After the first year, half of the New Universe’s original 8 titles were canceled. The titles that survived weren’t necessarily the ones that had the most potential, at least on paper.
The fact that Star Brand made the cut was probably more due to the fact that it was the signature book of the line. That didn’t stop Marvel from cutting it back to a bi-monthly title. John Byrne came on board in an effort to save it, so the bi-monthly schedule was also, in theory, an effort to give Byrne time to write and pencil the book. The title was changed to “The Star Brand,” which was a nod towards the history of the powerful brand.
DP7 was far and away the best of the line at that time for a good reason: It had a regular creative team. Writer Mark Gruenwald and penciler Paul Ryan had worked on every issue through the first year and would work on every issue until the book was canceled.
Justice somehow stayed alive. Maybe it was the name. It was completely overhauled, though, as the first year was written off as a dream that the main character had while he was in a coma. Just like the Old Man from Star Brand, it was revealed that Justice was, in fact, human, and not an alien. His new mission was to punish paranormals who misused their powers.
Psi-Force stuck around perhaps on strength of concept alone. Teenage superheroes always had the potential to sell and Psi-Force actually had a diverse cast, something of a rarity in 1986. It irregularly featured early work by Mark Texeira, which meant it was one of the better looking New Universe books.
Cutting the line down to four books meant it was easier to solve the main problem that I’ve mentioned over and over again: the lack of regular creative teams.
Star Brand lived out its run under John Byrne. Peter David and Lee Weeks took over as the regular team on Justice. Fabian Nicieza took over as the writer on Psi-Force, joined initially by Ron Lim, then later by Rodney Ramos. And DP7 continued under the guidance of Mark Gruenwald and Paul Ryan.
Sure, aside from Byrne, the rest of the writers were Marvel staffers who no doubt got the gigs in part because of their other jobs, but David, Nicieza, and Gruenwald were all talented creators who put their unique stamps on these titles. David and Nicieza would go on to write some of Marvel’s top books, while Gruenwald was already entrenched in his classic run of Captain America.
Of the four books, Psi-Force probably had the best overall run post-culling. Byrne would take Star Brand into some interesting areas with regards to what actual super beings would be like in our world, and then into what unlimited power could really do to someone. The evolution of Ken Connell and the introduction of Ken’s child were well done, but the bi-monthly schedule meant that when it was over and done, not much ground had actually been covered.
DP7 probably suffered the most after the line was cut down. While the book had never been laser focused, it still had some through line in its first year. The series became a book about a road trip of sorts, and the cast kept expanding and expanding. Gruenwald and Ryan were great to give each of their characters depth, but that meant veering into the George RR Martin realm of plot, where each character could have held their own series. The cover for the final issue pokes fun at the unwieldy cast, so the creators were at least aware of the problem.
The new version of Justice was substantially better than what came before, but that was a very low bar. But Justice’s new goal to police paranormals was a good turn for the character, and allowed him to crossover into other books. It also allowed David and Weeks to dig into the various corners of the New Universe as John Tensen went about his business.
Side note: Of the original 8 New Universe titles, 3 of them starred characters named, respectively, John Tensen, Keith Remsen, and Jenny Swensen. And you will never guess which one of those was Nightmask (hint: Nightmask was about dreams).
But Psi-Force came together better than any of the other books. In Nicieza’s first issue as regular writer, he dug into each character, both physically and mentally. He deconstructed their powers and turned them into a very powerful, anti-establishment group that was constantly at odds with governmental agencies. While he may have gone to the well one too many times with the “group is scattered and must find each other” bit (it happens twice in the span of a little over a year), he does so to keep the team evolving. Characters die, characters leave, and new characters join and end up being essential. In the end only one of the first five is on the team; you actually felt like there was a real journey with this title, not just lip service.
Eventually, The New Universe would have to resort to a ploy that most doomed lines of comics would try in an effort to boost sales: drastic upheaval. Since the mainstream Marvel U had to remain somewhat stagnant, the theory was that this alternate universe was not bound by continuity, IPs, or sales, so they creators could really alter the landscape. For the New Universe, the first step was a double-sized one shot called The Pitt.
Ken Connell, current bearer of the Star Brand and fictional stand-in for his creator and original writer, Jim Shooter, decides to transfer a portion of his power into an inanimate object, much the way that the Old Man did with an asteriod, which in turn led to the White Event. But Connell’s plan backfires and he ends up destroying Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his home town and, of course, the home town of Jim Shooter.
Shooter had left Marvel a few months earlier and Marvel basically nuked his home town and made him the cause.
This was in the late 80s, so the U.S. government of the New Universe came to the same conclusion the U.S. government of OUR universe would have: the Soviets did it.
This wasn’t the case, but it was motivation enough to start rounding up paranormals to see if they could work as a military unit. This led to the next New Universe one shot, The Draft.
You can probably see where this is headed.
When the line was canceled with issue #32 of the monthly books, a handful of characters would continue on in The War, the final chapter in the thread that had started with The Pitt and run through The Draft. This was an odd way to end the line, as it featured a group of characters who had been shuffled off to the side for months. Aside from the timely intervention of Ken Connell’s child (who would disarm the world in the finale), none of the main characters from the New Universe played major parts in what was supposedly the climax to the imprint. On one hand, it was nice that we didn’t have to see characters we enjoyed from the main books continue on under the ink and pen of other creators, but at the same time it didn’t feel like a proper send off.
The original New Universe characters would pop up here and there in the Marvel Universe proper, pulled in by their former writers. Peter David brought Justice into the world of Spider-man 2099. Mark Gruenwald pulled a handful of characters into the book he was writing at the time, Quasar, as well as ultimately pulling the New Universe into the Marvel multi-verse.
Marvel would later attempt to revise the line with newuniversal, a series that had even less success than the original line, mostly because it was published at random times and never actually finished.
The New Universe’s most prominent impact, aside from showcasing new talent that would go on to have impressive careers, would be on display when Jonathan Hickman took over the Avengers. He incorporated the Star Brand and Nightmask, giving both larger, cosmic purposes, and hosts who existed on the Marvel U Earth. The two even received their own, short lived series.
Most recently, James Robinson and Leonard Kirk introduced a new version of the Squadron Supreme to the Marvel U. This team featured orphaned characters from universes that didn’t survive Marvel’s Secret Wars. Included in their number is Blur, formerly of DP7, a fairly clear indication that the New Universe as we knew it no longer exists.
The New Universe was destined to fail from the start; the fact that even three of its concepts/characters continue to exist in some form 30 years later is amazing, and a testament to the fact that the Big Two will never let IPs completely die.