Although he was never an A-Lister, Richard Rider’s Nova has always been a fan favorite. Created in the 70’s by comic legends Marv Wolfman and John Romita Sr., Nova burst into the Marvel Universe with his own short-lived series. Rider was only a high school student when he got his powers and was meant to act more like a Spider-Man type on the Cosmic side of Marvel. He would become someone readers could see themselves in as they plunge into the early Marvel Cosmic stuff. Eventually, he joined the C-list superhero team New Warriors for most of the 90’s, taking on new adventures with them. The following decade would see him garner a strong fandom, with Abnett and Lanning’s now-iconic run on the character kicking things off. Between 2006’s Annihilation and his death in 2010’s Thanos Imperative, Nova was partly responsible for revitalizing Marvel Cosmic, transforming it into a vast, interesting, and eccentric part of the universe that had been mostly forgotten in the past.
Though death doesn’t carry much weight in the world of superhero comics, it would be a while before we saw Rider return as Nova, but it only took Marvel one year to reintroduce the concept of Nova to a new audience. Although this new Nova’s first appearance is in Marvel Point-One–a prelude for what was to come in the next Marvel era–his first big splash happens in the first issue of the now-infamous event: Avengers vs X-Men. Parallel to Silver Surfer’s crash landing warning of Thanos in Infinity Gauntlet, Nova crashes in front of the Avengers warning them of the incoming Phoenix Force. He later reappears in the final issue of the event, briefly fighting Cyclops before being offered a role in the Avengers by Thor. And for the first time, we get a brief glimpse at who is behind the mask, as his reply to said offer is simply: “I’ll just have to ask my mom first.”
It took almost a year for this new Nova to get his own series, which would help us finally understand who he is and how there even is a new Nova at all, considering the Nova Corps were wiped out during the events of Annihilation. From the ashes of the controversial event Avengers vs X-Men rose a brand-new era for Marvel that revitalized its readership and garnered new ones. Marvel NOW is one of the most celebrated eras in the publisher’s long history, introducing new concepts and characters.
Previously: Marvel Then, 10 years later!
Fresh off the recent success of Miles Morales in the Ultimate universe, as well as the dawn of a new status quo for Earth-616, Marvel attempted to introduce different titles to a younger generation. Starting with the time-displaced original X-Men as teenagers in Bendis’s All-New X-Men, Gillen and McKelvie’s updated take on the Young Avengers, and even the highly-underrated Avengers Arena by Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker. Ultimately, it would be the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, who would prove to be the breakout character from that era. But Nova was the latest legacy character to have a new solo series that not only dealt with life as a teenager but also with the wonders of exploring Marvel Cosmic. Before we knew it, our new Nova Sam quickly became just as popular as Rider.
With this new Nova’s first arc–aptly titled Origin–writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinnes introduce readers to Sam Alexander: a young 15-year-old boy who is tired of his meaningless life. That is, until he openly embraces the role of superhero, not just on Earth but throughout the whole galaxy as well. Sam is a Chicano teen, and one of several new characters from this new era in which Marvel promoted new, diverse heroes from their roster. He’s from Carefree, Arizona, a small town in the middle of the desert where life seems so incredibly empty that you can’t help but be devoid of any dreams and aspirations. He deals with your average school bully, tough teachers, and a contempt for not only school but also his own father. Sam is just a young kid from a low-income family with an overworked mother, eccentric younger sister, and a seeming bum of a father. In those first few pages, we see Sam act as a parent to his own dad Jesse, who is nursing a hangover as he throws up in the toilet he’s supposed to be cleaning. Jesse is currently the janitor at Sam’s school, but he used to be a member of an elite unit in the Nova Corps known as the Supernovas, which Sam has a hard time actually believing.
