Spencer: Teenage superheroes are kind of my specialty. The many incarnations of the Teen Titans were my gateway into mainstream comics in general, and my undying affection for the recent Young Avengers series is well known around the metaphorical Retcon Punch offices. I feel like I know the structure and tropes of these stories like the back of my hand, which makes it even more surprising to me how effectively Nova subverts them. Nova isn’t a book full of teenage angst or love triangles, and it isn’t even a book about the exhilarating freedom of being a teenaged hero, not really. Instead, writer Gerry Duggan has crafted a book that shows the toll being Nova has taken on Sam Alexander’s personal life, a book about how handing ultimate cosmic power to a fifteen-year-old kid is probably a really bad decision, no matter how pure that kid’s intentions are.
Sam, our titular Nova, tracks the helmet of a deceased Nova to the ship of Cadivan the hunter, who refuses to return the helmet, decides that hunting Sam would be no sport, and effortlessly ejects him from the ship. Instead of chasing him, Sam responds to a distress call and finds what appears to be a Nova Corps Spaceship under attack. Sam rescues the ship and finds that it’s been salvaged by a small crew who are using the body of a dead Nova to power the ship. They convince Sam to give the ship a jump-start, and he returns home feeling quite accomplished. Unfortunately, Sam’s been duped; turns out that the ship he rescued is actually a slave trader, and Sam’s been classified as a Rogue Nova by Beta Ray Bill!
If teenage superheroes are my specialty, than making poor decisions is Sam’s. Fortunately, these poor decisions no longer come from a place of sheer stupidity; instead, Duggan portrays Sam as a kid with the best of intentions, but basically no idea what he’s doing. In fact, I was surprised at how quickly this issue established what a good heart Sam actually has.
Even if Sam can’t stop himself from running off to do Nova stuff, he genuinely cares about his family and understands the pressure his mother is under in ways many fifteen-year-olds don’t. Even Sam’s mission to reclaim lost Nova helmets betrays his good heart; I mean, Sam has never really interacted with the Corps, right? Therefore, his mission seems to purely stem from loyalty and empathy for the dead Novas, both of which seem beyond what many fifteen-year-olds are capable of.
So Sam’s personality and intentions aren’t the problem here, it’s the fact that he’s naïve, inexperienced, and easily influenced; in short, that he’s a fifteen-year-old kid. I think it’s telling that Sam spends much of his time following his helmet around like a compass.
The way Sam follows those red dots reminds me of playing a video game, following markers or a map from one objective to another; I don’t know if the helmet’s output always looks like this or if it’s adjusting specifically for Sam, but regardless, it’s an incredibly effective way to lead around a fifteen-year-old kid. Likewise, the methods Captain Skaarn and his crew use to manipulate Sam into doing their bidding seem specifically tailored for a teenage boy: a dare and a pretty girl.
Every element Duggan puts into this book seems intended to remind us of Sam’s age, and penciler Paco Medina’s art seems to be serving a similar purpose. Medina’s clear, expressive, and bright art (kudos to inker Juan Vlasco and colorist David Curiel here as well) is a perfect fit for the high-flying adventures of a young boy adventuring throughout space, but what struck me most about Medina’s work is how young he makes Sam look; honestly, I thought he was twelve or thirteen at the most until I saw his age on the recap page. Almost every other character in the book towers over Sam — even when he’s decked out in his Nova uniform — and his facial expressions clearly belong to someone very young.
Honestly, I find myself a little uncomfortable with Sam being Nova. Sam feels like a very real, very young kid, and I’m scared for him in a way I’ve never been for a young superhero before — not even Dick Grayson, age eight, running around Gotham City in short-pants and pixie boots — and I’m not only nervous about his safety, but also the prodigious amount of power he wields, and what that could mean if he keeps making mistakes at this level. I mean, while this issue never really defines Sam’s abilities or their limits, it’s obvious that they’re pretty significant; when Sam actually springs into action, he accomplishes everything he wants to effortlessly, and even Skaarn’s crew seems to think that he’s stronger than the average Nova. I believe that Duggan wants us to be uncomfortable with Sam possessing ultimate cosmic power, not because he’s stupid or a bad kid, but because he’s young and has so much to learn.
