Friday, 31 August 2012

Essential Nova volume 1

Essential Nova (the title given in the copyright information, and also on the spine) volume 1 contains The Man called Nova #1-25 plus Amazing Spider-Man #171, which contained half of a crossover with the series, and Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3, which saw Nova guesting in the Thing’s team-up book. In addition it also contains Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Nova and the Sphinx.

All the Nova issues plus the Marvel Two-in-One Annual are written by Marv Wolfman, whilst the Amazing Spider-Man issue is by Len Wein. The regular series art is by John Buscema, Sal Buscema (who also does the Marvel Two-in-One Annual), Carmine Infantino and Bob McLeod, with the Amazing Spider-Man issue by Ross Andru. Writing wise that’s one of the most consistent credits I’ve seen for a title launched in this era.

The series is often described as an intentional homage to Spider-Man and an unintentional homage to (the Silver Age) Green Lantern but just how true are either of these? The Spider-Man homage seems clear and openly acknowledged, with the first issue’s cover carrying the banner “In the Marvelous tradition of Spider-Man!” We get the story of a high school student with an alliterative name who lives on Long Island who is bullied at school but unexpectedly gains special powers. There are some differences – Richard Rider lives in the city of Hempstead rather than the New York suburb of Queen’s, he lives with his parents, he has a younger brother, he’s a poor performer at school with both his brother and the school bully significantly outperforming him, but he has some well-established friendships. There’s no significant tragedy in Richard’s life that drives his superhero career and although his family experiences financial problems he never resorts to getting a job that would bring an additional aspect to the series. But there are sufficient elements from the Spider-Man stories to recognise the influence even though many a story of a high school pupil would have them. The absence of an equivalent to the great moral lesson Spider-Man learnt does stand out – the nearest we get are a couple of panels in the first issue where Nova reflects on how he could use his powers to get his own back, but then reflects that he was given them for a reason and must use them responsibly to help others. And throughout the series Richard/Nova faces some of the everyday personal problems Peter Parker/Spider-Man did in his early days, but with the exception of his poor grades and the prospect of repeating a year they don’t seem to be as significant.

The Green Lantern influence is more mixed than it initially seems. It’s true that we get the story of a dying alien member of some alien force choosing a human to be its successor. However the Nova Corps isn’t really presented as an intergalactic police force at this stage and it’s only in the last couple of issues that Xandar becomes relevant, though the series was cancelled before the storyline could get there. The impression given is that the previous Nova Prime was the last survivor of Xandar’s forces. Once the threat of Zorr has been defeated, Nova is pretty much a solo agent for the series’ run, with no alien higher authority or a legion of similarly powered warriors who occasionally help him or drag him off on missions. Nova doesn’t adhere to any grand code beyond the standard superhero ethic, and there’s no conflict of authority and morality. And looking at the basics, getting powers from an alien who dies soon after (thus leaving a superpowered human without a guiding force) is a formula that has been used elsewhere, such as Power Pack. It’s possible later stories added layers to the mythology that provided some more direct comparisons between Nova and Green Lantern, but on the evidence of the issues contained in this volume the influence is less than sometimes claimed.

Reading through this volume it’s surprising to see just how fast paced the stories are. Marvel comics from this era are generally only seventeen pages long which can be a limitation but Wolfman’s writing keeps things going at a fast pace. Nova is put through a variety of situations ranging from the comic, particularly the visit to Marvel Comics in issue #5, complete with appearance by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Stan Lee and several other Marvel staffers of the era, to the tragic such as the murder of his uncle in issue #12. The latter incident might seem like another homage to Spider-Man, especially as the wallcrawler has a crossover here, but it’s entirely a murder mystery rather than a deep character building moment.