During the first few pages of that first issue, we also see Jesse tell Sam one of his adventure stories, introducing us to his friend-turned-enemy Titus, who plans to eventually get his revenge. He continues to regale Sam’s sister with stories of his time as a Nova, and she quickly embraces them as truth, while Sam thinks he knows better than to believe his father. It isn’t until his father goes missing that Sam’s story really begins, and not just as a superhero but also as a son learning what it means to forgive and understand his father. This leads to a 31-issue run in which Sam searches the galaxy for his father, with the help of his father’s old Nova helmet, he goes on several exciting adventures that end up being formative to his development from annoyed teenager to proud son.
It is important to mention that Sam Alexander’s character was inspired by a real-life tragedy. Creator Jeph Loeb’s son, Sam Loeb, passed away in 2005 from cancer and became the major inspiration for Sam Alexander. A young boy is given the opportunity to live out his dream of being a superhero, but he wants to repair that connection to his father and amongst the stars, goes looking for him. Reading the series after knowing this shows you just how humanly vulnerable Sam is as a character, and that makes his journey to becoming a hero that much more approachable.
Each issue from that first arc ends in a cliffhanger, slowly showing us that while Sam’s world continues to grow, so do the stakes. After learning that all the stories his dad told him were true, Sam is forced to take responsibility for Jesse’s actions once he goes missing. He quickly embraces the title of Nova, briefly training under Rocket and Gamora while also developing a friendship with Uatu the Watcher, who helps guide him through how to protect the Earth from Titus and the Chitauri even as he battles these foes.
A lot happens in the first arc; it all happens rather quickly, but it never feels rushed. We learn of the stakes and follow Sam as he clumsily tries to be a superhero. There’s a bit of Doctor Fate between Sam and his helmet, as they have their own way of communicating since the helmet is only bound to him. One can criticize the fact that most things in Sam’s life are a little too convenient–such as his own mother openly accepting his role as a superhero despite him being fifteen and Sam traveling to space unsupervised for weeks. But the book chooses not to focus on that–instead, it wants to show us how awesome freedom like Sam’s could be. Although he still has to contend with school–something he struggles with at first–we choose to live vicariously through him in part because having an honest and open relationship with our loved ones is rare, and we all want acceptance from those who love us most.
Sam isn’t like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan when it comes to school. While every superhero teenager neglects school at some point, Sam is a notorious slacker. He is not the smartest student, but he is certainly not dumb. He has no interest in pursuing school before he became a superhero and especially not afterwards. As a former slacker student myself, I was happy to see a hero hold school in such contempt. But the beauty of what he learned later in his run–which is something I learned much later in life–is that we’re supposed to be learning responsibility. This is a lesson every teenage superhero must learn, but more on that later.
When it comes to the school drama of it all, it is rather cliche. You have the bully, the girl that’s interested in Sam, and even the tough-but-sympathetic principal. It’s fine and narratively important for Sam’s journey but never all that exciting. As readers, we also want to ditch school and go on fun adventures, but the creative team forces us (and Sam) to sit with these slower moments in order to experience his growth.
Sam doesn’t show as much teenage angst like what we get with Miles or Kamala. There’s definitely still some angst, but it never feels as essential to the story. There is no cathartic resolution with the school bully, and he gets a girlfriend off-panel. A lot of narrative threads from his school life quickly get wrapped up towards the end of the run–and towards the end of the Marvel Universe in Secret Wars–but it’s still fun to witness. The run never stopped being playful–we got issues in which he saves the day with Speedball and the New Warriors (which he would later join in 2014), and even some where he goes trick-or-treating with the latest young mutants. Enjoying every moment as a young teenager is what helps sell it as believable and sometimes relatable.
The entire Marvel Universe was shifting during Sam’s run, and Nova was used as a primer on Marvel Cosmic. This was the book that technically introduced the Chitauri to main Earth-616, and we saw how the Cosmic side started to become influenced by the MCU after the success of The Avengers (2012) and eventually, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Sam’s book was used to introduce and familiarize new readers similar in age to him with several Cosmic characters and concepts such as Rocket Raccoon and Uatu. If the reader isn’t coming in hot off of the Annihilation Saga, Sam’s book is their introduction to a lot of these concepts, which is something that works very well for a new character like Nova. Ultimately, this book is supposed to be a fun power fantasy that takes us soaring through space, inspiring us to be the best hero we can be.
