Although they have been making quite a name for themselves of late, writing collaborators Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning-- known collectively by their fans as “DnA”, are the exact opposite of an overnight sensation. In fact, these guys have been in the trenches for years, paying their dues both as a team and separately. Abnett is a prolific and versatile writer all on his own, with credits ranging from Warhammer 40K to Wallace and Gromit children’s books. Lanning is an accomplished inker on tons and tons of DC and Marvel books. But right now, as a team, they are hotter than ever, being primarily responsible for bringing back the cosmic in the Marvel Universe and making space heroes more prominent at the company than they’ve been in a decade.
Marvel has a lot of great cosmic storylines on their resume, but those kind of stories hit a sort of fallow period for awhile, with characters like the Silver Surfer and Warlock unable to sustain ongoing titles in the post-90’s post-bankruptcy period. Keith Giffen deserves a lot of the credit for rethinking the genre with 2006’s Annihilation event, but ever since he defected to DC, DnA have taken the ball and run with it. They spearheaded an Annihilation sequel called Conquest and are now gearing up to pit the Kree against the Shi’ar in War of Kings. In addition to their big hoo-hah event, Abnett and Lanning are currently responsible for both of the big monthly space opera books on the block, the newest incarnations of Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The first 12 issues of Nova have just been released in a handsome oversized hardcover, which makes for a satisfying afternoon of reading. This series marks Richard Rider’s fourth(!) attempt at carrying an ongoing title, but I feel that this time we may have a winner. One possibly fatal flaw of previous attempts was that although his powers and shiny space helmet originated from outer space, Nova spent most of his time earthside, angsting about his life and knocking out costumed super villains. He was basically a surly Peter Parker with a bucket on his head. DnA have sent him out amongst the stars, where he’s filling the all-encompassing “protector of the universe” role in the tradition of Captain Marvel and Quasar.
As his latest series opens, Rich is the last surviving member of the Nova Centurion Corps, the galactic peacekeeping force that was wiped out by the Annihilation Wave. I confess it was news to me that the Corps has become so widespread across the cosmos-- back in the day they were strictly local protectors of the planet (and later domed city of) Xandar. When exactly they expanded to become Marvel’s answer to the Green Lantern Corps I have no idea, but I guess it’s not important since they’re all dead now anyway. Richard Rider is more powerful than ever because he possesses the cumulative power of the entire Corps and also houses the vast computer knowledge of Xandar’s Worldmind in his noggin. He also feels a tremendous burden to single-handedly carry on the Nova Corps tradition, to be a protector to all worlds at all times, responding to constant back-to-back distress calls. Not surprisingly, Rich is beginning to burn out a bit.
As the book opens, Nova is finally convinced to take a breather and check in with his family back on Earth. Unfortunately, things have changed quite a bit in his absence, and not for the better: several of his New Warriors teammates have died in the Stamford incident, the team’s name has become synonymous with “child-killing monsters” and Iron Man, director of SHIELD comes looking to sign him up for the Initiative. The Thunderbolts want to smack him down, his buddy Speedball has become an emo S-and-M depressive, and his own father is skeeved out to have Richard back in the house. Needless to say, Nova heads back to the stars sooner rather than later.
For the rest of the first year, Nova tied into the Annihilation Conquest in a pretty surprising way. DnA throw us a filthy curveball when Rich is actually assimilated by the Phalanx and becomes the villain for a couple of issues. In desperation, the Worldmind rebels against Richard and instills the Nova power in a female Kree warrior named Ko-Rel. Now, if this has happened in issue #1, readers might’ve thought this new Nova could be the new starring character, but since we just spent 3 issues establishing Rider, this seems extremely unlikely. It’s a testament to DnA’s writing skills that although we’re pretty sure Ko-Rel’s tenure will be short-lived we still become invested in her plight and are affected by how her story ultimately plays out.
