At the end of any story arc, it often is essential if one central theme has managed to make itself clear (or at least noticeable) through the din of details and dialogue for the sake of creative vision or flow. And if there is any theme that this opening story line of “Starbrand and Nightmask” has had, it is achieving or attempting to achieve balance. Such a theme is demonstrated in very over the top cosmic matters as well as the very relatable struggle to balance the interpersonal with business, even in the cover itself. And in presenting this theme, writer Greg Weisman (“Gargoyles”, “Star Wars: Kanan”, “Star Wars: Rebels”, “Young Justice”) has constructed a very unique superhero series for Marvel which offers more than it seems on the surface. Is it possible to properly balance overpowered cosmic heroes having adventures in space with down to earth school settings and a diverse cast of youngsters? More than one comic has tried and failed over years, yet this relaunch of two former “New Universe” stars has seemed to achieve its own unique balance in that regard.
Things pick up in a fast and furious fashion after last month’s cliffhanger. Separated across entire light years of space, both Starbrand (Kevin Conner) and Nightmask (Adam Blackveil) have only five seconds to save not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone on earth and in the greater universe itself! Three of the children of the abstract cosmic entity Eternity have possessed and enhanced three super-villains to aid in their quest to restore balance by destroying the Starbrand of Earth. As Kevin has to overcome his own trauma of the past, Adam has to overcome a mysterious stranger who is filling his mind with distraction and cosmic philosophy. In the meantime, Maria Hill discovers that Roberto Da Costa (leader of the reformed “A.I.M.” and the “New Avengers”) is spying on the boys, who are also at risk of missing out on their dorm’s “ice breaker” freshman party at Empire State University! The pair ultimately prevail and manage to restore order in more ways than one, but not without there being consequences in the very near future. Especially since the “Starbrand and Nightmask” of the Kree Empire are due to make their presence known!
The theme of balance works well here, not only in terms of the titular heroes but also in Greg Weisman’s ability to juggle all of the elements he’s introduced in only four issues. He displays a clear interest in playing with the massive sandbox that is the Marvel Universe with full gusto. While he is more than willing (and able) to create new characters around his stars (such as Imani Greene and the “children of Eternity”), Weisman is also weaving a story with threads from many previous Marvel Comics stories. His script borrows plot details from “Avengers” comics of the recent past (such as the Jonathan Hickman run) to the 1970’s era of Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema. More importantly, however, is Weisman’s focus on the characters themselves as they try to balance being cosmic guardians of earth with reconnecting to humanity at large after a series of space adventures (such as this). Adam has a great deal of data and wisdom, but is still very “new” to the notions of everyday life, and is experiencing them for the first time. Kevin, as someone who never wanted such tremendous power and remains in a state of trauma over their deadly price, is someone who has to be encouraged to return to something closer to a “normal” life. His “cosmic senses” are connected to his budding feelings for Imani Greene, which for the moment is a distraction but ultimately may prove to be his strongest ore. Adam, meanwhile, is learning that there are some things and elements of space which not even he seems aware of. Its this focus and presentation of the pair as characters – as well as a tale which requires them to use their powers creatively instead of destructively – which sets this series apart from many other titles with vastly powerful leads.
Another part of the balance of any proper comic book is the supporting cast. Many titles focus on the heroes and their antagonists, but sometimes skimp on the cast around them. Coming from a long (and current) career in TV, Weisman knows how crucial a proper supporting cast is, and is putting great energy into establishing Imani Greene, Kenny Kong, Shelly, Krysta, and the rest of the gang with each issue. The closing pages showcasing the pair attending a party many arguably be just as entertaining if not more so than a lot of the explosions in the arctic were. It’s the “right” way to do diversity in comics; there’s no monologue or lecture about it, it just is, a cast which covers the wide swath of humanity. The romance between Imani and Kevin is bubbling in an interesting (yet genuine) way, and Kenny’s low key knowledge of their secret is easy fodder for future issues. Yet this doesn’t mean that a proper antagonist has been neglected; both the cover and the internal dialogue reveals him as Gustav Brandt, an old Avengers villain better known as Libra. Created in “Avengers #72” in 1970, he was a member of the original Zodiac Cartel, who were a gang of super villains themed after the symbols of the astrological zodiac. By 1974, however, Brandt’s origins and role within the universe greatly expanded when he was revealed as the father of Mantis (one of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and at one point considered the “Celestial Madonna”) and an agent of Balance itself as an element of space and time. It’s been sixteen years since his last official appearance in “Avengers Forever”, and choosing him as the latest of Greg Weisman’s gallery of intelligent and nuanced antagonists is fascinating. Brandt’s never been evil or cruel; he’s merely working to restore what he sees as the proper balance of all that exists on a massive scale above even what Starbrand and Nightmask are doing. His opposition to the pair has nothing to do with malice and more to do with them being on two different sides of a cosmic scale.
Finally, the issue maintains an elegant balance in tone. The stakes for the heroes literally involve the fate of the earth and the galaxy itself. Kevin has to literally save himself from the brink of a violent death in the middle of nowhere. Yet there is also plenty of time for genuine comedy and fun interactions between both the leads and their cast among them. It grounds the characters with a sense of reality and makes the things they fight for very concrete. On a macro level they’re defending the planet, but ultimately they’re fighting for their pals at Empire State University.
Domo Stanton returns on art, but this time is backed up by Daniele Di Nicuolo (who draws the last eight pages). In tow are two colorists, Jordan Boyd and Rachelle Rosenberg. Stanton, as before, excels with many of the over the top space battles. Di Nicuolo’s style is a bit different and contrasts with Stanton, which is why it was wise to have her draw the party sequence (and a scene on Kree-Pama). She’s set to draw BOOM Studios’ Pink Ranger mini series, which is ironic considering the ratings rivalry that existed between “Gargoyles” and “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” on weekday afternoon TV from 1994-1995. Despite their distinctive styles, Stantona and Di Nicuolo unite for a very visually appealing piece of work here.
“Starbrand and Nightmask” was one of the first launches of the “all new, all different” editorial push by Marvel, and in a way it seems to perfectly embody many of the themes that line seem to be about. It offers plenty of antics involving their stars and their cast in a school setting much like “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” and “Ms. Marvel” do, while also offering a lot of grand scale adventures on par with “The Ultimates” or “New Avengers”. A lot of pipe is being laid in with every page in terms of plotting and it would be a shame to not see all of it come to pass because the series ended too soon. Achieving balance is sort of like having one’s cake and eating it too, and that sort of pleasure is what “Starbrand and Nightmask” brings to comics. It’s the real deal, offering all of the critical fundamentals to what makes great superhero comics work, and makes it look easy. No pull list is complete without it.