Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Stuart Immonen and Wayne van Grawbadger
Colours by: Dave McCaig
Letters by: Chris Eliopoulos
First published: 2006
Quick question. Which Marvel comic ends with the line “Oh my God. It’s wearing underpants.”? (Hint: You’re about to read a review of it.) Like all the best comedy, NextWave: Agents of H.A.T.E.is a relatively short, but still memorable reading experience. Fawlty Towers, The Day Today, Father Ted – none of these classics of British TV comedy outstayed their welcome; all of them have attained legendary status at least in part because their legacy is unsullied by mercenary attempts to milk the golden cow long after the creamiest parts of its output have been savoured. (That metaphor got away from me a bit there.) NextWave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is a similar beast. Only 12 issues of it exist, but they are among the funniest superhero comics you will ever read. So buckle up, turn off your Etheric Loop Recall Televocometer, and get ready for a rollercoaster ride of… well, profanity-laced madness, mostly. Oh, and underpants. Really big underpants.
This first issue starts off with a funny little scene between Elsa Bloodstone and The Captain, the only member of NextWave who is an original Ellis creation. They’re in the unfortunately-named town of Abcess, North Dakota, ostensibly on a mission to find out what the shadowy Beyond Corporation (all corporations in comics are shadowy to some extent) is doing digging up a site just outside of town. This is a nice bit of character introduction from both Ellis and Immonen. The Captain is so-called because his real superhero name is unrepeatable and once prompted Captain America to beat him up and leave him in a dumpster with a bar of soap in his mouth. For her part, Elsa is a classy red-haired monster hunter whose look of horrified fascination when The Captain is telling his ‘how I met Captain America’ story is absolutely priceless. Immonen is a quality artist and it shows in this page. Little details matter. The relaxed way The Captain is sitting; the fact he’s drinking coffee from a cardboard carry-out cup while Elsa is using a tea pot, cup and saucer; the little finger sticking out as she pours: these are moments of subtle but telling visual characterisation.
The opening page ends with a nice transition that moves the plot forward and Immonen gives us a rather impressive view of the Beyond Corporation’s construction work that looms menacingly over the stereotypically sleepy American town in the foreground. The Captain and Elsa speculate on what precisely the Beyond Corporation might be digging for, referring to Monica ‘Photon’ Rambeau and Aaron ‘Machine Man’ Stack in the process. We’ll be seeing them shortly. For now, it’s enough to know that NextWave believes that Beyond is trying to unearth a “buried biological weapon of mass destruction” with the intention of turning it into a “working prototype”. Elsa judges that more tea might be in order.
It is at this point that the organisation of H.A.T.E. (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) and their strangely familiar and patently insane leader General Dirk Anger are introduced. When I first read NextWave, I wasn’t especially taken with Anger. Partly this was due to the fact that I hadn’t fully appreciated the kind of comic NextWave is, feeling – even despite the first couple of pages – that I was reading a comic that might, at some point, become semi-serious. Dirk Anger blows that hope out of the water and then gleefully stomps on its shocked face with a boot made (probably) of cured Skrullskin. Yes, Anger is a Nick Fury parody, and, yes, you do need to accept that to get any sense of enjoyment out of him, but, once you do… oh, boy! Firstly, there’s H.A.T.E.’s mode of transportation. S.H.I.E.L.D. has a heli-carrier; H.A.T.E. flies around in the Aeromarine, a ‘craft’ which apparently consists of three submarines welded together with four booster rockets attached to the back. As visual gags go, that’s pretty subtle – so subtle that I missed it the first time around. Subtle. That’s probably the last time I’ll use that word when discussing Dirk Anger.
