By Marv Wolfman, John and Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino & various (Marvel)
By 1975 the first wave of fans-turned-writers were well ensconced at all the major American comic-book companies. Two fanzine graduates, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman had achieved stellar successes early on, and then risen to the ranks of writer/editors at Marvel, a company in trouble both creatively and in terms of sales. After a meteoric rise and a virtual root and branch overhaul of the industry in the 1960s the House of Ideas – and every other comics publisher except Archie – were suffering from a mass desertion of fans who had simply found other uses for their mad-money.
Whereas Charlton and Gold Key dwindled and eventually died and DC vigorously explored new genres to bolster their flagging sales, Marvel chose to exploit their record with superheroes and foster new titles within a universe it was increasingly impossible to buy only a portion of…
The Man Called Nova was in fact a boy named Richard Rider, a working class nebbish in the tradition of Peter Parker – except he was good at sports and bad at learning – who attended Harry S. Truman High School, where his strict dad was the principal. His mom worked as a police dispatcher and he had a younger brother, Robert, who was a bit of a genius. Other superficial differences to the Spider-Man canon included girlfriend Ginger and best friends Bernie and Caps, but he did have his own school bully, Mike Burley…
An earlier version, “Black Nova” had apparently appeared in the Wolfman/Wein fan mag Super Adventures in 1966, but with a few revisions and an artistic make-over by the legendary John Romita (Senior) the Human Rocket was launched into the Marvel Universe in his own title, beginning in September 1976, ably supported by the illustration A-Team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott.
‘Nova’, which borrowed as heavily from Green Lantern as well as Spider-Man’s origin, was structured like a classic four-chapter Lee/Kirby early Fantastic Four tale, and rapidly introduced its large cast before quickly zipping to the life-changing moment in Rider’s life when an star-ship with a dying alien aboard transfers to the lad all the mighty powers of an extraterrestrial peacekeeper and warrior.
Centurion Rhomann Dey had tracked a deadly marauder to Earth. Zorr had already destroyed the idyllic world of Xandar, but the severely wounded vengeance seeking Nova Prime was too near death and could not avenge the genocide. Trusting to fate, Dey beamed his powers and abilities towards the planet below where Richard Rider was struck by the energy bolt and plunged into a coma. On awakening Rich realised he had gained awesome powers and the responsibilities of the last Nova Centurion.
The tale is standard origin fare, beautifully rendered by Buscema and Sinnott, but the story really begins with #2’s ‘The First Night of… The Condor!’ as Wolfman, playing to his own strengths, introduced an extended storyline featuring a host of new villains whilst concentrating on filling out the lives of the supporting cast. There was still plenty of action as the neophyte hero learned to use his new powers (one thing the energy transfer didn’t provide was an instruction manual) but battles against winged criminal mastermind Condor and his enigmatic, reluctant pawn Powerhouse plus #3’s brutal super-thug (‘…The Deadly Diamondhead is Ready to Strike!’ illustrated by new art-team Sal Buscema & Tom Palmer) were clearly not as important as laying plot-threads for a big event to come.
Nova #4 saw the first of many guest-star appearances (and the first of three covers by the inimitable Jack Kirby). ‘Nova Against the Mighty Thor’ introduced The Corruptor, a bestial being who turned the Thunder God into a raging berserker whom only the new kid on the block could stop, whilst ‘Evil is the Earth-Shaker!’ pitted the lad against subterranean despot Tyranus and his latest engine of destruction, although a slick sub-plot concerning the Human Rocket’s attempt to become a comic book star still delivers some tongue-in-cheek chuckles to this day…
Issue #6 saw those long-laid plans begin to mature as Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse returned to capture Nova, whilst their hidden foe was revealed in ‘And So… The Sphinx!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), another world-class, immortal super-villain patiently waiting his turn to conquer the world. Meanwhile young Caps had been abducted by another new bad-guy who would eventually make big waves for the Human Rocket.
‘War in Space!’ found Nova a brainwashed ally of his former foes in an invasion of Rhomann Dey’s still orbiting star-ship – an invaluable weapon in the encroaching war with the Sphinx, only to be marooned in deep space once his mind cleared. On narrowly escaping he found himself outmatched by Caps’ kidnapper in ‘When Megaman Comes Calling… Don’t Answer!’ – a tumultuous, time-bending epic that concluded in #9’s ‘Fear in the Funhouse!’
