Now that we’ve conclusively left 2018, the longest year in recorded human history, the passage of time feels more febrile than perhaps ever before.
Anything before 2018 feels like an eternity, but 2006 — the year Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. debuted — is difficult to metabolize as being over a decade behind us. Because of that, it offers us a fascinating look back at a pivotal time in comics that looks almost nothing like what we have today. And yet in a lot of ways, it still feels like it was yesterday.
nextwave is an eccentric choice for a look back at a period of intense productivity in Warren Ellis’ career, but it stands out both as a fascinating example of how comics talk to and about themselves as well one of the only projects of the era that Ellis saw through to the end. The early to mid 2000s are littered with the corpses of forgotten, abandoned, and eventually reanimated Ellis comics: Desolation Jones, Fell, newuniversal, and even the now seminal Planetary.
As such it’s an ambivalent period of Ellis’ career to wax nostalgic about, but there’s much to celebrate. Viewed through the eyes of 2019, it’s hard to argue for anything but Fell as his most important comic of the period. Struck by how expensive comics had become and how many fans he met who had only read his work borrowed from friends or libraries, Ellis went to Image with Ben Templesmith to tell a stripped down, modular, two dollar an issue noir mystery to ensure that anyone who wanted it could get it. Fell is the most conspicuous Ellis corpse of the era, having never been completed due to a tragic hardware failure.
Despite that, Fell went on to transform both Image and indie comics in the direct market in ways that we continue to feel to this day. From a formalist perspective, Fell brought a new sense of prestige to back matter, prose pieces appended to individual issues. It caught on almost immediately, spawning riffs on it by Ivan Brandon for The Cross Bronx and Matt Fraction for Casanova and soon became a staple for creator-owned series at Image like Material, Phonogram, and Bitch Planet, that legacy lives on at other publishers in books like Calexit at Black Mask and Euthanauts at IDW/Black Crown in increasingly novel ways.
That period is also particularly important to Ellis’ career because it marked the timespan in which he was most, as the kids today say, extremely online. Ellis has always been widely known as an early adopter of the Internet and just about everything since, but in the mid 00s, Ellis’ web presence made him one of the most successful and influential community builders in comics.
In the years from Twitter’s launch in 2006 to its ubiquitous adoption in 2010, Ellis hosted successive online forums including The Engine and Whitchapel that had an influence on critics, creators, and readers as outsized as it was brief. Those forums provided a welcoming and engaging community for readers new to comics, especially female and LBGTQIA fans and incubated a range of budding talents including Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Fraction, and Kelly Sue DeConnick.
In the midst of all this, the work that would redefine Ellis’ legacy for the next decade and likely be categorized as the second act of his career, nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. landed like a bomb. It was bright, loud, sarcastic, and slapstick in a way that Ellis had eschewed since the completion of Transmetropolitan in 2002 and had begun to move away from as early as 1999 with the launches of The Authority, Planetary, and his tenure on Hellblazer.
What Ellis had set out to do and eventually accomplished with nextwave wouldn’t be discernible until it wrapped after twelve issues — and has likely remained under appreciated since. What was immediately understandable beyond the sound and fury of the series’ debut is that Ellis took the two strategies behind Alan Moore’s meteoric rise at DC twenty years earlier — dusting off classic characters that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades and creating facsimiles of the ones he wasn’t allowed to twist in the desired direction — and wielded them like a cudgel to produce an outlandish parody of the superhero status quo that he, as much as anyone, was responsible for establishing.
Ellis assembled a team of D-list Marvel heroes around the concept that they were working for a quasi government agency that they discovered had its origins in a terrorist group and were using them to stress test their arsenal of doomsday devices. If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve read any superhero comic since 1986 and more likely than not the Planetary issue that features a parody of Miracle Man raging that he never wanted to know that he was the product of Nazi science.
