So in 2014 as its first arc ended, 'Nowhere Men' was kind of a big deal. It was nominated for four Eisners, it was the talk of the comics community, and it was at the forefront of a new wave of Image books that were making fan's heads explode (not literally though as that would make for few repeat customers). Now here we are two years later and it's back to surprisingly little fanfare. The first issue was met with solid reviews and the celebrations of a few loyal fans, but the momentum seems to be gone. That in itself is not surprising and hardly anyone's fault (the delay's being caused by then artist Nate Bellegrade's bad health), but in reading issue eight, I can't help but feel like an integral part of Nowhere Men's original success has dissolved over the intervening years. It doesn't feel new anymore. Nowhere Men was widely praised for its engaging, expansive world-building. It was a title that launched seemingly into the middle of its story with a group of four Beatles-like scientists having gone their separate ways after a falling out. It was a bold, intelligent take on creator-owned storytelling that trusted the reader to keep up and kept its secrets close to the chest. The art was stylish but distinctly different from the mainstream, and the book's tone was adult but with a sense of fun not available from most creator-owned books. If this sounds a little familiar, it should: it's the formula for much every Image book published since (and there have been a lot).
Without the stylish originality, we are left with is the story of Dade Ellis, Emerson Strange, Simon Grimshaw, and Thomas Walker and their various trials and tribulations. And the result is a book which, while far from bad, feels a little bit dull. The book's habit of launching us into scenes we have no context for understanding is starting to feel annoying, while the big emotional arcs don't feel like they are quite landing. In this issue, Dade Ellis, newly awakened from a coma, is dealing with the fallout of Emerson Strange's experiments with the help of Strange's daughter. Meanwhile Grimshaw and Walker are meeting in secret to allude to things and be mysterious. At the same time, we are shown mysterious organizations recovering pieces of Strange's downed satellite. But with all these moving parts, the book feels more than a little like it lacks a heart (or at least a central narrative thread).
It's hard to be critical of these elements when they are pretty much unchanged from the last iteration of the books (apparently Stephenson's scripts are the ones he wrote in 2014). But eight issues into any series, I am prepared to stop being teased and start investing in characters, and that's hard to do when there are so many with so little context. A final page twist for example loses its impact since I can't for the life of me tell what I was supposed to take away from it. And Dave Taylor, whose art in past projects has been incredible, feels a little dull as well, perhaps as a consequence of having to imitate the style of Nate Bellegarde.
All this may sound a little harsh on a book which still has a lot going for it. Jordie Bellaire turns in typically beautiful colors and while Taylor's art can feel a little boring, there's plenty of evidence that he can still create some breathtaking imagery. And Stephenson's script, for all that I am tired of its mysteries and asides, has at least one wonderful moment involving Strange's daughter that I won't spoil. But for all this, it's amazing how much more lively the small intros illustrated by Emi Lenox are than the rest of the book. They are light, simple asides from the perspective of a young Monica Strange that shed new light on Strange's daughter as well as her relationship to the concept of genius. These sections demonstrate how nice it would be to break up the format of Nowhere Men and try something new.
Nowhere Men #8 Writer: Eric Stephenson Artists: Dave Taylor, Emi Lenox Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 2/24/16 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital