Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The New Universe - what went wrong?

Looking back it's actually surprising that the New Universe lasted as long as it did, with some titles going for nearly three years. However there were other major changes along the way with half the titles cancelled after a single year, some major retooling of the surviving books and big events. In later years Marvel would probably have pulled the plug much sooner, but perhaps it had a more supportive approach in the late 1980s that meant struggling series would be given more of a chance to find an audience.

But regardless of how much of a chance the New Universe was given, it ultimately failed. And unlike some initial failures it didn't leave behind a cult fan following that sought out every issue and demanded a return. Instead during the 1990s New Universe issues could often be found clogging up the deep discount boxes and most of the small number of revisits came because one or other of the creators wanted to.

So what went wrong? Was it entirely down to the quality of the titles themselves, was it because the overall idea was something the market wasn't interested in, or was it part of wider issues in industry and fan politics?

Looking through the titles it's hard to escape the feeling they were thrown together in a hurry, undermining a lot of the hype. A lot of the series do not actually conform to the basic concept, whether because of pre-existing fantastic technology (Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, Nightmask or Kickers, Inc.), aliens (Star Brand or Justice), existing psychic powers (Psi-Force) or even having nothing to do with powers at all (Mark Hazzard: Merc), even if some of these specifically interact with the changes brought by the White Event. The creative teams on the titles were usually unstable, reaching the extremes of each one of Nightmask's first nine issues having a separate artist whilst it was rare for a book to have less than three writers at that stage. And the creators themselves were generally a mixture of veteran Marvel creators who seemed to be doing another lap to help out or new names getting started in the industry. There are some "before they were famous" names amongst the credits but for the most part these were not talents who set the world on fire.

There was also a major conflict that pitted the two aims of the New Universe against each other. One aim was to present the ordinary world outside the reader's window. The other was to show actions had consequences. The result was that the world presented both could and couldn't change away from the reality it was based on. Eventually a decision would have to be made as to which way to go but that would need clear direction to be set and consistent creative teams to implement it.

The result is that many of the titles staggered around, trying to reconcile their own conceptions with the wider demands of the overarching concept of the New Universe and frequently got waylaid by the changing creators. By far the best of the eight titles is D.P.7, a series that took the basic concept of the New Universe and ingrained it thoroughly, with the same writer and artist on not just the first nine issues but the entire run of the title (bar another artist drawing an annual).

However could the problem have been that fans just didn't want a new continuity? It seems unlikely as there have since been a number of quite successful new lines of comics including some that are rooted in a science fiction reality based universe rather than a traditional fantasy one. However those lines weren't launched from one of the big two comic companies and in particular didn't come from one that has always made so much of its single continuity without rushing to put whole chunks of its history into parallel universes. This created a problem - Marvel exclusive fans were not rushing to books that were distinctly not part of the regular Marvel universe whilst non-Marvel fans were not diving towards a Marvel line, thus leaving the New Universe stuck in the middle.

But also it's a very odd approach to celebrate what was apparently twenty-five years of one fictional universe by launching another. It's not exactly something that would obviously lure people in except those who wanted to be there at the start - but they had to feel something truly exciting was coming. And the buzz wasn't completely there.

The final area of explanation descends into messy industry and fan politics at the time which would culminate in Jim Shooter's dismissal in April 1987 following an incident when creators burnt him in effigy - with New Universe issues stuffed in the pockets. Did the fans share this view? And there was the whole protracted mess with Jack Kirby, with the King in lengthy talks with Marvel about the return of his artwork that had led to speculation Kirby would bring a legal case to claim all the copyrights. Shooter's comments about how Stan Lee had set out to write science fiction soap opera but got waylaid by the fantasy input of Kirby did not help. Jim Shooter talked about the "Shooterverse" as though he was a latter day Stan Lee. Did fans see the "Shooterverse" as Marvel/Shooter trying to create a universe that could keep the company going without any need for the legacy of that pesky Kirby? The large number of costume changes in this era has long fuelled similar speculation (much of which doesn't seem to understand how copyrights work - the case brought in recent years by Kirby's family was on something different that could not be filed in the mid 1980s). Did retailers underorder in protest and then fans boycott the line for such reasons?

It doesn't seem convincing. Although the comics industry was in the later stages of the growth of the direct market overall sales were still huge and the newstands still a significant player meaning that vocal fandom was a rather smaller influence than it may have felt - a typical loudest not largest group. And retailers have rarely risked economic suicide with deliberate underorders. If the line attracted low orders it was more likely down to risk aversion strategies on such a novel and untested line, and then a response to actual sales levels.

Overall the obvious explanation for why the line didn't take off is the simplest - it was ill-conceived. The big lofty ideas rarely made it all the way through to the finished titles and visions of huge talent piloting the books for a long voyage gave way to a mishmash of creators scrambling just to get them out. No conspiracy theory is needed to explain why 1986 did not prove to be as crucial for Marvel as 1961.

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