Armagideon Time

Nobody’s Favorite: Real trouble

September 4th, 2014

I’m going to tell you something which you might find difficult to believe. Heck, orthopedist I lived through it and I have a hard time accepting it was real.

Are you ready for it? Because I want to tell you…that Marvel’s New Universe was a really big deal when it debuted.

As you replace your monocles and wipe the soda from your keyboards, nurse let me explain that 1986 was a very different time in terms of funnybook culture. Huge Events That Will Change Everything were still a novelty whose luster had yet to fade over decades of diminishing returns. Comics journalism moved at a snail’s pace relative to “no content left unreported” hyper-awareness of today’s 24/7 aggregators and content mills. Most fans were entirely ignorant about backroom editorial and creative politics, generic even when the consequences spilled over into the comics themselves.

It was Marvel’s 25th anniversary. They were riding high both creatively and in terms of market share. It was the time (or close enough to it) of Miller’s Daredevil, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Claremont’s X-Men, Stern’s Avengers, and Simonson’s Thor, second only to the Silver Age on the consistent quality front. So “hey, kids, we’re going to launch a fresh new imprint to mark the occasion” carried some serious weight among the faithful. The house ads, the Marvel Age teasers, the notion of getting in on the ground floor of a brand new epoch presented a hypestorm too compelling for non-yet-jaded fans to resist.

In the week before the first New Universe offerings hit the stands, my local comic shop prepared for the anticipated rush by announcing that there would be a limit of two copies of each issue per customer. When the momentous day arrived, I was delayed by parentally-mandated yardwork. By the time I made it to the shop, most of the New Universe comics had sold out and I had to settle for what was left — namely D.P. 7 and…

Spitfire and The Troubleshooters.

To say I was underwhelmed would be the grossest of understatements.

Truth to tell, the New Universe was the stuff of a writers’ workshop unwisely turned into a full fledged imprint. “Imagine if superpowers were introduced into the REAL WORLD” is a nice exercise for contemplating the conventions of the genre and testing its boundaries. It can inspire new approaches or different spins of familiar tropes. As a goal unto itself, however, it presents more pitfalls than potential.

The problem mainly stems from confusing “realism” with “a sense of logical consequence.” Watchmen is not realistic by any stretch, but it strove to explore the socio-political implications of “real world” superheroes in detail. In doing so, it exposed the inherent silliness (and menace) of the entire conceit of masked crimefighters.

These days, the notion of realistic superheroes elicits eye-rolling from the saner segments of fandom. You’ve got a wide open and ludicrous tapestry, why not take maximum advantage of it? Go nuts and have a blast!

The situation in 1986 was a bit different. Lingering resentment over the unabashed campiness of the 1960s Batman TV show, combined with socially aware trippiness of the Bronze Age and the loosened content restrictions of the Direct Market Era, instilled the desire to seek validation through affected “maturity.” “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and all that jazz.

Superman pushing a planet out of orbit? That’s for babies. The fans wanted realism and maturity from their childhood power fantasies. (This attitude also explains the much disdain directed at Jack Kirby at the time. His pop-art, high concept playfulness was directly at odds with the will toward “serious” superheroics.)

And what screams “realism” but a sexy lady professor/martial artist whose dad left her a giant exoskeleton after he died?

Which she the used to fight exoskeletons controlled by an evil industrialist?

And then banded together with her team of fellow M.I.T. prodigies to drive around in color-coded big rigs in search of problems that can only be solved by a giant exoskeleton?

As you can see, the idea of an authentically “real life” experience disappeared during the initial pitch. How does one make a flying, laser-shooting, drill-wielding suit of power armor realistic? By making it look fugly as hell…

…and paying sporadic lip-service to the laws of physics.

The same issues applied to the New Universe in general, which became an unworkable attempt to evoke familiar Marvel tropes while forswearing the stuff that folks enjoyed about those stories. Even without the behind-the-scenes turmoil (swirling in and around Jim Shooter’s final days as Marvel’s EIC) that hobbled the project from its early stages, the New Universe would have tanked. A serious sci-fi approach (like Warren Ellis’s approach to the characters from a few years back) might have worked better, but would have also distanced it further from the commercial draw of four-color superheroics. The New Universe books read like in-house versions of the many sub-par Marvel rip-offs churned out by indie publishers during the direct market boom.

As for Spitfire, she eventually dropped her geek sidekicks, cycled through three creative teams, got an eleventh hour rebranding as the espionage-themed Codename: Spitfire

…had her book cancelled, contacted a bad skin rash while swimming through the liquefied remains of Pittsburgh, was transformed into a character from the backglass of a mid-70s Bally pinball table…

…fell in with the D.P. 7 crew, became the sidekick of a “superhero,” angsted over her lost “womanhood,” and was presumably cured by a superpowered faith healer.