I do believe Sam is capable of learning, of course. Sure he has a hard time focusing, but he’s come to understand the deadly consequences of his job in a very real way and in a very short time, and that bodes well for his future. Duggan is likely taking the book in that direction — Sam learning responsibility the only way he knows how, the hard way — but what if he didn’t? Duggan’s already subverted most of the typical teenage superhero tropes; what if Sam’s story ended with him deciding that being Nova is a responsibility that’s beyond him at his age? I don’t necessarily want that to happen — I’ve grown to care quite a bit about Sam and his book in a surprisingly short time — but I have to admit that it’s an intriguing possibility.
Drew, how do you feel the business of Sam being a young superhero? What did you think of Cadivan’s role in this issue; it seems slight after all the build-up to him last month. And how much chess does Sam need to play before he becomes a mastermind?
Drew: Actually, the chess-player-as-mastermind trope might be my favorite subversion of the issue. Sure, Sam is on the chess team, but playing chess is a far cry from being good at chess, which is in turn pretty unrelated to avoiding being ejected from enemy spaceships. I get that there may be some correlation between skilled strategists and chess-players, but I love that Sam has bought into that shorthand as a matter of course. He plays chess now, so he should be able to outthink everyone he encounters ever, right?
As for the greater subversion of teen hero tropes, I’m right there with you on appreciating Duggan’s approach. Writers often forget that adolescents are notoriously bad decision makers — their brains are awash in hormones, and their prefrontal cortexes are still developing. It’s a perfect storm of impulsivity, only exacerbated by the fact that teens are also seeking independence, placing their choices in high esteem in spite of their likely terribleness. That’s not to paint all teens with the same brush — I would gladly trust Tim Drake to cat-sit, for example — but to suggest that groups like the Teen Titans might need a little balance in terms of accurately depicting high schoolers.
That said, I actually wonder if Duggan goes too far in making Sam a terrible decision-maker. He should be impulsive, not dumb as rocks. Take Sam’s choice to fend off the “space pirates” he saw attacking what he thought was a Nova ship. He didn’t have all of the information, but he assumed he did, leapt to action, and ultimately made the wrong choice (even if he doesn’t know it yet). That’s a classic example of adolescent impulsivity, and grounds this high-flying action in a relatable thought-process. Contrast that with Sam’s blind acceptance of Captain Skaarn’s fishy-as-hell story, and you’ll see what I mean. Basically, the only thing Sam knows about this guy is that he’s been powering his ship by electrocuting the brain of a vegetative Nova. Imagine you’ve stopped to help a stranger change a flat tire and discover that their car runs on babies. Do you think you might at least acknowledge that that’s strange, or do you think you’d just flirt with their daughter a bit and tip your hat once they got on their way?
It always seems to come back to my distaste for dramatic irony, but I’ll never understand scenes where the creepiness of a character is meant to be so obvious to the audience, but the protagonist remains completely oblivious. All we need is a hissing cat to make this a textbook example of that phenomenon. Again, Sam’s a teenager, not a bag of rocks — even if his bullshit meter is out-of-whack, he should at least be curious enough to find out more about this ship, how Skaarn came to own it, or even what fuel spaceships of this size normally use. Instead, we get a scene where basically all Sam does is ask Skaarn how long he’s been growing that mustache he keeps twirling.
I don’t want to get too down on this issue — as Spencer noted, there’s a lot of clever stuff here. The “Meanwhile, on Earth” scenes are working a little too hard to set up a conflict between Sam’s at-home responsibilities and his Nova-ing, but I have faith in Duggan to take that someplace I’m not expecting.
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