An introduction: By now (hopefully), you’ll know this site is about comics, so every now and then, we’re going to look in depth at a particular storyline, series, alternate universe or character that you may not know too much about. Bear in mind these articles will contain spoilers, so look away now if you don’t want to know the result. If you have a suggestion you’d like us to cover, get in touch with us via Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments section below!
Marvel Universe Vs.
Make no mistake about it, while this might sound like a pulpy, video game-esque title, nothing could be further from the truth. If you like zombies, and you like bleak, then “Marvel Universe Vs. is your book. The reason? Take a successful horror writer, and pair him with one of the most distinctive and visceral artists of the modern generation, and you get something that while not quite cinematic, certainly lends itself well to modern literature that seems to have a fascination with the macabre and subverting popular culture.
Jonathan Maberry’s books have hooked themselves into this obsession. He’s a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning horror and thriller author, and that doesn’t happen for no reason. He specialises of course, in zombie based culture, and when the first of his Marvel Universe series was published in 2010, it tapped into a bubbling subculture of undead fans. There was a mixture of rebooted George Romero movies, plus films like REC and 28 Days (and Weeks) Later had debuted on the big screen.
Zombies had also emerged into video game culture, as the hugely popular Call of Duty series had begun incorporated zombies into a survival mode, one that most players came to regard just as highly as it’s incredibly popular multiplayer experience.
There were multiple audiences ripe for crossover potential, especially given what Maberry wanted to achieve with his new universe – set in the world of Marvel heroes and villains. It’s important to note at this point that Maberry’s work is different to that of the Marvel Zombies series, the publisher’s own somewhat indulgent creation and one that divides opinion amongst the fanbase because it just became too silly for some people’s liking. Despite penning at least one story for that universe, Maberry’s work here bore a much grittier, sombre approach, influenced as it was by the Richard Matheson novel “I Am Legend” and Romero’s “dead” movies. He told Comic Book Resources here that recreating that feeling of loneliness and isolation was key to the stories he wanted to tell within the Marvel spectrum.
Those influences would be reflected by Goran Parlov’s art. Parlov had worked mainly in italy before hitting it big in the US with the comic adaptation of Terminator 3. He went on to work with Marvel and arguably made his mark when working with Garth Ennis on his critically acclaimed Punisher MAX series of the mid 2000’s. He gave life to the brutal characters living in that world, including Frank Castle himself and his nemesis Barracuda. His bulky, angular style made his characters seem as if they were carved out of slabs of granite. Female characters were written as strong, not intimidated by their physically bigger male counterparts, and Parlov reflected this is his art by accentuating their sexuality but also infusing them with a harder edge that made them lived in characters.
Now, what makes “Marvel Universe Vs.” such a thrilling read? Both writer and artist had experience with the figure that would be the focal point of Maberry’s vision for his tale: The Punisher. Chronologically, “Marvel Universe Vs. The Punisher” is the endgame, with the full horror of the tale not being explored until the later prequels. Maberry therefore looks to introduce us to his world through the eyes of the man who has caused the evil that had engulfed the planet.
It starts with a premise similar to anyone familiar with a Frank Castle book: He disrupts what he thinks is a straightforward drug deal with his customary brand of violence. In the course of the shootout with the mafioso involved in the deal, the “package” at the centre of the deal is damaged, leaking a dangerous chemical. It turns out to be a biological weapon designed during the Cold War. Castle immediately falls ill, having killed the remaining men at the scene.
It turns out the substance was designed to help people adapt to chemical warfare fallout in the event of the Cold War heating up, altering their DNA to prevent them from falling ill. Castle feels fitter than ever, but the rest of the world suffers a more disturbing fate.
The book opens with a deserted and overgrown New York, with The Punisher hunting down and killing Deadpool for what he says is the 33rd time. The rest of the world, save for a precious few, are now “The Infected”: Merciless, flesh eating hordes that are cursed with an insatiable hunger, brought on by the chemical Castle released into the atmosphere.
Spider-Man is shown in flashback as the first infected superhero – beating one of his enemies and then devouring him on live television. All you learn at this point is that Spider-Man was the first, and many more followed. If nothing else, seeing Spider-Man as the antithesis of the chirpy, wisecracking hero that he normally is, is worth buying the issue alone.
The further the story unfolds, you have a fascinating insight into The Punisher’s psyche, blaming himself for what he believes to be the “last man on earth”, but also relishing the clarity that comes from having few innocents in the middle of his war. His policy is “shoot everyone”, until a group of uninfected approach him for help, only to find they are being stalked by Spider-Man himself. The Punisher has to go up against Spider-Man’s enemies in exchange for him setting the survivors free.
