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UNIVERSE X

Alex Ross and Jim Krueger discuss Universe X, the 14-part sequel to their acclaimed Earth X

By Craig Shutt     July 26, 2000

Sometimes there's no happily ever after. Last year's Earth X maxi-series from Marvel Comics presented a future continuity in which battered and altered versions of Marvel's current heroes fought to save their planet. When the story ended, there was hope for humanity and the feeling that the world had been saved. But that's not the way things really turned out, as the new Universe X maxi-series will show in the coming months.

'There was a little bit of a feeling about Earth X that it was the ending, that it had this fairy-tale closing with everything answered so life can move on,' says co-creator and painter extraordinaire Alex Ross, who designed the characters and co-plotted both series. 'But, of course, life is never that way. This story picks up from that ending and answers the questions: What really does happen next, and what could possibly go wrong?'

Co-creator Jim Krueger, co-plotter and scripter of both series, agrees with Ross. 'I always like stories where you figure everything got resolved,' adds Krueger, 'but then you realize something was left open that changes it. That's where we're going with Universe X.'

Where We've Been

The series, which goes on sale today, July 26, follows directly on the heels of the creators' popular 14-part Earth X maxi-series, which opened with a double-sized #0, ran through #12 and ended with a double-sized #X. The adventure dealt with a potential future for the Marvel Universe in which all humans had gained superpowers and a will-controlling child named the Skull planned to take over the world. Opposing him were a few remaining remnants of Marvel's classic 1960s heroes, who had gone through many often-devastating reversals and changes in the years since we'd last seen them. Ultimately, the heroes triumphed over the Skull and the forces that threatened humanity, resulting in the creation of a new Captain Marvel, a baby who was the first human to once again be born without superpowers.

Universe X picks up from that story, following a similar pattern of a 48-page #0 issue followed by 12 regular 32-page issues and wrapping up with a double-sized #X issue. The series will be supplemented by five specials that'll appear at regular intervals during the run of the series. 'We'll spend time in the #0 issue walking people through all the things they need to know to understand where we're going in the new series,' promises Ross.

Where they're going begins three years later, in which the now three-year-old Captain Marvel begins a search for some of the key power artifacts of the Marvel Universe. Protected by Captain America, he sets out on a mission to find such pieces as the Cosmic Cube and the Mandarin's 10 rings.

'His purpose in collecting them is part of the mystery that others around him need to uncover,' explains Ross. 'But it won't be for evil purposes. I can tell you right now that it's not because he's the devil or something like that. It's never that simple. There's a lot of complexity in his relationship with Captain America.'

Opposing the Captains is Immortus, who likes humanity as it is and fears that Captain Marvel will change the status quo. 'Immortus has always viewed mankind from afar, and he's looking at any changes to humanity as a danger that must be controlled and contained,' says Ross. 'So he sets up a new religious order to infuse people with a sense that their superpowers are part of their own destiny, to block any attempts by Captain Marvel to revert humanity to its original form. But that may not even be Marvel's goal.'

Upping the Ante

As the name implies, Universe X takes a far more cosmic approach to telling its tale. 'Earth X was focused on the superheroes on Earth and didn't go much further out,' says Ross, 'except to deal with the Celestials [who were the source of mankind's mutation]. This story picks up with so much more of Marvel's cosmic history and relates to Thanos, the Kree-Skrull War and other cosmic elements to show how they fit in.'

Adds Krueger, 'Earth X was so utterly biological, and this looks much more at the beings throughout the cosmos and other places. For instance, working so closely with Captain Marvel naturally brings us to Thanos, which leads us to Death. And in dealing more with the Silver Surfer, we're led to Mephisto. So we're expanding not only universally but also metaphysically.'

The land of the Marvel dead definitely also plays a role in the story, according to Ross. 'We're playing with the dead characters and providing some insight into their roles,' he says. 'As we indicated in Earth X, the land of the dead in the Marvel Universe is very much like the land of the living, but nobody knows their dead. That gives us a lot of potential.'

