Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Essentials: New Warriors by Fabian Nicieza

Growing up, I always liked to root for the underdogs; maybe it was the burgeoning Red Sox fan in me, who knows. I pulled for the Buffalo Bills to upset whoever they would inevitably lose to in the Super Bowl, rooted for guys like Kerry Von Erich to win the Royal Rumble, and always made sure my favorite character on any TV show was the third most popular at best (i.e. Laser from American Gladiators as opposed to Nitro, Gemini or Turbo).

In comics, I was no different. The more well-known a character or property was, the less interest I had. Of course the secondary reason for this was that the more undiscovered a comic was the more fun I had learning all about it, but I didn’t really get that consciously until later.

I knew who Superman and Batman were, so I eschewed DC for Marvel. I was at least somewhat familiar with Captain America and Iron Man, so I passed over the Avengers for the X-Men (who of course were anything but obscure to comic book fans, but they didn’t have a TV show or anything yet). Even within the X-Men titles, I always preferred X-Force to the main books because Cannonball was more interesting to me than Wolverine.

And then there was New Warriors.

One day early on in my comic book journey as I was rooting through the back issue bins of my local baseball card store, I happened across three or four issues of New Warriors from the original run by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley. I was mesmerized by these characters who all had great designs thanks to Bagley and the artists he was borrowing from, but who I had no familiarity with whatsoever, yet there was the Marvel logo up in the corners, so they did somehow share a universe with Spider-Man and the rest. That it was a book about teenagers closer to my age than the X-Men or most other prominent characters of the day was a welcome discovery I would make upon returning home and reading the book, but I bought every issue I could find just on the strength of those first few covers and my curiosity about the unknown.

New Warriors ended up becoming the book that served as the spine of my first Golden Age as a comic book collector and remains not only one of my favorite series ever, but one I feel more than comfortable pointing to and saying “This totally holds up as proof the 90’s weren’t all bad.”

I know that looking back at my favorite childhood comic inevitably means many of my observations are going to be tinted through a haze of nostalgia, but I still think I can speak pretty conclusively to some of the things that really made New Warriors work.

In my mind, Nicieza’s commitment to the book and the characters was the most important factor in its success (and for my purposes, we’re talking about “success” more in terms of being a critically well-received and much-beloved by me personally comic if not necessarily a commercial blockbuster), but no doubt the environment of Marvel at the time, at least in terms of their treatment of Warriors, played a huge role in making that possible.

During the 90’s age of super-continuity and titles often being sucked up into bigger events beyond their control, New Warriors was for the most part left to its own devices. Yeah, Nicieza brought in plenty of guest stars from The Punisher to Namor to Darkhawk to an entire alternate Egyptian-themed Marvel Universe in those first couple years, but they added to rather than distracting the larger stories being told over lengthy periods of time in Warriors, stories that felt very self-contained and that as a reader of the book you felt a great deal of ownership over and satisfaction in.

Out of the aforementioned sense of standing alone, I always dug that the New Warriors felt like a far more intimate and welcoming group in opposition to their counterparts at both Marvel and DC. While the X-Men were fighting for Xavier’s dream, the Avengers were Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Justice League were (at the time) working for the government and so on, the Warriors had no great modus operandi and were really just a group of misfits who ended up becoming friends because they enjoyed hanging out together; it was far closer to my (and I’d think most people’s) junior high/high school experience than any other comic.

To wit, the Warriors were founded thusly: Night Thrasher wanted to create a team of young super heroes to fight crime and avenge the death of his parents (yes, I know it sounds familiar); Marvel Boy (later Justice) wanted to join the Avengers but was deemed too young; Nova got his powers back thanks to Thrash and was looking to kick ass; Firestar was at loose ends; Namorita wanted a place on the surface world; Speedball was just looking for a good time. Six completely different agendas, but through more coincidence than design, they ended up banding together to beat Terrax and decided it made more sense to be a team than not to be one. From there they got a cool warehouse to hang out in, brought in some other directionless recruits, and of course started pairing off romantically like bunnies in heat.

In other words, it’s one of the most unique and yet most realistic depictions of teens as super heroes ever; because honestly, at age 17 were you and your buddies more likely to hold formal meetings with roll calls and such or meet up every so often in your clubhouse, order pizza, and go fight aliens because you saw them attacking New York on the news?

In interviews, Nicieza always said his run on New Warriors was about two things: making hard choices and seeking the truth. Again, as a kid, these were things I grasped really easily and found far more compelling than simply “We’re out to save the world” or even “We’re out to foster peace between our race and those who hate and fear us” (no offense meant to my other childhood comic book loves of course).

With those two guiding principles, New Warriors often tackled issues that you wouldn’t see in your average comic on a semi-monthly basis. Marvel Boy was a victim of child abuse and ended up killing his father accidentally while using his powers for self-defense, which formed the crux of one of the title’s most monumental storylines when he went on trial (defended by Foggy Nelson no less). Namorita led the team into a hostile Middle Eastern country where they were unable to determine whether the dictator in charge or the leader of the rebellion was a bigger scumbag. Foes like eco-terrorists the Force of Nature and the vigilante Bengal had the Warriors constantly having to make those aforementioned hard choices as to what side was the right one.
On the seeking truth side of the equation, the mystery behind what exactly happened to Night Thrasher’s parents ended up becoming far more complex than a simple Batman knock-off and the revelations would for an epic that dominated much of the book’s second year and concluded explosively alongside Marvel Boy’s trial in Bagley’s final issue. Nicieza being able to meticulously plot and unfurl these intricate tales gave New Warriors much of its strength.

