Alongside their lauded Rebirth line of comic book titles, publisher DC comics also launched a new line spearheaded by acclaimed British writer Warren Ellis and artist Jon Davis-Hunt titled: The Wild Storm. To anyone familiar with the works of Jim Lee, the early days of Image Comics, Lee's rise in rank in the offices of DC Comics and Warren Ellis's previous acclaimed series The Authority and Planetary, that name should sound familiar. The Wild Storm is a reboot of the former Wildstorm Universe, back after a long period of stagnation with a shot in the arm by the very man whose work gave the imprint it's most lauded work. But can lightning strike twice?
'WildC.A.T.S Covert Action Teams' Under Jim Lee
First, a little history. In the early 1990s, X-men artist Jim Lee and several other superstars artists (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Valentino, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri and Whilce Portacio) left Marvel Comics to found their own publication company where they could work without restrictions and be the full owners of their creative works. Jim Lee's part of Image, the imprint dubbed Wildstorm, quickly did well with such titles as WildC.A.T.S Covert Action Teams and Stormwatch (the titles being the source of the imprint's name). However, these series were far from critical darlings, selling predominantly on Lee's excellent and popular artwork alone.
Wildstorm did grow over time, attracting other talent to expand their new universe (with titles like Wetworks, Deathblow and Gen13) and publishing a number of creator-owned series (such as Danger Girl and Astro City, but these were unconnected to the Wildstorm universe). The main Wildstorm titles were revamped in 1997, with talent such as Alan Moore, James Robinson and Adam Warren being brought in to revitalize interest in the properties, with great acclaim to their approach to the characters. However, it was when Warren Ellis, already know for his work on Thor and Hellstorm, Prince of Lies, was brought in to revamp Stormwatch and DV8 that Wildstorm began to change. While still predominately superhero stories in nature, the characters of Wildstorm began to tackle socio-political issues and (to paraphrase) 'go after the real bastards', which aimed a critical eye at authority, the abuse of power by our governments and the possibility of a superhuman arms race.
'Stormwatch' Under Ellis & Raney
Stormwatch became the imprint's best-selling title, as Ellis introduced fan-favorite characters Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor (with artist Tom Raney) and the openly gay Midnighter and Apollo (with Bryan Hitch). Ellis' run on Stormwatch ended with the majority of the team being killed in action in the crossover book WildC.A.T.S/Aliens. It was around this time that Jim Lee split his imprint from Image Comics and sold Wildstorm and its assets to DC Comics. A new change was on the horizon.
Picking up where Stormwatch had been left off, Ellis and Hitch took the surviving members (and introducing a few new ones) for their new title; The Authority, an ultra-violent, high-octane action series with 'widescreen' artwork that gave the comic the feel of a big-budget summer blockbuster film and elevated the scale of superhero action that hadn't been seen before, even if the characterization could be a bit weak at times. There were no character arcs, pushing for pure action and bombast instead (not too dissimilar to Ellis's later work on Nextwave, though played a bit more serious here). It was superheroes brought back down to their most basic core of monstrously powerful but idealistic people, but in a sleek jacket for the modern age. Around the same time, Ellis produced another Wildstorm title with artist John Cassaday; Planetary, a critically lauded series that explored the meaning of fiction and its genres. Though wildly beloved, the series sadly suffered so many delays over its production run that it was quietly divorced from the Wildstorm canon to avoid interference.
'The Authority' Under Ellis and Hitch
In time, Ellis moved on to new projects, and the Wildstorm line was passed onto other creators. However, the violence and bombast that the line had now become renowned soon became its own undoing, as editorial became reluctant to include scenes of so much mass destruction and political distrust in a post 9/11 world. While the censorship eventually ended (with a brief period of a 'mature readers' label that upped the violence and coarse language), the freedoms that the line enjoyed were greatly diminished, which chimed the start of its eventual lapse.
While the creators that followed in Ellis's footsteps were talented (with such names as Mark Millar, Frank Quitely, Joe Casey, Dustin Nguyen, Garth Ennis, Darrick Robertson, Gene Ha, Grant Morrison and many others), a bizarre status quo befell the line. The heroes of Wildstorm were still ultra-violent, yet they no longer changed the world for the better, instead choosing to wait around for the next invader to bash their skulls in. During an ill-fated attempt for 'realism' (in a franchise that boasts inter-dimensional travel, a man who can speak with cities and a cyborg hillbilly transformed into six chickens), the Authority took over the USA in a coup d'etat and appointed themselves as a ruling junta, which came at the cost of the fun the characters seemed have as they reveled in the majesty of their mad and grand world, now made more mundane. Cruelty and selfishness became the defining trait of Wildstorm, basically rendering it a violent parody of superheroes that ruled the world with fear-tactics.
Time and again, the editors tried to rejuvenate reader interest with events, reboots and crossovers with the DC heroes, some of which lasted no more than a single issue. Nothing stuck, and eventually, in the wake of DC's infamous New 52 relaunch, the entire Wildstorm line was axed and its characters (barring any creator-owned works) were merged into the main DC universe, in the hope to integrate and have further use for them. This did next to nothing for these characters, as titles such as Grifter, Voodoo, and Stormwatch were soon canceled, with only Midnighter and his husband Apollo gaining any acclaim from their DC appearances.
'The Wild Storm' Under Ellis and Davis-Hunt
Now, the characters of Wildstorm have returned. Grifter, Zealot, The Engineer, Lord Emp, Void, Henry Bendix, Deathblow, Jenny Sparks and many others return as the vast cast of characters of The Wild Storm, a sort of 'ultimate' reimagining of familiar faces and plot lines (similar to the excellent Astro Boy reimagining Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa). And though the pace is very relaxed, even slow at times, it sparks with a quiet energy of wonder and excitement, set in a world of conspiracy, mysteries, alien contact and trans-humanism that Ellis's previous work on Stormwatch and Planetary was famed for. But is it more than just a retread of old ideas? Is this simply the umpteenth reboot of familiar properties as we have seen time and time again with lines like Ultimate Marvel and Earth One?
Short answer? No. But to be more precise, The Wild Storm is more than a simple reboot. It is a world of superheroes where any and all tropes and cliche's of the genre have been sandblasted off. It feels closer to HBO dramas like Game of Thrones and Westworld and Ellis's work on Planetary than Jim Lee's old WildC.A.T.S. It is The X-Files where characters right out of a John Woo flick may suddenly drop in. It is a secret agent story where a girl walks through televisions and phones to wherever she pleases. It is a conspiracy drama whose layers slowly peel away, revealing just enough different concepts to prevent the reader from getting too comfortable in any one setting. To an uninitiated reader, the vast number of characters could seem a bit cluttered, but the cast is engaging and a treat to read. The dialogue has a typical Ellis level of snark and wit, which is always a pleasure to go through, and the art by Jon Davis-Hunt is wonderful in its narrative and cool designs. Prior knowledge of Wildstorm is not exactly needed to enjoy it, but the bountiful easter eggs and nods to the line strewn throughout the book are welcome as we are reintroduced into a world we thought we'd lost for good.
As of this writing, the series has yet to be concluded, with an estimated twenty-four issues. And from what has been hinted (as well as the publication of the spinoff The Wild Storm: Michael Cray), this is the introduction of a whole new relaunched Wildstorm. Will it survive Ellis's eventual departure? Hopefully so, and with DC taking much bolder steps with their properties than ever before, there is a good chance that the thunder has returned. It has been a stormy ride for these properties, but if it continues on its current path, then we are in for a wild ride.
The Wild Storm is published by DC Comics.