In 1985, DC Comics celebrated its (arguably) fiftieth anniversary by destroying the convoluted architecture of its shared Multiverse and replacing it with a single, streamlined DC Universe. Marvel, rather than bask in the Distinguished Competition’s New Cokean concession via imitation to Marvel’s superiority, chose to celebrate its (arguably) twenty-fifth anniversary in 1986 by creating a “New Universe” of superheroic properties.
The advance hype — accompanied by a tantalizing level of secrecy and a slow trickle of teasers — was enormous. Marvel was riding high on the direct market boom and the cynicism of comics readers had yet to develop into the epidemic levels witnessed today. As a result, the debut of the New Universe was seen as a significant event by both speculators and fans alike. (In anticipation of the expected demand, my local comic shop at the time restricted purchases of the imprint’s launch titles to two copies per customer.)
Yet for all those lofty expectations, the line died an ignoble death within a space of three years, becoming the second and final act (alongside Secret Wars II) in Jim Shooter’s professional götterdämmerung as Marvel’s editor-in-chief.
The New Universe was envisioned as a more realistic take on superhero concepts, in which a mysterious “White Event” results in the emergence of various superpowered beings in an otherwise normal world bereft of alien visitors, casual use of super-science, or lost civilizations. The imprint also attempted to peg narrative time within the various stories to real time, meaning that the various characters would (in theory) age normally as the series progressed.
Unlike DC’s Watchmen, which conducted a serious (and exquisitely crafted) examination of the psychological, cultural, and political ramifications of superheroes operating within a realistic setting, the New Universe titles seemed content to focus on trivial and mundane details. (“Oops, I severed someone’s trigger finger by disarming them at super-speed!”) Once you get past the initial novelty of the concept, there really wasn’t anywhere to go with it. The willful repudiation of the most fantastic elements associated with the genre denuded the New Universe titles of the very elements that make superheroic fare such enjoyably trashy entertainment.
Granted, that kind of tinkering with formulas might work when you’ve got folks like Alan Moore at the helm, but none of the the creative teams involved in the New Universe project — a mixture of old hands, up-and-coming-talents, where are they nows, and Jim Shooter himself — seemed interested in doing anything but tweaking the existing Marvel storytelling formula in a more soporific direction. It was a case of novelty for novelty’s sake, with little thought given to channeling those ideas into an engaging narrative.
Marvel did try to shake things up later on with a trio of prestige format one-shots and miniseries depicting the annihilation of Pittsburgh and the resulting weaponization of superhumans in the New Universe, but again, it was nothing that hadn’t been done better and more effectively in Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns.
It’s enough of a challenge to successfully launch a single “new” superhero property, much less eight of them in a short space of time. Even the best of the New Universe character concepts barely rose above the level one normally associates with throwaway d-listers within the regular Marvel Universe. D.P. 7 and Psi-Force consisted of re-hashed X-Men tropes, Nightmask could have been a forgotten member of Dr. Strange’s supporting cast, and the gritty military action of Mark Hazzard: Merc (illustrated by Gray Morrow) would have probably benefited by not being saddled with the New Universe tag.
Coming in at the bottom of the New Universe’s trash heap of uninspired titles, several notches below Star Brand and even Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, was Kickers, Inc….
…a gloriously terrible collision between The Longest Yard, The A-Team, and the congressional steroid hearings.
I can see where writer Tom DeFalco was coming from when he hit upon the idea of pro athletes as costumed adventurers. NFL stars are about as close to superheroes as one can find in the real world. Both wear colorful costumes so that they can engage in stylized combat for the benefit audiences whose self-esteem is vicariously linked to the fortunes of the franchises involved.
Of course, none of those themes actually come up during the twelve-issue run of Kickers, Inc. Instead readers were treated to the tale of Jack “Mr. Magnificent” Magniconte of the “New York Smashers.” Jack’s a true sportsman with a sincere love of the game, which is why he decides to seek out a competitive “edge” that will not run him afoul of random urine tests or cause his testicles to shrink.
Fortunately for Jack, his brother just happens to be a biochemist who has invented a (totally realistic) device capable of enhancing the human physique to peak levels. The process turns out to be utter hokum, but it does trigger the latent effects of the White Event on Jack’s cellular structure, granting Jack superhuman strength and endurance while bleaching his hair in the process.
When Jack returns to the playing field to discover he has become a near unstoppable force capable of single-handedly dragging his team into the playoffs. While the hollowness of such effortless victories might motivate a character in a typical superhero story to reassess his priorities, Jack resides with in the “realistic” confines of the New Universe, and therefore continues racking up easy wins and nabbing lucrative endorsement deals.
Jack’s underdeveloped conscience does kick in a little after his brother — a compulsive gambler who had been profiting on the sly from Jack’s winning streak — is shot and killed by mobsters. The experience convinces Jack to set up his own non-profit organization in order to help people in need. Being a man of action and a Class A shitheel, he passes over the idea of building shelters for puppies with cancer in favor of roping in his closest teammates (the big guy, the slick ladies’ man, the loose cannon) and his wife (the girl) into a bandanna-and-tac-vest friendly commando unit named — you guessed it — Kickers, Incorporated.
Again, this being the strictly “realistic” confines of the New Universe, Jack and his team find themselves facing off against such true-to-life threats as a killer robot used by Middle Eastern terrorists to control inner city street gangs…
…and, during the course of a pulse-pounding cross-Canadian relay race, Bigfoot himself.
Wait, does this mean The Six Million Dollar Man was actually a documentary series?
As the worst thing to emerge from the misguided mess that was Marvel’s New Universe, Kickers, Inc. has earned the honor of being this week’s Nobody’s Favorite.