To say that “Starbrand and Nightmask” is one of Marvel Comics’ most delightfully unique superhero comic books out there is an understatement. With relaunched versions of two characters from a faded 1980’s imprint as their stars, writer Greg Weisman (“Gargoyles”, “Spectacular Spider-Man”, “Young Justice”) and artist Domo Stanton (alongside colorist Rachelle Rosenberg) have quickly crafted a distinct world around them as street level cosmic heroes. Normally, “grounding” characters with enough power to lay waste to entire armadas in urban settings results in underwhelming results, but Weisman has managed to balance the fantastic with the ordinary with a very “down to earth” take on characters many are unfamiliar with. Both the story arc and the series’ robust cast seem to expand with every issue, which perfectly sets the stakes for over the top action.
Kevin Conner and Adam Nightveil may have fantastic powers and otherworldly origins, but they’re still two freshmen at Empire State University trying to relate to the people they’re fated to protect and pick a major. As much fun as the wild dorm party was last issue, a hangover is definitely something Kevin wishes his cosmic powers liberated him from. While the pair have prevented a trio of super villains from blowing up the school, they are caught in a dangerous game with abstract space entities (the children of Eternity) who feel that they (and Earth) need to perish to restore order to the universe. Their latest agent to this end is Gustav Brandt, better known by his old Zodiac Cartel mantle of “Libra”, a powerful martial artist who has long been involved in affairs of space and time. Even a fun afternoon working out at the campus gym with several romantically interested parties is disturbed by yet another attack. Meanwhile, the Starbrand of the Kree Empire manifests herself, and proves to be even more ruthless than even her own brother could have imagined.
One of the classic dilemmas of high powered heroes is that it becomes difficult to raise the stakes when they seem able to physically overcome any threat. Greg Weisman almost effortlessly circumvents this not only by adding to their complex intergalactic heritage to provide worthy challenges, but by grounding them with a deep and diverse supporting cast to have to protect. Between new additions and regular series characters, this issue alone gives Starbrand and Nightmask a supporting cast which goes at least six deep, which many comic books struggle to reach. Without calling attention to itself as if it was such a dramatic thing, this series has effortlessly developed a cast which truly reflects the modern NYC college scene with both people of color, the handicapped, and even homosexual characters – and gives them all something to do. Granted, while Trey Parker or Shelly and Krystal are new characters, two of them have been loaned out by the Spider-Man franchise (which easily has the deepest supporting cast in all of comics). Kenny Kong (who quietly knows the secret identities of our heroes) is a transplant from the “Ultimate” universe, and this issue welcomes the long overdue addition of Sha Shan Nguyen.
Created by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. back in 1972’s “Amazing Spider-Man #108”, Sha Shan has gotten relatively little play compared to other long running cast-members added to the wall crawler’s comic by that legendary Silver Age duo. A native of Vietnam, she was initially introduced as a supporting character (and ultimately a love interest) to Eugene “Flash” Thompson, who at the time did a tour of duty in Vietnam. While the attempt to make Spider-Man’s cast more diverse (as she was one of few regular Asian characters in the series) at the time was commendable, she was also saddled with many stories which could be argued were either stereotypical or products of their time. She lived with monks in a temple in Vietnam, many of her stories involved mysticism or mind control, and she had the dubious distinction of seeing major arcs in the stories which introduced strange characters such as Razorback (the trucker superhero from Arkansas who dresses like a boar) and Hypno Hustler (a disco villain). Flash’s treatment of her was often abusive, and she had to suffer losing him to Betty Brant (who was herself cheating on her then husband, Ned Leeds, who was also posing as the Hobgoblin at the time). She’s only had five appearances since 1986, and all of them were within the last six years (and written by either Greg Weisman or Dan Slott). It was Weisman who has reinvented her as a physical therapist and sought to reintroduce her into regular canon. Voiced by Kelly Hu in “Spectacular Spider-Man” (which Weisman co-produced and story edited), he seems to rightly considers her an underutilized character within the Marvel Universe. One of the many strengths of this series is how it not only boldly introduces new characters which reflect the “melting pot” of Manhattan, but it amplifies neglected ones who already exist, such as Kenny and Sha Shan. Considering his own origins in Vietnam involving monks in temples, it makes a degree of sense that she’d be familiar with Gustav, and one can hardly imagine a better reintroduction to her than this. Despite all of her hardships, Sha Shan has always been a strong willed character, not one to tolerate crap from people for long, and this appearance is no exception. Libra himself is another strange villain, but Weisman and Stanton have built him up as a fascinating and credible antagonist in his own right.
As with every issue, the interaction between Kevin and Adam provides much of the ore for the series, and is often entertaining to boot. While Adam represents their fantastic space origins (being a genetic creation from Mars) compared to Kevin’s traditional “mighty Marvel manner” beginnings (as an average person who suffered a freak accident), he often gets many of the best lines. Kevin’s budding romance with Imani is also quite adorable, and the pair even have a commentary about the fallacy of “secret identities”. The art by Domo Stanton and Rachelle Rosenberg is up to its usual high standard. They juggle the college and space scenes effortlessly, and Libra had never looked better. The design for Va-Sohn, the Kree Starbrand, is also quite impressive and quickly establishes her as Kevin’s opposite number.
Street level cosmic heroes aren’t usually something which work out, but “Starbrand and Nightmask” have managed to maintain a perfect balance of reaching for the stars while still being down to earth. It looks like everything will come to a head in next month’s finale, with nothing less than the fate of the earth at stake! Yet while fighting to save the world is standard for superhero comics, this series has established a memorable cast of characters whose fates are in the balance as well, which makes it easier for the readers to relate to such stakes. Adam was right all along; Kevin Conner will become a greater hero not because he is trying to save an entire planet, but because he is trying to save people like Imani, Kenny, and Sha Shan around him. If this issue (and the ones before it) is any indication, then next month’s finale should be a spectacle to behold. From epic conflicts to a vibrant cast to a mix of adventure and humor, “Starbrand and Nightmask” is a shining example of a series which excels at all of the fundamentals that make great superhero comics.