Tom DeFalco has never been hip.
Now, I say that as a guy who really enjoys DeFalco’s work. I’m sucker for old school, hoo-ha, Marvel action stories, and DeFalco writes those like no other. But creating a new generation of superheroes? One that was supposed to cater to teenagers?
So Fabian Nicieza, Mark Bagley, and Al Williamson (who was eventually replaced by Larry Mahlstedt, whose more polished inks worked better with Bagley’s pencils) had a bit of an uphill battle when they took on a team featuring a guy on a skate board named Night Thrasher, who also happened to have an origin not unlike a certain grim and gritty character at the Distinguished Competition.
You would be hard pressed to find a better first four issues of a super team book. Nicieza and Bagley set the tone quickly and establish the characters and their complicated backgrounds. They ignore the team’s first appearance, instead starting earlier, when they first formed.
The first issue sets up their reason for being. No, it isn’t “fighting battles that other superheroes ignore”, which is what they went with when they first appeared in Thor. They are together because Night Thrash needed a team, supposedly to help him in his mission to fight crime, although it’s clear he has other motives.
Night Thrasher wanted a team of only four members, which we later discover was because he wanted to emulate the Fantastic Four. Each of his chosen team members is a doorway to a branch of the Marvel U: Nova to the Fantastic Four, Firestar to the X-Men, and Marvel Boy to the Avengers. The team was always meant to be a mix of characters from the various areas of the Marvel universe and has really only worked when it stuck to that model.
While those four members are brought together intentionally, Namorita and Speedball show up by chance. Night Thrasher’s desire to solidify the team through battle forces him to bring the last two into the fold. The first issue ends with the six of them officially banding together.
We also meet Genetech, a cutting edge scientific research corporation.
Nicieza and Bagley were smart enough to realize that the mystery of the team should come from their most mysterious member, Night Thrasher. In the second issue, we’re introduced to Silhouette, who would play a big part going forward, and her brother, Midnight’s Fire. Thrash (as he would be known by the rest of the team) worked side by side with them in his early days, trying to take down drug dealers. He and Midnight’s Fire were like brothers. He and Sil were more.
Midnight’s Fire is working with a gang who are supposedly helping the people in his community. It’s a real world issue funneled through tights and a situation that the Warriors ultimately can’t fix. They aren’t going to solve crime.
The third issue is when I knew I’d be on board with this comic for a while. It features a character by character analysis done by the Mad Thinker.
In the 1st issue, the villain was Terrax, a long standing Marvel bad guy who was played straight. The Thinker is the 2nd established bad guy (not counting AIM, as only their weapons show up in issue #2) in the series, but Nicieza and Bagley decided to make some changes to him. It’s not drastic by any means, but it fleshes out a character who had been fairly one note over the years.
This Thinker is only interested in learning and has no evil plans for world domination. He’s simply a scientist who wants to know everything he can. He doesn’t care how he does that, though, which means he’ll do research on the New Warriors for Genetech.
The Thinker confronts each one of the Warriors in a way that’s gives us a quick glimpse into their personal lives. Nita (Namorita’s nickname) appears to be the most together, a full time student with a lot of money. Speedball runs out in the middle of yet another fight between his parents. Thrash tries to work things out with Sil. Nova’s father paints him as a 90s style slacker. Marvel Boy uses his powers to defend himself against his abusive father for the first time. Firestar helps out her widowed father and goes to high school to try to lead a normal life.
The relationship between the Thinker and his Super Adaptoid is great. I don’t think anyone has picked up on it in the 20+ years since this issue was released and that’s too bad. It added an great angle to both characters.
In the end, the Warriors discover that Genetech hired the Thinker, so they decide to do something about it.
What is ostensibly the first arc ends with the introduction of the team’s opposite number, Psionex. Yes, that’s perhaps one of the worst names ever given to a super villain team. That said, it features the fantastic Mathemanic, one of my favorite Nicieza creations whose power was “math telepathy.”
Psionex are superhumans created by Genetech. They volunteered for this experiment, either to further their careers or because they had nothing to lose, and their abilities reflect who they are. The aforementioned Mathemanic was a genius-level student. Coronary, who could “manipulate a person’s biometabolic processes” was a med student. Impulse was a violent gang member who now had enhanced speed. Asylum was a mental patient who could envelope people in her darkness and show them their greatest fears. Pretty Persuasions was problematic. She was an “exotic dancer” who could stimulate the pleasure centers of an individual as well as create psionic weapons from her own erotic impulses. She also wore the least amount of clothes.
