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The End of the New (Universe), Part 1 – The Pitt

September 21, 2013

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There have been many attempts to form cross-title comic book universes, those boutiques that propelled Marvel and DC to unexplored heights. Some, like Valiant, shine brightly like blazing comets before they lose their momentum and crash to the ground, victims of the gravity that makes comics such an unforgiving medium. Others aren’t even that lucky, and vanish almost as fast as they cohere, relegated to quarter bins and lining birdcages. Its tough up there on the industry’s macro level.

Most of the time, these crossover startups come from upstart publishers. Defiant. Continuity. Malibu. The list goes on. It’s rare that one of the big two, who have coasted on the rolling snowballs of their shared universes since time immemorial, get in on the action. But Marvel tried in a big way in the 1980s with their New Universe, intended to be a more cerebral, vérité-oriented and creator-driven line. For a time it held on — if by its fingertips. But eventually it too fell by the wayside, despite Marvel’s heavyweight backing.

It didn’t go out without a literal bang of sorts, or without a number of thick, square-bound comics that at least guided it like “Sully” Sullenberger into as easy a crash landing as possible. We’re going to look at them here on the blog, in a trilogy of posts called “The End of the New (Universe)” — yes, with capitalization and pretentious parentheses. Up first: The Pitt, the big event that ushered in the final days of the grand experiment.  

Recall that the fictional genesis of the New Universe’s superhero pantheon was the White Event, a bolt from the sky that bestowed certain paranormal abilities on parts of the Earth’s population. The Pitt tells the story of what would be called the Black Event, the utter annihilation of Pittsburgh by the careless stupidity of Ken Connell, otherwise known as the Star Brand — one gifted with the most potent of the many powers bestowed. The story is written by Mark Gruenwald and John Byrne, two of the scripting titans that were part of the start of the New Universe and its desperate mid-run reset, and illustrated by Sal Buscema and Stan Drake.

Their book, despite the titular cataclysm, is an utter flatline.

We’ve actually witnessed some of the buildup to the this universe-altering moment before on this very blog. It’s a testament to the sheer insufferability of Byrne’s (or the New Universe’s John Byrne’s) know-it-all-ism that it overshadowed the cataclysmic destruction of a major American city, but it did. Thankfully, this issue re-presents the dopey bearer of the Star Brand attempting to pass his power into a dumbbell (an amusingly symbolic lateral transfer) through the eyes of the Witness, a spectral character introduced in the pages of the first D.P. 7 annual. Being a ghost without voice or physical presence, he can’t do a damn thing about it — well, except for droning on endlessly internally and externally, describing what’s happening right in front of our eyes:

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This wordiness, both from thought and speech, is one of the great drawbacks of The Pitt. In a book that’s supposedly about unspeakable destruction, there’s a lot of speaking going on, if you catch the drift. It’s somewhat unavoidable since not a lot happens, but still. Pittsburgh is annihilated, and the immediate aftereffects are dealt with. And that’s pretty much it. Despite the giant scale of the disaster — the titular crater is deeper than any depth ever probed by man, and a giant hole has been torn in the ozone layer above — there isn’t a great sense of adventure. Much of the book deals with Col. Mac Browning, the military man given an unlimited portfolio to find out just what the hell happened deep in U.S. territory (this being the 1980s, a Soviet missile attack is a prime suspect). And he’s not one to mess around:

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Apart from the Witness, the only other main “super” character to make an appearance is Spitfire, the New Universe’s answer to Iron Man (in a Crimson Dynamo patina) — and subject of one of the first NU titles to get the axe. Piloted by Dr. Jennifer Swann, the giant red armor is the first vehicle to probe the depths of the Pitt, where the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered metropolis are floating about in mud, muck, paranormal detritus and a pool of water fueled by the now-cascading Three Rivers. One of the most improbable elements in the book? That a family in a red station wagon survived the apocalypse, and is found and rescued by Spitfire, in a sequence that could be right out of one of the Robert Downey Iron Man flicks:

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Seriously, they’re flipping and flopping worse than the house in The Wizard of Oz, and then they’re found hours later alive and well — but suddenly sinking fast in the morass. In a fairly wan book, this is one of the most maddeningly stupid elements. (Of course, there was a purpose to this, as the family was later morphed by the paranormal crap they were exposed to into an entity called, I kid you not, the Famileech. Excelsior!)

An odd coda to the book is a glib bit of prose at the end, written in Col. Browning’s voice. It’s not the best writing you’ll ever encounter, but that’s not its great sin. Its biggest fault is that it doesn’t sound like it comes from the straight-ahead, no-nonsense character from so many prior pages:

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The last bit in the book is a rather neat little diagram and map to show the scale of the disaster. In a weird way, it reminds you of the old cross-sections of a group’s headquarters you’d see in treasury mags or even the regular comics. I can recall one for the G.I. Joe HQ, which was, strangely enough, called the Pit. Oooooooooooh…:

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The Pitt isn’t good, and is as far from engaging as you could possibly be. Coming from Gruenwald and Byrne, two talents known for workmanlike assembly of quality comic book storytelling, it was and is a disappointment, a sign that there just might not be enough in the New Universe worth saving. But it wasn’t the end, it was only the beginning of the end. This story ain’t over.

Next up will be The Draft, in which paranormals are recruited to answer whatever it was that did this to the good old U.S. of A. Until then…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2013 1:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Sequential Smart.

  2. September 27, 2013 11:04 pm

    I have read maybe half a dozen issues from the New Universe imprint, and was never overly impressed. I certainly didn’t read this one. Actually, in hindsight, I now have to seriously wonder if the decision by John Byrne to completely destroy Pittsburgh as opposed to, say, nearly any other American city, had to do with the fact that it was Jim Shooter’s home town? I know that Byrne really did not like Shooter by this point in time, but it seems like he was going out of his way to thumb his nose at Marvel’s former editor-in-chief.

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