When I picked up nextwave - yes, all lowercase - volume 1, it represented a first for me as a comic book reader. For the first time, I had purchased a book that I knew nothing whatsoever about, and was reading solely on the merits of the premise blurb and brief tantalising glimpses of the gorgeous artwork as I casually leafed through its pages. I was soon to discover that my curiosity had paid off: This Is What They Want is one of the most consistently enjoyable and sharply original books I have read to date.
As the story goes, a sinister corporation is researching and assembling UWMDs (that's Unsual Weapons of Mass Destruction, naturally) and in response, H.A.T.E. (the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) is founded under the command of Dirk Anger. The team itself is comprised of the following dazzling roster from the archives of lesser-known Marvel books:
Monica Rambeau/Pulsar - the de facto leader of the group who can convert her body mass into radiation and lasers. An ex-member of The Avengers: something which she likes to remind to everyone who will listen, and some who won't.
Tabitha Smith/Boomer - a somewhat ditzy pyromancer known for violent moodswings. Her catchphrase "tick, tick, boom" almost inevitably leads to someone or something being blown up in a very over-the-top manner.
Aaron Stack/Machine Man - taken from Earth into space by cyber-gods The Celestials, he was quickly returned after they deemed him "total shit". His body is essentially a huge swiss army knife, and is often shown with far too many gadgets than could possibly fit in his android frame.
Elsa Bloodstone - British monster hunter and daughter of the world-famous Ulysses Bloodstone. She carries her arsenal of guns in a guitar case, but also proficient in a lethal martial art that involves using a shovel as a weapon.
The Captain - the only member of the team not previously established in a Marvel continuity. Formerly known as Captain ****, where "****" is an unknown obscenity so offensive, Captain America beat him up and shoved soap in his mouth at the very mention of the word.
The theme and tone of the writing is extremely difficult to place; in that it is simultaneously a parody and celebration of comic book convention and classic characters with a sizeable injection of humour. I've heard the script style compared to a cartoon sitcom along the lines of Futurama, and I definitely agree. There's the same degree of dry wit, pop culture references and deliberately cheesy one-liners that make the panels leap out at the reader with a fantastic and feel-good energy. The action takes place in story arcs that strictly span two issues, meaning that there's little to no room for deep emotional development or dutiful lessons learnt by the characters. That's not to say that they fall flat: each character has a very distinctive voice and in most cases has had their old traits comically augmented to make them into something of characatures of themselves. The end result is a fast-paced, funny storyline loaded with hyperbolic characters and tons of violence and cinematic explosions.
Leading neatly on: the artwork featured in nextwave is truly a thing of beauty. Stuart Immonen's pencils are angular, confident, and most importantly, perfectly suited to the tone of the script. No line is wasted, and Immonen shows particular talent in displaying emotion through faces; while at the same time having no trouble crafting vast cinematic panels (of which there are many). However good the pencils are, the colours supplied by Wade Von Grawbadger are even better. The pages are literally washed with bright, bold shades that combine with the art style to create a pseudo-cell shade look that is both fresh and stimulating. The closest comparison in terms of design I can think of would be a mix between Samurai Jack and Team Fortress 2. The covers of the issues themselves are dazzlingly different and original; in particular issue 2, which is drawn in the style of a 1950s boxing poster to advertise the fight between the heroes and Fin Fang Foom. The aesthetics are without a doubt a strong highlight of the book and it's easy to see that both artists took a lot from Warren Ellis' script, with all three tying their work together into a slick, brightly-coloured package.
Long-time fans of Marvel comics will get even more out of nextwave, as there are countless jokes, parodies and references to characters and events. Dirk Anger himself, director of the nextwave unit, is an extremely aggressive and megalomaniacal take on S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury. In Anger's introductory monologue he bellows into the face of a rookie recruit:
"Every day I smoke two hundred cigarettes and one hundred cigars and drink a bottle of whisky and three bottles of wine with dinner. And dinner is meat. Raw meat. The cook serves me an entire animal and I fight it bare-handed and I tear off what I want and eat it and have the rest buried. In New Jersey!"
In addition, we get to see vintage characters - some better known than others - in a variety of deadpan and out-of-character moments, all for the sake of humour. To go into any detail would be giving away too much, but suffice it to say that the story picks a perfect balance between the central adventures of the nextwave team, and flashbacks and intermissions to wedge in some more jokes and references.
There's some extra material bundled with the This Is What They Want volume, including Warren Ellis' original pitch for the series - which is itself a very humourous read - and even lyrics and chords for the official nextwave theme song.
In closing, I can't think of enough good to say about this breath of fresh air in the comic book market. I could recommend it equally to new readers and Marvel veterans, although to be fair, those already possessing a knowledge of the universe will appreciate it a lot more. If you're in the mood for seeing the inside of Fin Fang Foom, the elite Pterodactyl Squadron diving into battle, broccoli-robot hybrids and a swarm of homicidal crabs, this is the book for you. Indeed, as the blurb declares: "if you like anything, you'll love nextwave". I couldn't agree more.