A quiz: name this Marvel Comics crossover event.

An incident – caused by the irresponsible use of superhuman powers – has caused massive loss of life, public outcry and led to swift government action. Many people with superhuman abilities are being rounded up and registered, while others go on the run. As the situation escalates, super-war seems inevitable…

Obviously, if you answered this summer’s CIVIL WAR series, you’d be wrong. The event in question was 1988’s THE PITT, set in Marvel’s short-lived ‘New Universe’, and the incident in question was the annihilation of the entire city of Pittsburgh.

Though CIVIL WAR and THE PITT share a handful of plot points, there are key differences between the two comics. Most importantly, CIVIL WAR is the best-selling series of its year while THE PITT was an all-or-nothing attempt to save a flailing imprint. In the 2006 story, the frisson for fans comes from trying to work out how the status quo of the Marvel Universe will change, while knowing that these are multi-million dollar properties and their basic set-ups are very hard to alter. In the 1988 comic, the status quo change is rather obvious: there’s a five-mile deep hole where Pittsburgh was, and everyone who lived there is dead.

There are similarities, too – both comics place a premium on a level of realism. The story in CIVIL WAR is a more thorough – rather too thorough, one might say – working through of a story trope common in 1970s Marvel: government crackdown on superheroes o noes! The usual done-in-an-issue resolution would be Captain America saving a suddenly repentant President – perhaps the current story won’t end quite so glibly. In interviews, Marvel boss Joe Quesada regularly bats reader objections to plot developments aside with appeals to the “real world” as an arbiter of credibility. The New Universe, meanwhile, had realism as its founding value, so before talking about THE PITT specifically it’s worth looking quickly at the origins and development of the ‘New U’ it affected.

In 1986, the ‘Marvel Universe’ (i.e. the shared milieu that most Marvel comics are set in) was 25 years old (and I’d been reading them for exactly one of those years). Then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decided that the big promo celebration would be the launch of a new Universe of interlocking company-owned properties. The hook was that these comics would be set in “the world outside your window” – a realistic 1980s world into which superhero elements would be very gradually introduced: no costumes, no codenames, no magic or aliens. Realism.

Then the marketing budget got slashed, the money available to hire top-drawer talent vanished, and a host of in-house junior editors and newbie writers found themselves having to write everything in a big hurry and make some sense out of this vague manifesto. The results were unedifying – in fact the New Universe has a reputation as an all-time comics stinker. Aliens and other dimensions got involved from the start, and even where they didn’t, “realistic” tended to mean the same old crappy plots without even a smidgen of wonder to enliven them. Initially high sales crashed catastrophically and Marvel was left looking at a “New Coke” style branding disaster. Half the titles were cancelled, Shooter lost his job, and THE PITT was designed as an event which would unify the New U line and reassert its credentials.

The flagship New Universe comic was STAR BRAND, in which a lazy, vain, and not terribly bright motorcycle mechanic from Pittsburgh was gifted with the most powerful weapon in the universe. Back in the Marvel U, this would have been a cue for a rapid maturing of our hero, as he learns all that stuff about great power and great responsibility. Ken, the STAR BRAND lead, remains lazy and vain and – crucially – dim. The simplest superhero tasks – like saving a nuclear submarine – involve much fumbling, and he does things like go zooming into space and not be able to work out where the Earth has moved to. Meanwhile he’s casually two-timing his girlfriend and being browbeaten by his neighbour, who he has accidentally revealed the power to.

STAR BRAND isn’t a bad comic. Partly this is down to artist John Romita Jr, one of the few star draws the line mustered. Partly it’s that the events of THE PITT give the story a retroactive feeling of a tragic character arc, and make it seem like it’s daringly following through on the idea of a stupid superhero, rather than just taking its time over making him less stupid (as was probably the original plan). Ken’s neighbour persuades him to go public with his power as a superhero, like in the comics: his initial appearances end in tragedy, and he decides to get rid of the power entirely by transferring it into an inanimate object. Rather than taking the neighbour’s advice and doing this somewhere off in space where it’s safer, he decides to test the method by putting a tiny fraction of cosmic power into a dumbell. The result: goodbye Pittsburgh.

After initially buying all 8 New Universe titles, I was still reading a measly one when THE PITT event issue came round, but I bought it anyway. I was impressed and excited: this was, it seemed to me, high-stakes comics with a massive what-happens-next factor. The destruction of a city in the New Universe wasn’t reversible by time-travel or magic: the rest of the comics line would have to face the consequences. And to their credit they did. In case you want to read the story yourself sometime, I won’t go into detail about the aftermath – essentially, everything gets worse, steadily and relentlessly. I made room in my budget for the entire New U family.

The 4-6 months of New Universe comics from THE PITT onwards are surprisingly great, and aesthetically speaking do a really good job of turning a failing line around, even if they are some of the gloomiest ‘superhero’ comics ever. Commercially speaking, it didn’t really work, so after that the writers noticeably lose interest or heart and the macro-level story falls apart a bit. The sequel, THE DRAFT, has some OK ideas clumsily executed, and by the time THE WAR came round everything had been cancelled, the writer had never even worked on the New U before, and nobody cared.

But THE PITT and its immediate aftermath has aged very well, and in an era of downloadable comics the saga is ripe for rediscovery. There are three things that make it so.

The first has almost nothing to do with the comic itself. THE PITT itself – and most of the issues immediately following it – are a thriller about a nation responding to an unthinkable terrorist attack. Issues of retaliation, paranoia, solidarity, fear and impotence are touched on. Because it was published 13 years before 9/11, it’s naturally a much more resonant story about that event than any of the carefully-treading mainstream comics published after (which included such well-documented horrors as Dr.Doom weeping at Ground Zero.) In one scene in THE PITT, robotic-suit superhero Spitfire (who had previously starred in many generically jolly robotic-suit comics) finds herself co-opted by the military and guns down a press helicopter which strays into the Pittsburgh exclusion zone: an effective indicator of the comic’s no-turning-back mood.

The second reason is that the New Universe has been quietly influential – or at least its ‘realistic’ approach has proved a fruitful one since the imprint’s demise. Series like RISING STARS and SUPREME POWER have struck a similar – and far more acclaimed – note, and the “ordinary people manifest superpowers” trope is now central to NBC’s Heroes series. The New Universe itself made a return of sorts last week, in Brit writer Warren Ellis one-man revival/trademark-protector newuniversal, a reasonably promising re-start which has nothing to do with THE PITT era New U. Whether the ‘realistic superpowers’ angle has much more fruit to bear is open to debate, but the New Universe’s faltering steps in that direction are often more raw and more interesting than the slicker attempts we’ve seen since.

The third reason is that THE PITT saga represents excellent mainstream comics practise. That isn’t to say these are excellent comics – I’d argue THE PITT and its aftermath are very good indeed for the late 80s mainstream, with all the caveats that implies. (And you’ll notice this post has hardly talked about a fairly crucial comics element, the art: there’s a reason for that.) But the story does what a lot of modern comics won’t: it promises change, it delivers, and it painstakingly follows through its implications across an entire, tightly-co-ordinated line. Marvel were in a position to do this because their imprint was a total failure, so they had nothing to lose: the result is some of the more unusual, overlooked and effective comics of their day.