Nova started as a fanzine-based superhero when writer Marv Wolfman was not yet working in comics professionally; Wolfman created a hero called The Star (later Black Nova) for Super Adventures with pal Len Wein. Later, during his time as a writer/editor at Marvel, Wolfman revived the concept because he wanted to get back to the basics, comicbook-wise. He wanted to make a new comic that was good, old-fashioned superheroic fun the way Spider-Man had been when he had burst on the scene more than ten years previous. Wolfman succeeded, as far as I was concerned: Nova was a straightforward book with everything a kid could want in a comic.
Nova told the story of teenager Richard Ryder, a typical young man from suburban New York who was average in too many ways: he wasn't especially good at athletics or academics, and lacked confidence in general. All he had were his friends and his pretty girlfriend, Ginger, who loved him even if he didn't love himself. One day, while he was at a local burger joint being picked on by the school bully, young Ryder was blasted by an alien ray of force. An alien warrior called Centurion Nova-Prime had been pursuing a monster called Zorr, who had destroyed his world and its billions of inhabitants. After his battles with the creature, the Centurion was near death; from his starship high above Earth he sent out his last ounce of energy in one blast - the ray which struck our young protagonist. Rich Ryder, waking up in the hospital, found himself possessed of incredible powers, and could even summon the Centurion's costume at will; taking the name Nova, he of course became the new superhero on the block.
Nova was a good read. When it debuted, there were certainly other great superhero titles going around - this was the mid-70's Marvel, after all - but it seemed that many of them had either become bogged down by their own continuity, or tended to stray too much toward 'serious' themes. Nova had no pretenses of being anything other than it was - a slam-bang, cracking good read from start to finish, with no high philosophies or endless subplots to get in the way. Nova quickly collected a gang of powerful enemies - Diamondhead, the Condor, Powerhouse, Megaman - and fought them all to a standstill in dynamic, action-packed battles; and of course, the usual guest stars such as Spider-Man and Thor made their appearances.
Writer Marv Wolfman stayed focused on his original concept of an uncluttered, straightforward superhero book, and as the issues went by, the stories built up an inner continuity, but thankfully not one so complicated that newer readers couldn't jump in at some point and figure out what was going on. The artists at the book's launch were an absolute dream team: Sal Buscema pencilling, and Joe Sinnott inking. To say I love Sal B.'s art is an incredible understatement: I first noticed his action-packed panels when he was doing Defenders in the mid-70's, and I've been a fan ever since. When Buscema draws a fight scene, it's impossible to mistake for someone else's work: a character throws a wide punch, and bodies go flying in all directions. He makes the energy and power of conflict more real, more a physical force, than any other artist I can think of - up to and including Kirby. His lines are clean and his characters are attractive and distinguishable from one another. And Joe Sinnott from his earliest days at Marvel has always been able to boost a penciller's drawings into the realm of fantasy - remember all those little black dots of energy in those old Fantastic Four panels?
It couldn't last forever, of course, and it didn't. Buscema was later replaced by Carmine Infantino; while I respect his place within comics history and his older work for DC, I admit that I hated his late-70's stuff at Marvel. And near the end of the run, the book's storylines became a bit confusing to me; Nova's old enemies were now his friends, and he was going out into space to save a race of aliens from something or other. The book lasted only 25 issues; too bad, because if it had stayed on course, it could have become one of those titles that are considered classics later on. As it is, you can buy whole stacks of the series right now on eBay, for chump change. But I suggest that that would be a much better use of one's money than an equal stack of newer comics.
You can view a gallery of Nova comic covers here