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Nextwave: 15 Ways It Was Ahead Of its Time

by  in Lists, Comic News Comment
Nextwave: 15 Ways It Was Ahead Of its Time

Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s “Nextwave” was so radical, so irreverent, such an adolescent punch to the face of the staid Marvel Universe, that as soon as their 12-issue run wrapped up, the nascent superhero team were immediately written out of continuity. Writer Al Ewing has since almost single-handedly attempted to claw back some canonicity for the renegade five piece, who faced off against the super-villainous Beyond Corporation and their colorful creations, but otherwise, you would scarcely know they were ever there.

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Then again, that would be the case, were it not for the rabid fans who continue to recommend the cult classic series to anyone who will listen (and a fair few that are trying not to). “I took The Authority and I stripped out all the plots, logic, character and sanity,” Ellis later said on writing “Nextwave.” “It’s an absolute distillation of the superhero genre.” It’s also been more influential than you might think. In fact, there are at least 15 ways that “Nextwave” was ahead of its time.

15. No Crossovers

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The cover of issue 11 of “Nextwave” mimicked the line-wide layout adopted for the then-ongoing “Civil War” crossover event. The difference? “Nextwave” #11 was advertising the fact that it was “NOT PART OF A MARVEL COMICS EVENT,” the characters holding signs emblazoned with “WE DON’T CARE” and the gnomic phrase “MARK MILLAR LICKS GOATS,” the true meaning of which remains a hotly-debated issue.

Inside, the story was the penultimate instalment of the team’s quest for revenge against H.A.T.E. and the Beyond Corporation. Indeed, it had nothing to do with “Civil War,” being so tonally separate from the rest of the Marvel Universe, the publisher decided to keep “Nextwave” away from the crossover, an example of soft continuity which has carried on to this day.

You won’t see the likes of “Howard the Duck” or “Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat!” being dragged into “Civil War II.” Those are tonally completely different books from the big superhero soap operas of crossover events, and are mostly for completely different audiences. That’s a lesson clearly learned from “Nextwave,” whose radical take on Marvel superheroes wouldn’t necessarily work in mainstream continuity.

14. Theme Songs

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The existence of QR codes was at last justified with issue two of Natasha Allegri’s “Bee and Puppycat” comic, adapted as it was from her own animated series. Scanning the codes littered throughout, alongside the music boxes that were central to the plot, would direct your phone to a YouTube video of the songs the boxes played. It was a great, playful way of bringing music and comics together. Further blurring those lines have been the likes of “Spider-Gwen” and “Black Canary,” recent music-centric superhero books that have had their fictional pop songs recorded by real bands (the former by Married With Sea Monsters, under the nom de plume The Mary Janes; the latter by writer Brendan Fletcher’s band). And yet, these are all Johnny-come-latelys.

Marvel editor Nick Lowe, along with brother Matt, recorded a theme song for one of the books under his stewardship. The song inspired by “Nextwave,” which was uploaded to the MySpace page of their band Thunder Thighs, also had its lyrics printed in the first issue’s second printing and the hardback collection, including such gems as “IT’S LIKE SHAKESPEARE / BUT WITH LOTS MORE PUNCHING!”

13. Quick Runs, Dedicated Creators

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The serialized format remains the dominant form of superhero comics. That’s how individual books end up with issue numbers in the hundreds, with new creative teams joining and leaving, telling stories with characters who have decades of history. There is a different approach, however, for which “Nextwave” blazed the first trails.

Ellis originally intended for “Nextwave” to be passed onto a different writer, or perhaps to come back with another artist. What actually happened was the book went on an indefinite hiatus and is essentially its own self-contained thing, with Ellis and Immonen the sole creators to have worked on the book. These self-contained runs have become more and more common.

Matt Fraction, David Aja and Annie Wu’s “Hawkeye” run ended, and so too did the book; it was relaunched with a new number one as “All-New Hawkeye” when Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez took over. This was true also of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s “Young Avengers,” which was a second volume of the book and which ended when the team left, instead of them being replaced. This type of storytelling remains a staple of Ellis’ contemporary work and is quickly becoming an industry standard.

