Shoot, another “Wildstorm” book (even though at this point, the imprint no longer existed)? Why the heck not?
The Wild Storm by Warren Ellis (writer), Jon Davis-Hunt (artist), Ivan Plascencia (colorist, issue #1), Steve Buccellato (colorist, issues #2-15, 18-24), John Kalisz (colorist, issues #6, 15, 24), Brian Buccellato (colorist, issues #16-17), and Simon Bowland (letterer).
Published by DC, 24 issues (#1-24), cover dated April 2017 – September 2019.
Comic book writers are not, in general, a subtle bunch. Comics don’t really call for it; for the most part, they exist to entertain, not to probe the human condition, and comic book writers tend to follow along with that. Plenty of comics have subtext, of course, but writers don’t seem to be willing to let the subtext remain such, and they usually end up bringing it to the fore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Where comic book writers are subtle is when they almost aren’t thinking about it, and their work becomes almost accidentally allegorical. I don’t mean to say that comic book writers can’t use subtext and use it well, but that’s not really their purview, even the ones who don’t write mainstream superhero books. Even the greatest comic book writers tend to, eventually, baldly state what their comics are about, in case we missed it. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just an observation I had after reading this series.
“This series” being The Wild Storm, DC’s latest attempt to revive its Wildstorm characters, one that left us with just this book and one other. Warren Ellis, who knows a thing or two about writing a comic book (you might not be a fan, but you can’t deny that he knows how to grab your attention and hold it), has never been the most subtle of writers, but here, he tries very hard to keep his underlying theme hidden until he can’t do it anymore, and while it certainly doesn’t wreck the book, it’s too bad he couldn’t resist. The Wild Storm is a clever re-invention of the old Wildstorm characters, and Ellis basically retells the history of his own Wildstorm contributions in a more condensed format, as we begin with the “classic” Wildstorm characters and end up with the Authority, but he also has more on his mind, and that’s what makes the book even more interesting than it just being a good superhero story.
If you know nothing about the Wildstorm characters, you can still read and enjoy this book, because Ellis always does a nice job with introducing characters on the fly and keeping everyone up to date without getting dragged down into a slog of who’s who. There are a lot of characters in this comic, but we never lose track of who’s who. Like so many who have come before him, Ellis begins with an exciting inciting event that gets us into the story and then gradually reveals the vast tapestry behind the simple inciting event. He begins things with a street scene in New York, where we find a woman code-named Zealot cleaning up a murder scene, while right down the street a woman named Voodoo is standing at an intersection saying she’s going to launch her new record at the spot. We see advertisements for Halo, run by someone named Jacob Marlowe, and Voodoo – Priscilla Kitaen – even makes an oblique reference to Batman just for fun. She is seen by two men sitting at a café, one of whom is named Julian and will not be too important in the series, while his husband, Miles Craven, is definitely important. Craven sees one of his researchers, Angela Spica, wandering down the street, and she manages to talk to him for a few minutes about something important she has discovered but which her immediate superiors aren’t taking seriously. She walks away (and Zealot sees her), but before she gets too far, a man comes crashing out of a window of a skyscraper many, many floors above the ground. Angela somehow grows a robotic exoskeleton, flies up, and rescues the man, who turns out to be Jacob Marlowe. So yeah, there’s a lot going on in the first few pages, and Ellis uses that to introduce several characters and throw us right into the mix.
Ellis uses this set-up to introduce International Operations and Skywatch, two organizations that basically run the world and the space around it. IO and Skywatch have an uneasy truce, in which IO gets to run the Earth and Skywatch gets everything else. They have several super-powered people on their payrolls, and very early on in this book, we learn that Jacob Marlowe has some of his own, which makes both organizations nervous, as Halo is an extremely powerful entity in its own right. It’s very clear from the beginning that IO and Skywatch are fairly evil, and Ellis puts two horrible people in charge of them. Craven (a spot-on name) pretends to be the “cool boss,” wearing casual clothing and grooming himself well. Ellis introduces us to him with his husband, whom he obviously loves, which throws us off because of two reasons: evil people aren’t supposed to have loving relationships, and in today’s world, gay men aren’t supposed to be evil. By the end of issue #1, however, we’ve seen behind the curtain, and Craven stands revealed as a deeply scary person. Meanwhile, in issue #4 we meet Henry Bendix, the director of Skywatch, and he’s awful from the get-go (one of the first things he does is growl at a subordinate for looking directly at him, which is something a king would do, and it’s clear Bendix thinks of himself on such elevated terms). This book came out during the Trump era, and it’s clear that Ellis is influenced by that, as both Craven and Bendix are petty, small men who think they are above the law and can act like spoiled children and no one will call them on it. They’re much more dangerous and effectual than the president, but in temperament, it’s hard to believe Ellis is not mocking Trump’s personality.
