From the stack: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Vol. 1

February 17, 2007

I’m not quite sure how to go about reviewing Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Vol. 1 – This Is What They Want. I liked it a lot, but I’m not sure if I liked it for reasons that are entirely useful.

It could be viewed as a super-hero satire. A motley group of C-and-lower-list Marvel characters have been duped into the service of a terrorist organization named H.A.T.E., and now they’re using the group’s marketing plan to foil H.A.T.E.’s charmingly absurd attempts at wholesale destruction. Nextwave’s fight-fire-with-fire approach is endearingly blithe, though it is informed by personal grudges and insecurities.

The book could also be viewed as straightforward spandex comedy. I don’t think you need to known anything about the protagonists that isn’t provided on these pages to enjoy their exploits and find them grudgingly sympathetic, but I can’t be sure. The American Library Association placed it in the top ten on its Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, so that’s a reassuring indication of its accessibility to people who aren’t steeped in Marvel lore.

And yet, a lot of what I really like about the book is based on what I know about the characters. Having always thought Monica Rambeau was an intolerable Mary Sue in her Avengers appearances, I’m delighted to see writer Warren Ellis re-imagine her as surly and resentful under the goody-goody exterior. Never fully understanding why so many writers tried to take Machine Man seriously, his portrayal here as a quirky misanthrope plays right into my perceptions of the character. So I’m unable to entirely divorce my gratitude for little gifts of revisionist snark like those from my opinion of the work as something a reader can pick up and enjoy without any background.

I’m pretty sure casual readers can, though. It’s funny in ways that require only the most basic familiarity with super-hero tropes, like an episode of The Powerpuff Girls. (They fought broccoli monsters too, though those were from outer space.) You don’t need to have read any of the Essential Fantastic Four volumes to wonder why a giant dragon would bother to wear purple underwear.

While I generally prefer Stuart Immonen’s softer, rounder work, seen in books like Shockrockets or Superman: Secret Identity, Nextwave looks great. There isn’t a whole lot of demand for visual nuance, what with all the explosions and murderous koalas. Immonen and inker Wade Von Grawbadger keep the emphasis on action tinged with comedy, and the mix is very successful.

It’s surprisingly cheerful reading. Corporate terrorists are unquestionably bad, and their manufactured minions are basically cannon fodder, so any crises of conscience are neatly removed from the playing field. Nextwave can blow things up with abandon, and they can grind personal axes at the same time. They get to be proactive and cathartically violent; there’s no down side.

As Ellis describes it in his original pitch, Netxtwave is “Healing America by beating people up.” And you know… I do feel better.