12. Predicting the Coloring Book Craze

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Coloring books: they’re not just for kids any more! The past couple of years have seen the rise of coloring books specifically for adults, backed by claims that they can help increase “mindfulness” and reduce anxiety by giving those with troubled minds a safe, structured outlet for creative artistic expression. The comic industry has quickly become involved, releasing collections and reprints of books without the coloring of the final art.

Once more, “Nextwave” was years ahead of the game. A special edition of the fifth issue was something of a precursor to the coloring books editions put out by both Marvel and DC. The “Crayon Butchery” variant reproduced Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger’s line art, before Dave McCaig laid his colors over it.

The idea was to encourage fans to color the book themselves, specifically with crayons, just like kids do with coloring books! There was even a competition wherein fans could send in their colored variants, with the winning entry being noted in the backmatter. It’s possible that all the explosions and cursing go against the “relaxing” vibe of contemporary adult coloring books, but the important thing is that “Nextwave” was ahead of its time with this particular craze.

11. Reinventing the Recap Page

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The recap page is a long-standing tradition for mainstream comic books. It’s almost essential for telling long-form, serialized stories of the sort most superhero titles trade in. It’s more elegant than the classic asterisked caption box imploring fans to go back and check a back issue for more info. Recap pages elegantly set the stage for what’s about to come, in much the same way “Previously On…” montages at the beginning of TV shows do. That’s not to say they’re entirely functional.

You can get creative with recap pages, which Ellis and Immonen undoubtedly did with “Nextwave.” Instead of the perfunctory “Previously On…” text, past issues were summed up and the book’s premise explained in the form of a F.A.Q. with an imaginary reader, whose queries got increasingly unhinged. These were answered in slick corporate marketing speak by a Beyond Corporation representative.

“Nextwave”’s recaps themselves set the stage for other creators to get weird with their own. Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” summarizes recent events through the main character’s Twitter timeline, while “Mighty Avengers” was preceded by newspaper headlines of past issues.

10. Repurposing Characters

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The “Nextwave” squad was mostly pieced together out of existing Marvel characters. Tabby was a former “X-Force” member who had too many code names to count. Monica was in the Avengers, don’t you know. Monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone had been created five years prior by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Michael Lopez. Aaron Stack was created by Jack Kirby for his bizarre “2001: A Space Odyssey” adaptation.

Even the villainous “New Paramounts” team was made up of characters from “Not Brand Ecch!” Most of them were presented entirely differently from their past characterizations — one of the many reasons “Nextwave” was considered out-of-continuity for a while. The recontextualization of existing Marvel characters was somewhat novel at the time, but reworking a roster of characters has since become the norm. Hellcat became a foil for “She-Hulk,” freed of her past angst, while newer takes on “Moon Knight” have made him a vigilante with mental health issues. Even The Sentry was removed from his original context.

9. The Monster Mash

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Sadly nothing to do with the “Scooby Doo” movie sequel, Marvel’s upcoming “Monsters Unleashed!” event will see writer Cullen Bunn and an all-star line-up of artists — including Salvador Larroca, Steve McNiven, and Leinil Yu — giving the publisher’s roster of giant-sized beasties their due, which we can all agree is long overdue. Besides “American Kaiju” in the pages of “New Avengers,” the big monsters of the Marvel Universe have been away from our pages for too long. They have a rich history, beginning with the pre-superhero days of the publisher.

Yet again, this was one of the many under-utilized areas plundered and made great by “Nextwave.” The book’s first issue saw the team go up against Fin Fang Foom, a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation who was revealed here to have no genitals and was very upset over the fact. Could the return of Marvel’s monsters in the Bunn miniseries and “Totally Awesome Hulk” have been heralded by Ellis and Immonen?

8. Monica Rambeau

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Created by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr., Monica Rambeau has never quite lived up to her potential when it comes to her power set (the impressive yet under-utilized ability to convert her body into any form of light on the electromagnetic spectrum) or character design (originally modelled on blaxploitation star Pam Grier). In fact, her checkered Marvel Comics past was a running gag throughout “Nextwave.”