The difference, as I noted, is that Craven and Bendix are very good at their jobs, or at least they’re surrounded by extremely competent people. Directly under the two men are four women, and they’re able to massage their bosses’ egos, temper their rages, and do their jobs very well. Lauren Pennington is at Bendix’s side all the time, floating in the Skywatch satellite and looking down on the little people of Earth. Christine Trelane gets her hands dirtier for Skywatch, actually going down to Earth and meeting operatives. Ivana Baiul schemes against Miles Craven at IO, but she is still a good employee, while Jacklyn King tries to keep Craven on the ethical side of his conscience, with increasing inability to do so. So when Craven wants to kill Angela Spica or Michael Cray, two employees who have strayed from what he sees as the righteous path, King can’t stop him, but she can distract him with other agenda items. When Bendix decides to drop a foot-long diamond rod onto an IO base (dropping it from space turns it, basically, into a nuke with no radiation), Pennington can’t stop him, but she still tries to make him see that his weird desires to destroy the Earth aren’t really the best way to go. Of all of them, King is really the only one who seems like a “good person,” but while these men play their games and issue kill orders and the women who stand at their right hands carry those orders out and make the games slightly less deadly, Ellis is pointing out how corrupt it all is, even if, like King, the person doesn’t necessarily want to be “evil.” In the end, King helps Jenny Sparks and the Authority save New York, and she thwarts Craven, because she finally understands how stupid the rivalry between IO and Skywatch really is. She redeems herself, while the others don’t really get a chance (Trelane leaves the book fairly early on, so Ellis doesn’t do quite as much with her).
The point Ellis is making is that these agencies rule the world and no one gets a say in it. No one even knows they run the world, which is how they like it. The parallels between the way our world works and the way the “WildStorm” world works are deliberate, and for the most part, Ellis doesn’t comment too much on our world while writing this. He keeps it subtextual for the most part, and that’s why the book is as good as it is. The two organizations are run by men who believe they’re strong, but they cower behind smokescreens so no one knows who they are or what they’re doing. Bendix is an old, paranoid man who thinks nothing of dropping a bomb on New York to wipe out his enemies, while Craven is a young, paranoid man who foments division within IO and then lashes out when people object. The allusions to Trump are there, but Ellis is commenting on the greater nature of power and what it does to the people who wield it if they’re not careful. With no oversight, IO and Skywatch have been able to run wild. Angie Spica’s experiments early on are just the tip of the iceberg – she steals tech from IO, which had stolen it from Skywatch, and she builds a robot suit that she stores inside her own body. She thinks she can use it as a aide for doctors and other altruistic ventures, but of course IO and Skywatch think of it as a weapon. Later, we take a road trip with John Lynch, the old director of IO, who ran an experiment on several candidates in which they were injected with extraterrestrial DNA and given strange powers. This has unfortunate side effects, as you might assume, and many of the people who were experimented on are now insane (tellingly, Ellis makes one of the women and the Native American the ones who aren’t insane). Skywatch is also experimenting on people in the same way, and their subjects include Jack Hawksmoor and Apollo and the Midnighter (who get real names, but they both agree their code names are cooler). They get scooped up by Shen Li-Min, the Doctor, and Jenny Mei Sparks, the planetary defense system, and then they hook up with Angie to form what comics readers know as the Authority. It’s fascinating how Ellis structures this series to make his points.
