“Nova” means “explodes and dies”
In writing about webcomics and the development of superhero characters through use, I had a weird flashback to 1976.
So we’re cuttin’ alllll the way back to my tween-teen transition and the siren call of a new title at Marvel: The Man Called Nova, by Marv Wolfman and John Buscema. I bought it, and if memory serves, stuck with it for about a year.
Remember what I said about The Champions? Same thing. I was watching multiple “First! Amazing! Ever” titles appear and swiftly die, obviously killed, much in the sense of a TV show running out its fate under the axe. Seriously, look at Marvel’s flash-and-croak list from the period: Omega, Skull the Slayer, Black Goliath, The Inhumans, John Carter of Mars, and more.
I had Origins of Marvel Comics and Son of Origins on my shelf, and it was so, so tempting to hope that 1961-1965 was happening all over again, from the House of Ideas, baby. However, temptation is all it was. It was more evident than you can perhaps believe, even to a young reader with no inside info, that chaos and insincerity emanated from Marvel as a publisher, and equally evident (and heartbreaking) that the creators were exhausted and desperate. Marvel hype, and if you’re idealistic, Lee’s own efforts, relied on mutual good faith and real enjoyment of creation/appreciation, and the hype was no longer credible. It was time to stop paying attention to promises and new releases.
It’s now forty years later, and I just re-read the series for the first time. OK, first: I know that Nova is now a cherished hero with many chapters and different persons and re-imaginings behind him, but looking at these 25 issues, I agree with my younger self: it ain’t good. But this isn’t a “Nova sucked!” old-man whiny post. This is about the first and, I think, honest try to do it again, where “it” means a contemporary teen hero with a new super-power and a life that he’s trying to manage with it.
The idea being that a comics creator + sufficient content + willing readers = a freaking comic, “actually existing” if you are familiar with that phrase. And it didn’t work. I want to think about why.
Marv Wolfman was visibly at the center of the publisher crisis, in the sense of being at the bull’s-eye rather than the originator. His creative career is hard to understand, in the long view, and this exact period, 1976-79, nicely defined by Nova #1-25, really deserves scrutiny. He’s the editor-in-chief for the first year of it, just after Len Wein’s year. Most of his work is pinch-hit and single-issues, or short fill-in runs, but he’s blazing on Tomb of Dracula (see Mustache match), he’s overseeing Wein’s writing on the primary Spider-Man title, and he launches Nova.
After that, during Conway’s brief editorship, Goodwin’s brief editorship, and the arrival of Jim Shooter, Wolfman introduced or developed a lot of productive IP for Marvel, including some of the titles listed above, recasting Spider-Woman and others as heroes with titles, co-creating Bullseye and the Black Cat, and writing Spider-Man for a while as well. As everyone knows, this changed abruptly when he and Wein broke entirely from all that commitment and re-united with their first home at DC, now re-organized under Jenette Kahn and gearing up to “hold my beer, X-Men,” with the New Teen Titans.
Damn it, this context-content is eating up space and diluting where I’m trying to go with this. It’s really interesting to consider Nova in light of future decisions, but also distracting. Dial it back to ’76-77 and look at the title as its own unified thing, especially as the single “my creation” content for Wolfman at the time except for Dracula.
Here’s the structural context:
- The first issue or two is pencilled by John Buscema, then it’s mainly by Sal for about a year, inked by Frank Giacoia; the story in this first year is pretty coherent (if bland; to be discussed below).
- The next is mostly pencilled by Carmine Infantino (who had just been removed from his seven-years position as editor-in-chief at DC), whose work is rougher and odder here than it would be in the later Spider-Woman, and a little bit of John Buscema, with varying inkers including Steve Leialoha, Klaus Janson, and the well-known “Many Hands.” The story in this period is all over the place, including a couple of fill-ins, and what isn’t borders on ridiculous, full of ass pulls.