Some of his choices for the team, like Jack Kirby also-ran Aaron “Machine Man” Stack or Lara Croft knock off Elsa Bloodstone, read like benign indulgences of Ellis’ most typical instincts, but former Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau and X-Force alumni Tabby “Boom Boom” Smith stand out from the perch of 2019. Ellis intentionally wanted the women to outnumber the men on the team and depicting Monica Rambeau as the put together straight man leading a team of complete fuck ups reads as particularly pointed commentary.
For a lot of readers, myself included, nextwave was the first indication that there had both been a black woman in the role of Captain Marvel and lead the Avengers. It’s a revelation that took on much more significance when Carol Danvers was elevated to the mantle of Captain Marvel in 2012.
Ellis’ take on Boom Boom, on the other hand, hasn’t aged as well. Ellis is on the record as saying he wanted a character who could blow things up and her kleptomaniac spree held special interest for the series, but he’s also on the record describing her as “Paris Hilton with a radioactive vagina.” Tabby’s presence on the team was a function of Ellis’ fascination with the media’s fascination with the transgressive behavior of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan.
Throughout most of nextwave, it percolated into an amusing externalization of Ellis’ befuddlement with millennials, but it could also manifest in disturbing ways, like his lurid description of one of Lohan’s apparent DUI episodes, which Ellis witnessed through CNN while in San Diego for the SDCCI and wrote about for his short lived Suicide Girls column:
“…I have no idea what happened the fateful night that Ms Lohan cracked the crust of stale, blood-flecked coke off her crotch and said to her soon-to-be-ex-assistant while snorting cough medicine up into her forebrain, ‘shove your arm up there, girl. I want to come on your elbow.’ Because the very rich are not like you and me…”
It’s jarring remembrances like these that make nextwave feel so simultaneously recent and ancient, illuminating how it could so clearly have laid the bedrock for the Marvel comics we know today and yet absolutely not be allowed to exist as it does were it to arrive in the here and now. In that sense, nextwave absolutely captures the uneasy transition period between the reckless raunch culture of the late 1990s and the raging culture wars over the limits of public speech in the current moment.
For reasons that aren’t immediately apparent and may never truly be understood, it’s a cultural shift that Ellis has navigated better than most given his predilection for the transgressive. In 2006, identity politics were not yet a significant organizing principle or point of contention. Gail Simone’s now seemingly ancient Women in Refrigerators was only just taking hold in a serious way, so it’s hard to imagine what a substantive conversation about Stuart Immonen drawing the team fight a small army of eye beam firing Stephen Hawkings as part of the delirious series climax would have looked like within comics circles at the time.
However he managed it, Ellis threaded the needle, maintaining the goodwill of a devoted fanbase famously overrepresented by women and gender and sexual minorities despite their ambivalent representation in his work. nextwave stands out as an especially strange artifact in that regard, including the truly regrettable Norman Bates like crossdressing by the series’ Nick Fury parody Dirk Anger, but also some truly surreal moments that are difficult to pin down as being outright harmful but would almost certainly be met with complete bafflement now.
The first being a moment of downtime where Monica confides in Elsa that she suspects Captain America is gay because he’s the only Avenger who didn’t sexually harass her and Elsa responding that it would explain why there’s always someone dressed up as him at gay pride parades.
That theme returns late in the series when one of the central villains introduces the parody versions of mostly Wildstorm superhero teams created to defeat nextwave. The last such group is called The Homosexuality with characters whose names are clearly riffs on Midnighter, Apollo, Northstar, and Renee Montoya as The Question, but they fail to appear because they were away attending a gay pride parade in San Francisco.
It could be that Ellis was intending to lampoon Marvel and DC’s listless portrayals of LBGTQIA characters, but it comes across as especially flat and uninspired from Midnighter and Apollo’s original creator.
Ironically, it’s the opening of that very same sequence that the animating principle behind nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is revealed. Whereas Ellis has typically been blunt in articulating the central theses of his work, either within the comics themselves or in interviews and promotional material, the entire point of nextwave is revealed in a far more oblique way typical of Grant Morrison.