The superhero previously known variously as Photon, Pulsar and Captain Marvel makes constant references to her time as an Avenger, referring to a sporadic and short-lived tenure on the team between issues #227-347 of their main title. She had since mainly appeared in cameo roles. By the time she became leader of the Nextwave squad, she dropped the alter ego.

Post-“Nextwave,” plenty more creators began to realize the character’s potential, putting her in starring roles in the “Marvel Divas” miniseries, the “Infinity” and “Secret Wars” crossovers, and as a key member of both “Mighty Avengers” and the new “Ultimates.” Were it not for her “Nextwave” starring role, that comeback may never have happened.

7. The Postmodern Marvel

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“They shot their muck all over me!” “Like that’s never happened before,” is not an exchange you would see in a ’70s Marvel comic book. Well, okay… maybe if Steve Gerber was writing it. There’s a level of irreverence and willingness to embrace postmodernism for the sake of comedy that “Nextwave” pioneered, between its fourth wall-breaking caption boxes and Tabitha Smith’s usage of internet neologisms like “ZOMG.”

It’s a brand of humor consistent through a lot of Warren Ellis’s work, but “Nextwave” really unleashed it, and did so within the established Marvel Universe. This was not a parody book like “What The-?!” or “Not Brand Ecch,” but an honest-to-goodness Marvel comic that went out of its way to mock the more obscure and problematic elements of the publisher’s past.

There’s no way we would be reading the likes of Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’s “Howard the Duck,” or Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” if “Nextwave” had not already been a proven success at taking an irreverent sideways look at the superhero genre in general and Marvel Comics specifically.

6. Perfecting The Pastiche

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The postmodern phase of American superhero comics have, at last, discovered a sense of humor. Past the grim deconstruction of Moore and Miller, we’ve since had Shaky Kane and David Hine’s “The Bulletproof Coffin,” mimicking classic pulp comic styles as well as mid-90s Rob Liefeld (and beyond). Also in this same school of thought is Tim Sicoli and Joe Casey’s “New Gods” tribute, “Godland,” and Michel Fiffe’s extended “Suicide Squad” riff, the incredible “COPRA.”

“Nextwave” set the stage for all of these later artistic and thematic pastiches with issue #10, when a mind-controlling bad guy with a cooking pot for a hat exposed each member of the team to a different nightmarish alternate reality. Stuart Immonen knocked it out of the park with pitch-perfect visual parodies of numerous other comic book artists’ styles.

Machine Man Aaron Stack returned to his previous employer, Delmar Insurance, in the manner of a Dan Clowes gag strip; Elsa Bloodstone fought monsters in a “Hellboy” lookalike sequence clearly inspired by Mike Mignola; Monica stumbled through a psychedelic dystopia modeled on veteran artist Gene Colan. Mainstream comics were always part of an ongoing continuum, but “Nextwave” explicitly acknowledged its place in history through its parodies.

5. Devil Dinosaur

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Even placed against the likes of Groot and O.M.A.C., “Devil Dinosaur” is one of Jack Kirby’s more peculiar creations. A giant red T-Rex who stomped around with a talking ape called “Moon Boy” on his back, the smarter-than-your-average dino had a short-lived series in the mid-70s before mostly disappearing from comic stands. That is, he did until Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen got their hands on him.

Ol’ DD has since become the star of “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur,” Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare and Natacha Bustos’ all-ages series which has been critically acclaimed for bringing the Kirby creation into the 21st century. Before that more enduring comeback, he wad revealed to be the dastardly mastermind behind everything that had happened to the team in the pages of “Nextwave.”

Clad in a smoking jacket and wielding a pistol in his dainty hands, this Devil Dinosaur was seeking vengeance on all apes, hairless or otherwise, thanks to the years of indignity suffered as Moon Boy’s steed. This vain, angry DD with the tenor of a sophisticated, sociopathic Bond villain is a far cry from the “Moon Girl” star, but “Nextwave” still got there first!

