Back in the early 90’s, I had a subscription to the Comics Buyers’ Guide. This was before we all had the internet, so it was my main source of information regarding the medium I loved so much. One of the best parts of the newspaper (besides it arriving in my mailbox every week) was a column by Peter David called “But I Digress.”
One snippet of one line from one column has stuck with me over the last twenty years. David was talking about plotting in comics. He mentioned something about long term plots generally being pretty loose and how it’s rare to find a book tightly plotted for the long term like “Watchmen or New Warriors.”
Yes, he mentioned the New Warriors in the same sentence as Watchmen. I just about shit myself when I read that, because I was already a huge New Warriors fan.
Roll your eyes if you want, but David was dead on. The first 25 issues of the New Warriors feature the kind of long term planning that is virtually impossible in modern day superhero comics, in no small part because there’s no telling how long a superhero book will last these days. I’d even go so far as to say the first 51 issues are one big story, although it meanders a bit post-#25.
Heroes for the 90s
It would be easy to say, then, that the New Warriors are remembered so fondly because of how well written the first two years of stories were. But while that endeared the team to its fans, it’s not what people ultimately remember. No, the New Warriors live on in the hearts of their fans because of how much they epitomized a particular time. At one point, the book had the catch phrase, “Heroes for the 90s,” and that was incredibly accurate.
Full disclosure: I consider the 90s my decade. I started high school in 1990, finished grad school in 2000. I could legally drive, vote, and drink over the course of the 90s. It was a hugely important decade in my life and I remember it through rose colored glasses.
The comic book industry in the 90s is somewhat baffling to me, given the culture of America at the time. While kids in 1994 were getting all hippie’d up and sliding in the mud at a brand new Woodstock festival, mainstream superhero comics got EXTREME. Big guns, big muscles, big breasts, big fights. Pop culture was all about letting your freak flag fly and embracing diversity and everyone loving each other and comics just wanted violence.
The New Warriors themselves commented on this. In New Warriors Annual #1, they team up with X-Force, possibly the poster children for extreme books in the Marvel universe. Speedball refers to them as real “Reagan era” types. Firestar and Justice point out that their dads voted for Reagan. Speedball says his did, too, and then they follow X-Force into the battle. Fight now, ask questions later. That’s what superheroes did in the 90s.
The New Warriors were different.
Rage’s costume notwithstanding, the New Warriors weren’t extreme. They spent just as much time discussing their problems as punching them. Nothing was black and white and almost every battle featured an ethical debate. This was a team of superheroes that were deeply connected to the world around them. These were stories actually ripped from the headlines, whether it was eco terrorism, Middle East disputes, gang violence, domestic abuse — you name it.
The characters weren’t black and white, either. The team could end up split down any number of lines depending upon the given issue. Each one of them had complex backgrounds that informed their views, and those views came across in every story.
And the Warriors were as diverse as it got back then. The original six featured two women, and, lo and behold, one of the men was black. When the roster expanded, neither of the two new members were caucasian. The final tally for the eight team line-up (which was, it seemed, rarely together at the same time) featured 3 people of color (4 if you include a newly blue Atlantean) and 3 women. If the Warriors were behind the time in any way, it was in not having a gay character anywhere to be seen.
Even the stories showed a multi-culturalism that was sadly lacking in most other places in comics (save the Milestone line). There was a whole world outside of the lily white world that we’d become so accustomed to seeing. The Warriors bounced around from South America to Southeast Asia to the Middle East on a regular basis, yet never lost their roots in New York. And that was part of the beauty of the title: it expanded to include a global scale, but still stayed grounded.
New Warriors found that grounding in character driven stories. In the intro to the original trade paperback collecting the first few issues of the book, writer Fabian Nicieza says he wanted to write about the team because of all the potential they had. After all, these were, at best, C-list characters. Nicieza could mold them however he wanted because no one was using them anywhere else. This wasn’t the Avengers.
I don’t know if Nicieza had a destination in mind for each of the Warriors from the start. It’s clear from his original proposal that he had specific plans for Night Thrasher. Issue #51 (Nicieza left the book with #53) does an excellent job of looking at how each one of the characters had changed in four plus years. It’s amazing to see the evolution, if for no other reason than it’s not something you see in mainstream, corporate owned comic books. These characters were allowed to truly grow — even crazier, they were given the time to do it.
And what a cast of characters they were! A more hodge podge collection of superheroes, you’d be hard pressed to find.
Night Thrasher — In Nicieza’s original series proposal for the “Young Warriors,” he jokingly refers to Night Thrasher as “Bat Punisher.” And, let’s face it, that’s what he seems like. The beauty of a character like this – not unlike a character like Moon Knight — is that a good writer can twist around the iconic concept and make it interesting.
Kid Nova — Yes, dear god, they actually called him that when he first appeared. Thankfully, Nicieza turned it into the joke it was, and in less than a year Richard Rider was back to being the character we remembered.
Firestar — Easily the most recognizable character, if for no other reason than she was in a cartoon. Nothing had really been done with her since then (aside from a mini-series in the 80’s). Nicieza really delved into her powers (he did that a lot) and turned her into the powerhouse she always should have been.
Marvel Boy — The beauty of Marvel Boy is that he was a stand in for the readers. He was in awe of superheroes, knew everything about them, and wanted to be one. His transformation to Justice is one of the best story arcs of the series. His relationship with Firestar was great, too, particularly early on.
Namorita — Nicieza did a nice job of evolving her into something other than a female Namor by incorporating her somewhat murky origin. Nova’s reaction to her transformation into Kymaera was one of the best moments of the series.
Speedball — Speedball was generally comedic relief, but there was always depth to it. Nicieza also delved into his powers a great deal to excellent effect. As much fun as he was, Speedball would really blossom in the book’s third and fourth years due to an unlikely friendship that, in many ways, defined the book.
The change in Namorita represented a theme for New Warriors: family. Each one of the characters had complicated home lives that impacted their superhero lives. Nita had always assumed she was the biological cousin to Namor until she found out she was a clone. Firestar was being raised by a single father. Marvel Boy’s father beat him. Speedball’s parents divorced over the course of the series. Night Thrasher’s parents were dead (much, much more on that later). And Nova’s parents thought he was a typical 90’s directionless slacker, particularly compared to his super genius brother.
It was a microcosm of what the New Warriors’ core audience experienced.
That core audience was no doubt made up of teenagers, which made sense, given that the book was ostensibly about teenagers (more on that later, too). But, whether conscious or not, Nicieza seemed to age the book up in comparison to the team’s first appearance in Thor. Kieron Gillen pointed out that his volume of Young Avengers was meant to be about teenagers who become adults, that strange, magical period between 18 and 21 when you’re not really grown-up yet, but no longer a kid, either. This was the sweet spot that New Warriors hit, in many ways better than Young Avengers. Yes, Speedball and Firestar were still in high school, but, at least in Firestar’s case, that was often downplayed, particularly when she started dating college student Marvel Boy. The emphasis on Speedball being in high school was more to underscore that he was the youngest member of the team.
The other four members were all out of high school, with Nita and Marvel Boy enrolled in college. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to think both Nova and Nita were at least a few years into their 20’s. And, when you boil it down, that’s what teenagers want to read about, particularly with regards to their superheroes. It’s been years since a straight forward teen superhero book has really been successful. Part of that is the aging demographic of comic book readers. But, at least for me, I didn’t want to read about teenagers. I wanted to read about twentysomethings because that’s where I was headed, that was the light at the end of the tunnel for 15 year old me.
Now that we know what the New Warriors had going for it in a general sense, what about the original series itself?
Next: The First Series