When the nextwave team finally arrives to confront the leader of S.I.L.E.N.T., the terrorist organization that founded H.A.T.E. as a cover for the development of their doomsday weapons, he explains that he came across a comic book that someone had left in the company drowning pool. Fascinated by what he saw in it, it inspired him to develop the monstrosities that he deployed against nextwave. He then throws the comic down, revealing it to be an issue of Not Brand Echh, Marvel’s in-house parody comic that originally ran from 1967-69.
The presence of that particular comic does a lot to clarify exactly what it was that Ellis and Immonen had been doing over the twelve issues of their series. The critical consensus up until now has been to more or less take Ellis at his word that the series was simply there to be a bombastic mess, a line of thinking that, in retrospect, is about as mistaken as taking Jerry Seinfeld at his word that his eponymous sitcom was “a show about nothing,” rather than the carefully structured comedy of manners hiding underneath.
Ellis and Immonen revealed themselves to be working in the tradition of self parody that Marvel formally instituted with Not Brand Echh and continued in similarly minded projects like What The–?! and the infamous Assistant Editor’s Month (that, among other things, birthed Squirrel Girl). They returned to the purity of the original concept, reformulating how Not Brand Ecch addressed the reader through headings like “who says a comic has to be good?” with Ellis’ blunt sarcasm and retooled how the original parodied the typical presentation of comic book covers into Immonen’s sly parodies of the most overdone trends in graphic design of the day, ironically drawing effusive praise for his use of those design elements.
Citing Not Brand Echh did a lot to clarify the thought behind the surreal blending of irreverent restagings of infamous scenes from comics like Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin, poaching visual elements from anime series like FLCL and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Immonen’s straight forward, virtuosic action sequences.
nextwave may be delivered with every last ounce of withering sarcasm that Ellis can muster in the direction of superhero fiction and does its best to conceal any lasting seriousness under a landfill of outrageous humor, it is just as rigorously constructed of an allegorical historical document as Transmetropolitan and Planetary. As outrageous as it sounds, nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is probably best understood as Warren Ellis’ Flex Mentallo, bracketing Transmetropolitan and Planetary the same way that Flex Mentallo completes The Invisibles and The Filth as a conceptual trilogy in Grant Morrison’s body of work.
The direct usage of Not Brand Echh could also be doing a lot more than asserting a specific lineage for nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. There’s every reason to believe that Ellis and Immonen use it to draw attention to the role of parody and the recursive, self referential nature of superhero comics and the dividing line between the 1960s and 70s era works they lampoon like Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur or Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D and their post-Watchmen targets like Elektra: Assassin, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, and the entire philosophy behind the Wildstorm imprint.
Just like how the top hatted robot running S.I.L.E.N.T found the inspiration for his creations in the pages of Not Brand Echh, the genesis for Alan Moore’s approach to Miracle Man, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen was parody. Moore credits Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s 1953 story Superduperman for imbuing him with a sense of the elasticity of superhero fiction:
“I remember being so knocked out by the ‘Superduperman’ story that I immediately began thinking – I was 11, remember, so this would have been purely a comics strip for my own fun – but I thought maybe I could do a parody story about Marvelman. This thing is fair game to my 11-year-old mind. I wanted to do a super-hero parody story that was as funny as “Superduperman”, but I thought it would be better if I did it about an English superhero.”
Ellis and Immonen never address Miracleman or Superduperman directly in nextwave, but the striking similarity between John Casaday’s parody of Miracle Man in Planetary #7 and Wally Wood’s Superduperman is likely intentional.
It’s a key way in which Planetary and nextwave mirror each other in ways that are complementary rather than repetitive. Where Planetary was an archeological dig through an entire century of science fiction in which superheroes were one aspect of a much larger whole incorporating pulp fiction, Jules Verne, early Hollywood monster movies, and The Matrix, nextwave is the much more intimate and focused act of depicting Marvel specifically, but DC by implication, as a mirror held up to a mirror, creating infinite reflections in both directions.