In the superhero movie landscape, audiences demand and expect blockbuster action. Although filled with exciting set pieces and big, loud action, those scenes can often be too quick and sometimes even jarring. It can be rather mind-numbing as you aren’t able to fully process the action that’s being shown on film. Good superhero comics have clear action, and a great artist makes you sit and stare at what they’ve displayed for you, allowing you to completely process every detail shown on the page. It’s clean, bold, and colorful, which are words I would use to describe the art for the entire Nova series.
The series truly captured the awesome wonders of traveling through space, which means it had to have some wonderful art–and Ed McGuinness’ bold cartoonish style works perfectly alongside colorist Marte Gracia’s work. Though Guinness’s tenure was only temporary, Paco Medina helped maintain the clean and colorful style all throughout the sprawling world that is Marvel Cosmic. Even once David Baldeon picked up the art midway through the series, his more cartoonish style still didn’t take anything away from the title. Instead, the series chose to act more like a Saturday morning cartoon, with quick, fun interactions, weird new villains, and established heroes that help Sam throughout his journey. Proving my point that this book can be used as a sort of crash-course in Marvel Cosmic for new readers, with Sam acting as the wide-eyed character who asks the questions the audiences may need answers to.
Baldeon’s art does improve as the series goes on, giving us exciting two-page spreads just like his predecessors. However, during Gerry Duggan’s latter half of the series, the story feels rather rushed due to the events of Secret Wars creeping up. As fun and heartwarming as the series was towards the end, Baldeon’s art doesn’t provide us with the same oomph as McGuinness and Medina’s. Regardless, I found myself staring at several pages throughout the entire series. Upon rereading, I often went back just to admire the sheer scope of what’s on the page. The art is meant to be immersive and 10 years later, I still believe I’m soaring into space next to Sam.
If there is one identifiable flaw in Sam, it’s that he is impulsive. With the title of “The Human Rocket,” I guess one can expect a character to charge into any given situation in order to start wreaking havoc. As mentioned before, Sam is forcefully thrust into Marvel Cosmic because of his father. So to Sam, there is little time to stay on the ground and deal with the consequences of his actions. His entire life expanded throughout the whole galaxy, which means that he understandably does not want to spend much time on Earth. I wouldn’t either! However, his mother and sister anchor him to Earth, forcing him to not only stay grounded sometimes but also to fix his mistakes. Interestingly, Sam kind of already knows that with great power comes great responsibility, but funnily enough he just isn’t that responsible.
Nova’s first run focuses on the smaller scale of superheroics. When after a major conflict with an antagonist Sam heroically saves the day, he does not doubt that he did the right thing in helping people. However, this sometimes leads to major public damage to his hometown or even to inadvertently helping out a villain instead. The subsequent story usually deals with the aftermath and how to rectify that. Yes, he may have saved the day numerous times, but what does that mean to the people in his town? Or to the alien citizens affected by his actions? He started off still learning what effects his actions have on others after a conflict is resolved, but he fully understands the scale when his helmet is severely damaged after fighting Hulk, a decision that humbled him and gave Sam the opportunity for introspection on how his actions affect everyone else.
Sam isn’t swayed by greed or any primary antagonist throughout this run. No villain influences him into acting maliciously, and we see that he is truly a good person at heart. But like any 15-year-old, he’s too arrogant for his own good. He knows he has the chops to be a great hero–Thor literally invites him to become a member of the Avengers in AvX #12. But he’s clearly not ready in the slightest. His mother doesn’t allow him to join not because he’s not capable, but because he doesn’t feel like he’s on their level just yet. When offered a position in the (new) New Warriors, Sam declines because he finds them to be beneath his skill-level, but his mother influences his decision, and he ends up joining them in the end. She helped him see that as long as he helps people, it doesn’t matter what team he belongs to. Of course, towards the end of the run, Sam does become an honorary Avenger, standing by as a hero they can rely on for backup if the situation calls for it. It’s completely earned, as Sam has become far more mature and capable, while still understanding that his journey is not quite finished.