Nova spends the rest of this book fighting off a techno-organic viral infection and dodging assimilated assassins Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, while seeking a way to defeat the Phalanx. He briefly takes refuge at Knowhere, a self-contained city-state floating at the end of time and space inside the head of a decapitated Celestial. Many species from all realities call Knowhere home as they observe the end of the universe (shades of Douglas Adams, but played straight), as well as a resident team of alien superheroes, and a security chief named Cosmo who happens to be a sentient Russian telepath canine, complete with cosmonaut suit! Rider ultimately tracks down Kvch, the long-lost Technarch homeworld, where the fate of the universe may end up in the hands of the most unlikely combatant of all-- former New Mutant goofball Warlock.
Rather than having a regular penciller, the book passed from Sean Chen to Wellington Alves to Mahmud A. Asrar to Paul Pelletier. Despite the inconsistency, the comic looks pretty good throughout, though nobody blew me out of my chair. Everyone seems capable of keeping up with DnA's demands for bizarre creatures and exotic locations. The most distracting thing about the art is some of the iffy costumes: all the pointy edges on Nova look ridiculous and unnecessarily dangerous, while Gamora basically runs around wearing a couple of strategically-placed ribbons, which makes it hard to take her seriously sometimes.
If team books are more your thing, DnA have you covered with Guardians of the Galaxy, the first six issues of which have been released in a "premiere" hardcover, which means it's smaller and contains fewer issues than the Nova book. This is a present-day incarnation of the Guardians, although elements of the more-familiar 31st-century team begin cropping up almost immediately. Clearly the writers plan to tie the two teams together in a lineage at some point.
In the wake of the Annihilation wave, the very fabric of time and space has been weakened, causing impromptu fissures in the structure of the universe. Peter Quill, formerly known as Star-Lord, is convinced that what's needed is a crack team of proactive cosmic troubleshooters to stop these crises as they crop up and convinces several of his allies to band together to battle all manner of unspeakable Lovecraftian abominations. Utilizing Knowhere's "Continuum Cortex", they are able to teleport through timespace to different crisis points in an effort to stem the tide. Right off the bat they also manage to piss off the Universal Church of Truth and get embroiled in a Skrull infiltration on board the station.
What makes the book work so well is the great mix of interesting characters, almost too many to keep track of, but I love it. Quill himself is an earnest soldier who feels guilty for letting the Phalanx conquer the Kree on his watch. Recruited for the team are three former Infinity Watch members (Adam Warlock, Gamora and Drax the Destroyer), all of whom are dealing with new identities, incarnations, and/or powers. A former Captain Marvel and the current Quasar, Phyla-Vell struggles with iffy self-confidence and the death of her lover as she tries to live up to the legacy of her quantum bands. The wise but eccentric Mantis backs up the team, and she has added telepathy and precognition to her power set (she has also, thankfully, stopped referring to herself as "this one" all the time). Probably the coolest character on the team is Rocket Raccoon, a wisecracking anthromorph with a giant gun that's bigger than he is. His best bud is Groot, who was formerly a 50-foot tall tree monster that stomped around proclaiming "I am Groot" over and over. After burning down during Conquest, Groot has since begun regrowing himself a la Swamp Thing, and is currently a 5-inch tall tree creature standing on Rocky's shoulder and proclaiming "I am Groot."
And by the way, I did mention that Knowhere's security chief is a cosmonaut telepathic dog in a spacesuit named Cosmo, right? I mean, that alone should convince you to run out and buy this!
The artist on GotG is the highly underrated Paul Pelletier, whose work I've enjoyed all the way back to the 90's version of DC's The Outsiders. His pencils are beautiful and his design work is imaginative; his action is well-choreographed. I see no reason this guy couldn't be as big as Alan Davis or Bryan Hitch, if fans would only take notice. Hope he's on this book for the long haul.
If I had any real reservation about Abnett and Lanning's space sagas, it's that they are just so relentlessly action-packed and event-driven there's not enough time to really slow down and give the characters a moment to breathe. To some that may be a strange complaint to have about a superhero comic, that there's too much action, but honestly there are so many great characters in these books I'd love to see them get a moment to shine in the spotlight. How about Rocket going back for some shore leave on his home planet? How about exploring the convoluted backstory of Quill and his father? When's the last time Phyla was on Titan? Hopefully these comics sell well enough to carry on for some time, because DnA have set up some great scenarios full of story potential and there's enough material for many entertaining tales to come.
Nova Rating: 8/10
Guardians of the Galaxy Rating: 9/10