Comic books featuring cosmic level heroes tend to risk being too far out or bogged down in exposition to be relatable, but if anything has quickly defined this plucky series from Marvel Comics, it is relativity. It seems to perfectly balance many down to earth scenes featuring two “out of town” freshman trying to get used to going to a big college and meeting all sorts of new people, as well as no end of over-the-top battles with super villains or plots from other galaxies. It is another stellar issue by writer Greg Weisman (“Gargoyles”, “Star Wars: Rebels”, “Star Wars: Kanan”, “Spectacular Spider-Man”, “W.I.T.C.H.”, “Young Justice”), artist Domo Stanton, and colorist Jordan Boyd in which the proper amount of character progression, plot progression and thematic progression are delivered within twenty pages.
Continuing with our story, the titular Starbrand (Kevin Conner) and Nightmask (Adam Blackveil) are incredibly powerful defenders of the Earth as well as transplanted freshmen at Empire State University (ESU). They’ve quickly made some friends, such as Imani Greene, Kenny Kong, and Shelly. They’ve also made some powerful enemies, as a trio of super villains seem to be waging constant attacks on them and the nearby area. There’s also a mysterious man (and his drone) keeping an eye on everything, and the fact that Kenny has secretly discovered that his new classmates are superheroes. All the while, Adam (an artificially crafted man from Mars) is struggling to adapt to life on Earth while also preparing Kevin for his role as planetary defender, which is difficult as he is clearly hiding trauma and struggling to reconnect with everyday people (or at times, mercy for enemies). There’s always a lot going on in every issue, but none of it is ever presented in a manner which seems confusing or bewildering. This time, yet another college activity is interrupted by duty, as the villains they had apprehended last issue have escaped SHIELD custody and are set to continue their rampage. Nightmask seeks to finally uncover who is controlling their enemies, and quickly finds himself staring at towering abstract entities of the universe itself, and meeting their mysterious stalker first hand.
Having had decades of experience crafting extended casts for TV animation, Weisman makes juggling things like character interaction, plot advancement and action look incredibly easy – so much so that it may be easy to take for granted. It is a skill which, unlike the figures on the cover, doesn’t reveal any strings unless executed poorly. Imani and Kevin get some more time together, and through some shared experiences we learn more about here even without having it spoon fed to readers. Clearly she has survived a disaster herself, and can relate to Kevin’s pain on that level. Nothing direct is told about it, but considering this is the Marvel Universe (where massive disasters hit the world in general and New York City in particular about every other day) it is easy to envision. The fact that at least two of ESU’s facility buildings are named after murdered students or staff says it all. Speaking of which, there are more fun “Easter eggs” within this issue for well versed Marvel fans. Kevin Conner’s shirt, at least according to a podcast interview for the latest episode of “Spectacular Radio”, pays homage to one of Greg Weisman’s favorite “Daily Bugle” headlines. While the “Ironwood Memorial Auditorium” may remind eagle eyed Spider-Man fans of Priscilla “Cissy” Ironwood – one of the lessor known girlfriends of Peter Parker who mostly turned up in “Marvel Team-Up” stories from 1979 to 1980 – it is actually named for her father, professor Daniel Ironwood, who was murdered by (then) Soviet agents. And if their “mysterious stalker” turns out to be the villain shown on the cover for the next issue (as revealed at the end of the story), readers will be privy to another fairly obscure (but fairly fascinating) rogue for our duo to encounter.
Nightmask’s travels into the deeper universe make for great stuff, especially with the visuals provided by Stanton and Boyd. The Marvel Universe already has plenty of abstract cosmic figures such as Eternity or Infinity, but the trio introduced here genuinely work from a scientific perspective as to how universes are “born” or end. Pipe is being laid down for the pair to possibly meet their counterparts from the Kree empire, and Maria Hill manages to work as comic relief without coming off as incompetent. The third act of the issue is quite dramatic, cut between Kevin’s desperate struggle in the arctic with ESU’s convocation ceremony. Being distracted by awesome new people one meets is a near universal experience, but for Kevin it becomes even more dangerous! It’s this finale which firmly reinforces all of the “down to earth” scenes with their supporting cast; it gives readers a personal investment in what is at stake. It also is worth restating that in an era where it seems many comic book writers struggle to create a supporting cast for their leads which goes beyond two deep who aren’t fellow superheroes or otherwise “powered” people, this series’ commitment to creating and maintaining a strong supporting cast only showcases how it is utterly delivering on those fundamentals of “mighty Marvel” comics.
In fact the issue’s only blemish is that, although it is all a planned and organized part of a meticulous plot, it does border on repetitive to see the same three super villains yet again that have been seen in every issue so far. It could have arguably been more complicated to bring in new antagonists to serve their roles or to have them go on another attack which wasn’t a random rampage, but it also may have been more unique. In the end, the trio are merely tools to an end, so it logically makes sense for them to keep turning up and to act in such a manner. At the very least, it is easy to relate to Kevin’s frustration of having some very interesting scenes with his social life constantly interrupted by them!
Sales for this series haven’t been as strong as it has deserved, but now isn’t the time for speculation. Now is the time to rally around a series which delivers everything that superhero comics from Marvel should be about! It’s got plenty of entertaining and relatable characters, a diverse cast, plenty of action and more references than even the most ardent official Marvel handbook collector can keep up with! At a time when many of the comics featuring far more “mainstream” characters can be hit or miss, it is always refreshing to find absolute quality with lessor known characters who have fewer expectations behind them. “Starbrand and Nightmask” is that series, which seems to only get better and more exciting with each and every issue. Hopefully, there will be plenty more of them!