Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nova, the Human Rocket revisited

Since I have the entire twenty-five issue run of the series handy, and fondly remember the potential of the character from borrowed back issues read in middle school, I think a Nova thread might be fun, and I welcome you along. That’s the spirit of these types of threads (“Bob threads”) on this board, anyway: your pal sneaks you a Trapper Keeper folder full of goodies between classes. So have fun, and don’t get it taken up by the teacher, okay?


Before I dive into a summation of the issues, here’s some general remarks placed at the onset, to address themes recurrent in the series.
[i]The Man Called Nova[/i] is actually pretty close in tone to a Saturday morning cartoon, which gives you an idea of the kind of public profile Wolfman and Marvel wanted for the newest star in the mid-70s firmament. It’s as different as possible from its contemporary, Omega the Unknown, which inverted every super hero comic trope that NOVA celebrates.

The mood may have been proportionately lighter as a subconscious response to the dark goings-on in Wolfman’s prized Tomb of Dracula stories, where a consummately wicked character sets the tone every month. If anything, that may have encouraged the professional choice to invest in a character whose gloom could be remedied by a different point of view. The title is a deliberate effort to incorporate “man” into the concept much as “Spider-Man” does; the teen hero, Richard Ryder, is taken seriously by the writer, who considers him in context of being able to make adult decisions.

It’s certainly not the tragedy-laden kind of origin that characterizes most of classic Marvel, who couldn’t get anyone into a union suit without killing off somebody or leaving the Rich is misunderstood, but not really for any comic book-y reasons. When the bolt comes from space to blast him in the middle of the chocolate shop, the cosmic reasoning is disguised as dumb luck. The problem pursuant in Nova’s storytelling engine is that Rich Ryder simply sees himself as mediocre, which is a much less melodramatic kind of tragedy (and might lead to a personality too flawed to qualify for the classical definition of the word). It’s the kind of problem one takes in hand, hopefully, upon growing up enough to eschew familiar boundaries and learning to enjoy life.

Frankly, his thoughts are fairly close to what we think of as depression, but more, as Chekov described of most men, like a life of quiet desperation, a very typical kind of melancholy. Whereas even the loner Peter Parker had a decent stake going with his intellectual pursuits, Rich Ryder considers himself a zero.
The formulaic similarities to Green Lantern’s origin revolve around a very different character with a lot of room for growing into maturity. I think it’s worth remembering that in 1976, not every fan is knowledgeable about the origins of nearly every blamed character in print, as can happen reasonably quickly today.

Nonetheless, the lack of backing from longtime fans, and the recession that also aided the “DC Implosion”, probably hurt Nova’s sales; I can see him connecting with newer fans at the time, unless Rich’s relentless pity party fails to evoke empathy after repeated recitations of neuroses. One supposes the “hot-headed” characterization in his later incarnation is an attempt to make him seem less wishy-washy, especially in terms of the obsession with badasses leading into the speculator boom years. It also seems very endemic of 1970s Marvel, to question one’s self and grouse relentlessly.
To his credit, as the series progresses, Rich makes the right choices in his heart and, if he doesn’t always know the smart thing to do, he does show the selfless courage, as Nova, anyway, to qualify him as a bona fide hero.

The sometimes-transparent attempts to make Rich like Peter Parker do incorporate some tweaks in the characterization. For one, this is not a Ditko-esque Rand-influenced type of alienated exceptionalist’s mind; Rich is so “everyman” it kind of hurts. We don’t really get to see why he is so down on himself; I suppose the hints suggest he can’t measure up to his principal dad or his genius little brother. One imagines this character as being semi-autobiographical in a sense similar to Ditko’s Spider-Man, but it’s a little unclear if that is the case or if this is a very deliberate attempt to explore formula. The fact that he originated in a Wolfman fanzine years before suggests a personal touch.

Along with those changes in formula, we get friends and even a girlfriend, who probably could’ve inspired a good story or two herself. They lighten up the moments and serve as supporting characters in more than the conventional sense of the phrase. Also we see the “star student” attribute pushed over onto the athletic bully, Mike Burley, and if this is spelled out in less-than-subtle ways, remember these are the adventures of a human rocket.

How he keeps girlfriend Ginger Jaye hooked on him with this attitude is unclear; the moments Wolfman chooses don’t offer a very attractive personality, as he doesn’t take a moment from being so down on himself to tell her how much he appreciates her, or any of her good qualities. At least we are past the sometimes atrocious depictions of females that date the older generation’s writing at times. Perhaps it’s some combination of her nurturing nature and a desire on her behalf to get him to see himself as she sees him, but then, comic book super heroes are typically poor text book examples on how to be a good boyfriend, aren’t they? I will say this: it’s hard on a girl’s self-esteem to be with a guy who’s repetitive in declaring himself a self-proclaimed loser. There’s not much to spell out why his friends enjoy his company, either, as in real life, no one wants a wet blanket. Self-absorption often fits adolescence, but then, obviously, his friends have the maturity to think of him. At least in true comic book fashion he gets a chance to think of them, too, in various times of danger.

Without a doubt, Wolfman intends his attainment of the Nova force to be the saving grace, to direct him outwards. I believe there is often a degree of courage in average people that is rarely tested by daily life in any overt way, and so their potential remains bound by mundane circumstances. The writer seems to feel that way, too. Nonetheless, the more subtle bravery involved in bucking up one’s attitude and rallying the spirits of those around you is a kind that matters more in day-to-day life. My favorite Defenders moments sometimes include Doctor Strange dropping a gentle nugget of wisdom, a wry bit of truth amid the proceedings. But then, such growth is the point of an over-arching story arc, plot-driven proceeding aside.
I think it’s fun that he is not the most physically imposing of superheroes, tough powers and all. As Wolfman remarks to Sal Buscema when the Marvel staff meets their prospective new character in issue five, “so we’ll draw him taller, no one will notice the difference!” Being underestimated actually helps the novice crime fighter many times.

Let’s hope that quality will help surprise you with the summer fun of our new thread, too. If the introductory analysis is a bit dry, consider it a welcome counter to the seasonal humidity. The snark quotient, with this being IMWAN, will be supplied without worry, so I can afford some shameless sincerity!

I particularly welcome fans of the times, even if you didn’t follow the book. If you passed it up on the stands, the reasons why might also be revealing. If, like me, you weren’t even able to read when NOVA came out, I’d like to hear how you encountered him and what impressions he left. In my case, I discovered him at the end of his career---the first time out, at any rate---in ROM #24, one of a pair of my very first comic book purchases on my own. Simply put, his costume and abilities appealed in a very visceral way to “little me” and I liked to imagine his unread adventures after my good friend loaned me a few early issues.

He's presently one of the most active Marvel heroes, appearing in three titles. Nova's survived in four volumes and the New Warriors series, as mentioned here:

As it turns out, the cosmic story is a very successful incarnation; as we'll see in #6, Marv Wolfman originally turns the character away from space, probably to increase his interaction with the familiar Marvel Universe on Earth, as Warlock's cosmic Starlin adventures have drawn to a close in the pages of AVENGERS annual #7. Except for the occasional foray by Doctor Strange, not much of Marvel's happening in the stars at the time.. Steve Englehart's [i]Silver Surfer[/i] in 1987 will be the progenitor of cosmic Marvel revisited, paving the way for ANNIHILATION and much more to come.

Instead, we get Wolfman's first look at a teen character, foreshadowing his big success at DC with TEEN TITANS, revived.with George Perez.

His un-prepossessing persona might not have been extreme enough to stand out to fandom at large, yet some humble part of you and I just might relate to the man called Nova, after all.

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