I've mentioned in earlier columns how Marvel tries to re-capture that "Spider-Man Magic" once a decade or so. The second attempt was Speedball, of course, but today's subject is their first real attempt. They even say so on the cover! While his series lasted longer than Speedball's, he was considered a B or C-list character until very recently. As an aside, both Speedball and today's hero were stalwarts of the New Warriors in most of their incarnations. I actually prefer the original version of the character, hokey and derivative as he is. Before he was the grand space poo-bah with the uncomfortable looking shoulder spikes, he was "affectionately" known as bucket head. Who else could it be but Nova, The Human Rocket?!
Our tale begins on two fronts. The first, millions of miles from earth. An alien in a ship that looks like a winged corkscrew is pursuing the man who has crushed his arms and legs. The second, a high school basketball court. Richard Rider just flubbed a block and lost the game for the boys' team. Yes, these are two wildly diverse scenes, but they are about to converge in a strange way. On Earth, Rich is being soundly ridiculed for letting the girls win. As such, he's feeling pretty sorry for himself, and his pal Ginger says he just lacks confidence. Back in space, and approximately 70 million miles closer to Earth than when we last peeked in on the alien, he makes a fateful decision on how to deal with the fugitive who brought him to death's door.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure the centurion has a buttload of alien knowledge that I do not, but even he himself admitted he picked a dude totally at random. What if the ray missed and hit like, a rabbit or something? Worse yet, Doctor Doom? I'm just saying, pinning your hopes on something akin to a cosmic lottery isn't usually the actions of a sane man. Anyway, as you might have guessed, the green beam hits Rich, the saddest sack this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Instead of imbuing him with phenomenal cosmic powers, it puts him into a phenomenal coma. While comatose, Rich learns of his destiny through exposition. My guess is the beam induces a coma so the centurion can have a captive audience, but you be the judge...
While that vignette could be chalked up to a coma-induced fever dream, it is sufficient to rouse Rich from his unconsciousness. Of course, he shouts about the fugitive Zorr and shoots a destructive green beam of light from his eyes, but at least he's awake, right? Apparently that's how Rich's parents operate, because it's NEVER. MENTIONED. AGAIN. And so Rich is back in school, things are relatively back to normal, although our Mr. Rider is in full-on introspective mode, so much so that he isn't paying attention in class. It's here where the first inklings of the Nova power (besides random green eye-beams) surface in the young man.
Amazing mathmagic aside, Rich is about ready to just chalk his coma-induced vision to just some weird hallucination. After all, where are his rippling biceps and pecs? No seriously, he actually ponders this. Just as he goes back into his default mode of feeling sorry for himself, the power explodes from him like "The Force of a Thousand Cobalt Bombs!" The actually effect is green, though. Anyway, Rich is now the spitting image of the alien centurion, and the newly christened Nova takes off, well, like a rocket!
As fledgling heroes are wont to do, Nova wants to test his new abilities to the fullest, so he decides to cut loose at the junkyard! After crashing through an inner-city junkyard band's instruments and barely feeling it, he declares he can do anything he wants, including getting back at people he feels has wronged him. Before the ghost of the centurion can spin in his space-grave though, Nova chastises himself for thinking so selfishly. It's actually a testament to the character of Rich Rider that he realizes the correlation between power and responsibility without having to see a family member die. It's quite refreshing, actually. With his new mission in mind, Nova starts looking for wrongs to right. Luckily, the starburst on his helmet also apparently acts as an antenna. Picking up the local police band, Nova learns of a massive disturbance downtown. He rockets off, and in the distance, we see a bunch of his school chums decide to follow him. This really makes no sense, because in the above panel, Nova mentions he's 40 miles from home, but whatever. The important thing here, is the burger franchise the kids frequent.
As it turns out, when Nova approaches the disturbance, it ends up being Zorr! Talking about your unbelievable strokes of luck! Zorr mistakes Nova for Centurion Prime, which is unsurprising, seeing as they look exactly the same. Zorr wastes no time in trying to re-kill his adversary. And Nova walks in the footsteps of many Marvel heroes, by doing the whole witty banter routine. Although, comparing a missed blaster shot to Catfish Hunter is probably only funny to Ken Burns. As the battle rages, Nova introspects about why heroes always try to make with the funny...
The fight goes on for a few pages, with Nova holding his own pretty well for being an absolute novice. He even manages to save a bystander or two. As fate would have it, Rich's schoolmates arrive on the scene just then, apparently deftly making it through non-existent police cordons. Your tax dollars at work, citizens of Marvel New York! Nova rightly tells them to get the *%)# out of the way, but thus distracted, Zorr takes the opportunity to literally fling Nova into the side of a building! While in flight, Nova shrugs it off, thinking that his new super-tough skin will absorb the impact. He's half right. It seems he is unhurt, but he does manage to topple the building over just where his friends happen to (still) be. Nova, who is still deep down the same Rich Rider, blames himself for not crashing into the building in such a way to not damage it. I admire him wanting to take responsibility, but seriously, if you blame yourself for every little thing like a crumbling building, you aren't going to get far in the hero biz. Nova is quick enough to save his pals though.
The crisis averted, Nova rockets headlong into Zorr, meaning to end this fracas. Just as Zorr is about to finish his monologue, he disappears in a flash of light! Zorr seemed to be just as surprised as Nova, too. So with the battle over with no clear victor, Nova decides to return home, so he can contemplate his new place in life. We cut back to Centurion Prime's shift, still orbiting the planet, and inside, Prime's body is gone, and the empty uniform of Zorr is sprawled on the floor. What happened is a story for another time (mostly because I don't own the next issue), so we go back to Rich...
And so begins the career of Nova, the Human Rocket! He had a respectable run of 25 issues, but was pretty dormant until the 90's when he was recruited into the New Warriors. This led to a stubbly 90's series, and he was revived yet again at the turn of the millennium. It wasn't until Marvel's massive Annihilation series that Nova became the embodiment of the Nova Corps (another, GL "inspiration"), a Secret Avenger, and a hero touted as a "Guardian of Our Galaxy". Not bad for a sad sack kid from the burbs, I guess Centurion Prime knew what he was doing after all!
This story originally appeared in Nova #1 September, 1976. It was reprinted in Essential Nova Volume 1 and Nova: The Origin of Richard Rider