By Taylor Pechter — The 1990s was a consequential decade for comics, a decade of deaths and broken backs, of shoulder pads and huge guns. It was also the decade that gave us WildStorm Productions, an imprint created by then-rising star Jim Lee, who jumped ship from Marvel and DC along with other big-name artists following disputes over creators’ rights. When WildStorm began in 1992, it could have been dismissed as just more large guns, heavily-detailed art, and not much focus on story.
After the company grew in popularity, though, Lee sold it to DC. With this sale, DC editorial took the universe under its watch, ultimately overseeing great experimentation in storytelling spearheaded by writers such as Warren Ellis and Joe Casey and artists such as Bryan Hitch, whose worked helped redefine what comics look like.
Now get ready because today we’re jumping head first into the defining era of WildStorm, looking at the themes and visuals from the imprint that have had such a lasting impact on the comic book industry today.
The year is 1997. The comics speculator market bubble has burst and sales of WildStorm books have stagnated. Enter Warren Ellis, a British writer who had done some work at but was not on many fans’ radars. With his run on Stormwatch starting at #37, however, that quickly changed.
Ellis would completely redefine the team, splitting it into three squadrons: Prime (defense against superhuman threats), Red (members with destructive powers for deterrent displays), and Black (undercover black ops). As the run started, Ellis introduced us to his thematic interests via the words of Frederick Nietzsche, I want to teach men the meaning of their existence; which is the Superman, the lightning from the dark cloud that is man.
Ellis’ run incorporated themes of corruption of power, the relationship between man and superhuman, and ultimately how supherhumans change a world. These themes are primarily conveyed through StormWatch leader Henry Bendix (alias The Weatherman), the StormWatch Black Team (Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and Swift), and The High and his Changers. As the run progressed, StormWatch’s prominence grew while Bendix became madder with power, coming to view his team as the end-all, be-all of planetary surveillance and defense, akin to worldwide secret police. This eventually leads him down a path of murder and a removal from his position, with former field leader Jackson King (alias Battalion) taking over in his stead.
Meanwhile, the members of StormWatch Black personified rebellion, especially their leader, Jenny Sparks. As one of the proclaimed century babies, Sparks lived through the highs and lows of the 1900s, coming to be known as The Spirit of 20th Century. She’s also seen firsthand how superpowers changed society, with adventures through the decades as a solider in the wars and later a member of the shady Royal Space Program. This history also informs her relationship with John Cumberland (alias The High). The High is the main ideological lynchpin of the run, with his actions in the story Change or Die reflect the theme of the run, as The High actually says, We are Superhumans, just as your modern crimefighters and Covert Action teams. However, we feel a different responsibility than they do… They try to save the world, but make no effort to change it. This speaks to the somewhat hypocritical nature of the modern superhero. As time passed, StormWatch dissolved due to infighting, Bendix succumbing to insanity, and SkyWatch (the team’s satellite command center) being set upon by alien infestation. With most of the team dead, field commander Nikolas Kamarov (alias Winter) made the final decision to the throw the station into the sun. StormWatch was dead, but from its ashes rose a new force, an Authority that would either save the world, or rule it with an iron fist.
Out of the ashes of StormWatch rose The Authority, a team formed by former StormWatch Black operatives Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and Swift. It also included Apollo and Midnighter, The Engineer, and The Doctor. The Authority’s story is broken up into three four-issue arcs, which focus on innate fears with society: the fear of terrorism, the fear of foreign invasion, and the fear of the unknown. Through The Authority, Ellis wove a tale of a team of powerhouses trying to save the world and to also change it for the better. However, their goals came at a cost.
What Ellis also did was break down the glitz and glamour of a superhero team. The Authority is brash, arrogant, and—most of all—violent. Cities were leveled and an entire alternate Earth was destroyed. The Authority, however, considered it just part of the job, losses to make the world a better place. Toward the book’s end, the team eventually faced an alien entity that was blocking out the sun. Jenny Sparks shocked its brain and the day was won, but at a cost that shook the team to its core. As the century wound down, so did the life of Jenny Sparks. After 100 years of being a planetary defense mechanism, she died at the stroke of midnight January 1, 2000, in the arms of Jack Hawksmoor. With a new century, however, came a new generation of defenders.
The Art: While Ellis’ scripts were certainly groundbreaking, so too was the artwork of Bryan Hitch, inker Paul Neary, and colorist Laura Depuy (later Martin). With wide panels, splash pages galore, and cinematic action, Hitch was, and still is, the main purveyor of widescreen comics art. With Neary’s clean inks and Martin’s luscious colors, The Authority is still one of the most visually influential books in modern comics.
What happens to covert teams that don’t have a war to fight? What happens when a teammate dies, splintering the rest of the team? Or, when a team’s leader wants to transcend to a higher level of living, one that requires he be killed?
In 1999, writer Joe Casey and artist Sean Phillips took over Wildcats and set out to answer these questions. After a mission gone wrong, Zealot is killed and Grifter is left reeling. Grifter has become a washed-up shell of his former self, trying to find answers about Zealot’s death. On the other end, Lord Emp (known to Earth as Jacob Marlowe, leader of the Wildcats), is asking his long-time rival Kenyan to kill him so he can ascend. Kenyan, however, instead kills himself, and Spartan is forced to kill Emp. In the aftermath, posing as Emp’s great-nephew Jack Marlowe, he is bequeathed HALO Industries and inherits Emp’s fortune. Meanwhile, Priscilla Kitaen (alias Voodoo) and Doctor Jeremy Stone (alias Maul) are living together. Jeremy has locked himself in his lab to to find a cure for a disease.
That’s a lot, to be sure, but overall Casey tells a story about destiny and legacy. Spartan has to deal with running HALO and guilt for killing Emp, which is easy enough because as a synthetic humanoid, he feels no emotion. This, however, conflicts with Grifter mourning the loss of his trainer and lover. Spartan also has to deal with having the Marlowe name, a target since Emp had many enemies. After Pris is nearly murdered by superhuman serial killer Samuel Slaughterhouse Smith, she is visited by a Daemonite, of which she is a half-breed. With that meeting she fully comes to terms with her heritage. Optimism reenergized, she then looks to a brighter future, alongside Jeremy.
The Art: Joining Casey on this book is noir art master Sean Phillips. With deep shadows, imposing figures, and brutal action, Phillips creates a foreboding tone to perfectly match Casey’s script. Sadly, the book only lasted two years before being cancelled but returning a year later as Wildcats Version 3.0. In a short time, however, Casey and Phillips crafted one of, if not the defining runs on Wildcats.
It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way. This is the mantra for Warren Ellis’s magnum opus, Planetary. A decade in the making, Planetary revolves around a four-person team of mystery archaeologists who explore the world. This team consists of Elijah Snow, our ride along character Jakita Wagner, The Drummer, and Ambrose Chase.
With Planetary, Ellis constructs a story that revolves around genre and—more importantly—pop culture. This journey through 20th century pop culture is seen through the eyes of Elijah, who like Jenny Sparks is one of the century babies. The series has one main through line, but each issue also tackles a certain genre, breaking it down and showing how it has changed the world. These stories included a ghost cop out for revenge in Hong Kong (Dead Gunfighter); the somber Vertigo-tinged To Be In England, In The Summertime; the hypocrisy of vigilantism in The Torture of William Leather, and the metaphysics of superheroes in Zero Point.
In them all, Ellis demonstrates how the aspects of various genres has affected society through use in pop culture. While the macro exploration of genre and pop culture is the book’s driving force, the heart of Planetary is the micro exploration of Elijah Snow as a character, as well as how he becomes more in tune with the world. Snow’s motives, while staying somewhat consistent throughout the first half of the series, shift as we approach the final act. As readers, we are Elijah, not just in terms of the world Ellis is crafting but also the world outside our window. There is so much to explore here, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.
The Art: Not to be outdone by Ellis’ deft scripting are John Cassaday’s art and Laura Martin’s colors. Cassaday shifts his style throughout each chapter to capture the tone. This can mean changing panel sizes, borders, shadows, or expressions. It’s commendable how much work he put into each page, and it’s made even better by Martin’s amazing colors, with bright reds and blues making the art pop. This book was subject to many delays, attributed to both Ellis and Cassaday, but Planetary eventually ended with its 27th issue, becoming one of the most celebrated comic books of all time
The Wild Storm
Twenty years after he helped redefine the WildStorm Universe with StormWatch, Warren Ellis is doing it again with The Wild Storm, which just released issue #16 this week. This time, Ellis is writing a stripped down, no frills, corporate espionage tale focused on three organizations: tech giant HALO (run by Jacob Marlowe), black ops intelligence agency International Operations or IO (run by Miles Craven), and secret space program Skywatch (led by Henry Bendix). This is an entirely new story, rather than a continuation of past titles.
The main conflict in this series is rivalries between organizations, with the story asking how Earth would react if it was ruled by these power structures. There is, of course, a twist. While IO is interested in Earth and its resources, Skywach is more interested in ruling space, even going as far as colonizing other planets. After Bendix starts getting a vested interest in Earth’s resources, IO starts to retaliate. Caught in between this corporate battle is a team of rogue IO and Skwatch agents who have formed their own covert action team, a Wild CAT. Their objective is to stop this war, fearing it will tear the planet apart.
The Art: Joining Ellis on art duties is Jon Davis-Hunt, whose simple yet dynamic style lends to the gritty espionage themes and to the frenetic action that is wonderfully brutal. His linework combines with the gorgeous colors of Steve Buccellatto. With stripping down the universe and giving it a more modern feel, this creative team has given new life to characters Ellis made his name writing.
In conclusion, following its start in the ‘90s, WildStorm went grew from the typical extreme fare of the decade into one of the most fertile grounds for storytelling in all of superhero comics, doing everything from looking at how superheroes have changed the world to how a team can survive in a world that doesn’t accept them. WildStorm also has a history of art that has redefined the style of comics, from the widescreen destruction of The Authority by Hitch, to the noir stylings of Wildcats by Sean Phillips, or the versatility of John Cassaday in Planetary. These artists helped raise a new generation, also contributing to the creation of the modern comics event.
Thank you all for joining me on this journey—hopefully you too will now jump into the eye of the storm.
Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.