They were set up as polar opposites to the Warriors who were, all things considered, kind of a bunch of goody two shoes.
The Warriors win, but nothing is solved, which was an appropriate way to cap off this first arc. Genetech says they will self-regulate, but the Warriors aren’t a position to make them do anything. This wasn’t a clear cut situation, emblematic of what was to come in the future.
The Warriors were ultimately powerless to enact any real change at Genetech aside from threatening to keep tabs on them. The idea of a super team — and superheroes — being powerless would come up again and again throughout the course of the series.
Ethics and the Environment
Issue 5 and 6 feature a number of firsts:
- First multi-part story
- First time the team is split on an ethical issue
- First story featuring environmental issues
- First big time guest stars
This two-parter features a new villain with an old name: Star Thief. He wants to stop Stane International from continuing their space program. He does so by stopping every launch. Marvel Boy wants to stop him. The problem is that Nita has it on good authority that Stane is planning on using his latest vessel to dump waste in space, so she doesn’t want it launching anymore than Star Thief does. Eventually the team is literally split in two: Nita, Marvel Boy, and Firestar end up stuck on the rocket and are eventually teleported to the home of the Inhumans. Thrash, Nova, and Speedball are grounded.
Marvel Boy and Namorita are two of the easiest characters to love in this book, yet that doesn’t preclude them from landing on opposites sides of an issue. There’s nuance to these characters that was seldom seen in other superhero comics. Marvel Boy consider Star Thief to be a cut and dry villain based upon his actions, while Nita saw things a as being murkier. Again, this distinction between Warriors who saw things in black and white and those who saw things in shades of grey would come up again and again.
Nicieza and Bagley stuck with the environment as the next arc, “Hard Choices,” features a trip by 5/6 of the team to the Rain Forest, where they face off against eco-terrorists called Project: Earth, who happen to count Speedball’s mom as their newest member. Those team members with secret identities reveal them to the others and Speedball comes clean to his mom.
The eco-terrorists have their own super powered team: The Force of Nature. It’s not a great team name, but the individual members are actually pretty cool. We’ll see them again later in the series, thankfully, in yet another moral quandary.
While Project: Earth’s actions are portrayed as being extreme, their motivations are are righteous: they want to save the planet. While the nature of this arc makes them the villains, we’ll see them again later in a much different light.
The other story involves Thrash trying to protect Silhouette from the Bengal, although there’s more to it than he realizes. The Punisher makes an appearance and we find out what Thrash keeps in that funky back pack of his (hint: it’s a gun). The Punisher is after Silhouette because he wrongfully believes she was in league with her brother. The Bengal is after a priest for something he did decades ago. Both are only guilty by association, either through family or time.
If there were any doubts about Tai being up to something, they are gone with issue #10, as she and the White Queen (pre-Morrison Emma Frost) leave Firestar’s fate up to a battle between the New Warriors and the Hellions. Tai literally says that the team is together for a “purpose” and it doesn’t sound like a it’s too fight crime and save the world.
The Warriors win, of course. I always liked the Hellions. It’s too bad Jim Lee and Whilce Portatio killed all of them off in a single page.
Not Quite the Big Guns
It’s alternate reality time! Remember when comics used to do alternate reality stories and it was no big deal? Now any time something gets weird it turns into a crossover.
Anyway, “Forever Tomorrow” features the return of the long time Nova villain the Sphinx, who changes the world so that she — and, it seems, Egypt — rules the world. The problem is that the Middle East didn’t seem to be any more hospitable towards mutants than the West was. Marvel Boy and Firestar are a part of the muntant resistance, while Nova is a member of the Avengers. Thrash’s father works for the Sphynx but is secretly helping the mutants. That doesn’t end well for him or his family, leading young Thrash down a road to vengeance.
This arc is meant to build Nova back up to the hero he was before and it works. In some ways he’s almost de-90s-fied.
The Warriors ultimately save reality which would seem to set them up as fairly big heroes, something that would get undercut, which is yet another theme for the series. Big wins don’t come easy and seldom without a cost.