A major reason for why no one really remarked on what was actually going on underneath the surface of nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is that the aspect of Ellis’ body of work and identity as a writer that it was most emblematic of was being produced in real time across several simultaneous and subsequent works. What we can say for certain now is that Warren Ellis is fundamentally a historian. Whatever his opinion of the histories that he examines and the methods he uses to relate them are, he has become a historian first and anything else second.
His most pertinent quote of the era was to describe facets of his work as uncovering the unexploded bombs of the 20th century, which I’ve chosen in the past to reformulate as an urge to kill the 20th century, but this is just a small part of how Ellis views and manipulates the idea of history in his work. Ellis weaponized Marvel’s history against itself in nextwave, but he’s also spent a considerable amount of time constructing alternate histories around superhero comics.
Like Planetary, obviously, but also Apparat, a collection of stories theorizing what mainstream comics might look like if Stan and Jack hadn’t revived superheroes in the 1960s or Do Anything, his series of essays constructed around his claim to own and converse with the animatronic head of Jack Kirby.
Whatever its merits or conceptual strengths, nextwave always ran the risk of losing itself in Ellis’ cynicism and snark, which is why Stuart Immonen’s contributions need to be examined in a lot more detail than simply for the sake of recognizing that comics is a team sport. The core of Immonen’s mission on the book was to maintain enough good will from the readership to keep them engaged across the full scope of Ellis’ excesses, but it was his artwork that offered a genuine alternative, a break from the closed circuit that Ellis portrayed Marvel as.
As much as some people would wish or pretend otherwise, the major headline in comics from 2006-7 was not, and likely never will be nextwave. It was then, and will probably always be Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War, the event comic that engulfed the entirety of the Marvel line and set the tone at the company for the next several years. More than just a single grim, divisive story that set heroes primarily at each other’s throats for the next several years, it was the crest of a wave that Ellis himself had inadvertently set in motion when he started The Authority with Bryan Hitch in 1999.
The Authority was a key example of what went on to be described as the “widescreen” or “cinematic” style of comics that earned its name by pairing increasingly realistic figurative work with page layouts that relied heavily on unbroken horizontal panels to create a look that pulled the comics page closer to literally looking like a live action movie. Ellis and Hitch intensified the effect by using compositions that mirrored basic Hollywood shots like people walking down a hallway at dutch angles, or panel progressions that mirror cross cutting in film.
It’s a ball that Mark Millar picked up and ran with when he followed Ellis on The Authority, most notably with Frank Quitely. Quitley and Millar continued, and arguably intensified the style, but in their first issue on the title, they did something else that would come to have a major effect of Millar’s career going forward: they introduced a gruesomely cruel parody of The Avengers as foils for The Authority, introducing them as literal baby killing rapists in service to global capitalist interests. Superduperman drained of the comedic element.
Roughly a year later, Millar teamed up with Authority co-creator Bryan Hitch for The Ultimates, deploying another meaner, darker riff on The Avengers using the same visual style Ellis and Hitch employed on their Authority run and Millar and Quitely carried on with in theirs. This time directly for Marvel, but in a self contained continuity sequestered from the main line.
The Ultimates weren’t baby killing rapists, but they were overt antiheroes with the quirks of their original versions magnified into grim parodies of the originals: Captain America was a condescending, sexist, jingoist; Hank Pym was monstrously abusive to his wife, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were teased to be in a incestuous relationship, and so on and so forth. The formula worked again, and four years later Millar partnered with McNiven for Civil War a major event comic pitting the marquee versions of Iron Man and Captain America against each other over the implementation of a superhero registration act. It debuted half way through nextwave’s twelve issue run.
Which meant that the first two Authority writers found themselves simultaneously penning polar opposite series for Marvel, but just as critically, with artists using vastly different means of translating the visual language of live action film onto the comics page. McNiven pushed the trend that started with Hitch to its natural conclusion, drawing figures far more lifelike than Hitch or Quitely’s, going for several consecutive pages using only four horizontal panels per page to maximize a certain kind of cinematic realism.