- You can definitely see the Wolfman-Shooter editor transition; Wolfman’s listed as editor throughout, which strikes me as kind of lengthy, longer than his actual tenure as editor-in-chief; Conway and Goodwin don’t appear in the credits at all. Shooter is listed as additional editor for the final two issues. I suspect the whole second year’s plot flailing and inker variation is part of the Wolfman-Shooter meltdown that included the end of Tomb of Dracula, but the details must be left to speculation.
It’s tempting to dive into #5 panel by panel. I remember being embarrassed by the depiction of the Bullpen – it’s my exact transition between going “squee! It’s Stan! In the comic!” and “my god, this is obviously desperation filler and workplace meltdown.” I think FOOM had too successfully shown me a bit more of the real in-office scene and creative circumstances, so that these depictions’ over-cute dishonesty was immediately obvious.
- Looking at it now is painful in a different way, knowing more about the circumstances. You can see the promoted reality, but also the putdowns and innuendo that subvert it. I’ll throw these out there:
- The inaccurate portrait of Lee as the boss, complete with barbs about his absenteeism; contrasted with the “who’s he, what’s that about” for Archie Goodwin, who’s depicted as a hapless goob being forced to imitate Stan and unable to get it. The chronology is off here because Goodwin didn’t officially become editor until later, so I think we’re dealing with the typical unreliable cover dating and it may be impossible to discern just when the work was done and when it may have entered print.
- The cringing and whining about lateness, played for comedy with John Verpoorten as the heavy, but also indicative of the completely impossible demands. Sal Buscema’s schedule at that point was what … six titles? Seven? Plus pinch-hitting at least as many others. His fictional griping about having to “draw all those desks” is played for comedic laziness, but the underlying meaning is not so funny.
It’s pitched as a light-hearted roast along the lines of “the usual gang of idiots” at Mad Magazine, but the final panels are more telling: Nova muses about “going to the competition, but no, there’s no competition for Marvel,” prefiguring Wolfman doing exactly that almost immediately.
But that’s enough reader-and-industry speculation; I’m more interested in this whole thing as a failed sincere attempt to put out a right-as-rain, no-screwups, know-what-I’m-doing superhero comics title. It prefigures and depressingly rehearses the whole later pattern observed across Elementary, Stillborn, Give me liberty, Striking twice, someday, and I, said the Fly. In theory it should work, where “work” simply means enjoyable serial fiction of a particular kind, with its own identity and value beyond merely conforming to prior versions.
Here’s what I see, especially in cross-examination dialogue with my tween self who seems at this point to be seated next to my current aging one.
#1. Deliberate or not, it includes a veritable checklisted correspondence with the early Spider-Man … but unfortunately, in checking the boxes, also missing the mark. The first miss is Peter’s very rapid recovery from his infantilized/bullied status. Specifically, there isn’t anyone like Betty Brant, who I maintain is the heart of the first three years. They’re going with the shallow reading of Spider-Man that I talked about in Spider-Schlep, taking it even further by making Rich so Joe Average that he’s an actual loser rather than Peter Parker’s being obviously high-potential with a tough start. In other words, Peter is working at a job outside of school and gettin’ with the older woman in the office, whereas Rich can hardly tie his own shoes.
There’s no connection at all with kids’ issues of the day, especially nuclear energy, sex and lib (a big deal for us! post-Pill, pre-AIDS), and ethnic issues; it has the 60s-TV “Kennedy neutral” feel that hadn’t been standard for superhero comics for a decade. It’s even weirder than that, now that I think about it. Since the early Spider-Man’s idiom was youth fiction of about 1960, already practically retro by the time the series gets rolling (and swiftly abandoned too, with mature content between-panels), ‘porting that into the 70s is grossly artificial. It’s exactly of a piece with the painful similar combos in the failed TV programming of the day, like the misbegotten Hardy Boys series. One friend has a cute Disney nickame, “Caps,” because, you know, he wears a baseball cap; this and similar details mix oddly with the stilted contemporary media references, especially Bernie, the Portnoy/Allen friend . (Maybe a lit-crit person out there will one day investigate the techniques by which Conway or Gerber always nailed these references for excellent naturalism, whereas Wolfman never managed it, whether here or for Daredevil or for the Titans, doing best with dramatic/fiction/horror dialogue instead.)
