The ‘90s were a strange time for comics. First, the speculator boom made comic book collecting into big business, then Image and Valiant Comics made it seem like indie comics were the Next Big Thing. But soon after it began, it ended when the market collapsed. Some companies barely survived, some shut their doors. And one imprint, Malibu’s Ultraverse, the strangest of the strange, ended up trying something new and failing miserably. This is their story.
In 1993, Malibu, the company best known for publishing the Men in Black comics, decided to try to create a new line of superhero comic books. These books would all take place in the same universe, like Marvel and DC.
In fact, Malibu was able to hire a lot of big name writers and artists, like Steve Englehart, Mike W. Barr, Steve Gerber, Gerard Jones, and George Perez.
There titles were strange and eclectic: there was Prime, about a young boy who could “grow” a hugely muscular body around himself; Mantra, about an immortal warrior eternally reincarnated who now finds himself in the body of a womamn (and yes, this was very fanservice-y); The Strangers, a group of heroes who were in a cable car in San Francisco when it was hit with a “bolt from the blue” and they gained powers; Night Man, about a musician who was injured by the cable car and gained the ability to hear evil thoughts; and Freex, about a group of young teenagers injected by “wetware” when they were babies and were now on the run.
Each title was different, but they all took place in the same universe. This was especially apparent with the team book Exiles, about a group of people with the “Theta Virus” which grants powers, but also kills them without treatment. Exiles abruptly ended after four issues when the entire cast was killed off as a prelude to the company-wide crossover Break-Thru. (Yes, they spelled it “thru.” It bugged me also.)
It turned out that the “bolt from the blue” that had given the Strangers and Night Man their powers had originated from a crashed alien spaceship (called “the Entity”) on the moon. During the crossover, a signal from this crashed ship basically made everyone on Earth go crazy and the heroes had to rush to the moon to either free the spaceship or destroy it.
The Ultraverse allowed the various creators to each carve out pieces of this universe. Barry Windsor-Smith, well known for his incredibly detailed illustrations and for Weapon X, created Rune, an immortal bat-like vampire. And Steve Gerber, well known for his run on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck, was able to create the Man-Thing-esque Sludge.
They even put together a superteam, a la the Avengers and the JLA: the Ultraforce. And then it was discovered there was a whole other dimension called the Godwheel, made of up science worlds on one side and fantasy worlds on the other and from the Godwheel came the most terrifying villain ever: Lord Pumpkin.
And then the market collapsed. And that’s when things went wrong.
Malibu didn’t have enough money to stay afloat, so they sold off their assets to Marvel Comics in 1994.
Marvel immediately cancelled all of the Ultraverse books and then relaunched them.
They called this event Black September. All the books were relaunched with “infinity” issues (apparently, zero issues were too passe) and all of them had completely black covers. How much more black could they be? None. They were none more black.
Marvel did sincerely try to do things right: they put Warren Ellis and Ian Edgington on Ultraforce (and after they left, Len Wein) and they imported over a bunch of different Marvel characters into the Ultraverse, like the Black Knight and the Juggernaut (who headed up the All-New Exiles).
But Marvel didn’t really seem to understand exactly why the Ultraverse had been popular in the first place. Mantra was no longer a man in the body of a woman, but just a teenager who had magic powers. The Strangers never came back and the new Night Man only lasted four issues.
Marvel tried to import even more Marvel stuff: the Infinity Gems. The immortal vampire Rune was looking for all of them and there was a complicated story involving Loki discovering a seventh gem, the Ego Gem. But nothing really worked. These comics looked pretty much like every other Marvel comic at the time. And even Marvel’s own comics weren’t doing so well.
Finally, in 1996, a mere three years after it started, Marvel cancelled the rest of the Ultraverse. And they haven’t used them since.
There have been various reasons why Marvel has never used them again, even though Marvel has brought back versions of the New Universe and CrossGen characters. Tom Brevoort, Executive Editor at Marvel, has said that they do want to use the Ultraverse characters, but there are reasons why they can’t:
There are rumors out there that it has to do with a certain percentage of sales that has to be doled out to the creative teams. While this is a logistical nightmare because of the way the initial deal was structured, it’s not the reason why we have chosen not to go near these characters, there is a bigger one, but I really don’t feel like it’s my place to make that dirty laundry public.
I don’t know when or if Marvel will ever republish the Ultraverse, but if you can find the back issues, I would recommend reading some. They are an interesting look back at a different kind of superhero universe.