December 19, 2010
Better Late Than Never, I Suppose: My Very Own Personal Wildstorm
I meant to run the following back at the time of Wildstorm's closure and never did. I think it may have been that I couldn't quite find the focus I wanted. It could be that someone flashed something nearby that was bright and pretty and I got distracted. It was that kind of year.
I thought the piece might find a forgiving, even indulgent audience now. I like a lot of different kinds of comics, and that includes some of the ones that were published by Wildstorm. -- Tom Spurgeon
Mid-September's announced closure of Wildstorm as its own publishing entity brought with it the understandable desire to eulogize the line. DC might tell you this was too soon, that there's plenty of life in Wildstorm yet, that they still have plans for the comics published there. I'm sure they do. I expect they'll continue to publish some of the better-selling work boiled down into a perennial list of trades, and I suspect they'll eventually find some way to fold the company-owned superhero characters into the direct fabric of their shared universe where they will find a second life.
The announcement still seemed more like an ending than it did a transition between chapters in an ongoing saga. For one thing, it's improbable that a company that let a lot of this material flicker in and out of print when they actually had an imprint to serve is always going to keep this material around and accessible to new readers now that the imprint is gone. Another argument that can be made is that we've simply left an era where a Wildstorm is possible, that the readership for certain kinds of comics is too small these days to support an array of superhero universes: we lack the ability to forge subsets out of subsets. More important than both of those things, I think you can make the argument that Wildstorm's essential contribution to comics as a creative community -- an expansion of Jim Lee's view of what makes a superhero comics imprint that gained the support of a generation of mainstream comics makers, allowing them to pursue projects of a personal nature as long as they stayed within reasonable proximity to some sort of recognizable mainstream genre values -- ended years before
the closure announcement. Poets might even see Wildstorm's demise as the last domino in a long chain of events that began with Wildstorm's participation in the Deathmate
fiasco, a long-seeping wound that one can argue shaped the direction of mainstream comics for years going forward, including those involving the imprint.
Here then are my choices for books that I found interesting during their long run, works that will remain part of my comics library for as long as I have one. This is not an "important books" list. Wildstorm was a commercially vibrant company both in its days as a stand-alone and in the first several years it was a DC imprint. A lot of their comics were important in the various ways you can define such books as important that don't necessarily reflect on the quality of the content. The mere thought of reading any issue of Gen 13
makes me break out into a bright rash. Heck, given a memory wiper I might have a go at ridding myself of all memories of the mega-dopey character Grunge even before correcting the haunting recollection of my bad behavior at wedding receptions. Still, if I'm going to be fair, it's clear that Gen 13
's mix of sexual engagement (it was on their minds), sexual naivete (lots of suddenly finding one's self naked near friends of the opposite sex) and emotional drama (some characters were couples, others were left single for readers that preferred a more direct, imaginary connection) was a killer cocktail
for a lot of readers when kneaded into the general superhero dough of its day. There was a time in the 1990s I visited comics stores and that was one of the few titles they talked about as really moving
. Danger Girl
was equally important in that same general way. You can also argue that one of the most important comic book titles of the last 25 years is Jim Lee's Divine Right
, which had it been wildly successful some suggest might have stopped the DC sale and everything that followed from happening at all.
I don't want to talk about those kinds of comics, though. I'd rather talk about the ones I find intriguing, that I'll continue to read long past the day I forget every single member of DV8
. (Come to think of it... nope, there was a guy named "Threshold.") What follows is the comics that I liked and continue to like, both top of the line efforts and ones off the beaten path. Hopefully, you'll find something in here to reconsider, or a characterization of something left off to which you might object. My condolences to all creators that found Wildstorm a fruitful avenue for creative expression, and for anyone that depended on the company for a job.
1. Wildcats #8-28, Joe Casey and Sean Phillips, 2000-2001.
I know that a lot of people prefer Wildcats Version 3.0
. That was a very clever superhero title with a tighter thematic focus. Still, I liked writer Joe Casey's earlier run here more than I did that one. Casey always writes well about avocation and career, and this run gave him a superhero cast that had just run the course of the series original concept and were casting about for something new to do, or at least a new way of doing old things. I don't know about you, but that's what the end of the '90s were like for me, too. Sean Phillips is always a lot of fun and I think a lot of these character designs flatter his strengths as an illustrator.
2. The Authority #1-12, Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, 1999-2000.
The two things that stand out about The Authority some ten years later are one thing I think for which this comic gets appropriate credit and one thing I've never seen afforded its legacy.
The first is the "widescreen storytelling" pacing and page layouts which was basically a pulverization of the denser, more intimately cinematic way of telling a story stretching all the way back to Don Macgregor in favor of gigantic pictures and moments that require an artist that can make such imagery memorable and a writer that can suggest way more in each moment than he's allowed to put on the page.