As with Earth X, which was narrated by X-51 (a.k.a. Machine Man), this story is seen through the eyes of onlookers drawn from Marvel's second-string character list: Nighthawk, a former Defender, and Gargoyle, a supernatural being who is also a former Defender. 'The narrators always seem to come out of some personal fan preference that Alex and I have for characters who haven't gotten their due,' laughs Krueger. 'When we started on Earth X, we'd been talking for years about how much we both loved Machine Man.'

The two had bounced around options for Earth X's narrator, including Medusa or the Vision, the last remaining Avenger, when they jokingly brought up Machine Man. Then they realized it made sense. 'It was a vanity to stick him in as the focal character,' admits Ross. 'But ultimately, we realized it made perfect sense.'

The focus on Nighthawk stems from Krueger's 1998 three-part Nighthawk mini-series. 'In retrospect, considering how we're working the character into this series, that mini-series takes on more importance,' says Krueger. The Gargoyle's prominence relates to both creators' admiration for the four-part 1985 mini-series by writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mark Badger. 'Alex and I were both giant fans of that series, and we decided to use him here. That's some of the fun of doing this seriesit has to be about the big key characters, but it gives us the chance to give the spotlight to some of the small characters that we always thought deserved a bigger role.'

While Earth X dealt in large part with the original 1960s heroes in the Marvel Universe, Universe X takes it the next step by focusing on the creations of the 1970s. 'We're moving into our own childhoods now,' admits Ross. 'You'll see an acknowledgement of everyone you can think of from the 1970s in this new series.' That includes a nod to the martial-arts fad of the time via a new Asian-based X-Man called Xen. It will also feature a version of the Micronauts called the Ant Men.

'I'm excited that Universe X gives me the chance to write our version of the Micronauts,' says Krueger. 'Those are especially fun moments for me.' Other favorite players for him are Ka-Zar and Moon Knight. 'I was really into that stuff, and it's fun to get a chance to use them all.'

Creative Avenues

Bringing these characters to life will be penciler Doug Braithewaite, inker Bill Reinhold (who also inked Earth X) and colorist Laura Depuy. They follow an art team lead by penciler John Paul Leon, who gave Earth X a dark, moody atmosphere. 'We put pressure on John until the last minute, but he really felt he needed some breathing room,' laughs Ross about trying to bring Leon back. 'This is a very stressful schedule we've created, and it took awhile to find a penciler to commit to it.' In fact, Braithewaite had initially agreed to do one of the specials but declined to take on the series. But he was finally talked into it. 'He came to our rescue,' says Ross.

Explains Braithewaite, 'Alex and I talked and found we had a lot in common, and he wanted to work with me. But I'd taken note of the number of characters in the first series, and I'd thought, 'My god, this could kill me!' But then I thought it would really be neat to be able to draw all the characters that I'd love to draw and also work with a team of guys who I think are the best out there right now. So I weighed the options and decided I'd love to do it.'

That decision thrilled the two co-creators. 'I'm an enormous fan of Doug's,' says Ross. 'He's done tons and tons of comics people are familiar with, but may not realize he's the artist. If you're a big comics fan, you won't be surprised by his work, but many people aren't as aware of him as they should be.' For the uninitiated, Braithewaite's recent work includes the Superman: King of the World and Superman: King of America specials, as well as a 1992 stint on Punisher with inker Al Williamson. He also penciled the well-remembered Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe in 1996.

'Doug is giving the series a totally different feel than Earth X had,' promises Krueger. 'He's giving everything a lot of detail and providing a brighter look overall. Bill Reinhold's inking is really bringing out that detail, and Laura's coloring has been amazing. Earth X had a darkness that matched the story, and Universe X has a more open feel to it that matches that universal, 'cosmic' tone. It's amazingly bright in some areas, but it's still not a 'cheery' kind of atmosphere.'

Explains Braithewaite, 'Part of my thinking was that John Paul had an approach that really set the proper tone for the first series, which was very moody. In that context, it worked perfectly. I imagined this second series in a different way, and it fits the story well. The story is really going to get the best from me.'

