While researching my article on Monica Rambeau’s unfortunate history, I naturally re-read one of her standout series: Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s Nextwave: Agents of HATE. It’s a comic I already held dear to my heart, but it re-affirmed what I previously thought: It’s the most joyful comic Marvel have ever released.
Warren Ellis’ plan for Nextwave was simple: take a rag-tag team of some of Marvel’s obscurest superheroes, and send them on a ridiculous adventure. There was former Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, mother of the group (and frequent reminder of the fact that yes, she was in the Avengers). Aaron Stack, the former Machine Man, a robot with a loving distaste for fleshy humans. Tabitha Smith, a ditzy mutant formerly known as Boom-Boom, who of course had a habit for making things explode with her superpowers. There was Elsa Bloodstone, Marvel’s premier monster hunting hero, a perky Brit and a master of firearms. Then there was the Captain—a new hero of Ellis’ own creation, known only as “The Captain” because a) All the other “Captain” hero names were taken, and b) His original name was so foulmouthed, Captain America once beat the living daylights out of him just for saying it. That sort of thing should tell you from the get-go that Nextwave is a bit of a goofball of series.
If it doesn’t, the premise certainly should. The Nextwave superhero squad worked for the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort, or H.A.T.E., backed by a shadowy benefactor called the Beyond© Corporation—whom Nextwave discovers is actually a front for the terrorist group S.I.L.E.N.T.. At the beginning of the series, Nextwave swipes Beyond©’s marketing plan detailing its nefarious plots, goes rogue, and plans to take out Beyond© bit by bit. Goofball-y as hell? Goofball-y as hell.
That goofballery was the point: Nextwave was a comic with no real subtext other than to have some good old superheroic action fun. It didn’t play with the medium of comics, or try to excuse itself by knowingly admitting that was just a dumb comic book. It didn’t have more to say than the jokes on the page. It was there to be enjoyed, to be delighted by—its gorgeous, vibrant art and hilarious irreverence wasn’t there to be analysed, or even understood. You were just meant to role with it, along for the ride with this team of misfits as they punch and shoot and explode their way out of the craziest messes they could find themselves in. Nextwave was very much a series that was being about in the moment, the actual pleasure of reading through an issue and seeing what snappy dialogue made you laugh next, or what gorgeous setpiece you’d pore over.
But that joy and love, still delightful today, is so much more potent when you think about the period Nextwave came out in, 2006 and 2007. Marvel as a company was ramping up the Civil War comics event, all sturm and drang as its entire output was focused on the serious events of the Superhero Registration Act and its fallout. It was grim—serious drama for a series of superhero comic books. It was full of grit, tie-in after tie-in, all affected by this black hole of Civil War. Then along comes the cover of Nextwave #11:
It’s completely perfect, a complete rejection of all this seriousness, because goddammit, there’s fun to be had. Nextwave is the annoying kid sibling that you with your jaded outlook end up admiring despite the annoyance, because they just revel in the fun of it all.
And that’s kind of Nextwave’s point—as it revelled in the insane shenanigans going on in its pages, it never mocked comics, or the silly side of the Marvel universe. It loved them. It took a team of obscure characters from across Marvel canon, great heroes who had been given the short shrift for years, and humanised them again (while giving them all moments of supreme kickassery in the lavish fight scenes).
Its villains either lovingly lampooned other Marvel figures—I’ll leave you to guess who the comically-enraged head of HATE, Dirk Anger, is meant to be—or embraced classic, out-there foes like Fin Fang Foom or the Mindless Ones, or the final villain, which I won’t reveal here (but rest assured it’s a brilliantly funny Marvel deep cut). In the case of Monica, whose roots were embedded in the classic Avengers comics of the ‘80s, it took the time to lovingly poke back at the more innocent time.
Its simple premise and focus on action wholly embraces the inherent silliness of it all: Nextwave, moving from one monstrous plot from the Beyond Corporation to the next, simply because what they do is punch the bad guys in the face until its over. Any other comic would’ve dropped the pretense at some point. It would’ve taken a break to wink at the audience and let them know that it was “in” on the joke, that it was merely a pastiche of a silly superhero comic rather than actually one. Nextwave plays it straight, and thus makes itself a loving tribute to the sheer fun of superhero comics.
None of Ellis’ self-assured, slick writing and plotting for Nextwave would’ve worked as well as that straight tribute without an artist to match him, and boy howdy does Immonen match it. Nextwave was sort of a outlier for the artist, who at that point was largely known for his gorgeous, realistic and detail-rich comic art (and still is—he’s now the artist for the current Star Wars ongoing, and you can see some of his beautiful work on it here).
Nextwave was the debut of looser, angular cartoon style that sacrificed none of his eye for detail—it comes to the fore especially in his pitch-perfect capture of facial expressions, used precisely right during gags to sell a good joke excellently. But it was vivid and, especially in action scenes, just amazing to behold, especially supported by the bold, chunky color palette and inking from Dave McCaig and Wade von Grawbadger, respectively. Nextwave wasn’t just a hoot to read but a hoot to stare at, its penchant for ridiculousness leading to sweeping setpiece that are beautifully presented, in a cartoon style that is perfect for the amount of silliness on display. The penultimate issue, Nextwave #11, features a jaw-dropping 12-page sequence made up of six double-page spreads as the team battle their way through to the villain behind all their woes, and it’s still one of the most energetic, delightful pieces of art in a comic today.
Together, Ellis and Immonen turned Nextwave into a thoroughly unique comic that simply loved being a comic. It took joy in all its goofiness, its charm, its forgotten characters, and turned it into something that was truly special to read. It could, as Monica says in the very last panel of the series, do anything it wanted.
And I love it for it. If you’ve not read it, you should—by the end of it I’m sure you’ll love it too.