I’ve been a fan of Kieron Gillen’s work since pretty much the beginning. I discovered Phonogram with the release of the second volume and it genuinely changed my life in a number of ways, so when he started writing superhero comics for Marvel, I was all in. A lot Kieron’s early work could qualify for an installment of Uncut Gems; from one-shots like Captain America and Batroc #1 or X-Men Origins: Sabretooth #1 to cult favourite miniseries such as Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter or Dark Avengers: Ares. However, when I was scrolling through his bibliography, I immediately knew that I had to cover this issue because unlike pretty much everything else Kieron’s written for Marvel, I hadn’t read it!
I should preface this with a disclaimer that I don’t know that much about New Universe and I probably know even less about newuniversal. I know the broad strokes — New Universe was a line of comics spearheaded by Jim Shooter in the 1980s that presented a more “realistic” take on superhumans — and I know that Warren Ellis oversaw a relaunch of the concept in the late 2000s and never finished it, but that’s about it. Most of what I know about New Universe stuff comes from Al Ewing’s Ultimates which incorporated characters like Philip Voight and John Tensen into the Marvel Universe after Secret Wars.
I went into this comic a bit wary that it wouldn’t be for me; it’s a tie-in to a relaunch I didn’t read of a concept I’m not familiar with. However, I also made sure not to look up any additional information regarding newuniversal prior to reading it, because I wanted to see how well it stood up on its own as a single unit of comics. With all of that in mind, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at not just how much I enjoyed this issue but how accessible it was and how much it made me want to know more about newuniversal, which I know is a bad idea because it never ended but now I’m thinking maybe they should have just given it to Kieron to finish?
Newuniversal 1959 #1 is, as the title suggests, set in 1959 which would have been fifty years prior to the present day of the comic. It follows Philip Voight as he goes from being a student at Harvard during the evolutionary event which grants a select few superhuman powers to being recruited by the NSA to spy on those people to ultimately rising the ranks at any cost. There are a handful of superbeings in the story, but it isn’t their story. It’s about how a man can become obsessed with his mission to the point that it gets in the way of his own humanity, even when humanity is the thing he’s arguably fighting for and the things he’s willing to do in order to achieve his goals.
The best thing about newuniversal 1959 #1 is how interesting it makes a story about superhumans from the perspective of regular people who, over the course of the issue, never get a full grasp on what’s going on or why. It feels like The X-Files but within a shared superhero universe and one of the best things about The X-Files is that most episodes ended with Mulder and Scully not much wiser about what was going on than when they started. It’s an approach to superhero stories — although they’re not really superheroes, just superhuman — that revels in the mystery and unknowable nature of who these beings are and why they’re here.
That isn’t to say that superhuman focuses of the issue, Lester Robbins and Veronica Kelly, are non-entities within the story, because they’re essential to Voight’s own journey down the rabbit hole. As we see more who they are and what we can do, we almost start to sympathise with Voight who quickly stops seeing them as people and instead sees them as a threat to the natural order. In the final pages of the issue, when we see truly what they can do, we may catch ourselves thinking that Voight was in the right to take them off the board for the safety of society at large but Gillen slams the breaks and makes the reader really confront what lines they’d be willing to cross and if there wasn’t another, kinder approach Voight could have attempted from the beginning.
The big surprise of this issue was the inclusion of Tony Stark as one of three known individuals to gain powers as a result of “The Fireworks” and it’s even more shocking when he gets his head blown off by Voight on page three. I don’t know if other mainline Marvel characters show up in newuniversal but to me it immediately brought to mind how Ellis incorporated ideas for the DC Universe into The Wild Storm, his relaunch of the WildStorm Universe from several years ago. It gives the reader a recognisable face to latch onto, if just for a moment, but they’re never the main focus; they’re a sign that things are different here, if only slightly.
I’m not sure I’d recommend newuniversal 1959 #1 as an essential read to even the most die-hard of Gillen’s fans, but only because it will make you want more and you have to live with the knowledge that more will never come. Like most of the comics covered in Uncut Gems, it’s interesting artifact that’s worth checking out if you’re curious and I do think it’s a really good comic and a great sign of things to come for Gillen at Marvel, but at the same time it just isn’t a super essential overlooked classic. Perhaps if newuniversal turned out to be more than it ended up being, we’d look back at this issue being a much bigger deal than it is but I’ve gotten pretty used to Warren Ellis letting me down over the last year, so we’ll never truly know.