Early on, we get Jacob Marlowe and his company, Halo, which is a threat to IO and Skywatch because it’s so successful. Halo, and Marlowe, represent a possible third player in the quest for global dominance, which is why Craven tries to kill him. Michael Cray, the IO operative who attempts to kill Marlowe, is unaware that he has been experimented on and is no longer completely human, so Ellis seeds that idea into the book fairly early. Marlowe sends his own Covert Action Team – both IO and Skywatch use said CATs – to find her, sending Grifter, Savant, and Void to pick her up (Ellis rarely uses code names, so it’s Cole, Kenesha, and Adrianna for the most part). The “good guys” are working within the power structure – Marlowe might be targeted for termination by IO, but he doesn’t want to tear everything down, because he’s done very well by it. Ellis brings in the Khera/Daemon divide that defined the first iteration of WildC.A.T.s, but he keeps it vague and implies a great deal about both the Kherubim and the Daemonites without pegging too much down. Angie learns what she can from Marlowe, as he offers her free rein of his tech as long as she keeps him in the loop. The early part of the book – the first year or so – is about this conflict, as IO tries to figure out what happened to Angie and who the people who tried to rescue her are. IO and Skywatch are fighting a war to stay on top or at least keep the status quo, which is being tilted by new actors. In the second year, this war continues, but Ellis begins to shift the theme of the comic. The first arc of the second year (issues #12-18, although “arc” is a poor word, because Ellis doesn’t really write them as such) brings us Lynch traveling the country finding the people with alien DNA inside them. This simply sets up the final stages of the story, when all of these superpowered people converge on New York and we get the climax of the story. Other things change, too. Angie meets Jenny Sparks in issue #16, and Jenny tells her that she’s independent of both IO and Skywatch, which “scare the hell” out of her. She tells Angie that if Angie wants to leave, Jenny will help her. In issue #17, Angie learns a bit more about Marlowe and the Kherubim, and it’s not exactly good news. Issue #17 is when Apollo and the Midnighter appear for the first time, as Ellis moves things along. Finally, in issue #18, Angie decides to leave and join with Jenny, the Doctor, and Jack Hawksmoor. At the same time, Grifter, Savant, and Void, joined by John Colt, go off on another mission that seems another way to freeze the status quo, and they disappear from the series. Yes, they were supposed to head off into their own book, which never materialized, but the point is that they’re a relic of an age where shadow wars for control of the planet were acceptable, and Ellis is moving past that.
In the final arc, the book becomes a more conventional superhero story, which makes it slightly less interesting but still worth a look, as Ellis has always written good superhero stories. Jacklyn King is forced to take steps against Miles Craven, but she does it in a superhero fashion, using a device that gives her powers to level up. Meanwhile, Jenny Sparks and her group come in contact with the Midnighter and Apollo, and the group we know as the Authority rounds into form. But because the war between IO and Skywatch has escalated from a cold to a hot war, there’s a lot more punching and explosions, leading to the people that were infected with alien DNA wreaking havoc in New York and Henry Bendix deciding to drop another “Little Stick” – what he calls the rod he had dropped earlier – on the city to wipe everyone out. Ellis solves all of these problems, of course, and he goes further by revealing Skywatch’s and IO’s existence to the world, which essentially ends their shadow war. It’s a strange world, indeed.
