Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ultimate New Universe

In 1986, Marvel Comics blew my mind. In honor of the company's 25th anniversary, then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter envisioned launching a new set of superhero titles which would inhabit a universe with no connections whatsoever to existing Marvel continuity. It would be called the New Universe, and its main gimmick was that it was a world for all intents and purposes exactly like our own, with the exception of one cosmos-altering moment: the "White Event", an unexplained astronomical phenomenon that bathes the entire planet in supernatural radiance and begets a generation of brand spanking new heroes.

Sound familiar? If you're one of millions who watch the (totally awesome) cult hit T.V. Heroes, then probably. But this was fairly new territory back in '86. Not only was the New Universe an attempt to break with the established Marvel "multiverse", but it was one of the first series of comic books created specifically to inhabit a shared continuity. While we're all quite comfortable with the notion of Batman and Superman sitting down with the rest of the Justice League for brewskis and hot wings, most of the superheroes belonging to D.C. and Marvel started as stand-alone comics whose fictional universes didn't formally intersect with one another. Only as time went on did the notion of a shared continuity gain traction (later on, these continuities themselves would be interwoven by the later generations of comic book writers, such as Warren Ellis, into a giant kaleidoscopic meta-text), but the New Universe's eight inaugural books were written to be this way from the start.

Call it synergy or call it cynicism, but this brave new experiment in comics was meant to be consumed as a whole, and being that I was fourteen years old and a total fanboy at the time I did my darnedest to follow as many of the titles as possible. This turned out to be a little easier than I had expected, since after some initial enthusiasm for the endeavor Marvel decided to kneecap Shooter's bold new project, starving it for funds (and hence talent) and forcing the early cancellation of several titles. Of what remained, however, I was most enamored with three of the books: Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, about a high tech hero and her MIT hacker sidekicks; Justice, a somewhat grim story about an extradimensional judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one; and Star Brand, Jim Shooter's white-trash reboot of the Superman myth, where a lazy auto mechanic from Pittsburgh is given the ultimate power.

These were by no means perfect comic books, and now that I look back on what I collected they seem at times painfully bad. But in a deep and meaningful way I thought of the New Universe as something special insofar that I had been following it since its very inception, whereas with other titles I would always feel like a latecomer to the party. Unfortunately, however, the New Universe came to an end in 1989 when Marvel decided to shut the whole project down due to slumping sales (never mind that they had never given Jim Shooter's vision a fighting chance to begin with), and aside from a couple of shout-outs here and there, that was the end of the story...

But nothing ever dies in the comic book universe -- or not for long, at any rate -- and no sooner had I begun to feel a little nostalgic for the New Universe than I heard that Marvel was planning not only a series of one-shot issues to serve as codas for the old books, but an entirely new series to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the NU. When I heard that none other than Warren Ellis had been tapped for the latter project, I almost couldn't believe it at first, as if anyone was capable of redeeming the New Universe's stillborn potential it would be the mind behind Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and several of the Marvel "Ultimate" reboots, including Ultimate Fantastic Four and the Ultimate Galactus storyline. Then I read an interview with Ellis in which he appeared to distance himself entirely from the old New Universe, talking up his forthcoming newuniversal as if it would have no relation to the old material whatsoever. Nevertheless, I resolved to pick up the new book when it came out in December, if only out of curiosity.

Silly me. Just as Joss Whedon has learned how to say whatever the studio execs need to hear in order to get his ideas out there, so too was Ellis playing a little fast and loose with his characterization of newuniversal, which is not a clean break from the New Universe as launched in 1986 as much as it is an Ultimates-style remix and reimagining of the series as if it all started twenty years later on, in a 2006 that is somewhat like our own but different in several marked ways (such as the Chinese domination of space and global pop culture, just to name one instance). What is similar about Ellis' alternate '06 and ours however is that they are both worlds without superheroes -- that is, until the White Event changes all of that.

In another interview about newuniversal, Ellis said that looking back on the New Universe, he felt that the eight books were always at their core telling one common story, and so in this relaunch of the series he means to do exactly that, intertwining not only the continuity but the plot and characters of the New Universe into a single book. So far, so good. Not only does he manage to re-introduce several of the key characters from the old titles -- albeit some in radically transformed incarnations -- but he also manages to inject the architecture of a larger mythology looming behind the scenes, a la Planetary, with a shadowy archaeological excavation in Latvia suggesting that this is not the first time humanity has experienced such a powerful paradigm shift.

Well, I'm hooked... again! Whereas the 1986 fanboy in me swallowed the hype without question, this time I may be a little more suspicious but the 2006 fanboy is no less eager. Perhaps this is the ultimate secret to the medium of comics -- the promise of always being able to find a deeper revelation as one returns over and over again to seemingly familiar ground. For every hero, there is an Ultimate hero waiting inside to slough off the years of continuity and failure and begin anew, and an entirely new universe to be born as well.

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