Tattoo You: The New Universe Of Star Brand

Jun 22, 2020
Marvel’s New Universe imprint arrived in 1986 when then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter attempted to shake things up in the comics industry by launching a new range of characters entirely separate to those the company was well known for. The aim was to bring in a more realistic approach to the superhero paradigm by grounding events in a less fantastical environment and having them occur in ‘real time’.

Around this point, as a pre-teen, I’d just discovered places I could buy actual American comics, upgrading from the British reprints I’d cut my teeth on to the real thing. If I could get my hands on genuine Fantastic Four and Captain America books for the first time, why would I want to bother with a bunch of characters I’d never heard of before?

Psi-Force? DP7? Gimme bona fide Avengers and X-Men comics, man! That’s what I was here for.

I was young, I didn’t see the appeal. Of course I couldn’t help but notice the heavy advertising campaign running through regular titles but on a very limited budget there was really no question over what I would be spending my money on.

The imprint lasted three years, and by the end of this Shooter was long gone, ousted during one of the House Of Ideas’ periodic editorial shake-ups.  While various other comics saw their value increase over time, the New Universe books were perennial favourites of the back issue boxes, multiple copies available for pennies. I probably had numerous opportunities over the years to pick up a selection but still, even from a historical standpoint, their appeal eluded me.

Then in 2007, Warren Ellis launched newuniversal, a new book featuring rebooted incarnations of the New Universe concepts. At that point Ellis was a ‘buy on sight’ creator, so I of course picked the series up, thoroughly enjoyed them too, and then, like several other series from the writer around that time, it came to sudden halt mid-flow, a victim of Ellis’ ‘computer back-up incident’ (see Also Doktor Sleepless and Anna Mercury), never to be seen again.

The original books in those back issue boxes? Nah, still not for me.

And then, for his legendary run on Avengers, Jonathan Hickman (another ‘buy on sight’ creator) brought a number of New Universe characters into the Marvel Universe proper, including Night Mask and… Star Brand.

Cover of Star Brand showing character in red suit flying above a planet's surface

If I was ever going to read a New Universe book, it was Star Brand that always caught my eye – it always felt like it the flagship title for the line – and with Hickman using a revamped Star Brand in the MU, my interest began my rise.

Somewhere along the way I decided, okay, I’m going to read the original Star Brand in its entirety. It took a while to get the stage where I could, and if you’re collector of a certain persuasion like me then you’re not going to pay over the odds on ebay when you can find individual issues at cons and marts, even if it takes more time to get the complete set.

I’ve been holding on to the run (nineteen issues and an annual) for a while but lockdown (and no new comics!) provided me with the opportunity to dive in.

And what a strange, perplexing series it is.

Beginning in 1986 (in keeping with the ‘real time’ approach) it stars Ken Connell as a self-absorbed twentysomething who – in a riff on Green Lantern’s origin – is given the ‘Star Brand’, a conduit for unfathomable power (via a distinctive, movable tattoo), by a dying alien.  Unlike Hal Jordan though, Connell is – to put it bluntly – a massive asshole. Self-absorbed, narcissistic, untrustworthy and lacking any tangible moral compunction, Connell is precisely not the kind of person you’d want to see awarded with omnipotence. Consequently he spends much of the time dithering over what he should be doing with the his newly acquired power,  getting involved in some situations where he can do some good, but only halfheartedly, his mind often elsewhere. Should he just stick with single mother Barbara Petrovic for stability, or just fool around with the not-so-sharp Debbie Fix, or maybe even keep his eyes peeled for a better opportunity?  He continues to hold down his job as a mechanic – just; he clearly has the potential for better things but seems adrift and unable to make lasting decisions.

