This is a blog about failure. Thirty years ago, Marvel Comics celebrated its 25th Anniversary by launching a “New Universe” – a start-up line of all-original comics, designed to… well, that depends who you ask. In theory, the New Universe was meant to reflect “the world outside your window”, returning to a level of ‘realism’ other Marvel comics had supposedly once had and lost. From the world outside Marvel’s window, it looked like a colossal vanity project – born of a need by Marvel’s then Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter, to prove a point to his critics: he was a creator, not just a brand manager.
In practise, once underway, both these aims were quickly scrambled. Marvel slashed the New Universe’s budget, and the grind of producing eight monthly comics on a shoestring soon became visible on the page. Within a year of its launch, Shooter was out of a job. This is a blog, after all, about failure, as it shows up in creative product: disappointing, mediocre, half-hearted, cruddy failure. It will also be about comics, and hype, and the 80s. At 13, a Marvel fan, I believed in the New Universe. Shooter’s very eighties pitch – that I would be “in on the ground floor” of something big – suckered me in. I have hardly ever been as excited as when the first issues of its titles trickled into a suburban British comic shop. And hardly ever as disappointed as when I read them. Some I dropped entirely, some I followed doggedly. At least one became a favourite, for a while. In among the failure may be some elements of success.
The New Universe is an itch I have needed to scratch for a while. It is underrated in the most thankless way, a four out of ten that gets dismissed as a two. On the surely sound assumption that almost nobody has read these comics or wants to read these comics, I will spoil them freely and ruthlessly. There are around 180 New Universe comics. This post talks about just one, but most will cover several, in chronological order.
1) Star Brand #1 (October 1986. Shooter / Romita Jr / Williamson / Scheele)
Peter Parker, original Marvel’s flagship hero, is a tormented man. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a catchphrase so much as a cover-up – his lacerating sense of responsibility predates the power. How he handles that is the story. There is a story to be told about somebody learning to deal with great power, but it’s not actually the story Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby or Stan Lee decided to tell with Spider-Man.
Twenty-five years later, writing Star Brand, Jim Shooter had a crack at it. Shooter as a writer is notoriously fascinated with power – his stories are full of people coping with omnipotence. Power itself is interesting to him in a way it wasn’t for Marvel’s original creators, who were interested in limits, and ideally limits imposed by personality or character flaws. This, in turn, isn’t something that gets Shooter going. His all-powerful beings are more often floored by others misunderstanding them.
So here’s Kenneth Connell. He’s in his late twenties, I’d say, tall, athletic, handsome, blessed by nature with a mane of blond hair and blessed by the good taste of penciller John Romita Jr with no inclination to turn it into a mullet. He’s a blue-collar guy from the Pittsburgh suburbs, works in an auto shop, banters with his tubby boss, has a nice place of his own. No strings, and no desire for any. A man of action, of impulse, of few words. Here he is mountain biking.
Star Brand 1 is a character sketch of Ken Connell wrapped around a very familiar plot. The plot is about a super-weapon gifted to Connell by a dying alien. The super-weapon – a BRAND in the shape of a STAR – is cosmically powerful and activated by the user’s willpower.
You don’t have to be that deep into this world to recognise this as Green Lantern’s origin: dying alien seeks fearless Earthman to inherit a cosmic weapon. Shooter is very obviously aware of this, because Ken Connell’s longest speech in the entire comic is an aside explaining to his nerdy friend Myron how extremely stupid it would be for a dying alien to seek a fearless Earthman to inherit a cosmic weapon. Myron has the look of a man who has just said, off panel, “Oh, a bit like Green Lantern?” and is now learning to regret it. Star Brand is certainly not Green Lantern and let’s make that very clear right away.
After sorting out this small matter, Star Brand fights another alien and the comic reaches its famously triumphant ending.
It was seeing this sequence on a Tumblr that made me want to take on this project. Superhero comics are often called juvenile power fantasies, and people have in turn said no, this is unfair, as most modern superhero comics are about what a grim fucking burden having the powers is. But Star Brand 1, whatever its earlier flashes of interest, really does end up as a juvenile power fantasy. “I’ll kick every butt in the universe” is an 8 year old’s idea of tough. This comic’s concept of power has a Trumpish simplicity: Ken has the power. Other people want to take the power off him. Ken will kick their butts. Adding any tension or wrinkle to that is utterly beyond what Star Brand 1 wants to do. The only “responsibility” it imagines is the responsibility to stay powerful.
So Star Brand 1 spends a lot of time establishing Ken Connell’s life and personality* only to place him in a situation that’s childishly devoid of nuance. The one benefit is that if you’re going to do a comic about power, giving it to the young John Romita Jr to draw is a great idea.
Romita Jr is the best thing about the comic. He’s the most famous artist to get a regular New Universe gig, and that was doubly true at the time – he’d come to it off X-Men, Marvel’s biggest-selling comic, which showed how seriously the company initially took the project. He draws a great, stylish alien.
And more generally his art on this crackles – he is particularly good at capturing both the weight and heft of the objects Star Brand is lifting up, and how easy it is for him to do it. His scenes of slag and destruction are visceral, but he’s also always slick. In fact, his work is the closest the comic gets – and maybe the entire New Universe gets – to actually feeling like an 80s update of old school Marvel: Romita Jr’s stuff is a gated-drums remix of Kirby. But with the budget screaming and Shooter (as he told it) already working for free, we shouldn’t expect much more of it.
*I haven’t said much about this, and not because there’s nothing to say. In particular, Connell’s complicated love life will come up in future entries. Here’s a taste of this charmer’s style, though.
Next, the other New Universe first issues begin to roll out.