Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wildstorm: RIP

So DC has shut down Wildstorm. Now, I’m not a Jim Lee fan. The guy can really draw when he puts his mind to it, but too often he gets sloppy on things like storytelling and anatomy, and I don’t like his base style enough to forgive him that. I don’t hold any particular love for the Wildstorm characters, either. Too many post-Watchmen / post-X-Men funnybook clichés on display, and the early books were not well-written. But, damn. DAMN. Once you get past the desperate money-grabbing years of the early 90s, Wildstorm ushered in the shocking idea of producing quality comics, and changed the course of funnybook history. And for that, if nothing else, I will miss them.

Much as I didn’t like the company’s earliest publishing efforts, I do have to give Wildstorm founder Jim Lee and the rest of the Image Comics guys credit for striking out on their own, bucking the DC / Marvel system to create something they could own for themselves. Even if this blow for creators’ rights was struck by accident (most of the Image founders started using work-for-hire talent almost immediately), they struck that blow regardless. It opened doors for others to do the same, and changed the industry for the better. Even if I didn’t buy anything they published for a few years.

The first Wildstorm books I remember picking up were titles from their Homage imprint. Specifically, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City, and James Robinson and Paul Smith’s Leave It to Chance. The former was Busiek’s follow-up to Marvels, a bold move for a guy who’d written one of the defining work-for-hire super hero comics of the period. I’ve always admired that. Busiek probably could have gotten any gig he wanted at either of the Big Two, but he chose to apply his newfound funnybook celebrity to launch a book he owned himself. And it was quite a playground for him; Astro City gave Busiek a chance to play with the archetypes owned by the Big Two, but to put his own spin on things. So his Fantastic Four analog takes on even more of a family dynamic, with multiple generations out there to write stories about. Likewise, his Batman analog incorporates the Catholic guilt and gothic horror at the heart of the original. That storyline (entitled Confession) was probably the book’s high point. I slowly lost interest in the title as time wore on, but that often happens to me with long-term Busiek projects. He always starts very strong, but loses me after about a year. At launch, though, Astro City was a breath of fresh spandex air, a super hero series that stayed true to the traditional American funnybook ideals of heroism, while still applying the intelligent eye that was necessary in the wake of Watchmen.

And Leave It to Chance? Well. That was an all-ages series about the plucky young daughter of the world’s premiere monster hunter. Great, fun stuff that got Paul Smith back into doing monthly comics.

Well, almost-monthly.

Okay, he got the issues out whenever he felt like it...

But anyway. This was a tremendous kids’ series that, of course, failed in the direct market. I guess we should have seen that one coming. But I’m still kind of stunned that nobody picked that comic up and gave it a big push in the wake of Harry Potter, because with the proper marketing, Leave It to Chance could be as big a mainstream hit as Bone. If Robinson and Smith could be talked into finishing it, that is. Hrm.

But speaking of James Robinson… He also turned in a fine run on Jim Lee’s personal pet series WildCATS around the same time. I missed it then, but got caught up with the trades once Lee scored his next creative coup on that series: Alan freaking Moore! Moore’s WildCATS is, I must confess, some of my least-favorite Moore material. But even second-rate Alan Moore is still Alan Moore, so… It’s well-worth a read. More importantly from a historical perspective, though, is that Moore’s work for Wildstorm, along with Grant Morrison’s contemporary work on JLA, started a trend of major, critically-acclaimed writers taking on work-for-hire jobs after a decade or so when they did anything but. That’s a trend that's continued straight on through to today, and resulted in more than a decade of really quite excellent super hero writing.

Warren Ellis also did a good deal of work for Wildstorm around this time, with several three-issue mini-series: Mek, Red, Reload, Two-Step, and Tokyo Storm Warning. None of these are Ellis’ best work, but they succeed as what they were intended to be: fun-to-read “pop-comics” in various genres: action, giant monster, etc. One of them (Two-Step) is even a Bollywood musical!

But Ellis’ biggest contributions to Wildstorm (and to super hero comics in general) began on the series Stormwatch. When Ellis took the book over in 1996, it was a sort of weak sister series to WildCATS, about a UN-backed super-team with an international roster. But Ellis swiftly turned the book on its head, writing much more intelligent scripts than the book had seen before. He emphasized the politics behind the team’s missions, brought in more science fiction elements, did some meta-commentary on comics history, and introduced a raft of new characters. The run was critically, but not commercially, successful. But commercial success came, in spades, in 1999 when Ellis killed off the traditional Stormwatch team and launched their controversial Black Ops contingent (most of whom were created by Ellis himself) into its own series: The Authority. And that’s where everything changed.

The Authority was Ellis stripping the super hero concept down to its core and building back up from there. At their base, super heroes are people of power who want to help society, and who apparently think they know how to do that better than governments, churches, and whatever other social institutions you’d care to name. Whether they’re going out to stop muggings or preventing mass destruction, they’re doing it outside the auspices of the authorities we’ve put in place to take care of such things, becoming in effect an authority unto themselves. And that’s exactly what Ellis’ Authority sets out to do. They issue an ultimatum to the world’s great political powers right off the bat: step out of line, and we’ll put you down.

