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Young heroes get a big push in Nova and Vibe

Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are Nova #1 by Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween, The Ultimates 3) and Ed McGuinness (Superman, Hulk) and Justice League Of America’s Vibe #1 by Geoff Johns (Aquaman, Justice League), Andrew Kreisberg (Arrow, Helen Killer) and Pete Woods (Legion Lost, Robin), two books that are putting young superheroes in the spotlight in very different ways. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Nova and Vibe aren’t household names when it comes to superheroes, but Marvel and DC are hoping to change that by attaching some of their biggest talents to new comics starring the young heroes. With the wonderfully all-ages Nova, Marvel’s head of television, Jeph Loeb, writes one of the best books of his inconsistent comics career, teaming with his Superman and Hulk artist Ed McGuinness for a cosmic adventure in the traditional Marvel vein. Taking a page from the decompressed storytelling of Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, Loeb creates a rich portrait of Sam Alexander’s life at home and school, building an emotional relationship between Sam and his supporting cast that is sure to change once he becomes the hero that debuted way back in Avengers Vs. X-Men #1. Vibe doesn’t fare as well, pairing DC Chief Creative Officer and Justice League scribe Geoff Johns with Arrow executive producer Andrew Kreisberg to co-write the exploits of Detroit’s newest superhero. It’s a title that is so heavily intertwined with the overarching storyline of the DC universe that it doesn’t have a voice of its own, and it relies on a connection to Justice League Of America to keep readers intrigued. 

There’s a pervasive idea in superhero comics that stories have to have a connection to the established history or greater plot of that universe in order to matter, and part of the push for these two titles is their link to events past, present, and future. The new Nova debuted during Marvel’s big crossover last summer, and his title is one of the lead-ins for the upcoming Infinity event; and DC is banking on Vibe’s attachment to the new Justice League Of America and the upcoming “Trinity War” that the team’s name is in the title of his comic. Vibe isn’t the fan favorite that Nova is (even without Richard Rider under the helmet), and Johns and Kreisberg set out to justify why readers should buy a series starring one of DC’s most infamous D-listers. The plot is rushed in order to ensure Francisco Ramon is a member of the JLA by the end of this first issue, and his character suffers as a result. 

Vibe is defined by his relationship to the Justice League. So much so that he received his powers as a result of the event that brought the team together, gaining control of vibrational frequencies after getting caught in the event horizon of a boom tube when Darkseid attacked Earth five years ago. The cover for Vibe features the tagline “The Unlikeliest Hero,” but after reading the issue it’s not clear what makes him such an implausible hero beyond the fact that he has a troubled history with readers pre-New 52. Francisco’s origin story is a typically tragic superhero journey, and the cover line is really a nicer way of saying “The Unlikeliest Series.”

Both Vibe and Nova are conventional in their own ways, beginning with the conflict at their cores. The blast that gave Francisco Ramon his powers also cost his brother his life when a Parademon flew through the boom tube and murdered him, an origin that takes up all of four pages. The reader doesn’t learn much about the siblings’ relationship beyond a short conversation where Francisco’s brother tells him about the importance of going to college, and the death lacks the impact it needs if it’s going to be the driving force of this first issue. As is usually the case with Marvel and DC, there’s a more relatable dilemma at the heart of Nova’s origin, which spotlights a teen dissatisfied with his family and hopeless that there’s more for him beyond his small-town life. 

Sam Alexander lives in Careless, Arizona, with an alcoholic dad who tells fantastic stories about his time as a member of the Nova Corps; and while caged teen with a deadbeat dad isn’t the most original narrative, the execution is fresh and exciting. The balance of character-based drama and sprawling sci-fi elements calls to mind the work of Spielberg and Zemeckis, and the cinematic quality is amplified by McGuinness’ dynamic, polished artwork. An amalgam of Jack Kirby, Walt Disney, and Osamu Tezuka, McGuinness has a vibrant, expressive style that adapts to fit the emotional shifts of Loeb’s script. Paired with inker Dexter Vines and colorist Marte Gracia, McGuinness is producing smooth, exquisitely detailed artwork that begs to be animated. With Nova starring as a character on the Jeph Loeb-produced Ultimate Spider-Man, maybe that TV series will adapt Sam’s origin using McGuinness’ art as storyboards.

Pete Woods provides stronger artwork on Vibe than he did on last week’s Avengers Assemble #12, likely due to him being partnered with Sean Parsons on inks. Woods is a penciller who needs a strong inker to add sharpness to his artwork, and Parsons’ clean, confident line brings depth to the serviceable visuals. Perhaps the differences between Vibe and Nova are best exemplified by the costume designs of the two heroes. As with most of the New 52 costumes, Vibe’s David Finch-designed hoodie-plus-horrible-vest look is busy, with lots of unnecessary detailing, combining a lot visual elements that fail to come together. (Why are his sleeves lined with metal?) Ed McGuinness’ costume for Nova is streamlined with just enough changed that it’s separate from the previous iteration, but still in line with the original design. 

Marvel Now! embraces title pages as a way to start a story with a bold visual statement, and Nova begins with a simple yet effective three-page sequence. It opens with a vast cosmic starscape with only the word “Previously” attached, and turning the page reveals a two-page title spread expanding that vista with a light shining where there wasn’t one before. That visual motif of something distant flying through the stars is repeated throughout the issue as a precursor to spectacular things. A streak of light appears the night before Sam’s dad disappears, and when Sam crashes his skateboard and ends up in the hospital, he sees that distant glow just before Rocket Raccoon and Gamora show up at his bedside. These types of details lend an element of artistry to the book, and show the level of care the creators are taking with this new Nova

There are different kinds of new readers that a superhero-comic publisher can gear a title toward. In Nova’s case, “new” runs the gamut from kids who are just starting to read to long-term fans of Marvel Comics, and there’s a Pixar-like quality in the story’s ability to be all-ages while still incorporating some more mature subject matter. The “new” readers that DC is trying to bring to Vibe are established followers of the Justice League who know who Darkseid, Gypsy, and Amanda Waller are. The cliffhanger reveal holds a lot of weight for those fans, but readers unfamiliar with the DC universe probably won’t be clamoring to find out more about Darkseid’s daughter. Compare that to the cliffhanger of Nova, which has the lead in a hospital bed, being confronted by a talking raccoon with a gun and a green woman in a one-piece swimsuit and thigh-high boots. How could you not want to read the second issue with an ending like that?