Nova does get some character development but it’s a constant throughout these issues that he’s still learning things, a point made by Nick Fury when Nova assumes that the Yellow Claw has perished when his ship was destroyed by Fury knows better. Like many a hero, Nova/Richard experiences problems balancing the demands of heroing and his civilian life, with the inevitable consequences for the latter as he appears uncommitted and is frequently absent without convincing explanations. However unlike many he does take some steps towards reconciling the two. Throughout the first twenty issues a repeated theme is about whether or not he should tell his family, with the subplot of his younger brother Robert starting to investigate Richard’s disappearances, soon aided by his own creation “Sherly”, a robot designed to mimic Sherlock Holmes. However Richard opts to take the-then unusual step of revealing his identity to his family in issue #21 and this does a lot to resolve tensions as they find pride in him, though it opens up the question of whether or not his family will accept his continuing in the role. Unfortunately the series ends before this question is really resolved. Richard’s family are a mixture of the good and the bad. His father is a principal (not of Richard’s school though) who is eventually suspended in disagreements about discipline policy – it’s not explicitly spelled out but it seems to be the clash between teachers determined to maintain order through necessary methods against parents who oppose those methods and refuse to accept there are problems in the classroom. (Charles is also quite critical of Richard’s conduct at school both academic and pastoral.) The suspension pushes Charles to the edge as he faces financial problems that eventually put him under the influence of loan sharks called the Inner Circle, headed by the Corruptor, but Charles turns on them and gives evidence, even at risk to himself. Gloria is less well sketched out but is shown as a part-time working mother operating as a police dispatcher (which sometimes distracts Nova when his helmet picks up her radio messages) who is more openly sympathetic than her husband and keeps the family together. Unfortunately younger brother Robert fits an archetype that science fiction fans know all too well and cower from – the boy genius. An extremely intelligent fifteen year old, and a show-off to boot, Robert serves to enhance his brother’s inferiority complex and seemingly offer scientific solutions to problems, but after the early issues this latter aspect fades away in place of his curiosity as to what his elder brother is up to. It’s revealed later on that “Sherly” was in fact given artificial intelligence by Doctor Sun and it’s curious that Robert never stops to realise that as clever as he is, he’s not the next Reed Richards. Doctor Sun is also one of a number of characters to discover Nova’s identity, though most do so either through their powers or access to information. Nick Fury of SHIELD discovers it by tracking down the reports of the boy who exhibited strange energy powers around the same time in the same place that Nova first appeared, but takes steps to cover up the coincidence. It’s another step towards realism as in the real world it’s doubtful anyone could maintain a superhero secret identity, and certainly not a high school pupil.

It’s at high school that some of the clearest Spider-Man influences stand out, most obviously in the character of Mike Burley, “Big Man On Campus”, a school sports star and the regular bully of Richard. The Flash Thompson parallel simply leaps out and is reinforced by the presence of Donna-Lee Dover, Mike’s girlfriend who is more friendly towards Richard in a manner a bit reminiscent of Liz Allan. However Mike is not a pure Flash Thompson knock-off. In a major role reversal it’s Mike who regularly gets the top grades and Richard who just scrapes through academically, and this position adds to Mike’s arrogance. He’s inadvertently responsible for Richard gaining his powers by pushing him into the position where he was hit by the Nova Force. As the series progresses layers are added to Mike, suggesting that he has become the way he is due to massive family pressure to succeed, implying that he’s what Richard might have become had things gone differently. Mike is also shown as loyal to his family, to the point of being blackmailed into crime to save his brother’s life but because of this no charges are pressed. In another deviation from the early Spider-Man days, Richard has several established friendships at the school, including Bernie Dillon and Roger “Caps” Cooper, the latter of whom has to face the wrath of his uncle who has become Megaman and blames his nephew for it. There’s also Ginger Jaye, and as in many such real life cases the line between close female friend and girlfriend are blurred. She provides support to Richard at times, but even she gets badly treated by him at one stage, though later he apologises and is forgiven. In general the cast is devised well but with the limited page count they don’t get quite as much attention as they might otherwise have done.

Being a Marvel series it was inevitable that there’d be guest appearances by other heroes along the way. As well as the aforementioned Spider-Man, Nick Fury and SHIELD plus the to Marvel Two-in-One team-up with the Thing, there’s also an early appearance by Thor. Issue #15 appears to contain appearances by the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and a returning Spider-Man, but they turn out to be Life Model Decoys aka robots operated by SHIELD to test Nova. There are also two original heroes introduced – the Crimebuster, a crimefighter with no powers but skills and gadgets, and the Comet, a superhero retroactively placed in the 1950s who is restored from a drunken limbo. The Comet’s story of how his family were killed (by one of his foes seeking revenge) is a reminder of the dangers all superheroes place those around them under, but there is a happy ending to the story with the revelation that his son survived and is the Crimebuster. Both become allies of Nova at the end of the series.