This was the threat lurking behind the masks in Watchmen, finally brought to light more than a decade later. In the course of the series, Ellis’ heroes transcend their roles and become the voice of humanity against anyone who would transgress or attempt to dominate them. By the time Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch are done with the book a year later, the Authority haven’t just established themselves as the world’s moral watchdogs. They’ve taken on God. And won. It’s mind-blowing stuff, the “final word” on super heroes just as much as Watchmen itself had been, and just as much of an influence on what was to come, especially over at Marvel. It was an obvious influence on their “Ultimate” line of comics, and on Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates in particular. Those comics have, of course, gone on to reshape the way stories are told in the mainline Marvel titles as well, and informed the aesthetic of their successful movie franchises. And it all goes right back to Authority, and to Wildstorm.

But on a more practical technical level, the book’s emphasis on what Ellis (always a talented sloganeer) called “widescreen action” and “decompressed storytelling” became the norm in the years that followed, both to good and bad ends. Based largely in the storytelling traditions of manga, “decompression” is all about using a more relaxed, novelistic approach to plotting, and allowing the art to tell its fair share of the story, examining the action in more detail without needless expositon. In the hands of creators as talented as Ellis and Hitch, it‘s an effective and exciting way to tell a story. In the hands of people who don’t understand basic pacing and comics storytelling, however… It leads to stories without depth, and poorly-planned splash pages that don’t advance the plot. But, hey. That’s just how the comics ball bounces. The hacks never understand the lessons handed down by the trail-blazers, but they try to use their techniques anyway. How many ham-fisted copies of Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men were there in the 80s, after all? And how much pointless, tedious nihilism did we endure following Watchmen and Dark Knight? For that matter, how much of it are we still enduring now, 20 years later? As always, it’s a matter of picking the diamonds out of the shit.

But back to Wildstorm. Contemporary with The Authority, they published Alan Moore’s major work for the Noughts, the America’s Best Comics line. In the series Tom Strong, Promethea, Top Ten, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the anthology title Tomorrow Stories, Moore and his artistic collaborators explored super hero fiction through any number of pop-fiction lenses. They did the super hero as pulp fiction (Tom Strong), 19th Century science fiction (League), TV cop drama (Top Ten), slap-and-tickle porn (The Cobweb), comedy (Jack B. Quick and Splash Brannigan), social satire (First American), newspaper comics (the Will Eisner homage Greyshirt), and even as a manifestation of the secret forces of imagination and magic that Moore himself practices as a magician (Promethea). A couple of the Tomorrow Stories strips (most notably First American) didn’t always work, but it was a diverse collection of material, among the best pop work of Moore’s career, and all of it illustrated by top-notch artists. Chris Sprouse’s open lines on Tom Strong, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon’s highly-detailed Top Ten, and JH Williams’ boundary-shattering efforts on Promethea are the stand-outs, but it was also nice to see long-time Moore collaborator Rich Veitch on Greyshirt and (the biggest surprise to me) veteran humor cartoonist Hilary Barta on Splash Brannigan. It was an astounding line of comics overall, one of the high points of the first decade of the 21st century, and we owe its existence to Wildstorm.

This would be the place to mention DC’s acquisition of Wildstorm, as well, since it also took place in 1999, the year of Authority and America’s Best. Supposition has always been that they bought the company from Jim Lee to get its digital coloring expertise. Which, I suppose, is something else we have to thank Wildstorm for: they were among the first to develop modern computer coloring, or at least the first to do it well, and DC wanted that capability for their own line of books. Not to be overlooked also were the services of fan-favorite artist Jim Lee, and that tasty library of new Alan Moore comics Wildstorm had just started putting out.

Whatever their reasons, DC was never a very good steward of Wildstorm’s creative capabilities. The open, care-free atmosphere I’ve seen creators talk about at the company seems in direct opposition to the Byzantine, touchy, and paranoid tone I’ve heard about in the DC offices. And though the impact was far from immediate, my understanding is that the parent company slowly ate its new baby from the inside out.

But more on that later. In the first half of the Noughts, Wildstorm released any number of great series. As I mentioned, Mark Millar and Frank Quitely followed Ellis and Hitch on Authority, exploring the team’s increasing social activism and fall from grace in a haze of sex, drugs, celebrity, and retaliation from the governments they’d threatened in the first issue. Ellis, meanwhile, moved on to a collaboration with John Cassaday on Planetary, an excellent Authority follow-up series exploring (among other things) the entire history of 20th Century pop fiction. Joe Casey wrote a critically-acclaimed run on WildCATS (dubbed Wildcats 3.0), and with Ashley Wood turned out the experimental Automatic Kafka series. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ acclaimed super-espionage thriller Sleeper came out in this period, as well, leading to many more collaborations between them in the years since. Warren Ellis' Global Frequency hit in 2002, followed by his mini-series Ocean in 2004. That year also saw the launch of Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris’ excellent Ex Machina, which mixed super heroic sci-fi with a West-Wing-style look inside the New York City mayor’s office. And in 2006, they launched Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s black-ops anti-super hero series The Boys.

