Although he is best known for being the creator of “Gargoyles” as well as working on other animated TV shows such as “Star Wars: Rebels”, “Spectacular Spider-Man”, “W.I.T.C.H.”, and “Young Justice”, Greg Weisman originally started out in the world of comic books as a writer/editor with DC Comics in the 1980’s. He’s since returned to the realm of “big two” comics with a run on “Star Wars: Kanan” for Marvel Comics, covering the earlier years of one of “Star Wars: Rebels”‘ main characters. Now, just before 2015 comes to a close and with the dawn of an “all new, all different” Marvel universe in the wake of the recent (and still unfinished) “Secret Wars”, Weisman brings his talents (as well as the talents of artist Domo Stanton and colorist Jordon Boyd) to two of their newest superheroes.
Starbrand and Nightmask may be rookie Avengers in the current Marvel Universe, but their original incarnations stretch back almost thirty years. Their roots were dug in the “New Universe”, an imprint forged during the tenure of then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to create a new line of comics apart from the traditional Marvel realm and presumably closer to what was “hip” at the time. Shooter actually created Starbrand, the line’s premiere character, himself, while the late Archie Goodwin created the original Nightmask. Running from 1986 to 1989, the imprint was ultimately a failure, with the continuity and characters only showing up sporadically ever since (such as Warren Ellis’ attempt to recreate the line with 2007’s “Newuniversal”). As part of Jonathan Hickman’s long form “Avengers” run, both of these characters were recreated to fit in with his grand science fiction epic two years ago. As part of a cast of thousands, they got origins and some dramatic battle moments but little else. As such, the pair are a relative blank slate which Weisman and Stanton can go wild with and craft their own little world around.
Readers fretting about being bogged down by origin sequences should rejoice; this debut issue moves very quickly in filling in all of the essential data about the titular heroes while not wasting time with exposition. What little recapping is done is through the prism of Kevin Conner, a Pittsburgh native who gained fantastic cosmic powers at complete random. Unfortunately, that incident also destroyed the entire campus of Allegheny Technical College around him, claiming over 3,200 lives. Nightmask, meanwhile, is a genetically modified man named Adam created by aliens to aid them in cultivating the universe on a grand scale. They’ve since become friends with Adam serving as a mentor for Kevin. After thwarting an attack on the Great Wall of China by Blizzard, Adam turns down an offer by Robert Da Costa (also known as Sunspot) to join his “New Avengers” to instead get back to their roots by enrolling at Empire State University (ESU) in NYC. It is the same college where Reed Richards, Victor Von Doom, and Peter Parker attended, after all. While Adam sees it as a golden opportunity to reconnect with the very people they’re supposed to protect (as well as experience more about society), Kevin is plagued with survivor’s guilt and hesitant to forge ties with any civilians around him (despite playing it cool with banter). At Adam’s urging, Kevin meets a few fellow ESU students and begins to adapt to some of the more mundane challenges of college life (such as tiny dorms). Unfortunately, some more of the Avengers’ deadliest enemies seem to be converging on the campus and may level it if not kept in check.
This may be one of the last new launches by Marvel Comics for 2015, but it’s among the best in terms of providing readers with more substance over flash. Having extensive experience within TV, Greg Weisman is well aware that it isn’t just the title stars who make a great story, but their supporting cast around them. He also has a sense of economy in getting the most of however many pages each issue has. Within a mere twenty pages, not only are the two heroes established, but they have fights against three villains while also meeting at least four supporting cast members amid the development of a longer term subplot. One of them is Imani Greene, who may only have three pages to introduce herself but manages to make other people besides Kevin stop at attention. Another is the similarly named Doreen Green, who is naturally the super-heroine Squirrel Girl (a “New Avenger” with her own solo series). The last hasn’t been directly named, but eagle eyed fans of the “Spectacular Spider-Man” cartoon will easily spot Kenny “Kong” McFarlane. Originally created by Brian M. Bendis and Mark Bagley for 2000’s “Ultimate Spider-Man #1”, he was revised for the 2008 era cartoon and was one of many of Spider-Man’s supporting cast members from across his history who attended the show’s version of Midtown High. His “M cubed” jacket is seen in one panel and he’s likely to do more in the next issue. Those same eagle eyed fans might also spot some similarities between the opening battle within this issue and those in the “Young Justice” pilot from 2010. From a mysterious suited stranger to a security guard named after a prolific Marvel writer, there are plenty of details to discover.
It isn’t just world-building which this issue does well, but also in quickly establishing their leads without pausing to recover older ground. People who may have read the Hickman run or have never read a Marvel Comic in years (or ever) can quickly jump into this and get all they need to know from dialogue or the intro page. Despite being “big cosmic badasses”, the pair come off fairly down to earth and have some cracking dialogue together. Adam is an outsider, but he very much wants to absorb everything he can about the world around him, from pop culture to human interaction. Kevin may have been a “normal kid”, but he is still adjusting to his powers and the tragedy which birthed them, and needs to be coaxed back into the world. Despite this, both are friends and come off as very likable. The art by Domo Stanton and Jordon Boyd is fast paced and energetic, as well as distinct enough to be mistaken for animated character designs or storyboards.
Comic book readers have more choice than ever in what they are able to read, especially from Marvel Comics. It anywhere from one to a dozen new launches or relaunches are hitting store shelves every week. Everyone has to prioritize what to try and what to ignore both due to personal taste and finite funds. In merely one issue, “Starbrand and Nightmask” has established itself as a comic that gets it in terms of what modern superhero comic books should be about in a manner similar to “Ms. Marvel” or even the classic “Amazing Spider-Man” of old. Without leads who are memorable yet relatable and a well written cast around him, even the best designs or action feels hollow. Not as many comics seem to acknowledge this, but Greg Weisman productions always delve deep in terms of casts and details, and this is no exception. There is tremendous bang for the buck and a wealth of potential within every page. It will definitely be one to watch out for in 2016, and one to grab a hold of now!