Written by: Greg Weisman
Art by: Domo Stanton
I really wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I saw this advertised. Starbrand and Nightmask are two characters from John Hickman’s Avengers run who received very little actual characterization, mostly serving as mechanisms in a larger plot, but even then the idea of them being college students sounded a little forced to me. It seemed to fall in with Marvel’s “lol so random” humor that they’ve been trying to put in their comics after achieving success with their comedy on the big screen. However, when I noticed it was written by Greg Weisman, who was involved in some of my favorite superhero cartoons like Spectacular Spider-Man and Young Justice, I was cautiously optimistic there could be a better balance between humor and great superhero thrills. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Starbrand and Nightmask feels like a middle-aged man past his prime trying to prove to the young kids he can still pull off a kick flip and land a sweet grind on that rail. Unfortunately, he botched the kick flip and face planted the rail and now we’re all just traveling awkwardly to the ER together trying to forget what caused this.
The premise of the book is that multiverse defenders Starbrand and Nightmask have turned down a spot on the New Avengers in order to attend college, as Nightmask worries spending so much time in the cosmos is detaching his partner from his humanity. Seeing as this is a comedy book set in the marvel universe, hijinks and supervillains ensue. To the book’s credit, it does a good job setting up why these two would become college students, and introduces them nicely as quite low list superheroes despite their power sets (even if other books like Aquaman and Ant-Man have been doing the same thing), and offers some good potential for a character driven story. Unfortunately, the book’s delivery is completely botched, feeling very forced and uninspired which completely pulled me out of the story.
Weisman is usually a fantastic comedic talent, the previously stated shows he was involved with had a great mix of humor alongside the more serious stuff, but here the jokes fall completely flat. References to “TMZ” and the use of the word “butthurt” made me cringe quite severely. It just struck me as trying to be “hip with the kidz” without any character actually talking like a normal young adult. Being of the university age myself, it just failed to capture the natural dialogue of my age bracket on any level. Yes, we reference a lot (90% of my speech is comprised of Simpsons quotes) but here the dialogue felt overly smug and the sort of conversations you play in your head to prepare witty responses in advance. The superhero stuff too felt a little bland. There seemed to be some interesting multiverse reboot meta stuff going on which piqued my interest, but it doesn’t really go anywhere outside of typical villain speak™. Even worse, the potentially interesting emotional stuff completely falls flat. There is potentially interesting character stuff to explore given that the process of Starbrand getting his powers killed an entire college campus of people. This however barely comes into play aside from a generic “I won’t let it happen again!” motivation towards the end of the book. It’s a real shame, as there are so many potential unique ways to explore these characters that aren’t taken advantage of in favour of a safe, almost lazy story.
When it comes to art, there really isn’t much to reignite the spark of excitement for the book. It looks perfectly fine during all the superhero action, it’s bright, colorful and has a little bit of a Humberto Ramos quality to it, though really doesn’t work with the down to earth college stuff. It feels odd, as when I first saw it I thought it’d fit a quirky “coming of age” style story, yet the faces just look wonky and misshapen, making it hard to discern emotion from any of the characters. They also look oddly young, at one point Starbrand looked like a 13 year old with a giant head. It’s unfortunate as I usually like the exaggerated style, especially for a comedy book, but it’s just a little too rough to work with this.
What feels like the biggest problem here is that while the individual elements carry some good ideas, they simply don’t gel together and feel like a wrong fit. A marvel book set in a college? Yeah I could see that working for something like an X-men book, almost like a Monsters University type deal. That’d allow for some crazy characters and good humor with a cast that could suit the quirky setting. Starbrand and Nightmask could also make for a cool multiverse exploring type comic. The emotional stuff and humanity questions raised here could actually make for a really enjoyable cosmic type book with a little more weight and seriousness to it. As it stands though, the high concept cosmic stuff and the modern marvel comedy formula don’t work well together at all. Instead it feels like marvel wanted a book set in college to attract a certain audience and then picked Starbrand and Nightmask as leads as they were two characters they had no other use for. It’s truly a shame, as both the team and the characters deserve much better than this book. Truly the weakest of the All-New, All-Different relaunch so far.