4. A Teen Titan

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In 2007, the Young Adult Library Services Association included “Nextwave” on its end-of-year Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens. “I do it all for the children,” said Ellis at the news. “It is good to know that the young people of today are ready and waiting for me to form a Church.”

The more recent “Devil Dinosaur” book, teaming him up with a smart teenage black girl, has been acclaimed for its appeal to new readers of a similar age to its younger star. In general, there has been a push by Marvel to engage the younger comic book audience turned on to the form by movies and TV shows, to expand their horizons past the lifelong fans who have kept the Direct Market afloat for decades.

“Ms. Marvel”, “Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat” and others of their ilk have been credited with diversifying Marvel’s readership greatly. Ellis was being glib — as is so often his wont — but it’s not hard to imagine that if “Nextwave” had come along a few years later, its radical take on the Marvel Universe would inspire a similar sea change (and tsunami Tumblr image posts) as the current hot teen books.

3. The Corporate Villain

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The corporate bad guy came to prominence during the ’80s, when Reaganomics and “Wall Street” normalized the idea of greed being good and free enterprise benefitting private companies with more control over the lives of regular people. A cyberpunk staple especially, it began to recede from pop culture as we entered into the ’90s. Even if the socioeconomic landscape hadn’t changed that much, you started seeing less of Omni Consumer Products and their like.

In “Nextwave,” the main antagonists — the ones funding H.A.T.E. — are the Beyond Corporation, previously a terrorist group known as S.I.L.E.N.T. that went through some rebranding but stayed just as morally dubious. Its deployment of Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction (U.W.M.D.s) was done following marketing strategies and usually disguised as legitimate research, so as not to arouse suspicion.

These days, the free enterprise supervillain is a cornerstone of Marvel Comics. Roxxon were the big bads of the “Ultimate” universe and remain a key part of Jason Aaron’s ongoing “Thor” epic, while the Serpent Society was revamped as a Fortune 500 company and largely accepted by the public in Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna’s “Captain America: Sam Wilson.”

2. The New Ellis

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“Karnak,” Warren Ellis’s latest series for Marvel, just came to its conclusion. Delay-ridden thanks to personal issues surrounding the art, it would otherwise have been over in just five short months, after which Ellis left the series. This, as we mentioned previously, has become his standard operating practice for modern comics work, which has been scaled back a great deal since his heyday.

Thanks to his own personal issues, as well as increased screen and traditional prose writing, Ellis is now more likely to drop in for a quick run on a book than an extended series of arcs. His, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s five-issue “Moon Knight” reboot was fantastic, prefiguring their later team-up for Image series “Injection.” The writer also just polished off a second and final arc for Dynamite’s “James Bond” series.

“Nextwave” was a foreshadowing of this later practice. Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s superhero book was split into two-issue story arcs, with a larger plot through their 12 issues, the ending of which also marked the end of the series. It was a strong, loud statement followed by a mic drop: exactly the same impact the writer’s modern comics work has today.

1. The Evil S.H.I.E.L.D.

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The Nextwave team was formed by H.A.T.E., the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort, the director of which was Dirk Anger, an immortal super-spy with some sizable oedipal issues. Not the most subtle of parodies, but “Nextwave” didn’t put much stock in “subtle.” It was more about smashing in the heads of Broccoli Men with electric guitars.

H.A.T.E. was a thinly-veiled S.H.I.E.L.D. parody, helicarriers and all, with its leader an equally obvious spoof of Nick Fury. The series opened with the Nextwave team begging off their employers, upon discovering that they were accepting funding from a terrorist group called the Beyond Corporation, despite nominally being a counterterrorism force. “IT WAS AN OPEN BIDDING PROCESS,” Anger explains.

In 2007, the suggestion of a government agency being so morally-compromised was a radical one. A few years later, and H.A.T.E.’s antecedent has become almost as dastardly. They’ve yet to start chucking koalas out of the sky as weapons, but beginning with “Civil War” and continuing through to its recent sequel, the good guys have started fighting against S.H.I.E.LD. on similarly ideological grounds.

What was your favorite part of the groundbreaking Nextwave? Let us know in the comments!

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