On the issue of darkness and tone, some critics have claimed that Earth X was too dark, projecting a harsh tone onto Marvel's future that wasn't necessary. But Ross disputes that notion. 'It's not harsh so much as projecting a level of fear and anticipation to give the story impact,' he argues. He says the stories logically contrast with what he did with DC's characters in the Kingdom Come series. 'Marvel's characters have much more tragedy to their plotlines, and much of their motivation stems from that tragedy,' says Ross. 'Tragedy drives a lot of the creative machinery in Marvel's continuity, and we're mindful of that. To overlook it wouldn't be right.'

If anything, he feels his attention to these characters shows his affection for them. 'I love the Marvel characters, and that love gave me the knowledge for how to screw with them. If I hurt one of them, it was because I love them and know them so well. It was my way of going in and giving more sympathy and depth to that character. For instance, in Earth X, as torn up as Captain America was and as much of his scarred underside as we showed, he maintained his dignity.'

Five Times the Fun

Fans concerned about other characters, such as the dumpy and slovenly look given to Peter Parker and his Spider-Man alias in Earth X, can take heart, according to Ross. 'Spider-Man is definitely a part of Peter's past at this point. A 50-year-old Spider-Man doesn't look rightit's a role for the young. But it's not a past without honor. I particularly like the twist we gave to him that you'll see in the first issue. It's a delightful turn for him.'

In fact, more elaboration on key characters, including Spider-Man, will be presented in the five specials that'll supplement the series. Written by Krueger with co-plotting by Ross, they'll be spaced throughout the series to elaborate on key points and provide additional depth. But readers won't have to buy them to stay current, as any pivotal elements will be included in the main series.

'Given the time and effort we've put into these, I think the fans are really going to want to read them,' says Ross. 'They're even more of a fan treat than the main story. They delve into great, great aspects of the characters' histories. They include a lot of personal stuff that provides an individual perspective on this cosmic story.' Krueger agrees whole-heartedly. 'They really offer a means to dig into specific characters and give some meat to certain aspects of the story,' he says. 'I've really enjoyed writing them because they provide a richness and added level.'

The characters featured in the specials are:

·The Fantastic Four, with pencils by Brent Anderson. 'He's doing a great job on it,' reports Ross. Entitled 4: A Universe X Special, it's scheduled to go on sale in the direct market shortly after the #0 issue, on August 16.

·Spider-Man, with pencils by Jackson 'Butch' Guice. Entitled Spidey, it follows in November and includes Peter Parker's daughter and all the other Spider-Man characters. 'Jim did a great job with this one,' says Ross. 'This special wasn't originally on the schedule, but we were only too happy to add it. People are absolutely going to love it. It provides one of the biggest fan itch-scratchers ever. We're really giving the fans something they've wanted to see for a long time.'

·Captain America, with pencils by Tom Yeates, slated for the end of the year. 'Tom is the perfect artist for this book, because he's got a great love for historical aspects of characters, and this story deals with the colonial history of Cap,' says Ross.

·X-Men, penciled by John Paul Leon, coming out at the end of the year or early 2001 as X-Tales. It features the X-Men and the Hulk in the Savage Land, showing how that it relates to the larger world.

·Iron Men, also penciled by Anderson, will follow early in 2001. It focuses on the spawns from Tony Stark's legacy, dealing especially with the Iron Avengers and the son of Black Bolt, who has become the new Black Knight and who'll lead a new Knights of the Roundtable, reports Ross. 'It's going to be very, very exciting.'

X-Tended Future?

Much as with Earth X, the creators say that when Universe X reaches its conclusion next summer, the story will be finishedbut not entirely. 'We knew at least two years ago that our Earth X story was growing too large to be contained in the series we planned and that we would have plenty for a sequel,' says Ross. 'That's also turning out to be the case with Universe X. Jim is always a man to take things further, think them through more and challenge me to take them further. Given the success we've had with the past series, I anticipate we'll be able to do a follow-up. But of course that will depend on the reception given to this series.'

Adds Krueger, 'Universe X is being written in a way so that all the key events and big elements will be wrapped up, but certain events and clues won't be paid off fully, just as happens in life. There definitely will be more we can do after this if the response and sales justify us continuing.'

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