It ends as you would guess, with a double cross, the survivors sailing off into the sunset and Frank Castle unable to separate himself from his war, going back to New York to continue the fight. It’s a bleak ending to a bleak tale, but only scratches the surface of the world Maberry created.
A year later, Maberry followed up his Punisher tale by exploring what had lead to the the desolate landscape that Castle inhabited, and showing it from another character’s perspective. Marvel Universe vs. Wolverine debuted in summer 2011, and starts before Spider-Man’s terrifying transformation into a flesh eating beast. For the first few pages, it seems like a normal Marvel book, and the beauty is that you don’t have to have read the Punisher series to know what’s going on here. It’s just another everyday X-Men tale to begin with, up until the point Spider-Man goes feral , and X-Men team member Psylocke goes missing, her half eaten corpse discovered by Wolverine.
Events that mirror the Punisher tale kick into effect here, but again, require no prior knowledge, as they’re presented as being new occurrences to the first time reader. Wolverine starts an investigation into Psylocke’s death, but the Spider-Man incident has prompted a wider recognition of what’s at stake. Marvel’s eggheads – Reed Richards, Hank McCoy, Hank Pym and T’Challa (The Black Panther) – try and seek a cure, before coming to the horrifying realisation that the infection is airborne, and is probably too advanced and fargone for them to stop.
It’s there that the story becomes less about science and more about gore, which in some ways is this series only drawback. Too often when a sense of foreboding tangibly takes hold of you, it’s replaced by a gory superpowered fistfight, and any book involving Wolverine’s claws up against a load of virus infected cannibals is never going to be light of dismemberment.
In order to – surprise, surprise – save the world, Wolverine’s crew of bruisers, made up of most of the still uninfected heroes like (at this stage) Deadpool, The Punisher and Captain America, pledge to defend the scientists as they attempt to relocate to a new lab, only to run into the most dominant infected hero of them all – The Hulk.
Needless to say this fight takes place over several pages and is brutal in every way. No one gives any quarter, and The Hulk sends hundreds of infected heroes, villains and civilians to attack the convoy as it crosses the Goethals Bridge. Despite it being against everything they stand for, the heroes are forced to kill many of their friends and normal people who wouldn’t, if not for the virus, be a threat to them. There’s even a panel where Wolverine remarks how shocked some of them are to be fighting so callously against people who are just sick, and are driven purely by illness rather than malevolence (This obviously doesn’t apply to The Punisher – who is even singled out to be far more adept at merciless killing than any of the others).
They get the science team through, but Wolverine loses a hand which The Hulk proudly displays as a necklace throughout the rest of the story – complete with extended claws. That hand plays a pivotal part in the outcome of the story as a whole as The Hulk is eventually killed by being shot through the eye with one of the claws (removed by The Punisher), and another villain who is yet to be revealed comes a cropper via Adamantium too.
The remaining heroes regroup, and with their transport delayed, prepare to make a final stand against The Hulk and his allies. While his army attack, Captain America and The Punisher lead the defence, pushing back the masses to buy the arriving trucks time to evacuate the science team and the survivors. Wolverine and Deadpool realise that The Hulk isn’t at the front line of the attack, and break off to find him. The dialogue between the two here is some of the best of the whole continuity, and retains Deadpool’s customary lunacy in the face of true horror, and the fact that Wolverine, deep down, can’t stand him, however much he chooses to tolerate him.
There is also a fairly emotional scene here that often gets overlooked, as Captain America begins to succumb to the infection. Rather than hide it, he begs his partner to kill him, so as not to end up the same way as the infected, and pose another threat. While these two characters are diametrically different in their morals and philosophies, they are, at heart, both soldiers, and understand the concept of war, survival, and sacrifice. The Punisher does his duty, and carries a heavy heart for doing so. It reminds you, that even though the focal point of this whole continuity is a killer, he is still a human.
Wolverine and Deadpool, while still bickering, find their quarry, and while Deadpool is resilient, he is no match for
The Hulk, who pounds him into submission, but before he can be torn limb from limb, Wolverine gets a second wind, and engages the hulk in some of the most brutal scenes depicted in a Marvel book. Logan only has one arm, but uses it to great effect, slashing, hack and lacerating The Hulk to within an inch of his life, his healing factor keeping him in the fight as long as he can, but in the end, his larger, more resilient adversary wins, hurling him miles away and setting his sights on the remaining survivors.
