So, everyone here knows that I basically revere Warren Ellis as a god, right? If not, look back through the archives of this column (anything tagged “Comics Rewind”) and bear witness to my worship. Well, it’s time for another Ellis book this week, one in which he not only twists the superhero genre into his own particular brand of awesome, but makes huge quantities of fun of it along the way. Welcome to Nextwave.
Ellis has often expressed his frustration with the superhero genre in general, though his frustration is often just as much about how the genre dominates the marketplace as it is about how he finds it a stale place for storytelling. He’s English, you see, and like many English comics writers (fellow icon Garth Ennis among them) he grew up reading things like 2000 A. D., as opposed to many American comics writers who grew up reading Batman and Spider-Man books. The point is that superhero stories often bore him, and he’d rather write other things like his brilliant Transmetropolitan and graphic novels like RED and Scars. But when he does get around to writing superhero stories, he makes them count, putting a distinct Warren Ellis spin on the genre in an effort to not only keep it from boring him, but to give us a new perspective on a very archetype-filled section of popular culture. The results of this are iconic runs on company-owned properties like Astonishing X-Men and Iron Man, incredible new creations like Planetary (Which, I’ll say it, is the greatest comic I’ve ever read. Seriously. Watchmen included.), and things that really defy classification, like Nextwave.
Ellis has described it as a “pure” superhero book, free of anything resembling actual plot and character. It’s just posing, hyper-powered heroes hitting things hard and generating lots and lots of explosions. So, of course, that means it’s amazing. Here’s the basic premise: a group of off-brand and has-been Marvel heroes (Monica Rambeau, Tabitha Smith, Aaron Stack Elsa Bloodstone, and a new character named the Captain who’s real name is too horrible to print) are working for a SHIELD-like organizations called HATE (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) to take down UWMD (Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction). Then the gang discovers that HATE is actually under the thumb of the evil Beyond Corporation, who also controls all of the UWMD. They rebel against HATE, steal a super-vehicle known as a Shockwave Rider and set out to eliminate the UWMD (which include Fin Fang Foom and Broccoli Men), while HATE’s director Dirk Anger (a brilliant parody of Nick Fury) enters an ever-more-hilarious downward spiral that includes several absurd suicide attempts.
Superhero stories are often caricatures by nature, so the idea of creating a caricature of a caricature seems like a bit of a reach. Ellis nails it. It’s not just that Nextwave is about absurd villains and massive ultraviolence. Some of the more serious Warren Ellis superhero books have those, after all. It’s that the tone of the piece, despite its irreverence, is so refined and so perfectly executed that it reaches a new level of satire. Ellis achieves this by never bowing to the temptation to simply spoof everything about the Marvel universe. Apart from Dirk Anger (created out of necessity after Marvel execs refused to let him use Nick Fury), everything reads like a standalone story with its own rules and quirks and extremes. Despite Ellis’ claim that he basically finally told a superhero story that gets rid of any real plot and character, this is actually a very well-developed tale, in part because I think Ellis just can’t help himself.
And on the art side, there’s Stuart Immonen, who really is one of the true forces of brilliance in comics these days. His books don’t look other superhero books. The angles are weird and quirky and force you to study them just a little bit longer than you might if someone else drew the same image. He elevates any book he works on, and when you’re working with Warren Ellis that’s really saying something. This may be a silly superhero book, but in Immonen’s hands every panel is fascinating.
And that’s Nextwave, a wild, perverse ride from two of the greatest forces in modern comics.