Grant Morrison can be a polarizing figure in comics. He’s got big ideas, and his own unique style, things that soar in his creator-owned work, but can make longtime fans of more established properties bristle when he wildly flips the script on their favorites.
The early 2000s were a polarizing time in comics, especially at Marvel. After battling bankruptcy, the company had taken a “back to basics” approach, with character-focused storytelling, while at the same time throwing tons of different sh*t against the wall to see what would stick.
Enter Joe Quesada, Jimmy Palmiotti and the Marvel Knights line. Entrusted to bring certain characters forward into the future and be deliberately experimental, their handpicked creators did amazing things with Daredevil, Black Panther and others that still resonate today. They also greenlit Angel Punisher.
Then there was Grant Morrison’s six-issue Marvel Boy series in the year 2000, which examined new characters in the old sandbox. Where on the spectrum of groundbreaking to repulsive does that land?
Without burying the lede, it’s squarely in the middle. Marvel Boy, reprinted this month in trade paperback form, is the tale of Noh-Varr, a character that would be used to great effect later on by Brian Michael Bendis and Kieron Gillen, in ways that are almost unrecognizable from his original formulation.
Under Morrison’s pen, Noh-Varr is a borderline anarchist Kree teenager from another universe, seemingly pulled here by the nefarious Dr. Midas in some really neat scenes that speak of probabilities collapsing, as his interdimensional ship finally decides the main Marvel Universe is where they need to be. Everyone Varr knows and loves dies in the process, so add a little torture, and he’s ready to literally go scorched earth on us all.
So he uses a bunch of cool powers, including a “white run” and his famous hybrid insect physiology, to do what all supervillains do — tear New York City a new a**hole. I’m swearing a lot because that’s Noh-Varr’s main objective in all this, to emblazon curse words across Midtown, apparently.
That, and his desire to just kick back and veg after a hard day’s destruction, really do paint Noh-Varr as a unique and terrifying thing — an arrogant prick of a teenager with enough world-beating power to play out his worst instincts.
He softens a bit in the third issue, where he takes on a depressingly prescient enemy, the sentient mega-corporation, Hexus. Also known as Brand Hex, Hexus pillages a planet of its resources before sporing back into space and leaving the empty, resource-drained shell behind. It’s a terrifying and all-too real threat that’s ripe for someone else to pick up and use again.
Following the boundless creativity and trademark Morrison dialogue in the first half of Marvel Boy is a stunningly average second half that could have been written by any interchangeable staffer. Varr switches on a dime to becoming Earth’s protector for reasons that aren’t clear at all, and his adversaries are a lot less fleshed-out than you might have been led to believe, if you haven’t read it.
The knock-off Iron Man suit of Dr. Midas is never really explained, and his standard mustache-twirling plot is beyond lame after the genuinely novel stuff that came before. And for a damaged woman dressed in bondage gear, Exterminatrix doesn’t have much of a personality. Even the psychological reveal is telegraphed and one-note.
Artist J.G. Jones (with help from Ryan Kelly in issue #6) turns in a similarly perfunctory effort. It’s leagues beyond the worst of the ’90s stuff, and there is some good realism to it, but there’s really nothing about the pencils that stands out, either. Ditto for the colors of Avalon Studios and Matt Milla, which serve the story fine, but never really make you take notice.
Most people either love or hate Morrison’s work. Marvel Boy is the rare case where one person can feel both those emotions within the span of six issues. If you’ve wondered why this one gets overlooked, it could be because no one really knows what to make of it. Folks might complain that current iterations of Noh-Varr don’t ring true to Morrison’s original vision, but that clearly wasn’t consistent to begin with.
It’s good that modern writers have this weird character to mold and play with going forward, but the story that birthed him is anything but essential. For completionists only, unless you’re a creator looking to pick up on that whole living corporation thread.
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