Nextwave is a hilarious insane book. It’s full of jokes of all kinds, puns, slapstick, parody, hints of satire, absurd designs and concepts, and much more. It’s also a deep cut Marvel nerd book, with fun references to every era and every style of Marvel book. This includes a lot of Kirby characters and concepts inevitably, but I think it really is a conscious love letter to him. I’d argue it’s a better love letter to him than either The Kamandi Challenge or Monsters Unleashed, being put out by DC and Marvel currently as tributes to him in the 100th anniversary of his birth. Beyond the humor and nerd references, Nextwave is also a brilliant action series. Ellis knows exactly when to write dialogue, for humor or exposition, and when to let his artists shine (not to say Immonen isn’t always shining). The action in Nextwave has just as much personality as the book’s snappy dialogue or witty narration, while also providing satisfying and unique fight sequences.
Ellis and Immonen show action in Nextwave in slanted panels, usually with little to no dialogue. The strangely angled panels match Immonen’s angular penciling throughout the series. I’ve seen Immonen on a few different books, and this is by far his most angular style. It creates an odd sensibility for the book, giving it a unique look and feel from a more traditional superhero book, like Immonen’s X-men work for example. The figure work feels more akin to the cartoon Samurai Jack than the penciling in the original Civil War (coming out at the same time as Nextwave). Look at the harsh lines on Aku and Jack’s sword, head and robes. Then look at Elsa Bloodstone’s hair, face, coat and high heels. In contrast Steve McNiven’s Captain America from Civil War is an example of more standard DC/Marvel superhero art, especially of the mid 2000s, focusing on Cap’s musculature and size. The characters in Samurai Jack and Nextwave are built for quick crazy action, while the characters in Civil War are built to stand like tanks against each other.
Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight also features many silent or near-silent action sequences, but with more traditional or rectangular paneling. Moon Knight feels cinematic in its use of repeating horizontal panels. This page from Moon Knight #5 by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey shows Moon Knight moving upstairs and then advancing left to right while taking out foes. This issue takes place in a large abandoned building, filled with many floors that divide it horizontally. Moon Knight moves up the building, and then from left to right methodically. Ellis lets the art shine without any dialogue or captions interrupting it. Each panel feels like a beat of the same length of time. Boom. Boom. Boom. Moon Knight feels like the trained soldier he is, dispatching foes one by one. His progression is rhythmic and very satisfying and he alone drives the action.
In contrast, here the play with paneling creates a chaotic almost anarchic feeling. The team is made up of a strange cast of characters, and their fighting styles and personalities are all different and slightly incongruous. In this page, the figures move in different directions in each panel: panel 1 to the right, panel 2 to the left, panel 3 down, and the figures lean right and left respectively while standing still in the last two panels. The distinctly angled panels give the action in each panel a unique sense of speed. This weird alternating speed also comes from contrasting the angle of the character and the angle of the panel. In panel 2, Elsa flips around to the left while the panel points up to the right. Panel 3’s motion lines are another way of playing with speed. Panel 3 reads faster than the first two, despite all three having no dialogue. Panel 4 and 5 then slow down through the lack of motion and presence of dialogue, even with the few words that are there. The action in Nextwave pushes and pulls the reader in every direction, in contrast to the unilateral progression of Moon Knight.
They also play with angles by featuring a villain and team of villains floating upside down in some of the later issues. This takes the strangle angles to the extreme and is one example of how Ellis and Immonen weave comedy into the action sequences. This creates even more absurd contrasts than before. In panel 3, The Captain flips an enemy up and to the left, the villains and lair point down to the right, and the panel is angled up to the right. The feeling of chaos here creates a sense of real strangeness in a superhero fight. Multiple characters with multiple different abilities fight villains with their own unique abilities. This takes the push and pull of action to the limits of what a single panel can show.
The action shifts from single panels earlier in the series to double page spreads in issue 11. As part of the final battle, issue 11 takes place almost exclusively in double page spreads. These show the team working together cohesively, a fitting conclusion for a team book. These also give a sense of a larger scale leading up to the final battle, also fitting as a concluding note. All of the heroes move or look to the right, creating a sense of progression distinct from the earlier fights. This progression works for comedy too as Ellis and Immonen parody a traditional superhero comic through the repetitive double page spreads. This structures issue 11’s action like stages of a videogame, constantly moving right with different crazier enemies. These spreads keep the angular lines of the earlier action but multiply them tenfold. The various heroes and enemies shooting all create sharp lines dividing the page in different ways. The team works together, but they still feel chaotic and each member still stands out.
Ellis knows how to script action perfectly to suit his artists without getting in the way. The artists do amazing work and he’s a high-profile creator who can get amazing artists, but he works with them in a unique way. His sense of restraint stands out, hiding the technical skill behind the creation of satisfying fight sequences.
His reputation as a challenging cerebral writer hides his ability as an action director. As of February 2017, Wikipedia describes him as a writer “who is well known for sociocultural commentary, both through his online presence and through his writing, which covers transhumanist (most notably nanotechnology, cryonics, mind transfer, and human enhancement) and folkloric themes, often in combination with each other.” What the hell is this? This is the first description most people will see of his work upon googling him and it completely ignores any notion of action or fun in his work. He can be appreciated for those high minded themes, but he can also be appreciated for writing great sequences of people punching and shooting each other.
I read Nextwave this past week before picking up my recent DC books. I laughed after I’d read a couple and realized they all had ads in the back for the upcoming Wildstorm relaunch (more Ellis action comics). Those should be fun.