also. You don’t have to like Reagan, but calling him such is an insult to Rorschach.

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    • Thanks for the points of agreement about the comics material, although it’s a little hard to tell when you agree/disagree. For instance I think I’ve made a pretty good case for counterculture at 60s and 70s Marvel throughout the history of the blog, whereas yes, in the mid-late 80s that was impossible.

      Your final paragraph is unnecessarily abusive toward me. I’ll trash your comments without appeal if you do it again.

      As for its content, there are lots of places on the internet where you can laud Reagan. If you wanted a discussion instead, then you would have begun well by asking me what I mean by establishmentarian, if what I said seems wrong to you. Then I would ask what you mean by your Rorschach reference which at present is completely opaque to me.

      Since that train has passed by, I advise you not to reply here and to compose a more thoughtful reply for some other post.

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    • I’ve junked your second reply. It provides a fine example of what I forbid in the moderation section of the About page, including the social contract embed there.
      KubertKubrick

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