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Nova: Annihilation (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

I’m currently taking a look at the modern history of the Marvel Universe. I kinda figured that I should go through at least one cycle of big continuity-heavy events to at least engage with this style of storytelling, so I can get a feel for it. Although I’m focusing on The Avengers (what with the movie and all), I’m also checking out cosmic Marvel and the X-Men at the same time. My review of the big intergalactic crossover Annihilation: Conquest is going out today, so this is a bit of a sidenote on that. Nova was the first relaunched on-going “cosmic” Marvel series, launched in the wake of Annihilation, so I thought I’d follow the first year of the book. 

I have to confess that I quite enjoyed Marvel’s attempt to reinvigorate their line of cosmic comic books with the gigantic crossover event Annihilation. And it apparently did quite well, spawning a series of associated crossovers in the years that followed, as well as an on-going series following the character perhaps most greatly affected by the events of the miniseries. Although the character has had his own series in the past (no fewer than three times) and featured in a few high-profile teambooks, it’s good to see Nova returned to prominance, particularly written by two authors who clearly know and cherish him.

Iron Man expects Richard to show some Initiative...

For those readers unfamiliar with the character (and I am actually among them), Nova is essentially Marvel’s answer to Green Lantern. So it’s somewhat fitting that the company would see fit to revamp the character, given the renaissance occurring over at DC with Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern. Richard Ryder (which, admittedly, gives him the unfortunate abreviation of “Dick Ryder”) was “an ordinary kid from Long Island” until he was selected to join an intergalactic police force known as the Nova Corps. Recently the Nova Corps themselves were obliterated by an attack on the universe which Richard managed to thwart with the assistence of virtually every space-faring character in the Marvel Universe. After this, Richard essentially became the last Nova Centurian, giving him tremendous power.

In fact, Lanning and Abnett are keen to stress that this isn’t the version of the character who has drifted aimlessly around the Marvel Universe over the past few decades, becoming relatively anonymous and third-tier if he is lucky. “You’re really not the Nova we used to know, are you?” Tony Stark asks the hero at one point, and he’s right. Even ignoring the huge boost in power that the writers have given him, they seem keen to avoid falling into the same pattern that he did before and aim to quickly distinguish the character from most of Marvel’s other published heroes. After a very brief introductory arc on Earth (where only two of the three issues actually take place on the planet), Nova decides that he needs to disengage from what’s happening there. His place is in the stars – “I’m needed elsewhere.”

Tech it out...

It’s a smart move, perhaps one learned from Geoff Johns on Green Lantern – too many of his early stories on the title were bogged down on generic superheroics on Earth without embracing the wider cosmic canvas that the character offered. Nova tries hard to avoid making the same mistake. It embraces the pulp science-fiction roots of the character and wisely avoids attempting to compete with virtually every other Marvel title on earth-based superhero soap-opera.

That said, writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning do tie the series into the post-Civil War landscape of the Marvel Universe. In reading the original Annihilation miniseries, I sensed quite a bit of hesitation around the idea of heroes fighting heroes – something inherently unheroic, particularly juxtaposed against the struggles of the characters in Annihilation as they attempted to literally save the universe. That theme is certainly explored here. “The only reason galactic society is still standing is that people of different backgrounds and creeds joined together to fight a common foe,” Nova explains to Tony Stark, with a casual disdain for what has unfolded on Earth in his absence, “That kind of puts the squabbles here in perspective, don’t you think?” Nova and his allies “saved the universe.” Richard demands, “What have you done lately, Tony?”

Richard wonders if his insurance is still valid after the fall of the Corps...

Abnett and Lanning make it clear that this isn’t the world where Richard Ryder belongs. “Everything changed while I was far, far away,” he muses on his return, before deciding that his place is out there amongst the stars – “somewhere that makes sense”. Nova isn’t a morally ambiguous hero or one who needs to make the compromises that Earth seems to demand from its heroes (at least in the Marvel Universe), he’s an altogether simpler and more straight-forward hero. And, despite all that’s unfolding in these gigantic crossovers, there’s nothing wrong with that. His last words to a fellow hero and old friend seem like a warning: “Don’t let them turn you into something you’re not.” Don’t let all the heroes become anti-heroes or all the good guys change to bad guys.

