Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist/Cover artist: Salvador Larroca
Colors: Jason Keith
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Editor: Axel Alonso
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN
I was one of maybe five fans of Marvel’s New Universe line back in the 1980s, so I anticipated Warren Ellis’s revival of the brand for a new series. However, my reaction to the first issue was lukewarm. In my capsule review of the first issue, I wrote, “As I made my way through this first issue, I was surprised to find that he really hasn’t tinkered all that much with the properties … Both Star Brand and Justice don’t seem changed all that much …” Fortunately, that hasn’t proven to be the case in subsequent issues, and this latest episode is full of the kind of edgy, political and imaginative scenarios Ellis does best. What’s so engrossing about his writing here and several of his other works is just how plausible it all seems. The political and socio-biological concepts that come into play are challenging and fascinating, while the grounded nature of some of the more impossible players in the drama help to reinforce the credible tone of the storytelling. newuniversal strikes me as being similar in tone and strength to Ellis’s work on The Authority and Planetary, so fans of those DC/Wildstorm books ought to give this lesser-known Marvel title a look.
The U.S. government has lost track of Ken Connell, a newly emerged superhuman, and higher-ups in the National Security Agency are not only on the lookout for him but three other super-powered humans it expects to appear in the same timeframe as well. Izzy Randall, the Nightmask, has spirited Connell, the possessor of the Star Brand, away to San Francisco. Meanwhile, John Tensen, AKA Justice, unleashes a horrific barrage of his power on a New York City street, viewing each and every bystander as a sinner, as a predator of the innocent. And in Washington, the president is briefed on the last encounter U.S. authorities had with superhumans and the deadly force that was used in the name of preserving the human race.
This project and other comics Salvador Larroca has illustrated since its launch mark a significant benchmark in the evolution of the artist’s style. There’s a more realistic, more mature tone to his work that clicks perfectly with the critical but convincing atmosphere Ellis has established in his script. Larroca makes this comic book look like a movie, and the cinematic approach shows in how he draws the characters. Several characters look as though they’ve been “casted,” with Larroca patterning them after real-world faces. For example, Phil Voight is at times the spitting image of actor James (Babe, The Queen) Cromwell, and the President here is a familiar face on the current U.S. political scene. It’s not a new approach in comics, but it’s an effective one. Mind you, Larroca’s likenesses aren’t always consistent, and those glitches in the line art are a bit distracting.
I must commend Larroca and Marvel for its branding of this title by way of the unique cover designs. The monochromatic approach combined with the lines of the Star Brand symbol really help this series stand out, and the dominance of the single-color scheme brings a greater degree of gravitas to the science-fiction images.
The tension in the Phil Voight scenes really draws the reader into the story. The White House situation-room scene in particular works effectively. It starts out as revolving around a ridiculous notion — that a general would deploy nuclear weapons on U.S. soil without authorization — but suddenly shifts to a more incredible yet powerfully harsh, cold and personal premise. Voight is an interesting character. He has a kindly and even timid manner and look to him in the earlier part of the issue, but he exudes confidence in the meeting and sets aside emotion to convey his message with cold, calculating bluntness. He definitely stands out as the most intriguing and compelling figure in this particular issue.
I think the most intriguing aspect of this story is that so far, the “heroes” of the story do present the threat that the government fears. Tensen’s actions in this issue transform him from the wretched, tortured, pathetic figure we first met into a monster, devoid of control or conscience. Ken Connell, though a victim of cosmic coincidence, is a time bomb waiting to go off, if the previous, uncontrolled manifestations of his power are any indication. Ken, Izzy and Jennifer are down to earth, confused people who are justifiably scared out of their minds, and that makes it easy to relate to them and to get on their side. But so far, the “super-heroes” do represent a dangerous Darwinian circumstance. I’m sure once the bigger picture comes into focus, the government types will proven to be in the wrong, and their fear-driven actions will end up being the real threat to mankind. At this point, though, Ellis has turned the usual dynamic on its ear, and his well-crafted, smart script makes for a fun read. 9/10