Note: Namorita and Speedball have next to nothing to do in this arc, and only appear in a few panels, which was interesting, given they were not meant to be a part of Thrash’s original team.
To make up for it, Namorita gets a spotlight issue in #14. We get another story involving eco-terrorism, this time tied to Nita’s Atlantean heritage. It also underscores Nita’s growing sense of isolation, as she feels she doesn’t belong either below the sea or above it. Speedball makes an appearance and Namor guest stars. It’s a solid issue that digs into Nita’s growing frustration over her place in the world, be it above the water or below.
We also see the return of Project: Earth, or at least one of its founding members. They’re on the good side this time, yet again proving that the characters in this series can’t be checked in a single box. Everyone is trying to do what they think is right, but that doesn’t usually line up.
The next three issues comprise an ever escalating story which starts with the return of Psionex, but quickly moves to the return of Terrax and, eventually, a crossover with the Fantastic Four. It also marks the return of Nova’s classic costume, which is a good, visual example of how the team is evolving.
Psionex is back at Genetech, this time as prisoners, but not for long. They escape and the Warriors come to recapture them. During the battle, the founder of Genetech decides to stop the battle, so he tries to harness the power left behind by Terrax. That doesn’t go as he plans and instead he gives Terrax’s power a physical form.
This arc gets bigger and bigger with each issue. The fight against Psionex is fairly standard superhero fare, but the return of Terrax steps it up a notch. Two members of Psionex decide to help fight Terrax, while the others escape. The fight against Terrax does not go well and eventually Nova flies off, destination unknown.
Just as Terrax is about to end the Warriors for good, the cavalry arrives in the form of the Fantastic Four (and Nova). But even their combined powers aren’t enough. Thankfully, Reed Richards called in some back-up his own.
For as much as the Warriors have grown over the course of the first year and half, they’re still rookies when it comes to being a superhero team. This arc is a good reminder of that. They have limitations, although those limitations are going to be pushed as the series goes on. None of them have reached their full potential yet.
They may have saved reality by defeating the Sphynx, but ultimately most of their wins are personal battles. Stopping the likes of Star Thief, Project: Earth, the Bengal, the Hellions, and Psionex aren’t going to get them on the front page of any newspapers, but that’s who the New Warriors are.
It All Comes Together
And here we go. Issues 18-25 make up one, long story that finally gives us answers about Night Thrasher and his two guardians, Chord and Tai. It’s not a case of us finding out that “everything you know is wrong,” so much as finally getting some gaps filled in. The beauty of it is that Nicieza and Bagley still manage to keep the series connected to the larger Marvel universe, first by bringing in X-Force villain Gideon, then later by involving the Avengers. In the end, Night Thrasher’s life is rewritten and he becomes something of a new character, albeit one with a ton of baggage.
The other big story in this arc involves Marvel Boy and his father. It’s been established before this that Marvel Boy’s father abused him in the past, notably after his powers first manifested. His father attacks him again, but this time Marvel Boy reacts with his powers, ultimately killing his dad. He’s arrested and put on trial.
With Thrash looking for answers with a new team called the Folding Circle, Marvel Boy on trial, and Firestar staying close to home to support him (and speak for the team in case their are called to testify), the Warriors are short handed. They call in Darkhawk and Rage to help them out.
Both characters fit the team well and its nice to see them expand to include their contemporaries. Rage will eventually join the team full time and becomes an essential member, particularly as part of the amazing duo that is Speedball and Rage.
The only real downside to this arc is that Bagley was already hard at work on Amazing Spider-Man and he was clearly being stretched thin. More often than not, the inkers were stepping up to finishers, if Bagley was even able to provide layouts. He’d defined the look of the New Warriors from the start, so it was a shame to see him leave, but at this point the writing was on the wall. Bagley’s stock was on the rise and New Warriors wasn’t a high profile book.
The revelations that close out the first 25 issues of the New Warriors were creative, interesting, and dark. They were also satisfying payoff for the bits and pieces we’d gotten over the previous two years. Perhaps not every issue was necessary to move this particular plot forward, but every issue was necessary to establish context. It’s hard to imagine this story being told in fewer issues. It’s also hard to imagine a book like the New Warriors sticking around for 25 issues these days.
Next: The back half of the Nicieza run, full of great art and lots of Rage