Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Graphic Lit: "newuniversal" and "Nextwave"

Way back in 1986, Marvel Comics tried a little experiment.

In honor of the company’s 25th anniversary, then-editor Jim Shooter launched a series of books collectively known as “The New Universe.” This imprint would feature superhero stories, but in a more realistic setting — no mythological beings or magic powers — and the heroes’ actions would have realistic consequences.

Of course, the whole thing tanked miserably. It didn’t help that the books were by and large poorly written and drawn, and lacking in any real focus. Most of the comics were canceled after only a few issues, and the whole line limped along until it was discontinued in 1989, marking it as one of Marvel’s biggest failures.

Of course, memories are short and comics are riding high in the public sphere now, so why not revamp the whole thing for a new audience? That’s the thinking behind “newuniversal,” an ongoing, monthly series from Marvel.

This time, the talent behind the books is a little more accomplished, as acclaimed writer Warren Ellis and artist Salvador Larroca attempt to overhaul the imprint for a modern audience.

The basic premise stays the same: In an alternate world much like our own, a strange phenomenon known as the “White Event” gives a handful of people across the globe super powers, though Ellis changes characters’ motivations, identities and even genders around enough that the whole thing feels fresh.

And if that plot sounds a little like the new hit TV show “Heroes,” well, remember that it predates that show by a good 20 years.

Only two issues of “newuniversal” have come out so far, so it’s early to tell how good the series ultimately will be. It’s off to a good start, however, with some nice pacing and setup by Ellis and Larroca. My only gripe lies with Larroca’s need to model various characters after famous actors. (Why does the archaeologist look like Gene Hackman?)

Though it occasionally dabbles in cliche, “newuniversal” is strong enough for me to recommend it to those looking for a good monthly sci-fi series to chew on.


One of Ellis’ other ongoing series for Marvel will be winding down soon: “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.”

That’s a real shame, as in many ways it’s a lot more goofy and fun than I suspect “newuniversal” will ever be.

“Nextwave” follows the adventures of five third-banana superheroes who discover the anti-terrorist agency they’ve been working for is actually funded by terrorists and decide to go after them. Explosions ensue.

The series is loud, over the top and gloriously ridiculous. A capes-and-cowls comic pared down to its barest elements but with the volume turned up to 11.

Ellis’ writing crackles with smart-aleck dialogue and bizarre scenarios. He’s ably complemented by artist Stuart Immonen, whose clean, angular drawings show a real pop sensibility and add to the overall sense of absurdity.

There will be more “Nextwave” comics in the future, but the series as it currently stands will end after the 12th issue. Thankfully, back issues are relatively easy to find, and the recent, “Nextwave Vol. 1: This is What They Want,” ($14.99) collects the first six issues in one handy volume.

As the comic’s tagline says, “If you like anything, you’ll love Nextwave!”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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At 10:50 AM, Anonymous lowland_rider said...

The original New Universe books featured work by Kyle Baker, John Romita, Jr., Archie Goodwin, and Peter David, just off the top of my head. The implication that this was all hackwork ripe for "reimagining" by superior talents is pretty off-base.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Good point. You also forgot Mark Gruenwald, whose writing made DP7 the most interesting of the bunch. (which one did Baker work on?)

However, I stand by my claim that overall, the New Universe books were pretty awful. A lot of the early creative line-ups were shunted aside for various reasons and most of the work done by talented people were pretty not up to par. I like Goodwin and Romita's work, but I'd never claim Star Brand or Justice were anywhere near their best work.

I wasn't trying to imply that everyone who worked on these books were hacks. Just that the books weren't very good. Which they weren't.

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous lowland_rider said...

Baker worked on Nightmask. (That and a fill-in issue of West Coast Avengers stick out in my mind as the first time I remember seeing his stuff, and it must have made an impression, since I was like...in junior high, and I somehow still remember it. Still, it was early days, and Baker would certainly go on to bigger and better -- in the case of WCA, I suspect he stood out mostly because even baby-steps Kyle Baker was a shocking improvement over the work of Al Milgrom.)

And yeah, I agree that the New Universe books don't represent the best of any of the creators' careers (except for probably Jim Shooter's).


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