While McNiven’s linework was static, conveying a kind of verisimilitude but lacking in a sense of conveyed motion, Stuart Immonen took the exact opposite tack: drawing kinetic, highly stylized figures drawn to mimic frequently used film compositions to get the reader to interpolate the action between panels. It’s a relatively rarely used, but highly effective technique in comics most memorably used by Annie Wu and Brenden Fletcher on Black Canary. Instead of turning to Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work, artists like Immonen and Wu look to film storyboards and animation keyframes that are looked at more or less the same way.
If Immonen or Wu can effectively draw the first and last frames of a film shot convincingly enough, the reader will automatically, subconsciously fill in the gaps and be left with a much more visceral experience of the comic page than the static photorealism of Steve McNiven or the more prosaically story driven motivations behind the nine panel grid or Wood’s 22 panels. But even if Immonen and Wu appear to have deployed a nearly identical technique in their work, they function very differently in the larger context of the comics it appeared in.
Wu’s issues of Black Canary were very frequently as primarily art driven as Morrison and Quitely’s iconic We3, with Wu’s gift for kinetics moving the reader across the page, Lee Loughridge’s colors providing the emotional context for the action, and Brenden Fletcher disappearing from view as the writer, a dynamic most clearly at work in the legendary third issue.
Immonen, however, neither leads nor follows Ellis on nextwave, but races alongside him, frequently at a dead run. Ellis, either through dialogue and captions or descriptions for Immonen, throws an incredible amount of densely layered information at the reader at once. Like Annie Wu, Frank Quitley, or Jon Davis-Hunt, Stuart Immonen has an intimate understanding that page layouts and content have the ability to control how long a reader spends on each page, the beautiful contradiction at the heart of comics as a sequential yet static visual medium.
Whereas Davis-Hunt frequently approached Clean Room like a veteran major league baseball pitcher who could stretch out an at bat by putting readers through a crucible of inset panels breaking down a single movement to build up tension and release, Immonen frequently did the opposite on nextwave.
He used slick paneling, kinetic figures, and the previously mentioned cinematic technique to grease the wheels to make the reading experience feel like seeing James Joyce’s Ulysses printed on a series of billboards on the side of a highway. Except for one particular experience where Immonen duplicates a jaw dropping series of Marvel artists from bygone eras including a pitch perfect Mike Mignola, nextwave is not an immersive experience that draws you into the artwork, sucking hours of your life away. It’s a rail shooter that forces you to go back again and again until you hit every target.
Because nextwave was composed of so many intricate, specific parts, it could never be fully duplicated, except perhaps by the very specific creative team of Matt Fraction and Annie Wu, and no one ever really tried. But that didn’t matter, because very quickly people figured out that they could strip it for parts and re-purpose whatever they could get to work for themselves, creating a diffuse but unmistakable legacy at Marvel that continues to this day.
As nextwave and Civil War began to appear in print simultaneously, then Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada quickly understood the place that the former began to carve out for itself as a kind of protest book. Because of the circuitous yet parallel paths that Ellis and Millar had taken since working on The Authority, nextwave was primed and ready to go as a specific rebuke to the new world order at Marvel. That resulted in the infamous Civil War parody cover incorporating Black Watch tartan and a sign claiming “Mark Millar Flicks Goats” in a font that publishers typically ban “flick” from use in because an uppercase L and I adjacent each other look like a U.
The series’ reputation also motivated Quesada to tell fans who were fed up with the company’s tactic of putting a Wolverine cameo in any book with flagging sales to “say no to Wolverine, buy nextwave.” Quesada, being the truest heir to Stan Lee in temperament and outlook that the company has ever had, understood the intrinsic value of having the call coming from inside the house. Ellis and Immonen could poke as much fun as they wanted and attract all the disgruntled and disaffected readers they could in the bargain because those sales were staying at Marvel and not going to Brand Echh, Lee’s euphemism for DC.