Thankfully, Logan and Deadpool have bought the refugees enough time to escape, and while The Punisher stays behind to continue his war, the science team and survivors find Wolverine and take him with them to their Arctic base. It ends with Wolverine slowly regrowing his arm (sans Adamantium), and wondering if the world can ever be saved, and if it can, whether it’s worth paying the price of victory. Throughout this particular thread, one emotion burns through Wolverine’s soul: regret. In what is sometimes a bit of a hack and slash story, occasionally there are facets of Wolverine’s deeper personality. He doesn’t want to kill his fellow X-Men when they begin to turn, and tries to do it as painlessly as possible. He’s driven not by his rage, or bloodlust, as so often Wolverine is, but knowing that if he doesn’t stop them, they could pose a bigger threat to the wider population. More than anything, this shows him to be hero, which the stories not in the mainstream Marvel continuity sometimes struggle to do. The end, with Wolverine, beaten, wounded and without hope, mirrors the bleak tone of the series, but also is in keeping with the wider context of this universe – there really is no way out.
That for many, would be an appropriate place to leave the tale, but Maberry and Marvel, buoyed by positive sales and the continuing zombie boom, decided to follow it up with a third installment: Marvel Universe vs. The Avengers.
This story has a markedly different feel than the previous two. It focuses on Hawkeye, but while it tries to replicate the theme of viewing this apocalypse through a single person’s perspective, it doesn’t capture the bleakness and loneliness of the previous two installments. This has more than a feel of trying to replicate the bigger budget zombie apocalypse movies by bringing in a traditional villain with a scheme and an endgame. In doing so, it loses some of the sheer horror that the Punisher and Wolverine books do.
The big bad here, is quintessential Marvel evildoer Doctor Doom, and he takes over as the main threat rather than the onset of the plague. While all of the narratives are different (Punisher’s is a tale of post apocalyptic solitude, Wolverine’s of loss and fighting the inevitable), this one is arguably the weakest, taking away the more sombre moments like The Punisher chronicling the fall of the other heroes and the death of Captain America, and Wolverine’s sorrow over having to kill his fellow X-Men. This story, told through the persona of Hawkeye, doesn’t have the same resonance on an emotional level. Yes, there are the depictions of the virus in it’s early, uncertain stages, where ordinary people are succumbing, but aside from the few panels where it’s shown that anyone failing daily testing is promptly executed, it never really hits you in the gut the way the previous stories did.
Set during the ending stages of Wolverine’s story, it’s disingenuous to call it an Avengers story. A few remaining heroes are fighting the good fight in Times Square, including Hawkeye, Black Widow and Thor, when the numbers become too severe for even them to combat. Then, Doom arrives, magnanimous in his seeming mastery of the plague itself. He proposes an alliance, giving the remaining heroes and the survivors in New York access to his so-called “Doomstones”. They’re a mixture of science and Doom’s own magic, and he claims they can stave off the virus in the uninfected, and cure those afflicted. He forgets to mention that’s at the expense of their maturity, as those who wear them who had been infected, all find themselves regressing to infantile behaviour at the expense of wearing one.
Doom has one demand: That The Avengers turn control of New York, and in turn, the world, over to him. Thor is appalled at his request, and for reasons best known to him and for the purposes of Maberry realising that he hadn’t been around in Wolverine’s story, decides to shoot off to Asgard in a huff. After a scuffle with some infected subterranean beasties, the rest of the crew, without much choice, decide to throw in with Doom and give up their freedom in exchange for not turning into ravenous Subway customers.
For a while everything seems like it’s going to plan. Wolverine’s science team are off perfecting a cure, while the remainder of the Avengers, including by now the still immune Punisher, slowly-being-infected Deadpool, Black Widow and Hawkeye, work with Doom to create a quarantine zone around New York.
Much talking ensues with Iron Man (yes he is in this, mainly in the role of chief worrier), Reed Richards and Hawkeye talking how much they don’t trust Doom – and then carry on trusting him. The crucial turning point in the story comes when Hawkeye discovers Deadpool lugging a dead body into an abandoned building for Doom to chow down on, revealing that Deadpool has been infected for a while and has basically become the good Doctor’s Renfield (et tu, Wade?), and the Doomstones themselves are merely a suppressant of the virus, and not a cure.
Doom reveals the stones are just extensions of his will, and Hawkeye susses out he’s been infected all along, and is just using the stones as a control mechanism. Thus, Doom, flicks a switch and turns his Doomstones off, sending the few heroes within the quarantine zone and the survivors (mosts of whom are now wearing them as a precaution), into slavering zombies. The younger Avengers instantly succumb, turning on each other. Red Hulk gives in too, fighting Iron Man, who kills him before becoming infected himself.