Amidst the seemingly endless sci-fi adventures with heavy themes of responsibility, the true driving narrative force–and what ultimately drives Sam to become Nova–is his quest to find his father. A clearly strained relationship between the two is shown in that first issue, and Jesse’s disappearance is really what drives Sam to answer the heroic call.
There is another mission he goes on before he can find and rescue his father, and this starts with Sam’s developing interaction with his new Nova helmet. Sam’s Nova helmet is unique in that it not only responds to only him but also has a personality. It acts much more like a Green Lantern Ring, often helpful but sometimes failing when needed most. When Sam learns that there are thousands of other Nova Corps members who are dead and forgotten, he takes on a mission to recover as many of them as possible in order to help honor their sacrifice with the help of Uatu the Watcher. It’s a nice touch that the way they honor him is the way Mexican culture honors past loved ones. With his helmet guiding the way, Sam travels across the galaxy in search of more Nova helmets, all while meeting some of the more familiar Marvel characters along the way. This makes for a fun, colorful adventure in which we explore the Marvel Cosmic universe.
The main event that changes the trajectory of Sam’s search for his father is Original Sin. The Watcher is murdered and the Marvel Universe is shaken with shocking new revelations regarding some characters and their origin stories. In the case of Sam’s story, his father is revealed to be a corrupt member of the Corps who murdered another Nova. Shaken by this, Sam investigates and promptly uncovers the truth that it was a covert operation to root out another truly corrupt Nova Corps member. While it was a simple bait and switch story, it’s what helps him continue the mission to rescue his father, as he now has a better idea of Jesse’s location.
Before Sam finds his father, Jesse appears only sporadically throughout the run, on no more than a handful of pages. We learn that he was kidnapped by the Chitauri and enslaved in their labor camps, where he leads a revolt and escapes with a large group of prisoners, leading him to travel throughout space trying to get everyone home safely. This course of action is what finally leads Sam to Jesse, and they are able to reunite.
Along the way, Nova encounters new parental figures: Gamora and Rocket go on an adventure with him later in the story, Beta Ray Bill, Thor, and Old Man Steve Rogers Captain America have their own moments, and he even has a heart to heart with Hulk at one point. Sam goes from being embarrassed by his father–scoffing at his stories as a Nova–to realizing it was all true, realizing he never had the chance to apologize. He had no opportunity to show Jesse that he’s a proud son, so he chooses to honor him instead. Sam seeks approval from big-shot heroes, but all he truly wants is the approval of his own father.
During their heartfelt reunion, Sam and Jesse have an exciting space adventure fighting off Chitauri and collecting the bounties on them. They each pour their hearts out in a cathartic moment that shows readers what makes superhero stories universal. From this moment on, their lives are filled with wondrous possibilities, rich with story.
There is no denying that fans have been clamoring to see Richard Rider’s Nova in live-action. His mid-00’s run is character-defining: he’s a man disconnected from his own planet after being gone for too long. He strives to find purpose among the stars by being the hero defending Marvel Cosmic alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy. Sam, on the other hand, doesn’t seek a greater purpose and isn’t that much of a tormented hero.
Much like the new heroes that Marvel was fostering around his time, Sam is meant to show us that being a superhero can be fun. Yes, your family may be in mortal peril, and yes, some random alien warlord might try to destroy Earth–but the excitement comes from always saving the day. The emotions come from your parents being proud of the hero you are, all while keeping no secrets from them. The magic comes from the heroes you adored now being inspired by you. 2013’s Nova is a joyful power fantasy, and we’re lucky to be invited along for the ride.
This is a story about a 15-year-old kid, and it’s primarily aimed at that audience, but that doesn’t mean that as an adult we can’t feel like one again.