The seeds of nextwave’s lasting influence were planted almost immediately, but it took several years for it to emerge in earnest. Matt Fraction, one of the first beneficiaries of Fell’s disruption at Image when he launched Casanova in its wake, arrived at Marvel in a sustained way along with Kieron Gillen in the immediate wake of nextwave and Civil War. It took Fraction some time to truly find his footing at Marvel, beginning with Punisher War Journal and The Order. Following stints on The Immortal Iron Fist and The Invincible Iron Man, lightning struck for Fraction and David Aja in 2012, with their blockbuster, infamously irreverent take on Hawkeye.
While still utterly its own thing, Hawkeye took a lot of what made nextwave catch fire and pushed it even further. Fraction’s iconoclastic, self deprecating take on Clint stripped the pretensions and operatic heroism out of its hero in a very different way than Ellis did with his team, but with a very similar effect, and in some ways, hewing even closer to Not Brand Echh than nextwave did. Opening an issue with Tony and Clint struggling with something as mundane as a home theater is a play straight out of the Not Brand Echh playbook, for example.
Maybe even more importantly was how Aja functioned very similarly on Hawkeye to how Immonen did on nextwave. Aja, if anything, slowed the pacing down rather than ramp it up the way Immonen did, but he provided the same kind of rigorously executed design oriented work as Immonen, providing the gravity and whimsy that directed the tonal shifts that powered Hawkeye’s success.
Aja’s covers, gaining the same level of praise as Immonen’s were played straight, but he never shied away from deploying Marvel’s iconography against itself, most infamously by using the Hawkeye headshot used in the upper corner of classic covers as an improvised censor bar over Clint’s crotch.
Where Aja and Fraction differed the most from Ellis and Immonen, aside from the length of their tenure, is the pathos and earnest emotion they poured into Hawkeye. Where Ellis and Immonen revelled in the ersatz of Kirby, Starlin, and Steranko, Fraction and Aja anchored themselves in Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Frank Miller’s Daredevil. If nextwave softened Marvel up for Hawkeye, it in turn broke the dam for a very new kind of in-house self reflection through parody largely presided over by editor Will Moss: Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’ Howard the Duck, and Chistopher Hastings’ and Gurihiru’s The Unbelievable Gwenpool.
They all, in a sense, have nextwave’s eyes but it’s unquestionably Gwenpool that has reached for its predecessor’s delirious high of outlandish humor in service to self parody, up to and including Gurihiru’s expressive, violently kinetic cartooning. As a series that revolved around a z-list team of morally questionable superheroes driven by genre fluency as a blunt force weapon, there really is no better expression of nextwave’s legacy even if Gwenpool’s lampooning came from a much more affectionate place than its alleged parent did.
There’s a lot of reasons to want to dig back into nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. and Fell, but the need for it feels particularly acute right now because of how much Ellis’s star seems to have faded in the eyes of the current critical establishment. In the twelve years since nextwave, Ellis has become far more reclusive and less prolific which has made him almost invisible to a critical establishment that has seen near total turnover in the last decade. It’s a dynamic that was brought into sharp relief when Shelfdust published its 100 Best Single Issues list aggregated by over a hundred current critics.
Ellis appeared twice, for the debut of Transmetropolitan and for an issue of his recent Moon Knight run with Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire built around the infamous hallway fight in Chan Wook Parks’s adaptation of Oldboy. Where Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and Garth Ennis thrived, Ellis disappeared almost completely into obscurity. Certainly not out of any lack of skill at executing a single, self contained issue, but simply because so much of the current class of critics have come into it since 2010, after Ellis relinquished his grip as a tastemaker. But to those who had observed that era, he hung over the list like a curmudgeonly poltergeist, visible in the success of the creators he inspired and nurtured towards their currently dominant status.
Outside of unshakable standards like Watchmen and Morrison’s Animal Man, opinions about comics don’t get entrenched or hidebound because people don’t write about them for long or visibly enough for orthodoxies to take hold for any longer than a decade. That can be a net benefit, allowing for more appreciation for innovation and iconoclasm, but it can also subsume worthy legacies, produce tragic bouts of amnesia, and is generally symptomatic of the consolidation and collapse of review sites.
No one wants to be a prisoner of history, but there’s a lot of value in knowing where you came from, whether or not Nazi science was involved.