Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Starbrand and Nightmask 1, originally released December 16th, 2015.
Drew: You’ll often hear comic book fans complain about superheroes being overpowered — that they’re simply too powerful for a villain to pose a credible threat. I’d actually argue that it isn’t a problem with the actual power-levels of the characters, but rather with the precedents set by the threats they face. There’s no reason Superman can’t get a kitten out of a tree, but when he’s otherwise occupied with fighting off planetary invasions, his street-level attentions seem like small potatoes. Unlike Superman, Starbrand and Nightmask were designed (or revived, as the case may be) specifically to fend off those planet-wide threats, putting the street-level conundrum at the center of their character descriptions, which makes the “Starbrand and Nightmask go to college” premise of Starbrand and Nightmask 1 particularly head-scratching.
Writer Greg Weisman does what he can to mitigate this, injecting multiple supervillains into the otherwise banal moving-to-college story, but it only highlights how odd it is for these characters to have normal lives. Indeed, even their college experience is utterly unrelatable — they didn’t apply, they don’t seem particularly excited, and they don’t have any parents there to embarrass them on tours or whatever. Their new context doesn’t humanize them, it only emphasizes how inhuman they are.
In fact, even their crime-fighting is a little strained. The issue opens with them fighting a villain who only wants to fight Iron Man. Why are Starbrand and Nightmask here, instead? Well, Starbrand saw the crime from Pluto. What were he and Nightmask doing on Pluto? We’re never told, and I honestly can’t even begin to guess. I have no frame of reference for their experiences or values, and this issue only reminds me of how alien those experiences must be.
Again, Weisman does his damndest to counteract this phenomenon, filling Starbrand and Nightmask’s dialogue with cultural references, but those seem to be in direct opposition with his characterization of Nightmask as a stiff, over-spoken alien. Maybe we’re meant to take his quoting of King Henry V and Stranger in a Strange Land as signs that he’s just a stiff, over-spoken human, but even that doesn’t jibe with the kind of guy who “hacks” a university’s enrolment records and then says “you’re welcome” for putting himself and his friend in a co-ed dorm. Gross.
The closest thing we get to meaningful characterization is Starbrand’s aversion to returning to college — he killed everyone at his former college when he became Starbrand. That this could be an actually traumatic experience for Starbrand, or that Nightmask might be forcing him to do this as a kind of exposure therapy to get him work through that trauma is glossed over in Starbrand’s insistence that this is “so not a good idea.” A meaningful (albeit heavy) emotional beat is treated as though Nightmask suggested that they jump a subway turnstile. There’s nothing in any of these characters to hold onto.
It really seems like Weisman knows how thin his material is, which is why he allows Squirrel Girl to steal an entire page. That page reads more like an issue of Squirrel Girl than anything in the rest of the issue, which I’m more than happy with, but it doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the issue. Indeed, Squirrel Girl‘s “superhero with lame-sounding powers but world-saving adventures” is more or less the opposite premise of Starbrand and Nightmask, which reveals just how flawed this series is. This isn’t the story of a silly character exceeding our expectations, this is about two painfully serious characters yukking it up in a bizarre imitation of everyman mediocrity.
About halfway through the issue, Starbrand asks Nightmask “how are two cosmic beings, who have explored the vastness of space, supposed to share a dorm room the size of a roach motel?” That is, the frustrations of a small dorm room aren’t ones of basic humanity — you know, the way everyone else who’s had this experience might be able to relate to — but because of their exceptional extra-human status. These aren’t regular guys struggling with college life, these are entitled dicks struggling with being regular.
Woof. I wasn’t sure what this series would be, but, true to Starbrand and Nightmask’s current mission, it’s fallen well below my expectations. I don’t even like the title of this series — their names are so awkward and unwieldy, I can’t help but wonder if some kind of snappy team name would have been more appealing. As it is, I’m kind of already sick of writing “Starbrand” and “Nightmask,” and that I always need to refer to them together, anyway. Patrick, were you able to find anything redeeming in this issue?
Patrick: You’re definitely not wrong to say that this issue actively works against having relatable protagonists, but I’d even go one step further and say that the entire world of Starbrand and Nightmask strains credulity. I am, for the record, totally on-board with the conceit “two superpowerful teenagers attend college” but for that premise to work, it requires both sides of that equation to represent themselves seriously. Like, you can’t buy a fish-out-of-water story if you don’t believe your characters are fish, but you also can’t buy the story if the environment doesn’t look recognizably out-of-water. Drew already mentioned a number of the ways Adam and Kevin’s college experience is completely unlike any college experience anyone ever has, but it’s also worth nothing that the Freshman Move-In Day experience is also strangely misrepresented.
Perhaps it warrants mentioning that both Drew and I worked in Residence Life and Student Affairs in student and professional capacity for years, so we’ve seen more that our fair shares of college students’ first days. It’s a little bit like when you see a movie or a television show and there’s an extra playing a musical instrument in a scene. If you have intimate knowledge of how the instrument is played, you’re likely going to be thrown out of the moment, gawking at some grotesque mimicry of “playing the trombone.” That is exactly how I felt meeting the RA, Imani Greene, who’s first words on the page are chastising freshman for not knowing how to do their own laundry. First of all, it’s move-in day: who the fuck is doing their laundry on move-in day? But second – Imani, that’s your job. No doubt she and her RA team have been brainstorming ideas to ease the transition into dorm life. Also, dorm washing machines aren’t like the machines in your mom’s basement – you probably have college-bucks on your student ID or something dumb like that. THE PROCESS REQUIRES EXPLANATION, IMANI.
Sorry, I know that’s a pretty specific quibble. But it’s demonstrative of every other shortcoming in the issue. If Starbrand and Nightmask is going to align itself so closely with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, as it explicitly does with her scene-stealing cameo, then the personality which drives it must be charming as hell. Unfortunately, Weisman’s script is frequently lacking in personality, and those odd moments that do reveal something more don’t paint a particularly appealing or engaging world. Artist Dominike “Domo” Stanton and colorist Jordan Boyd appear to acknowledge this throughout the issue. When Adam and Kevin show up at school, the rest of the world is dulled, their fellow students colored with drab grays and blues, with our titular heroes (in non-hero form) clearly standing out from the crowd.
Mind you, the artistic statement here is lessened because a) neither Nightmask nor Starbrand are wearing coloring which actually make them stand out in this crowd and b) there’s very little in the text that follows that shows they feel like outsiders. That latter point is especially confusing with regard to Nightmask, who — by his own accounting — has only been alive for three years. But he seldom gets an opportunity to demonstrate his otherness; in fact he barely interacts with anyone not Starbrand, and no one even gives a shit that they’re weird. Don’t have any worldly possessions? Who cares! No one calls them on it, or demands an explanation or anything. They’re tourists at some kind of make-believe college-zoo, which is exactly as boring as it sounds.
It would have been fun to like this one. Weisman is an effective action-adventure writer, with a skill for expressing complex juvenile personalities, as demonstrated in his surprisingly good Kanan The Last Padawan series. Ultimately, I see very little to come back for in this series.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?