Last month in this space, I extolled the virtues of the now-dearly departed New Universe line of titles. Well, this month, I come to bury the New U, not to praise it.
I think there were a number of factors that account for the New U never quite catching on with Marveldom in a big way. Let’s being with the perhaps dubious wisdom of Marvel, a company known for its unified fictional universe, coming out with a parallel cosmos at all. The birth of the New Universe was hyped to be a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Marvel Universe, but it must be admitted that establishing a rival cosmos is a somewhat strange way to celebrate a cosmos. True, not every single title Marvel ever published was set in the Marvel U (notably, licensed titles), but the New U was the most concerted effort at Marvel to split the fans’ allegiance to its mainstream mythos. Yes, there were good reasons to start fresh, many of which I expounded upon in great detail last go around, but still, it must have been confusing for a reader to hear that the New U was the greatest thing to ever come down the pike – then what did that make the Marvel U, chopped liver? Asking readers to love two universes may have been too much for one company to ask.
The second reason why I think the New U ultimately failed is that some of the original creative teams did not quite grasp the elegant simplicity of the New Universe’s groundbreaking basic concept, namely, the White Event as the sole divergent factor for everything. Let’s face it, for a world that was supposed to be exactly like the real world up until the moment of the White Event, a lot of pre-White Event and no-White Event phenomena did their best to creep in to dilute the New U’s uniqueness and to confuse readers. Such as…Justice’s fairy tale-like dimension of origin (later explained away), the aliens in early STAR BRAND stories (later explained away), the better-than-real-world-state-of-the-art technology in SPITFIRE (oops), and so on. Had everyone involved more scrupulously stuck to the main concept of the New U, the critical first year of the New U wouldn’t have been so uneven.
The third factor in the New U’s downfall, I believe, was that various titles were stifled by their creative teams’ strict adherence to a mistaken notion that the New Universe was and had to remain the “world outside your window.” What this notorious expression meant was that the New U was identical to the real world – the world that presumably lies outside each of the readers’ windows, and inside it too, for that matter – up until the instant of the White Event, after which all bets were off. Many creative teams believed that it meant that the New U had to remain “the world outside your window,” and thus nothing too earth-shaking could be allowed to happen for fear of having that reader-recognizable world become different. Face it, once paranormals were known to exist by the public, you’d have one significant difference between the New U and the Real U, and the New U would no longer be the world outside your window. This misunderstanding stifled the scope of New U stories right up until The Pitt happened, giving the New U tales the feel of made-for-TV-movies while most Marvel U tales had the feel of big-budget special effects motion pictures.
After The Pitt, of course, no one could accuse the New U of shying away from big deal events, but judging from the mail, most of the readers were still harboring the misimpression the creative teams had fostered, that the New U was meant to remain “the world outside your window” forever. Many fans felts we had betrayed the New U’s premise (as they understood it) when we finally started living up to it (as we understood it).
The fifth nail in the New U’s cosmic coffin may be that the New U was too different, too off the beaten track, for its own good – namely, appeal to a mass audience. The New U approach to super-heroic fiction was to question and rethink every single aspect of the super hero experience, from the origin of all super-powers, to the way they worked, to the necessity of costumes and codenames, to the motivation to fight crime, and so on. Certain books, when grappling with these things, came up with pretty offbeat answers –namely, no costumes, infrequent use of codenames, and crimefighting as a rare exception to the paranormal way of life. Maybe this was too revolutionary, and readers prefer costumes, codenames, and simple motivations such as “He’s bad, I’m good, that makes it my duty to stop him.” Paul Ryan’s and my D.P. 7 were probably the worst offenders of the super hero conventions. In the 32-issue run, there are but a mere handful of archetypal hero-villain face-offs. We were making stories about people with super-powers, not about super heroes. STAR BRAND was equally unconventional in its own way. If you were into Good vs. Evil, the New U was not for you.
I could mention business and economic factors that may have hurt the New U, such as altering the format of the line in midstream, making the books direct-only, and hiking the price substantially twice, but these were all steps that were taken once the New U line was already floundering. Truth to tell, these steps actually enabled the New Universe line to last as long as it did.
So, as a line of monthly titles, the great experiment known as the New Universe is dead. The characters, many of whom have gained a rabid core following, will live on in sporadic special formats. I’m really going to miss a lot of them. Sometime I wonder how many of the New U titles might still be around today if they had been set in the Marvel Universe from the start. Some I can easily see finding a comfortable niche in the Marvel U – Justice, Nightmask, and Kickers – other I’m afraid would just be somewhat redundant or inconsequential in the cosmic-powered mutantocentric Marvel U – my beloved D.P. 7, for instance. Oh, well. It’s not to be anyway. You can say a lot of things about the New Universe, but one thing you can’t say is that it “sold out” and was tacked onto the outskirts of the immensely more popular Marvel Universe in a last ditch effort to save it.