Storytelling Engines: Nova
(or “An Idea Ahead Of Its Time”)
One of the fundamental points I introduced right at the beginning of the ‘Storytelling Engines’ series, now eleven months ago (wow, time flies, huh?) is that not every status quo is created equal. Some settings lend themselves to more stories than others, some characters act better to generate stories than others, some concepts just work better than others. Whether a writer thinks consciously about the potential in their status quo or not, and whether the reader notices the way the storytelling engine works or doesn’t work, they still react better to a good engine than to a bad one, and a good storytelling engine sticks around better than a bad one does…even if it doesn’t quite seem that way at first.
Richard Ryder, “the man called Nova”, is a good example of a storytelling engine that had some thought put into it. Marv Wolfman, one of the industry’s great craftsmen, took some time to actually design the status quo of Nova’s comic for the long term. He worked out Nova’s personality, as a self-deprecating, somewhat under-confident teen who received powers from the Nova Corps; he came up with a family, friends, a social life that supported (and occasionally antagonized) our hero; he worked out a rogue’s gallery (with somewhat mixed results–Diamondhead and Condor never really caught on, but the Sphinx and the Corruptor have continued to make appearances in the Marvel Universe.) He did, in short, everything to make sure there was a lot of potential in Nova’s storytelling engine…
And after twenty-five issues, the title was canceled anyway. Nothing to do with the character or the status quo, really. Marvel was just going through some tough times in the 1970s, a new series is always a bit of a gamble, and the comic just didn’t build up enough of a following to justify keeping it going. Wolfman tied up the loose ends in other comics, depowered the character (but didn’t kill him, significantly) and let Richard Ryder be forgotten.
Except that he wasn’t. Because, as I said before, while a reader might not consciously appreciate the effort that goes into designing a good storytelling engine, they notice that some titles seem to have a lot of good stories, while others don’t. Nova might not have had a ton of readers, but those that did read the series remembered it fondly, and when the 80s rolled around and comics hit a boom, the New Warriors combined Nova with a few other “cult” heroes from the last decade, and made a solid 75 issue run over the course of the 1990s. They, in turn, had fond memories and fans of their own, leading up to revivals of the series that continue through the present day. Not to mention, Nova’s back in a series of his own.
The key point here is that the character had time to develop and build a fan following due to its strong central concept, an average guy trying to do his best with amazing abilities. (Sometimes these aren’t rocket science, but it’s still a solid concept for a series.) The character was out of the spotlight, but the idea wasn’t forgotten, and when Nova got relaunched, the audience was there waiting for him. It’s a good argument for not throwing away minor characters simply to pad out the bodycount in a big crossover; sometimes, all that’s needed for a character to become a hit is a chance to build up a little nostalgia with the fans.
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