Writer: Warren Ellis
Artists: Salvador Larroca, Jason Keith (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
I first got into Warren Ellis as a writer through Planetary, and whilst I've enjoyed his work in more mainstream superhero books (particularly the genre-redefining Authority) I still never felt that it was quite at the same level. However, with newuniversal Ellis combines superhero conventions with the same kind of compelling and imaginative take on humanity, the history of Earth and our place in the universe that was present in Planetary, mixing his science fiction with elements of human drama to keep it grounded and interesting and challenging his readers with unconventional and unusual ideas.
The first couple of issues of newuniversal have seen Ellis present an alternate earth which is changed as a result of "The White Event," a mysterious occurrence which gifts a handful of individuals with powers, effectively turning them into superhumans. The distinction between superhumans and superheroes is an important one here, as the writer is careful not to force his main players into easy hero archetypes. Each one reacts to his or her powers in a different way, and the effect of these fantastical transformations on their personalities is very much the focus of the book. However, whilst the larger plot machinations hint at an eventual clash between the U.S. government and the combined forces of newuniversal's superhumans, there's still a long way to go before the various characters even meet, let alone form complex enough relationships to really drive the book forward.
This slow, steady approach is reminiscent of J. Michael Straczynski's recent Supreme Power in its pronounced, measured pacing and its exploration of the impact that fantastical powers might have on a more realistic world than we're used to seeing in superhero comics. There's a lot of convincing detail to be found in Ellis' script which serves to establish the grounded tone of the book, and the writer isn't afraid to dedicate pages to talky sequences which add depth to his characters, even if it comes at the expense of a fast-moving plot: for example, this issue sees a lengthy discussion between two characters of the nature of evolution and of how the principle of "survival of the fittest" could apply to superhuman dominance over mankind. The slowness might be frustrating for those who want to get to the action, but it also allows us to get used to the world of newuniversal and to see its characters develop naturally, without contriving to throw them together from the start. This should lead to a more satisfying payoff when it eventually comes, and it gives a greater feeling of significance to the wider plot developments as they occur. A good example of this is the revelation of the highly advanced nature of the ancient city of Zardath at the end of this issue: a wondrous moment that would have felt at home in Planetary, it is ultimately only one part of a greater puzzle, but the discoveries of the archeologists are so well-paced and the splash-page reveal of the city so evocative and atmospheric that it feels climactic.
I never read any of the original New Universe line of comics, so I don't know how much of newuniversal is inspired by those original stories, but happily the enjoyment of this book doesn't require any wider reading or previous knowledge of the characters. The book looks pretty, with Salvador Larroca mirroring Ellis' approach to the book with some highly realistic visuals which are complemented by Jason Keith's delicately shaded, almost painterly approach. The artwork isn't particularly dynamic, but it handles the few action sequences very well (with a particularly striking illustration of the effect of John Tensen's blade against a gang of young criminals). Ellis' sci-fi sensibilities blend well with the book's necessarily grounded approach to superhumans, and the characters are strong enough to maintain reader interest - although I was slightly disappointed to see two of the major superhumans barely appear in this latest issue. My one reservation is that after three issues, it still doesn't feel like the book has quite come together yet, and I'm a little impatient to see how Ellis weaves the various strands of the book into a cohesive whole.
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