And, though I’m sure I’m forgetting a handful of other excellent books (like The Winter Men, I suddenly realize), that was the last time Wildstorm did anything of real note. The first sign of the fall came in 2001, when DC Publisher Paul Levitz personally intervened in the publication of the later issues of Millar and Quitely’s run on The Authority, ordering changes to dialogue and finished art. The most glaring of these changes was his demand that a kiss be removed between the team’s homosexual couple The Midnighter and Apollo (who were Batman and Superman analogues). Seemed silly then, and seems even sillier now, ten years later in the age of gay marriage.

But the big fall-out came after the World Trade Center attacks. The level of violence in the book, and its then-current storyline, in which the US government was the bad guy, were declared unacceptable. A publishing mess followed. Quitely left the book, and a clumsy fill-in story arc was inserted between the final chapters. Millar produced a heavily-altered version of the conclusion, drawn by Art Adams, but had a very public falling-out with Levitz and DC. They fired his editor on the book, and Millar immediately signed with Marvel, where he went on to become one of the architects of that company’s highly successful transition to 21st-Century storytelling.

Over at Wildstorm, meanwhile, everything slowly went to shit. The Authority was relaunched under the auspices of an increasingly-uninspiring series of creative teams, and in less than a year went from the most cutting-edge super hero series on the market to just another fourth-rate spandex book. DC couldn’t have done a better job cutting that cash cow’s throat if they’d tried. And, hell. Maybe they did. They certainly did their best to scuttle any other successes coming out of Wildstorm.

There were more content issues over the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen OGN Black Dossier, and though Jim Lee and editor Scott Dunbier were able to smooth those over, DC still released the book without the planned flexi-disc, and inexplicably delayed release of the book in Alan Moore’s native Great Britain for months. Their increasingly-volatile relationship with Moore lead to him pulling out of Wildstorm, and taking League with him. In response, DC fired his editor Scott Dunbier, whose departure in turn strained relations with several other creators. Levitz also took issue with the content of The Boys, leading to the abrupt cancellation of the series after only six issues. Ennis and Robertson then took the book to Dynamite Publications, and I don't believe that Ennis has worked for any of DC‘s imprints since. Grant Morrison’s relaunch of Wildstorm flagship titles Wildcats and The Authority was scuttled after one issue of each, in favor of Morrison’s unexpectedly time-consuming work on the DC series 52.

There are apparently other slights, both large and small, that have hurt Wildstorm’s profitability in the last five years. Many of them I’m sure I don’t even know about. But the most glaring ones to me are the creative decisions that have driven away the line’s best talent, some of it away from DC entirely. If Joe Casey (who’s never shy about speaking his mind on things like this) is any indication, the talent slowly saw Wildstorm, under DC’s ownership, go from a place that encouraged new ideas and trusted its creative talent to one that was about… something else entirely. If their output is any indication, they became about churning out sterile, comics-as-usual crap.

But perhaps it’s best not to dwell on the negatives, here at the end (too late, I know). Perhaps it’s better to remember Wildstorm for the good things it did, the comics that entertained me, and the innovations that have changed Our Beloved Industry for the better. That they were eventually beaten down by The Man is irrelevant. For a few years there, this was a company that turned out some of the best mainstream funnybooks I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. So RIP, Wildstorm. You will be missed.

An addendum: I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit where it’s due to my sources for this eulogy. The Wikipedia was, as always an excellent source for publication dates, and for getting the sequence of events straight in my befuddled old brain. But I would also direct readers to Heidi MacDonald’s excellent piece on The Beat (http://www.comicsbeat.com/2010/09/22/the-wildstorm-legacy/) featuring Wildstorm eulogies from the people that worked there. And, of course, Rich Johnston’s run-down of everything DC did to kill Wildstorm, over at Bleeding Cool (http://www.bleedingcool.com/2010/09/21/how-dc-comics-killed-wildstorm/). That’s a damning indictment that inspired me to write this piece in the first place, and one from which I liberally stole. Thanks!

3 comments:

  1. Fantastic, well thought out summary of the rise and fall of Wildstorm. I've actually read through the great times and the bad, but I never thought about it in these terms, only from individual lines or creative teams. As in, I'd think "Wow Alan Moore is great!" and not "Gee Wildstorm really has had a great run!"

    I feel sad that Jim Lee has seen it come to this, he seems like a genuinely nice guy, but I think he's a much better artist and human being than actual businessman.

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  2. Thanks! And, yeah. Even though I'm not a fan, I've never heard a bad word about Jim Lee; he sounds like a genuinely nice guy who wants to make good comics. Which, as you said, probably doesn't translate into "good businessman" all that well...

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