The End of the New (Universe), Part 3 – The War
Our brief three-part look into the falling action of the New Universe has come to the last stop, the terminus of a shared world’s bumpy ride. Did Marvel’s grand experiment go out with a whimper or a bang? That’s the question. Though the final installment is entitled The War, we can take nothing for granted. This last gasp was a square-bound, four-issue mini-series, one that built on its two prestige predecessors: The Pitt and The Draft. The former was disappointing, while the latter was better, if not exactly scintillating.
The War? It, like the cohabited universe it closed down, was a mixed bag.
Doug Murray scripted War, while Tom Morgan handled the artistic chores. The plot is wound up in the Cold War preoccupations of the day, with factions aligned across the globe — Americans, Russians, Cubans, South African racists — and eyeing each other warily. All, even the people you wouldn’t expect, are poised with nuclear missiles at hair-triggers, as nameless, oft-bespectacled chieftains sit in Strageloveian war rooms.
An unstable element is injected when the team of paranormals mostly assembled in The Draft is dispatched to South Africa to track down the man (faulty) intel says is responsible for the Pitt (the actual event, not the book). The field leader for this group which carries the main body of the story is John Magniconte, former leader of Kickers, Inc. and now a Captain in the U.S Army. If there’s one sequence that boils down what was the end of the modest costumed superhero shenanigans that had taken place in the New Unverse, it’s the following, where Magiconte and his Captain America-ish getup meet the new CO:
Hey, remember how in The Draft it was revealed at the end that Ronald Reagan had paranormal powers, an indestructibility worthy of Bruce Willis in Unbreakable? Well, when Harlan Mook (the recruit who goes nuts at the end of The Draft) goes to Iran to cause some explosive mayhem, we learn that the Ayatollah Khomeini has powers to:
Does Gorbachev’s spot fire bolts of energy? One wonders. (Fidel Castro is a minor character in the mini. He has no cigar-based superpowers, though.)
One of Morgan’s inescapable artistic influences here is, as it was for many books/artists in the late 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns. The slightly washed out colors and the rougher, edgier artistic renderings mark it as such, if mostly in subtle ways. And then you come to the cover for the second issue, and it all hits you over the head with a hammer:
I mean, really. At least they didn’t try to hide it, or shy away from it. There’s that.
If much of the art is derivative, there are a number of flourishes from Morgan that distinguish the work from a merely average effort (Paul Mounts also deserves plaudits for some of his color work). Photo collages are employed, calling back to the experimental forays of Jack Kirby’s career. And this full-page rendering, of nuclear missiles about to blow everyone to hell, is quite nice — and a preview of sorts for Judgment Day in Terminator 3:
Either the Mother Earth is about to suffer a nuclear holocaust, or she’s about to be impregnated by flaming sperm. You decide. And the missiles don’t explode, by the way. They land on their targets like lawn darts. More on that in a moment.
Both the appeal and the doom of the New Universe could be found in its characters. Though many were interesting in their way, none — apart from the dopey, Pittsburgh-destroying Star Brand — was blessed with powers that could give the gods pause. There were no Thors or Supermen walking among them. While that could be bland, there’s a bit of a payoff in this book as the team of paranormals goes into action. It’s a kick to watch them work together, each using their modest powers in tandem – as well as the ever-resent assault rifles. A Chevy hubcap is used to levitate a marksman. A grid is constructed so that another soldier can stand atop it and focus his force field powers like a broadcasting microwave. It’s a genuine kind of teamwork that’s rather fun follow, more realistic than, say, Colossus hurling Wolverine into battle. You can’t call it verite, but it’s as close as you’ll get in something like this.
And to hell with powers — maybe the best sequence in the entire book comes when Magniconte knocks the teeth out of an alligator. Yes, that’s right, MAN PUNCHES GATOR:
Suitable for framing, folks.
Gator-punches aside, there’s a slipshod quality to The War that keeps it from rising above the pack, and that’s a shame. The subplot about Harlan Mook serves little purpose, other to resolve his and Nightmask’s stories, which are totally extraneous to the main plot. The defusing of the nuclear missiles is explained later by the deus ex machina of the Star Child, the living embodiment of the Star Brand — who was slumbering when they were defused and crops up out of nowhere to disarm to world and bring our war-torn tale to a close. (We’ll set aside that this totally rips off the end to Arthur C. Clarke’s version of 2001.) The paranormal team girds for a final showdown at the end of issue three, but said ambush is nowhere to be found in issue number four. And, most glaringly, the creative team can’t even keep their characters straight:
That’s Gridlock. Metallurgist is the kid with the hubcap. If they don’t care enough to get it right, then why should we? (Did the New Universe hand out No Prizes?)
In some ways The War is the perfect ending for the New Universe. A line of titles that had moments of quality and scads of not-so-great might as well be capstoned by a work with the same proportions. The War is a bit of a chore to plow through at this late date — indeed, you almost drown in the heavy-handedness certain elements, chiefly the racist South Africans. To critique isn’t to condemn, though. Can we really be too hard on an endeavor that gave us a two page spread of a man punching an alligator’s teeth out? No, no we can’t. And we can’t condemn a bold attempt, even if it peters out in the end.
And of course this wasn’t really the end. Comic book endings are no more final than “Loser Leaves Town” matches in professional wrestling. The New Universe would crop up again in the 1990s, in the pages of Quasar. And, more recently, there was a brief relaunch of the concept with Warren Ellis’ newuniversal, e.e. cummings punctuation and all. It refuses to die. While that may be just as much to do with a corporation wanting to make use of all its intellectual assets, it still speaks to something enduring with the failed boutique. The hope still lives, and the dream shall never die. Or something.