Now that’s what I call REALISM.

Related posts:

  1. Nobody’s Favorite: A new kind of ick
  2. Nobody’s Favorites: Universal failure
  3. Nobody’s Favorite: Gang deflated

16 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorite: Real trouble”

  1. SJB

    New Universe was pretty much stillborn, and was so unpopular that they never attempted to pull any of it into the regular universe. Crap stories, worse art. Aside from pride, I am not sure why Marvel let it go as long as it did.

    Time to go re-read The Pitt (or not)

  2. bitterandrew

    Not “never.” There was that one Exiles arc.

  3. Bully

    Hooray! I’ve been hoping you would do Spitfire eventually. Remember when I did a guest post on Nobody’s Favorites? I was this close to doing it on Spitfire. You have done a much better job than I ever could.

    Now do Mark Hazzard!

  4. Bully

    Also, there’s other points at which the New Universe popped up again in the core the Marvel Universe. I’m ashamed I know this stuff pretty much by heart.

    Quasar and other Marvel heroes crossed over with the New Universe in the Starblast limited series; Justice (which was written by Peter David) wound up in Spider-Man 2099 (also written by Peter David); and Jonathan Hickman has added Star Brand and Nightmask to the Avengers, altho’ they’re re-booted characters rather than the exact heroes from the New Universe.

  5. Michael Hoskin

    >…and was presumably cured by a superpowered faith healer.

    Nope, because Gruenwald used her later on in Quasar – still as Chrome.

  6. bitterandrew

    EXTRA realism, then.

  7. Johnny Utah

    I remember being so excited about Kickers Inc. I was 10 years old and I loved comics. I loved football. They were combining two of my favorite things!
    I got my mom to take me to the comic shop the day it came out. She HATED taking me there. On the way in a bird crapped in her purse. Yeah it was not a good day. She wanted to turn around and leave right then and there but I convinced her to let me get the issue of Kickers Inc.
    I ran in, bought it, and got back in our station wagon. I started reading it as she drove down us home. Even at 10 years old I knew it was bad. Like one of the worst comics I’ve ever read bad. After a couple of minutes I said to myself, “What is this shit?”
    I ended up being grounded, never getting to go to the comic shop again, and actually getting my comics taken from me for a couple of weeks.
    Damn you Kickers Inc.

  8. athodyd

    Remember the Grant Morrison/Gene Ha relaunch of The Authority which was going to be set in (gasp) THE REAL WORLD? And it was going to be all about how normal human beings could even try to wrap their minds around a bunch of anarchist superhumans in a city-sized spaceship? I think that managed two issues before literally everyone involved realized “there’s no way this will ever work regardless of how badly we want to draw Midnighter beating up Mitt Romney” and just ditched it. Sort of a pity because I really liked the “normal human” character of the elite submersible pilot in a failing marriage.

  9. GE

    “The New Universe books read like in-house versions of the many sub-par Marvel rip-offs churned out by indie publishers during the direct market boom.”

    That was it right there, yeah. I remember the incredible hype leading up to it, and I remember glancing down a rack (at a little store on the boardwalk, on a family vacation – probably months or even a year after the launch) to see a few of the titles and picking them up. Like Johnny Utah, even as a kid I could spot the obvious: the art I was looking at and the plots I was plodding through seemed exactly as bad as all of the rip-offs the indies were throwing at the wall non-stop in the mid to late 80s. (Anybody remember “Ex-Mutants”? Amazing – somebody actually published a comic with the same phonetic title we *all* thought of when dreaming up our very own Claremont rip-offs. Except that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the superhero genre and had atrocious art with an appalling attempt at “edgy” content, so eight pages in their target demographic would have the same exact reaction as Johnny Utah, and their target demographic’s moms would have the same response as his mom, and goodbye Belushi and all four “compellingly” written female badass archtypes!)

    As far as the whole “superheroes in the real world” conceit (tried over and over again) – at least the way most writers (or, as likely, executive meddlers) keep trying to do it – it always strikes me as just as poorly thought out as the glut of zombie stories where nobody ever says the word “zombie.” If you want to pretend your zombie outbreak happens in a world “just like ours,” then most people are already going to be at least a bit genre savvy (even if not competent enough to use that savvy to survive). The kind of example that annoys the heck out of me: if you wake up in an abandoned hospital to find blood smeared over a chained door in ominous letters spelling out “DO NOT OPEN – DEAD INSIDE” and hear raspy groaning on the other side of the door…the smart thing to do is probably assume, at least for the time being, that there’s been a zombie outbreak. Not knock on the door, or constantly wander over to shambling corpses to see what’s up.