The second is a bit more ordinary: The Authority
is maybe the best comic book ever when it comes to the wonderful piece of minor-league show business that is the superhero comeback. Ellis and Hitch piled it on in the opening pages of each adventure, forcing their cast members to Play Ricky Morton like no set of characters ever has, drawing sympathy and despair from the crowd. Then the creators flipped a switch and their well-designed cast roared back to life and took everything down in a thrilling, and I'd strongly suggest comforting
If you don't think its achievements are noticeable, there are scores of comics that came afterward that attempted to do the same kind of thing The Authority
did, and all of them not written by Grant Morrison (and half of them that are) came across as manipulative and ordinary. This includes the iterations of The Authority
that came after this initial one. A great bonus to this fundamental run of comics is that if you like the characters and story just as much as the spectacle and skill displayed, there are two runs of Stormwatch
comics (#37-50 in the first volume and the entire second volume) that work just fine as informative yet stand-alone prequels. In fact, if you take the Stormwatch
book with that first 12 issues of The Authority
, you almost have the last 20 years of everything that happened to superhero comics sitting there in a small pile. Accept no substitutes.
3. Sleeper and Sleeper Season Two, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, 2003-2004 and 2004-2005.
A lot of people have written about the conceptual strength of these two comic series, and how well it's executed. I don't think anyone familiar with its central concept -- a 'tweener hero infiltrating a super-villain's plans cut off from absolutely everyone and everything when they lost that lifeline -- and with half an appraiser's eye for what makes a good deal is surprised when it shows up on TV/film development lists. Sleeper
does have the muscular charm that results when veteran creators like Brubaker and Phillips are left to their own devices after several years on other projects building their craft chops. It's a meat and potatoes read.
What stands out to me when I re-read an issue of either Sleeper
series now is how appealing and logical Brubaker and Phillips' portrayal of these broken people and their world seems, how comfortable the entire series reads as an adjunct to the absurdly complex worlds of espionage that these shared universes normally fuse to the more simplistic dialectic represented by superheroes and super-villains. Brubaker finds connections between the criminal's childish explanation for why they have to be the way they are with superhero tropes such as the origin story; both groups are creating a fiction that flatters their role. A lot of comics creators talk about muddying the moral waters, but their works tend to be about as complex as a Road Runner cartoon. Brubaker and Phillips are patient, thorough, and dedicated: they chase the unanswered questions into the dark corners and crawl in after them with a fork. One reason why the book's reputation may be slightly diminished now is that the end result wasn't a very happy or cathartic read.
Also, I loved Sleeper
as a serial comic book. I think that kind of reading experience flatters the episodic nature of what Brubaker puts to page and I think the individual chunks of story are extremely satisfying. I imagine that with shops ordering what I felt was ahead of demand on the second Sleeper
series, the bulk of the individual comic books should be easy to score in discount bins and at back-issue sales.
4. Planetary #1-28, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, 1999-2009.
I haven't finished reading this one yet. It's not my fault. I kept finding random issues of the comic books in strange places (quarter bins, a garage sale, in a box a friend of my Mom's from church brought her to give to me), and I thought never paying full price or even intending to purchase the issue would be a thematically appropriate way to take in the whole saga, a kind of sideways examination of 20th Century pulp that is laudatory and critical in exactly the opposite ways you'd guess it might be.
It's harder for me to speak to the overarching story, but as individual takes on certain concepts I am thoroughly entertained. The combination of John Cassaday's art and Laura Martin's coloring -- I'm actually more a Martin person than Cassaday one, although I like the general graceful, diverse attractiveness of the latter's figures -- proves pretty enough that I imagine the DC Absolute versions would be fun to have. I prefer my way of picking them up, however.
5. Top Ten #1-12, Alan Moore and Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, 1999-2001.
I also can't make a case for this one as anything more than an adventure comic from a lively, restless, intelligence. But it's a series I ended up enjoying quite a bit. It's by far my favorite of the ABC books, and I don't think that's a preference that a lot of people share with me. Promethea
is beautiful but leaves me cold. Tom Strong
and the Tomorrow Stories
material failed to engage me, and I'm not all the way certain why. Tom Strong
in particular always seemed half-baked to me, a bunch of ideas on paper that never quite cohered into a memorable series. I realize I'm in the minority on that one.
, on the other hand, I found consistently junky and bristling with weird energy and frequently outright funny -- a lot like one's own first three weeks in any new job. All those background jokes of characters from a comic book library's worth of fiction would in other hands be hokey make for an odd but memorable reading experience. It's like Will Elder doing an early '60s Marvel book, providing two ways of looking at a work that are in happy competition for your attention.