The series demonstrates a high level of originality when it comes to villains. In the course of these twenty-five issues we get the first appearances of Zorr, Condor, Powerhouse, Diamondhead, the Corruptor, the Sphinx, Megaman, Firefly, Photon, Blackout and Doctor Sun. Additionally the Marvel Two-in-One annual introduces the Monitors. But once again I suspect there’s a dash to the search engines to find out just who some of these characters are. Blackout seems to have been used the most in the wider Marvel universe, but is very much a third or fourth tier villain. Otherwise I think the Sphinx has had the most impact but at times his very obscurity has been played on. The villains are a mixture of one-offs who serve a single story, most obviously Zorr and Photon, and those with recurring potential such as Condor, Diamondhead and the Sphinx. With the series being cut so short it’s hard to say which others would have survived for the long run and it’s perhaps inevitable that many have not been used much since which in a way helps the reprint volume as it keeps them fresh. There are also a handful of appearances by pre-existing Marvel villains but not too many. The Sandman is probably the most prominent, and the only one with a strong Spider-Man connection, whilst Tyrannus is from the Hulk’s series. But even more surprising is the choice of mastermind supervillain for the series’s longest storyline, the Yellow Claw. A Fu Manchu knock-off from a brief-lived mid-1950s Marvel/Atlas series, the Claw has been used a few times since, but there’s no shortage of Evil Oriental Masterminds in the Marvel universe, most notably the Mandarin and also, in this era, Fu Manchu (though Marvel no longer hold the rights for him). The Claw on this occasion is accompanied by his second-in-command, Karl von Horstbadden, an ex-Nazi who in keeping with the 1950s stereotypes worked for whoever was now the enemy of the United States, regardless of whether this was ideological consistencies. (In the same decade the Red Skull joined the Communists! Only later was it established that this was a different Red Skull.) Overall the villains provide a series of credible threats to Nova and help to build up his credentials as a fighter. The Sphinx is gradually established as Nova’s primary threat but his motivation is inconsistent. At first he wants to rule the world, but later he seeks to free himself of the curse of immortality and believes the relevant knowledge is held by either Nova himself or the Xandarians. It’s a revision that makes the character more credible but the change itself is somewhat abrupt, even if we accept the claim that he has spent a year trapped on a moon between appearances.

Unfortunately, the original series ends somewhat abruptly at issue #25 with Nova, the Sphinx, Comet, Crimebuster, Diamondback, Doctor Sun and Powerhouse all aboard the Xandarian spaceship heading for Xandar as part of the Sphinx’s plans. The series stopped at that point but the storyline continued for an extended run in the Fantastic Four. Sadly even six years after Essential Nova was first published, Essential Fantastic Four has yet to reach that storyline. Worse still the final fate of Nova for the 1980s appeared in ROM, a title character Marvel no longer holds the rights for (and by some accounts the current rights holder is unclear and/or unaware of it). Given the length of the Fantastic Four storyline and the fact Nova himself only appears in a few issues, it’s perhaps understandable that it wasn’t included here, but it does mean the storyline ends somewhat anti-climactically with the two Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe serving as a summary of what happens next. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future Essential Fantastic Four will have carried the Xandarian storyline and later editions of Essential Nova can direct readers there. As for ROM it’s less likely but never say never...

Despite the abrupt ending, this is a good volume in general. However I am surprised that at the time Marvel genuinely believed they had another Spider-Man on their hands and promoted Nova as such. The series doesn’t quite reach those levels but it is of good quality and deserved to last longer as a monthly, instead of being dropped to bimonthly and then cancelled when a major storyline was beginning. This may not have been entirely down to contemporary perceptions of quality as the comics industry was facing wider problems in the late 1970s with Nova’s switch to bimonthly and then cancellation happening approximately equidistance from the “DC Implosion” when DC cancelled a large chunk of their line in one day due to weak sales figures, not helped by atrocious blizzards that almost literally dampened sales. Nova deserved a better chance than it got. It holds up quite well to this day.

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