    Similarly, if a “real world” person (loosely stated, considering how realistically they tend to be written) saw some guy in tights and a cape soar overhead to catch a falling helicopter, I don’t think “Oh holy lord what is going on here what could that possibly be” would be their first thought. More likely: “Wow – a superhero!” followed shortly by “Is this a PR stunt for an energy drink, or…?” (The same sort of jokes thrown into Marvel’s superhero titles throughout the 80s and 90s.)

    Maybe some combination of mass pop culture and CGI has stunted our ability to be amazed – I like to hope that if the real deal ever exists, we’ll be at least mildly fazed.

  10. David

    I remember actually enjoying about half of the NU titles when they came out (I was a moderately obsessive completist, who gave my local comic store every penny I scraped up). I thought that SatT was definitely better than Kickers or Merc, but not at the DP7 or Psi-Force level of interesting.

    Geez I was easily amused as a kid.

  11. Aberration, The

    So many semi-modern US comic-book robots and armor-suits look like boxy nigh-generic rejected designs for some ’60s no-budget anime–DC’s Rocket Red and S.T.R.I.P.E., and Red Ronin from Marvel’s Godzilla immediately come to mind–in the hurried funnybook biz and an artist who has neither decent references or interest, they always look like crap and M.A.X./Spitfire here is no exception. “Leg joints? What? Look, I need to get this page finished by three!”

    Iron Man and Doctor Doom survived because they had unique yet simple looks that artists could draw from a variety of angles without them looking like turds. (On the other hand, Masamune Shirow designs his robots and cyborgs down to the nth detail until he knows them in and out and no one else is going to touch them. On the other other hand, the Metal Men continue to haunt the edges of the DCU because they just said, “Physics? Oh, balls to THAT. They’re metal, they can do anything, shutupshutup.”)

    When Alex Ross created a lovely reworking of S.T.R.I.P.E. for a JSA cover, he swiped from “The Big O” so hard that Sunrise Animation should’ve sued.

  12. Tom W

    There’s a part about halfway down this Jim Shooter interview that explains the debacle of the New Universe succinctly…

  13. Jamie Coville

    I enjoyed D.P.7. but I agree the New Universe as a whole did not become what was advertised. I kind of think it was Shooter’s attempt to do Watchman inspired “realism” but in a family friendly way, with a universe of ongoing titles. Obviously some of the premises didn’t start off as being very realistic. As soon as Shooter was gone (and the sales figures came in) that ‘realism’ really went by the wayside. Also hurting the line from the get go was the massive budget cuts it suffered shortly after it was announced. IIRC the budget was cut in half, then it was cut in half again. They got whatever talent they could get at those rates.

  14. E.T.Smith

    “…they never attempted to pull any of it into the regular universe.”

    “Not “never.” There was that one Exiles arc.”

    There was a long arc in the 90′s Quasar title where the cosmic hero crossed dimensions, ended up on the New U Earth, yoinked the StarBrand, used it to get back to mainline 616, accidentally transferred it to his secretary (!) and hijinks ensued. I believe that arc ended up with the entire New U Earth transferred to the 616 universe and bottled by cosmic beings for research.

    More significantly, just last year native-616 versions of Starbrand and Nightmask were introduced in an Avengers series, creditted to a localized White Event. As yet, Pittsburgh survives.

  15. E.T.Smith

    Yeah, I post before reading!

  16. E.T.Smith

    Possibly the oddest thing about the New Universe was its literal insistence on Real Time. So, every actual publication year was supposed to mean 365 days of in-continuity time passing; If a character was said to be twenty-nine at issue 1 in 1986, then theoretically by issue 12 in 1987 they’d be 30. The notion of hobbling characters out the gate with an implied expiration date is questionable already (if the New-U had taken off, I wonder if they’d have stuck with Real Time even ten years on) but the implementation tended to be expressed by saying each issue in a series occured thirty days after the last. So each issue tended to begin with a lot of exposition explaining how the unresolved details from last chapter were sorted out off-screen, explanations about why the big serious problem the character was dealing with was allowed to fester fro a month, and sometimes whole interim adventures described in flashback and thought bubble. It was a terrible case of a setting conceit undermining basic narrative structure. Imagine if your favorite ongoing arc was hacked down to single-issue length, with even more space lost to clearing up the loose threads from last issue.

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