Sunday, 16 March 2014

Nextwave: Agents of HATE

Warren Ellis has a history of writing what are essentially creator-owned titles in established shared universes. He did it with Stormwatch, The Authority and Planetary in the Wildstorm universe. He did it with Excalibur and other associated X-titles in Marvel. And he did it with Nextwave.

Nextwave was written at a time when Ellis was working exclusively for Marvel. He's said that during this period he felt he was being paid to service Marvel's vast back catalogue of characters and concepts. Which is a fair argument to make. I wish Marvel would try their hand at creating a new batch of heroes and villains but this approach is a good alternative. Ellis selected a handful of barely used characters, stuck them together as a team and pitted them against a batch of equally barely used enemies (and new enemies with very clear links to established ones). It's a decent substitute for entirely new creations.

The characters in question were Elsa Bloodstone, a monster hunter who'd appeared in her own limited series before spiralling into obscurity; explosion-happy mutant Tabitha Smith; Monica 'Photon' Rambeu, who can transform herself into any form of energy on the magnetic spectrum (it’s about as interesting to see used in a comic about as it sounds); and android Aaron Stack (formerly Machine Man). They're joined by new creations The Captain, who has the standard flight and super strength combo, and recurring villain Dirk Anger. Through his usual snarky dialogue, a strong reliance on humour and a series of threats that are either inspired by the Lee and Kirby era or Saturday morning cartoons Ellis writes what is one of his best pieces of work.

The tone of the book is not dissimilar to The Authority: the aim is to have a fun comic that plays on the standard tropes of superhero titles on the shelves. But while Authority had serious moments and global level threats Nextwave retains its humour at all times, never trying to be anything more than amusing comic, and problems that are intended to be outlandish more than world-threatening. Ellis deliberately wrote Nextwave to be as shallow as possible, saying that emotional arcs and character development are foreign to comics. I think there is a place for these things but Ellis is right that they've become overused. More comics could get away with having a gang of supes smacking a giant robot about.

The premise is designed around this. We're told that the Nextwave group have gone rogue from former employers HATE (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) after finding out that they're backed financially by the Beyond Corporation, a former terrorist cell. Using a stolen business plan the team travel around the US hunting out Beyond's UWMDs (Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction). These UWMDs take such forms as a genetically engineered, Transformers-inspired robot, an army of samurais, various floating cities, and sixties fave Fin Fang Foom.

Stuart Immonen probably deserves a mention at this point. I'm sure most artists at Marvel would be able to draw the things Ellis thinks up for Nextwave, but I don't think anyone could have done quite as good a job. He gets the right blend of action and fun.

It's a simplistic approach but one that allows Nextwave to simply be enjoyable. There are no Big Ideas or underlying messages, it's designed just to be a fun read. It helps that Ellis amuses himself with a letters page and a Q&A segment at the start of each issue, the latter of which is there to get new readers up to speed but features minor alterations each issue for regular readers.

Nextwave was originally going to be written for twelve issues by Ellis and then get passed on to a new writer. For whatever reason that didn't happen and the series wrapped up as its initial creative duo left. I doubt anyone could have made the book work as Ellis did so it's probably a blessing in disguise that this happened. A return would be welcome, but only written by Ellis and ideally drawn by Immonen. For anyone who's enjoyed the initial stretch of The Authority and Planetary (and why wouldn't you, both are great) this series will go down a treat.

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