Most of what I've read about the series and the fine graphic novel follow-up The 49ers
focuses on the metaphor of Top Ten
's multi-dimensional urban landscape as a stand-in for contemporary city living, the way personal identity has an almost permeable relationship with community acceptance. There are two ideas in that first series I found much more intriguing. The first is the notion that a police force is more about the orientation, intention and ideals of its constituent members and the way people afford them power than it is about the raw power of the cops themselves. The second is the way Top Ten
portrays power as a monstrous circumstance because
of its size and scope: a classic use of superhero motifs to amplify a real-world circumstance. Sometimes it's the simplest metaphorical tools that are the most effective, and I thought there were old-fashioned values galore in that first batch of books.
6. Smax #1-5, Alan Moore and Zander Cannon, 2003-2004.
I thought this was one of the better superhero spin-offs of the decade, and maybe the best ever. In part this was because it took a lighthearted approach to how its narrative fits into the major title's narrative, using a different setting to take a second, funhouse mirror look at the original series' themes. Zander Cannon draws great-looking fantasy material, too, dirty when it needs to be, noble when that's required, comfortable in its own absurdities. That last bit helps immensely. I also thought the monster in Smax
genuinely creepy and even sort of scary. It served as a powerful callback to how violence is portrayed in the core Top Ten
series, but also more than stands alone.
A friend of mine disliked strongly an incest-related plotline (probably not what you think). While it's hard to defend such a storyline in an abstract fashion in a review such as this one, I thought of it as a different way of getting back at the theme of urban living and learning to get along. Moore introduces an element into that mix to which many of us would have an initially strong reaction -- as opposed to using a teen TV series kind of civics lesson issue upon which everyone who's not a monster would agree. That's what imaginative, veteran creators should do. Mostly, though, I just found Smax
funny and pleasurable. I read it every time it crosses my lap.
7. Leave It To Chance #1-11, James Robinson And Paul Smith, 1996-1998.
I think this is the oldest comic book series on the list, harkening back to the split Homage/Cliffhanger lines that Wildstorm offered readers, two lines I believe were later combined into a single brand within the larger brand right before -- maybe just after? -- the purchase by DC. And no, that sentence doesn't make any sense to me, either.
Frankly, I think a lot of people over-praise Robinson and Smith's work on this title, by which I mean they heap praise on it by engaging the idea of the book rather than the book itself. This may be because the 1990s were such a dire time for mainstream-style comics, particularly those that might appeal to children and people not deeply indoctrinated into the weird energy -- one-third manga, one-third Kirby, one third muscle magazine -- Image's superhero titles made the dominant storytelling form for a time. This may be because of everything that came since, actual book for actual kids, and for the feeling that mainstream comics is frequently left out of this conversation as it's currently constituted. If I knew, I'd tell you.
Leave It To Chance
is a solid book, though, fun for its general craft quirkiness -- some of Smith's designs look like puppets brought to life by a magical spell -- and for the hints of darkness that might have been ramped up a bit had the series continued. It sort of reminds me of a Disney fairytale first-stab prequel of Veronica Mars
, although there's little sign it would have become that intriguing, let alone as well-acted. Still, there's something genuinely upsetting about a child being constantly put into danger no matter how much gumption she shows that I can't imagine the creators came to it by accident. There's also rich metaphorical ore to mine in a world of adults not just strange and different and beyond one's ken because of one's limited experience but literally
soaked with otherworldly elements, some of them dire and fell.
8. Automatic Kafka, Joe Casey and Ashley Wood, 2002.
A deeply weird comic that wanted to be a deeply weird comic, which is way, way, way
harder than it sounds. It has that feel of when you spot an actor best known for acting in kids' film or on a children's television show playing a part that's hard and dirty and soaked right through its undershirt, just spread across page after page of strange-looking Ashley Wood art. Like Big Numbers
, there's a mythology to AK
that works to the benefit of the story told. In the final issue the lead is erased from existence so that others won't even touch it. This plot point is as rational reason as any that a collected edition doesn't exist; it makes sense that you'd have to snap open a mylar bag and dig into its story that way. It's all but an actual tombstone for mainstream comics' fertile early '00 experimentation stage, and should keep its aura for years to come.
9. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, 1999.
Someday they're going to do a movie that isn't quite complete without the director's commentary. I feel that way about the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, that this was a series that worked best read along with annotations and notes telling you what everything meant. That sounds like a criticism, but it's not: I think it's a uniquely odd way to read a comic book. It helps immensely that Kevin O'Neill's art is spectacular, and, in its grotesque fragility, heartbreaking by its support of the theme of mortality and weakness soaked right into the London streets of the story. The work's cause is aided even more by the huge crack-up that Mina Harker ends up being, the fictional embodiment of every woman that's ever furiously performed a series of tasks in the same room a guy has stood around feeling stupid and useless. She's like a Hong Kong action film upgrade of the previous Queen Of The Sour People, Adele Blanc-Sec, and I love every single scene she stamps through. What a fun comic book.
posted 3:30 pm PST
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