Friday, March 30, 2007

The Comics Page #10: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.: This is What They Want

Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's NEXTWAVE was one of many cult favorite comic books last year totally buried by events and event tie-ins. It ran for 12 issues, and whether or not it was a limited series from the start was never quite clear, but after it became clear the sales were going nowhere, Ellis publicly declared that we wouldn't get to have any more after a dozen. I discovered this book one issue before the end, and I regret not having done my part to save it (word of mouth about comics doesn't spread fast enough, does it?). Sometimes I wonder if we deserve titles like this. In any case, NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E.: THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT collects the first half of the series, presumably with another trade to follow.

Lying somewhere between the Giffen/DeMatteis "comedy" JUSTICE LEAGUE and TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E. is a high-octane action satire in which B-list superheroes, forgoing costumes and code names, beat the crap out of monsters and insult each other against a backdrop of psychedelic visual funkiness. It's intensely funny and, at the same time, quite exciting, while being cool to look at to boot.

H.A.T.E. stands for Highest Anti Terrorism Effort, a top secret agency run by the one-eyed and psychotic Dirk Anger (originally intended to be Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., but Marvel understandably put their foot down.) Nextwave was intended to be the agency's elite anti-terrorism superteam, but its leader, Monica Rambeau (formerly known as Captain Marvel, and former head of the Avengers, as she will remind you frequently) and her team discovered that H.A.T.E. was funded by the Beyond Corporation, the public, "reformed" face of S.I.L.E.N.T., a terrorist group, intending to use H.A.T.E. to test new and improved WMDs on the American public. So they stole an airship and rebelled. All this happened before the first issue, and now Nextwave are fleeing their bosses and fighting any monsters who happen across their path.

The other members of Nextwave are Tabby Smith, who possesses the mutant powers of pyrotechnics and stealing all your stuff, Aaron, an advanced robot formerly known as "Machine Man", Elsa Bloodstone, a near-immortal monster hunter with a British accent, and the Captain, a vaguely cosmic powered superhuman whose original codename was so obscene Captain America smacked him when he first heard it. They've also got their own theme song, printed in the back of the TPB and available on the Marvel website.

Describing the plot of the series is sort of pointless, suffice it to say that in this trade, the Nextwave gang battles Fin Fang Foom (a giant Chinese dragon in little purple shorts), a cyborg cop, broccoli men, drop bears, pteromen, homicide crabs, and spiky samurai warriors. All the while, they are hunted by H.A.T.E. and the perpetually unstable Dirk Anger, who manifests a number of unusual neuroses. We also get flashbacks to the backstories of some of the Nextwave team, and banter and insults abound.

The tone of the book is hard to describe. The narration is both deadpan and dripping with irony, displaying a very British kind of sarcasm (which makes a certain amount of sense given Ellis is from that general region.) And yet, at the same time, the book is incredibly straightforward in what it offers: superpowered people engaged in senseless violence, with none of the attempts at self-justification you see in more serious books. The trade also prints Ellis' original pitch, which is distinctly simple- every story arc takes two issues, telling an action movie in 44 pages, focusing on the Nextwave team battling some kind of weird monster thingy. There is no character development, no relevance, no moral truth. It is, as as Ellis says, "most especially about THINGS BLOWING UP and PEOPLE GETTING KICKED."

And it's strangely endearing. With crisp, colorful art and a strong sense of design, artist Stuart Immonen helps keep the tone light and bouncy. Heck, it's less gory than the average mainstream title, despite being plainly put in adult action-movie territory. (Listing all the ways in which this is different from modern mainstream comics would get me going on a very unpleasant rant, so let's just stop there.) It's also extremely funny, with a lot of dark-yet-cartoonish humor presented with excellent timing, the highlight being a brilliant throwaway joke about what happened to one of Aaron's mechanical brothers. One develops an affection for these characters, underdogs with deep grudges and personal problems who have banded together to fight the power with guns and explosions. Okay, maybe it's not completely without truth, but then what is?

NEXTWAVE confidently stomped onto comics stands, said its piece, then stomped off without being too upset that not many people were listening, but I suspect that we haven't heard the last of it. Specials have been rumored. Whether or not such things happen, NEXTWAVE is something unique in the genre. Not an idealistic heroic narrative, not a cynical deconstruction, not an existential drama, not really a parody, not in the least bit serious. NEXTWAVE is- well, to quote the last caption of issue #6, "Nextwave is love." I'll let that be the last word.

Grade: A-

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