Last month, a universe died. The New Universe, that is. True, this fictional habitat is about to be spotlighted next month in the bookshelf format THE WAR, and will be appearing in upscale one-shots sporadically thereafter. But as far as making regular monthly visits into your living room, the New Universe is dead, Jim. And more’s the pity. I am definitely biased, having been one of the creators who tilled the New Universe fields from its very origin to its very demise, but still and all, I thought the New Universe was a brilliant concept for a universe and I will miss it greatly.
I have my own theories about why it ultimately failed to catch on any bigger than it did, and since I also have my own column about comics every month, I’m going to share them with you. But that’s going to be my topic next month. This month I want to praise the glories of the New Universe in a quixotic attempt to convince the doubtful among you the magnificence you might have missed.
So what was so neat about the New Universe? Well, for starters, there’s the fundamental simplicity of a one-premise universe. The Marvel Universe, the greatest fictional reality in all literature, is, shall we say, a bit complicated. To understand the nature of reality in the Marvel Universe, you need to accept the existence of time travel, highly advanced technologies that do not affect everyday lifestyles, other dimensions, true magic, benign radical mutation, untold numbers of mostly humanoid extraterrestrial races, a handful of humanoid races that branched off from Homo sapiens, the survival of dinosaurs, literal god-like beings from mythology, and abstract quasi-omnipotent entities never heard of in Earth’s mythologies, to name but the major ones.
With the New Universe, you needed to accept just one basic premise, the White Event, an unexplained astronomical phenomenon which bombarded the Earth with an unknown form of energy that caused benign radical mutations in random persons. No magic, no aliens (the Old Man in STAR BRAND turned out to be human), no other dimensions (the one in JUSTICE turned out to be somebody’s dream), no gods, no super-technology, no hidden races of pseudo-human beings, no dinosaurs, no gods, no abstract beings, no alternate history. The New Universe was identical to the world we readers lived in, until July 22, 1986, when the Earth began to change. To get into the New U, you did not have to know Earth’s alternate history since the dawn of the planet – it didn’t have an alternate history. It was the same as our history. If the simplicity fo the New Universe premise was unclear to you, it’s because some the New U writers were not in sync with the initial premise, a factor that led to its demise, as I’ll explore in detail next month.
What else did the New Universe have going for it? Why, the glory of a truly democratic – if not random – heroic fantasy. Most of the super heroes the comics medium has given us to date were special to begin with, long before they ever got their costumes and super-powers. Consider Marvel’s great scientists, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Henry Pym, and T’Challa. Even if these guys had never donned tights, they’d have been movers and shakers in the Marvel Universe by virtue of their awesome intelligence. If a reader weren’t a genius, it would be pretty hard to relate to what these folks do. Even the ever-lovable Peter Parker, champion of the ordinary man with ordinary hang-ups, had the extraordinary ability to concoct web-fluid, web-shooters, and spider-tracers, using the smarts that had nothing to do with the bite of the radioactive spider. Name a Marvel hero, and chances are, there’s something special about him or her, before he or she acquires super-power. For example, the Thing was an accomplished test pilot, Dr. Strange a brilliant surgeon, the Invisible Woman a high-class fashion model. If you were just an ordinary person, even getting to be these things was fantasy, let alone getting super-powers to boot.
How about mutants then? Anybody can be a mutant, right? Not all of them were cosmonauts’ brothers, African priestesses, circus performers, computer whizzes, or pop singers before they manifested their mutant powers. Some of them were just plain folk that we just plain could relate to, right? Yes…but by adolescence every reader knows if he or she’s a mutant or not, because that’s when one’s latent powers emerge. If you’re older than early-teens and you still haven’t developed any mutant power, face it, Charlie, it’s not going to happen for you. You missed the boat. You’re not a mutant.
With the White Event, however, anyone could acquire super-powers, no matter how ordinary you may be, no matter how old you may be, no matter anything. You don’t need to be a brilliant scientist, you don’t need to be a test pilot, surgeon, circus performer, or computer whiz. You could be just plain you and whoops! The White Event energy activates some super-power in you. The common origin phenomenon of the New Universe was the best premise for super-hero reader identification ever invented – it discriminated against no one. Everyone had an equal chance to become paranormal. For an equal opportunity kind of guy like me, this was a very appealing fantasy. And for the most part, the New Universe heroes were pretty darn ordinary before becoming paranormal.
This is the third great virtue of the New Universe – a slew of really interesting characters whose problems were even more reader-relatable than those faced but the usual costumed crimefighter. I know if I got super-powers, one of the last things I’d do is put on a funny costume to advertise the fact. And sure enough, the majority of the New U heroes made the same decision. It was refreshing to see comic book heroes break time-honored traditions.
And finally, the New Universe had real time going for it. One year’s worth of comics added up to one year of elapsed time for the characters. As a consequence, characters had the capacity for growth and change. If the books had lasted half as long as the Marvel Universe books did, Stephanie’s children would be teenagers, and the Psi-Forcers would be thirty-something, and Justice would be as old as the Equalizer.
So those are all of the features about the New Universe that I personally saw as new and exciting. None of the above is to say that I find the Marvel Universe old and unexciting, but the M.U., however revolutionary it was at its inception, has in its nearly 28 years of existence become the industry standard by which all other universes must be measured. But now the innovations of the New U are to be no more, at least on a monthly basis. Next time I’ll tell you my theory why the innovations failed to take hold of the public imagination.