And yet while New Warriors did hard-hitting “torn from the headlines” stuff better than most mainstream capes and tights titles, it could flip on a dime to stuff that made the universe shudder as well. That Egyptian alternate universe story, for instance, was the Warriors’ first encounter with Nova’s near-omnipotent old foe, The Sphinx, albeit a female version, and that “Forever Yesterday” trilogy not only stands out as a perennial favorite to anybody who has read it, but also heralded more mammoth tales pitting our young heroes against the immortal lovers in a Shakespearean drama gone cosmic.

The Warriors also took on world beaters like their old buddy Terrax as well as the Inhumans and Star Thief, not to mention having to help Nova save an entire dead world in “The Starlost.” They tussled with The White Queen and her Hellions as well as out-of-control mutant Darkling who brought half of New York City’s good guys under his control, including several Warriors. They had memorable moments from Nova and Namorita’s first hook-up to Rage snapping the neck of the man who killed his grandmother.

Like New Teen Titans, New Warriors was a comic that could adapt to any genre, be it topical issues, fantasy, science-fiction, etc. The heart of the book was the family that Fabian Nicieza and his artistic collaborators created in these characters and that you felt a part of.

Speaking of those collaborators, Nicieza and fans like myself were damn lucky as we not only got Mark Bagley for 25 issues, but then no less than Darick Robertson as an encore through issue 50. New Warriors was always a great-looking book and a lot of the fun in following it monthly was seeing both men grow from the rookies they came on the title as into the superstars they’ve become today.

I think I’ll wrap on that point of the New Warriors feeling like a family, which is an overused cliché in singing the praises of good comics to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less apt. However, the Warriors never felt like a family in the traditional sense, they felt like the way you call your best friends “family” and know you can count on them to be there for you when maybe you don’t want to go to your parents or siblings. Coming full circle to why I picked up New Warriors in the first place, since they weren’t an established property with years of history when I started reading, I felt like I got in on the ground floor of basically the first week of school and got to become friends with Dwayne, Vance, Angel, Rich, Nita, Robbie and the rest at the same time they were becoming friends with one another; as their fictional bond grew, so did my attachment to following their adventures, hardships and triumphs.

Interestingly enough, I can still draw parallels to that original run of New Warriors to my experience as teenager into the present. In the same way I haven’t really remained close to many of my friends from high school but can still talk to them for hours when we do run in to one another, I don’t feel any great void in my comic book-reading life for lack of a New Warriors ongoing, but I still get excited whenever any two or more members of the team appear together.
Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning illustrated pretty well in an issue of Nova last year where Rich got together with Justice and Firestar to have some pizza and beers that you can never really go home again as far as those glory days. Today, Night Thrasher and Namorita are dead. Nova is off in space. Speedball is a haunted basket case. Justice and Firestar didn’t end up getting married, they went their separate ways. When the survivors hang out, they talk about the good times they had way back when, but their lives are elsewhere now, for better or for worse.

Sound familiar?

Like high school, New Warriors is something I got a lot out of and would never want to trade in, but it’s also something I’m happy leaving on the shelf, revisiting once in awhile before moving onto something else. Those 50+ issues were really something special, but also a neat instance of a comics saga with a good beginning, middle and end that you can always remain satisfied with even as the characters move on to other things.


David Gallaher said...

HELL YEAH! I couldn't have said it better myself.

As a side note, I find it slightly humorous that one of the original names for the New Warriors was 'The Edge'.

And since you are in the Marvel offices, you may be able to pry a few things from Tom B, including a copy of Warren Ellis' pitch for the New Warriors called 'Live Through This' and the photostat of an unpublished New Warriors story by Fabian - with the Warriors playing poker while Nova and Laura Dunhamn go on a date - only to be thwarted by Firefly. They are interesting artifacts for New Warriors fans.

Ben Morse said...


Thanks, Dave!

Rich said...

Ben, great commentary - my favorite run too!

And Dave's been teasing me about that Warren Ellis pitch for years...but that's the first I've heard of an unpublished Fabian Nicieza story!

Paul Allen said...

If you hadn't written this piece, I would have done it myself!

New Warriors #1 has to be one of the best debut issues ever.

Jay Faerber said...

Awesome piece, Ben. The New Warriors, especially when written by Fabian, will always be my favorite Marvel comic.

One of my fondest memories from when I lived in NY was leaving the Marvel offices and bumping into Fabian and going all fanboy on him for a good 15 minutes or so. The poor guy was nice enough to stand around and talk to me, though!

Corey said...

Thanks for the great write-up, Ben! I absolutely agree!

And also thanks to Marvel for the New Warriors reprints that have started coming out with all of the fantastic bonus material! Looking forward to New Warriors Classics Volume 2 later this year.

demoncat said...

i felt the same way about the new warriors also. though always thought speedball was too much comic relief. plus night thrasher forming the warriors all to be sacrified by Siloutes grandmother for power was a little creepy. too bad marvel wound wrecking them for civil war and thus turning speed ball into a socipathic s&m want to be named Penace

Turkey Monster said...

Yeah, I definitely loved going to tag sales and finding old issues of the Fabian/Bagley run. I touched myself when Firestar showed up in a page.