Anger doesn’t wear an eyepatch, but he does have some kind of HUD over his right eye, and he perpetually chomps on something that at first glance may be a cheroot, but, on closer inspection, looks like it might equally be a small twig. Ellis and Immonen give us Anger ‘greeting’ four new recruits to H.A.T.E. with a monologue that takes every drill sergeant speech you’ve ever heard and turns it up to 11. And then shoots up the sound system with a bazooka. Anger reveals that he’s “ninety years old” due to “[s]pecial H.A.T.E. drugs” that, just as with Nick Fury, have extended his life. The whole speech is a glorious exercise in muscular self-aggrandizement. “The cook serves me an entire animal and I fight it bare-handed and tear off what I want and eat it and have the rest buried. In New Jersey! For H.A.T.E.!” Immonen’s artwork is perfect for this; the panel that accompanies that particular piece of dialogue is a close-up on Anger’s twisted face, the very image of the grimacing, macho tough guy.
Anger is interrupted by a call from the Shockwave Rider, an experimental vehicle stolen by NextWave at some point before this issue starts. It’s at this point that the issue slows down a bit. The reader needs to be brought up to speed, after all. The expositional conversation between Monica Rambeau and Anger is a little clumsy at times and is, unfortunately, mostly gag-free. Still, knowing that NextWave have absconded from H.A.T.E. because of the organisation’s ties to a terrorist cell is important and makes clear the current state of play between the two groups.
Back in Abcess, the Beyond Corporation operatives have found an abcess of their own. A huge one full of green, probably radioactive, goop and a giant green lizard monster. Devastation ensues, all lovingly rendered by Immonen. It is time for NextWave to spring into action.
It would be easy for the creative team to portray NextWave as out-of-their-depth losers, incompetent has-beens whose comedy value lies in their ineptitude. But they don’t. Instead, they take the arguably harder – and more satisfying – approach of showing the team members as competent and having the comedy arise from their interactions with each other and with their foes. The action takes place on two fronts. Elsa fights genetically engineered kelp-people who work for the Beyond corporation, while the rest of the team take on the newly released monster, Fin Fang Foom, who, we are told, desires to mate despite possessing “no genitals whatsoever”. This perhaps is the biggest gag of all – a giant lizard monster who wears big purple underpants despite the fact that he has no junk in his trunk at all.
The action, as you might expect, is frenetic and hilarious and the issue closes with Boom-Boom flying towards Fin Fang Foom and uttering perhaps the weirdest line ever to close out a comic. But then, you knew that already, didn’t you?
NextWave #1 is not a perfect issue by any means, but, my, it goes about its self-appointed task to, as one critic puts it, “celebrate the Marvel universe while relentlessly taking the piss out of it” with some style. The individual team members are all clearly delineated with their own quirks and foibles. Elsa’s manic – near psychopathic – enthusiasm for combat; Monica’s regular referring back to the time when she led the Avengers (a joke even more funny for being true); The Captain’s cheerfully foul mouth; Aaron’s habit of calling human beings “fleshy ones”; Boom-Boom’s obsessive desire to blow things up: these characteristics come together in entertaining ways as the heroes set about dealing with a problem that, in another comic book and with another team, would be taken deadly seriously.
As with most successful comedy, there’s a lot of little details here that really add to the issue’s humour. When Elsa gets hit by a Beyond Corporation jeep, she gets flung through the window of a music store and picks up the nearest weapon to hand, a guitar. This she uses to good effect, taking out the occupants of the jeep (including the one that tries to run away), before returning to the café to pick up the guitar case she’s had with her all issue that actually contains her two machine guns.
This issue is, by and large, an excellent introduction both to the team and the insane, hyper-violent world in which they operate. The chemistry between the team members is clear from the get-go and Immonen’s art pops and crackles when needed and can be impressively subtle, too. Ellis’ script is arguably the star of the show, though, with throwaway details (like the eternal fate of Monica Rambeau’s mother) popping up unexpectedly to add to the humour and/or throw the reader a curveball.
Although its middle section does sag a little, NextWave #1 is an exceptionally fine – and funny – comic book. If you haven’t read it, there’s no reason not to. It’s on the Marvel Unlimited app and, if you’re not already a member, I believe the House of Ideas offers a free trial period. And joining Boom-Boom, Elsa Bloodstone, Machine Man, Photon and The Captain on their adventures is not something you’ll regret.