The New Universe was intended to create a big splash and ended up being a subject for mocking. Then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decided to celebrate Marvel’s 25th anniversary by launching a whole new line of titles that existed completely outside of the standard Marvel Universe of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the rest. For a number of reasons, including that the line was kind of uninspiring, the New U. only lasted a few years. But there is a lingering affection among some fans for those old comics. Among those fans is me.
When I saw this comic in the dollar bin at this weekend’s Emerald City Comicon, I knew I had to pick it up. And, to my great surprise, this was a sensational comic book.
Out of all the New U. titles, Star Brand was probably the most interesting and certainly the most controversial. Writer Jim Shooter was extremely controversial in his Editor-in-Chief duties (ask one set of creators their opinion of Shooter, even now, and they’ll explode in an endless stream of profanity; ask another set of creators and they’ll be effusive in their praise for Shooter). Star Brand was presented as Shooter’s dream project, the comic that he created specifically to be the flagship of his new line of comics.
If the comic was Shooter’s dream project, it was a decidedly odd project. The Star Brand was a sort of extraterrestrial tattoo that grafted itself to an underachiever named Ken Connell. Theoretically, the tattoo made Connell the most powerful man in his world. But somehow Connell never got around to exercising the power much in heroic ways. Instead, he kept his crap mechanic job and spent much of his power as a way to increase his sexual attractiveness and potency. It was an intriguingly post-modern take on heroics at a time before po-mo was in fashion, almost as if Shooter was intentionally creating a non-heroic hero in an attempt to create a countermeasure to the heroes he edited at the time. As the summary at the front of this comic says, “Ken is not the most imaginative mechanic in all of Pittsburgh. Among the powers of flight, super-strength, invulnerability and the ability to project massive blasts of energy, the Star Brand makes its bearer immortal…but Ken would rather fix carburetors and hit on bodacious Betty’s.”
In an odd and kind of brain-twisting change of place, this Untold Tales comic is a post-modern take on a post-modern super-hero. The story is narrated by Arden, a kind of interdimensional wanderer who is tracking down the star brand between dimensions. Her takes on Connell mirror the reader’s opinions, whether it’s Connell’s mullet, his bizarre choice in friends, or his relentless underachieving. I love how Arden is so judgmental of Connell. When she lists what the Star Brand wearers in other dimensions have done (one is the idol of billions, another is a global monarch), it’s hard to not laugh at the limited ambitions of the New U. creator’s world. And as the story progresses, the pair gets to know each other better and the humor gets more interesting. “I can’t believe I’m talking to a fine lady from an alternate universe. This is the most rad thing that’s happened to me all week.”
The story gets even more post-modern as Arden references and even shows covers from our dimension’s comics. It’s a silly touch; kind of pointless in a way, but it had me cackling in glee. The story only gets better from there, and I loved the twist towards the end about Ken’s hormones. The final line brings the whole comic together. “I just hope they find someone good to draw me in the comic,” Arden says. How appropriate.
Javier Pulido’s art channels early John Romita Jr., which is appropriate since JR Jr. drew the comic back in the day. There are some scenes that look stunningly like Romita’s work, and others that look nothing like him but still carry the spirit of the era.
In the end, Arden’s hectoring and explanations for Ken’s lack of ambitions give the book a kind of poignant feel. I found myself genuinely moved by the way Ken’s portrayed in this book and his genuine interest in improving himself that is continually at war with his lack of ambition. I had low expectations for this comic, but it really got under my skin.