This is where Jim Shooter’s realism approach comes into play. Rather than the Star Brand being passed on to someone suitable, someone who represents the best of humanity, it falls in the lap of an individual full to the brim with human flaws, and the thesis seems to be how the generic superhero origin would actually play out in the real world. We don’t get an opening issue where powers are acquired and a decision to use those powers for good is made by the final page. In fact, no issue has the central character coming to any sort of conclusion; if it looks like he’s reaching that stage, by the next issue he’s subsumed by indecision again. In a way this was an idea ahead of its time, a deconstruction of the paradigm released around the same era as Watchmen, but where that was infinitely more concise and assured, Shooter’s tenure on Star Brand was a bit more aimless, perhaps using the ‘real time’ approach to kind of make it up as he went along (it never seems like there’s a clear direction for the story in those early chapters). Various writers would pick up parts of the ‘superhero in the real world’ concept much later, but in this context it’s not surprising it didn’t catch on in a big way. It did provide some neat details – Connell has no innate compass so flying across the globe isn’t as simple as Superman makes it look, and he does have a propensity to involve himself in some ‘Peeping Tom’ incidents – but with a wholly unlikeable lead character it needed far more cohesion in the surrounding narrative to bring the ideas home.

Perhaps Shooter would have reached that point eventually but his exit from Marvel meant that issue #7 was his last (taking a pre-superstardom, but still innately talented, John Romita Jr with him).  A couple of filler issues had Connell becoming a much more conventional hero, which obviously didn’t fit comfortably with what came before, although Keith Giffen going full Jack Kirby in issue  #11  is a lot of fun.

With issue #11, control was given over to a writer/artist who had something of a Midas touch in the 1980s: John Byrne. 

Almost immediately Byrne set about dismantling much of what Shooter had put into place, getting rid of the supporting cast (in one instance, in quite disturbing, stomach-bursting fashion) and pushing Connell into the background via the catastrophic event intended to reduce his power level that became known as The Pitt. In Connell’s place came his son (yes, really), the Star Child, a not dissimilar creation to other star children who appeared throughout the history of popular science fiction. Struggling to learn about numerous aspects of humanity but inadvertently causing varying degrees of chaos along his journey of discovery, the Star Child eventually passes the Star Brand power to septuagenarian Jacob Burnsely, believing the wisdom that comes with age would be a safety valve to prevent impulsive acts that could lead to a repeat of The Pitt.

By this point any resemblance to the real world had largely gone out of the window as various super-powered ‘paranormals’ begin to pop up at an increasing rate (a Phantom Stranger analogue turns up at one stage, incongruously). Without a central character – even an unsympathetic one – there’s an even greater sense of aimlessness as the narrative continues in a more generic manner. As much as I loved much of Byrne’s output during this period, his heart doesn’t seem to be completely in it as he uses concepts that seem more suitable for Fantastic Four or Superman, going against the grain of the original New Universe ethos. His art is fine, perhaps not up to his usual standard of the era, although though this may be the result of a rotating team of inkers.

It all resolves itself in issue #19, explaining things with the use of something akin to a self-fulfilling time loop, a plot device that probably wouldn’t withstand any heavy scrutiny but does give a closure of sorts (and a tease that leaves the door open for more).

Although Ken Connell's general unlikeability during the opening issues made it a difficult series to engage with emotionally, it was certainly more provocative and vastly different than the formulaic plotting that followed, and while Byrne was capable of sprinkling fantastical elements throughout the narrative to keep it readable it would far more preferable to see where Shooter had intended to take things, for better or worse (much of what he hinted at was retconned out of the story once Byrne took over).

The concept endured though, finally being folded into the Marvel Universe permanently thanks to Jonthan Hickman. And, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s the actual power rather than the character that wields it that keeps it an ongoing concern. Perhaps it needs to find its way to an individual that has charisma and relatability (positive, rather than wholly negative attributes, obviously) to really establish itself as major force to be reckoned with, both conceptually and thematically. Until then it seems like it will remain as a cool power that can be utilised in certain scenarios without a focal personality to allow it to become something mores substantial. That and a neat tattoo design, if you’re that way inclined.


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