Nova #10 began the final (yeah, right) battle in ‘Four Against the Sphinx!’ with Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse in all-out battle against the immortal mage with the hapless Human Rocket caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘Nova No More’ had the hero’s memories removed to take him out of the game; a tactic that only partially worked since he was back for the next issue’s classy crossover with the Spectacular Spider-Man.
‘Who is the Man Called Photon?’ by Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Giacoia, teamed the young heroes in a fair-play murder mystery when Rich Rider’s uncle was killed by a costumed thief. However there were ploys within ploys occurring and after the mandatory hero head-butting the kids joined forces and the mystery was resolved in Amazing Spider-Man #171’s ‘Photon is Another Name For…?’ courtesy of Wein, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.
Joe Sinnott returned in Nova #13, as another lengthy tale began with the introduction of new hero Crime-Buster in ‘Watch Out World, the Sandman is Back!’, wherein the once formidable villain took a beating and fell under the influence of a far more sinister menace. Meanwhile Rich’s dad was going through some bad times and had fallen into the clutches of a dangerous organisation…
The story continued in the Dick Giordano inked ‘Massacre at Truman High!’ as Sandman attacked Nova’s school and the mystery mastermind was revealed for in-the-know older fans before the guest-star stuffed action-riot ‘The Fury Before the Storm!’ saw Carmine Infantino take over the pencilling and Tom Palmer return to the brushstrokes.
When a bunch of established heroes attack the newbie all at once it’s even money they’re fakes, but Nick Fury of super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was real enough and deputised the fledgling fighter for #16’s ‘Death is the Yellow Claw!’ and #17’s spectacular confrontation ‘Tidal Wave!’ As the kid came good and saved the city of New York from a soggy demise the long awaited conclusion occurred in ‘The Final Showdown!’, inked, as was ‘Beginnings’ a short side-bar story dealing with the fate of the elder Rider, by the agglomeration of last-minute-deadline busters dubbed “the Tribe.”
A new foe debuted in #19: ‘Blackout Means Business and his Business is Murder!’ opened the final large story-arc of the series as a ebon-energy wielding maniac attacked Nova, but before that epic completely engaged, the Human Rocket guest-starred with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #3 (1978) in a simple yet entertaining tussle with god-like cosmic marauders entitled ‘When Strike the Monitors!’ an interlude crafted by Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Giacoia & Dave Hunt.
Hunt stayed on as inker for Nova #20 as the steadily improving young hero went after the cabal that had nearly destroyed his dad in ‘At Last… The Inner Circle!’ leading to a breakthrough in comics conventions as the Human Rocket revealed his alter ego to his family in ‘Is the World Ready for the Shocking Secret of Nova?’ (with art by John Buscema, Bob McLeod & Joe Rubinstein), whilst a long-forgotten crusader and some familiar villains resurfaced in ‘The Coming of the Comet!’ (#22, Infantino & Steve Leialoha) and long-hidden cyborg mastermind Dr. Sun (an old Dracula foe, of all things) revealed himself in ‘From the Dregs of Defeat!’ executing his scheme to seize control of the lost Nova Prime star-ship and its super-computers.
A huge epic was impressively unfolding but the Human Rocket’s days were numbered. Penultimate issue #24 (inked by Esposito) introduced ‘The New Champions!’ as Dr. Sun battled the Sphinx for the star-ship, with Crime-Buster, the Comet, Powerhouse and Diamondhead dragged along on a one-way voyage to the ruins of Xandar, lost home of the Nova Centurions.
This volume ends with #25, a hastily restructured yarn as the cancellation axe hit the series before it could properly conclude. ‘Invasion of the Body Changers!’ by Wolfman, Infantino & Klaus Janson saw the unhappy crew lost in space and attacked by shape-shifting alien Skrulls, all somehow implicated in the destruction of Xandar, but the answers to the multitude of questions raised were to be eventually resolved in a couple of issues of the Fantastic Four and latterly Rom: Spaceknight: episodes not included here, thus rendering this collection aggravatingly incomplete.
There’s a lot of good, solid entertainment and beautiful superhero art in this book, and Nova has proved his intrinsic value by returning again and again, but by leaving this edition on such a frustrating open end, the editors have reduced what could have been a fine fights ‘n’ tights collection into nothing more than a historical oddity. Stories need conclusions and mine is that we readers deserve so much better than this.
© 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.