In fact, there’s a clear sense of meta-fictional commentary going on here from the writers. When the Worldmind, nested in Richard’s subconscious, implores him to take it slower, he could just as easily be talking to the comic book companies as a whole. “You are pushing yourself too hard,” the consciousness advises its host, “First the war, now this ceaseless urgency, from one crisis to another.” Given how “crisis” is typically used to refer to a giant comic book crossover, it’s easy to read the comment as a suggestion that Marvel may be best served by slowing down their schedule of big events (which seem to role out nearly month-after-month – the fact that I’ve been covering them for sixteen weeks might offer a sense of scale).

A trip to the Cosmo(s)...

That said, it’s somewhat ironic that Nova plows between crossovers. Spun out from Annihilation, Richard arrives on Earth in time to catch the aftermath of Civil War and then he’s immediately tied up in Annihilation: Conquest. It’s lucky that the story gets a chance to explore anything of its own in the space between these moments. In fact, the stories that don’t tie-in to these big events – like the superb Knowhere – are still driven by those events and feel a little condensed by being pressed between the tie-ins. It’s a damn shame that there hasn’t been a second oversized Nova hardcover solicited, as I get the sense that he might finally have the space to tell his own stories (since Richard Ryder himself isn’t so tightly linked with War of Kings and Realm of Kings). But then, this isn’t the only example of Marvel’s strange habit of picking up and dropping runs in different forms. Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run (which we’ll come to in a few weeks) started in oversized hardcovers and bits and pieces of Matt Fraction’s run that followed have also been collected, but none consistently.

That said, the writer manage to fit a great deal of character between these events. There’s a wonderful sense of Richard Ryder as a real person caught up in these large scale upheavals, with little personal moments snuck in amid the chaos. For example, the annual collected here offers a retelling of his origin (understandable given the character isn’t exactly a marqué name) while at the same time showing a potential future where he has rebuilt the corps. Richard, we’re assured throughout, is not exceptional. He isn’t a gifted athlete or a genius. “It’s my destiny to be average,” he confides to a schoolyard friend. Then again, that’s his charm. He wasn’t anyone special until he was given this power. He wasn’t amazing until he was given the chance. After all, don’t we all like to believe that we could be exceptional if given the opportunity? The Nova Corps isn’t built from the best and the brightest, but the ordinary and average – “they are the honest bedrock of the corps.” Anyone can be a hero.

A super-Nova

The stories crafted by Lanning and Abnett feel like good cult science fiction, paying more than their fair share of homages. It’s much deeper than the familiar looking “Space Wars” poster in Richard’s bedroom wall – the tale from the annual, with Richard waking up in the future without his memories recalls an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Future Imperfect; finding himself inside an alien seems to be a reference to The Empire Strikes Back; although it’s an incredibly common trope, the plot device of ancient evil trapped inside a box calls to mind The Satin Pit from Doctor Who which would have aired around the same time. 

We get all manner of crazy science fantasy concepts thrown our way in quick succession. There are even outer space zombies (okay, “meat puppets”). I particularly like the idea of a Vore, “a natural predator that hunts in the spaces between dimensions”. There’s a talking Russian dog named Cosmo. There’s a heavily populated space station built in the severed head of a celestial. There are alien superheroes – “Xarth’s mightiest heroes”. There’s nothing breathtakingly original here, but there are some wonderfully wild ideas thrown into the mix and executed with enough skill and clever pacing to keep the reader engaged. Nothing over-stays its welcome, and everything has a wonderfully hokey feel to it.

A blast from the past...

Although the artwork in the collection comes from a wide variety of sources, it fits together quite well. There seems to have been a conscious effort to favour primary colours and almost cartoonish imagery which suits the series so well (although I must concede that I was really impressed at how well Alex Maleev’s gritty-looking covers suited the character). It all looks relatively consistent, which helps it seem fluid on reading through. It’s fun and exciting and easy enough to get through.

The problem is that the series hasn’t had the chance to properly establish its own identity yet. Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers got a few arcs out of the way before it became the spine of Marvel’s Earth-based events, but Nova is bouncing between the cosmic crossovers like a headless chicken. Abnett and Lanning do a great job of fitting story and character around these points of intersection, but I would love to read the character when the pair have been given an absolute free reign and a chance to explore the interstellar world of Marvel without there being some sort of gigantic crisis playing itself out in the background. What’s a day in the life of a space cop like? How often does he randomly bump into Galactus? What’s a regular case? These are all questions that I wouldn’t mind having a chance to play out.

Nova shines brightly...

Still, Nova is fun. It’s well written and well drawn and it’s different enough that it sets itself apart from the bulk of other Marvel books. However, the best thing about the series is its potential. Annihilation demonstrated that there are still galactic stories to be told with these characters, so it’s just a case of the book finding the right balance.

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