OK – let’s be positive too. There’s the really good plot point, the high point for the series I think, when Rich unmasks for his family. To be a tiny bit unpleasant about it, his family is so unlikeable that I was kind of on his side a couple issues previously, when he blew them off before reconsidering, but still, overall, on its own and also in its contrast with Spider-Man, it’s a good move. It might have been great if it were in, say, issue #4 or 5, so the series zeroed right in on what a family-guy teen superhero could be like.
There’s a similarly-too-late but at least decent bit when a counselor runs a emotional “let’s talk” session in the classroom, and it’s not played for contempt. Instead, the bullying Flash expy turns out to be a bit sympathetic, and there’s some potential for paralleling or re-examining the difficult friendship that Flash and Peter established during the Lee years. Steps like these indicate that the Spider-Man checklist wasn’t mindless.
I’ll also grant that “I can’t die, I haven’t even seen my first X-rated movie yet,” is a pretty funny line, especially if you remember the history. This was right at the end of the few years that people fancied “X” would apply to films with actual plot and art, at the point when the reality hit, of the skanky little trailer-park theaters and the well-known cheesiness (as well as, one must admit, no pretension) of 70s hard-core.
#2. A few obligatory cameos (Thor, Daredevil, Spider-Man) aside, the first year commits to a local crime-and-villain situation, specific to Nova and without reference to Marvel mythology. The trouble is that it’s also without reference to anything else, disconnecting the villains from recognizable society. I’ll explain: the Condor wants to become “emperor of crime,” which he apparently does by having lots of computers and by dominating the reluctant Powerhouse, who’s amnesiac & stuff; the Sphinx is a mystic dude who competes with the Condor for that status, but as a stepping stone to ruling the world. … Details? No details. What sort of crime are we talking about? Don’t know. What does an emperor of crime do, or get? Don’t know. How does being emperor of crime “step” up to ruling the world, and what does the ruler of the world do, or get? Don’t know.
I’m not snarking. This is kind of important. It’s also a Wein/Wolfman staple which I think reflects their early DC training: heroes confront villains in a bubble which contains its own structure, phrasings, content, social context, and outcomes; we just sort of hand-wave why getting stacks of cash from a bank does or achieves anything, or how it is that hitting them means they are “caught.” I’m not asking for fictional legal justification. The history of such conventions is long and complicated, and doesn’t matter here. My point is that either you find a way for some existing conventions to get immediately relevant or understandable after all, or you commit to presenting the conventions as a craftwork challenge, “see how faithfully we did it again.”
(The 70s present us with a great tableaux of superhero vs. non-superhero considerations for this problem. Wolfman overcome it with Dracula and the black-and-whites in the same way that Wein overcame it with the Hulk, and both managed to do as well with the Punisher: by stepping outside of “law-abiding heroes confront criminal villains” in the first place. It’s too bad neither could manage that with Spider-Man.)
The series falls on its face even during its more coherent first year specifically due to these two points. It’s no wonder that the protagonism drifts over to Powerhouse and even to the minimally-present Crimebuster, and that when Nova was resurrected much later, rebuilding the IP from scratch is what mattered, not the guy. (Contrast that nothing whatsoever was interesting about the rebooted Ghost Rider until Johnny Blaze roared back into the story.)
So … what now? In these days, at this time, so what? The plethora of titles, backstory, new faces behind the helmet, tropes and story roles, circles-and-arrows fanwank, and fun animated shows is blinding, leaving these 25 issues behind in a dustbin of “first installment weirdness.” Nothing to see here, right?
Wrong. That’s an actual superhero comics title left back there. And anything that had to offer anyone, as such, stayed. I’ve got a happy golf-clap for all the Nova-ness you can see around you, as a successful commercial enterprise. But the teen hero who I think was sincerely written and illustrated for young teens, in hopes they’d choose to buy it with their own money and would enjoy on their own hook as a comic … that’s gone.
I look to my side to see if my tween self co-author is OK with me saying that. … but he’s gone too.