That leaves Hawkeye, who cast his off once Doom’s deception was revealed, Black Widow, whom he managed to get word to, and The Punisher, who at this stage just wants to start shooting people. They rapidly realise they’re the only ones left, and Frank, his vision now clear, decides that hunting and killing the infected is the only approach left, and ignores the threat of Doom. Their number dwindles even further, when Black Widow, determined to stop Doom, is abducted by Spider-Man and absorbed into his tribe (which we see later in the Punisher story).
So, it’s left for Hawkeye to save the day, and to be fair to Maberry, here he excels, where for all intents and purposes, it’s truly one man against a god. The ensemble project doesn’t suit Maberry’s style, and the story gets much better when you get a beaten, worn out and beleaguered Clint Barton against the near insane, all powerful Doom. Reasoning there’s only one way to stop the tyrant, he finds Wolverine’s disembodied arm (it’s never explained how The Hulk loses possession of this after using it as costume jewellery for much of the preceding story), and procures one of the claws as an arrow. He fights off the increasingly deranged Deadpool (but as we know, he’ll be back to be dismembered by The Punisher later), and makes his way to Doom.
By this point the good doctor is a couple of segments short of a full orange, and waffles derangedly before Hawkeye eventually, unceremoniously, shuts him up with an Adamantium claw to the eye. Even Doom can’t survive this and drops dead, with Hawkeye left as the sole Avenger. He tries to contact anyone that might still be on his side, accepting that The Punisher has gone off on his own and can’t be reasoned with.
There’s only one problem. No one answers. All the heroes have gone. There’s no one left to stand against the plague. Wolverine and his science team are thousands of miles away in their safe haven, and Frank Castle is busy stocking up at every gun shop he can find. Hawkeye finds there’s no one left to tread the right path, no one left to avenge the world, so he swears to do it himself, on his own.
It’s a noble ending, and one befitting the “everyman” of the Avengers, the guy who is just a really good shot, and doesn’t have super strength, an armoured suit, super soldier serum running through his veins or years of black ops training. It sets up Hawkeye’s lone battle against the remaining infected… only we know that isn’t how things end.
Nope, there is somewhat of a bizarre ending to this one, not in keeping with the rest of the stories: Thor returns, and for reasons never made clear either at the time or since, bludgeons Hawkeye to death. Maberry has never revealed whether Thor is infected, and thus is toddling off to Asgard to turn Loki, Heimdall and the Allfather into Sunday Lunch. No one else seems clear if the God of Thunder is carrying the virus either, which has prompted much online debate here, here, and here for example.
And that’s that. Perhaps, in some ways, it’s fitting that a story with some much bleakness at it’s heart doesn’t have a happy ending, but even so you’d expect something more than just a quick, over in one panel ending. It reminds me of those movie you occasionally see (normally on 5 USA on a Sunday night), with an abrupt ending, following quickly by the credits. It leaves you thinking “is that it?”
Yes I know that this story serves as a prequel, and the “true” ending appears in The Punisher book, but even so, what then happens to Thor? He never appears again. It sits ill at ease with the continuity that’s already been established, and reinforces its status as the weakest of the three entries.
But that’s not to say the whole thing should be given a miss. Overall, Maberry has created a very different take on both the Marvel Universe and the eponymous zombie tale. It carries emotional resonance, a clear narrative (for the most part), doesn’t fall into any cliches and if you’re tired of your Iron Mans and Captain Americas saving the day, this provides an alternative by focusing on some of the heroes who would have the most to lose and the most work to do in order to win – and of course, they don’t win at all.
That’s what sets “Marvel Universe vs.” apart from some other tales, particularly the Marvel Zombies stories. There is far more investment here in the sense of loss that each hero has to go through – even Hawkeye’s tale, far lighter on the emotional toll it takes, features the death of his lover Mockingbird – than a zombies tale where there is as much played for laughs as there is flesh rending gratuitous violence.
It’s at its best when it looks at the loners – like Wolverine and The Punisher – and explores how they feel when they really do become lonely characters. Wolverine doesn’t deal with it all that well, as you really feel his sense of loss. On the flipside, The Punisher revels in it, and it provides a fresh insight into those characters in a world they wouldn’t normally find themselves in.
So hopefully that’s given you a bit of an insight into this particular world, and one that’s encouraged you to go and read it for yourself. It does take a while to get through, but it is self contained and may open you up to the more darker elements of the Marvel Universe, and Maberry as a writer.
Our next in depth article will look at the DC Universe, and will look at a question that has surprisingly hardly ever been explored: What if Superman went bad?