It’s a satisfying if somewhat perfunctory ending, and one reason it’s not as clever as it could have been is because the lack of subtlety. As I noted, subtext is not something comics writers are comfortable with for too long, and it seemed Ellis couldn’t stop picking at the scab. Early on, the machinations between IO and Skywatch are interesting because they’re clandestine – these are organizations that have taken over without many people knowing about them. They have to remain off the radar, and Ellis manages to remain subtle about the idea of extra-legal or at least unelected people running things in what is supposed to be, ostensibly, a democracy (yes, IO and Skywatch are concerned with the world, but IO is based in New York and the entire series is extremely American-centric). For the first three-quarters of the series, he manages to make some trenchant points about the competency (or lack thereof) and efficiency (or lack thereof) of these organizations and why the way they have become the powers in the world is scary and disturbing. Even the wildest stuff about injecting alien DNA into humans is backed by the idea that power, shadowy power at that, is insidious and disturbing, but the “regular folk” don’t mind as long as they get cheap stuff. In the final arc, he brings all that to the fore, as if he couldn’t quite trust the readers to get it. Jenny Sparks says stuff like “IO locked down the world with carceral capitalism and panopticon rule and Hitler lives in space!” because Ellis really wants to use his hammer. The Authority, in any guise, is a hammer, and in this book, Ellis went to the hardware store about halfway through and decided he liked his new tool. Maybe I’ve taken this metaphor too far. The point is that Ellis doesn’t trust his audience to get it, so in the end, he has his characters blow it all up. It’s what superhero comics do, and it’s why, as good as this run is, there’s the slightest sense that Ellis or DC couldn’t quite reset the paradigm. Within the context of superhero comics, it’s very good, and maybe that’s all we can hope for.
This is Davis-Hunt’s highest profile gig so far, and he does really good work, bringing Ellis’s vision to finely-drawn life. For this series, Ellis needs someone who can draw regular people and their reactions to the weird world around them and not necessarily someone who’s great at fight scenes. Davis-Hunt is quite good at fight scenes, but the book is more about the people who discover the world is not as it seems, and the people running it aren’t gods, just very flawed humans. He had templates for Henry Bendix and Miles Craven from the old series, but he made them interesting complementary parts of a greater whole. Bendix is the decrepit space god, an senescent Odin, railing against a world he no longer understands because he’s lived in the clouds for too long. The first time we see him, in issue #4, Davis-Hunt draws him simply as a slightly older bald man, but nothing too odd. Over the course of the book, Davis-Hunt ages him a little, giving him more wrinkles and sagging his face slightly, showing his loss of power and the increase in his impotence even as he rages more and more and loses more control. He was always tightly wound, but in the final issues, as his face becomes more etched with madness, we see even the veneer of control slip. The final time we see him, he has experienced his worst nightmare – exposure – and Davis-Hunt does a marvelous job showing the fear and confusion on his face. Craven, who gets more of a revamp from the old, Image days, becomes a younger, hipper guy – he’s gay, for one, but he also dresses in “business casual” and has cheekbones to die for and finely-edged scruff on said cheekbones. Craven, with his wonderful spit-curl topping his beautifully coiffed hair, is a superb representation of both the guy we love to hate and the guy we secretly yearn to be, which makes him emblematic of the kind of man modern America pukes up with regularity and which modern America also likes to tear down. Ellis does good work with him, but it’s the way Davis-Hunt draws him that makes him a special kind of villain. He’s relaxed, obviously in love with his husband, gorgeous, and full of himself – and we hate him but hate ourselves for hating him. As the series moves on, he becomes more and more unhinged, especially as a woman – Jacklyn King – begins to challenge him and his deep-seated misogyny comes out. But King is right about him – he’s a coward, more concerned with hiding behind anonymity than getting the job done when the job gets dirty – and as he comes to terms with that, his physical appearance deteriorates. When we see him last, like Bendix, he’s gone to seed, his hair disheveled and his beard growing in raggedly, and it’s an interesting pairing with his counterpart in space (they both have blue eyes, which symbolizes a ward against the evil eye, but Ellis and the artists have upended and twisted that) as their secret reigns end. Craven and Bendix are both pathetic, and Davis-Hunt does a wonderful job with them both.
It’s not just the two villains that Davis-Hunt does nice work on. There’s a large cast, and Davis-Hunt makes them all unique. He thinks about what each character would look like in a “real world” setting, so Zealot gets a short haircut that fits her role as a “cleaner” for IO, Angie has the disheveled look of a scientist who never leaves the basement, Grifter has the bland handsomeness that would help him be a good con man without being too memorable (I know he’s a soldier, but he still has that code name), while Shen and Jenny are cutting-edge bad-asses. Davis-Hunt really has fun with Lynch’s experiments, turning Marc Slayton into a brooding, insane killer, Alexandra Fairchild into a gorgeous brick shithouse, and Gloria Spaulding into a shadowy demonic creature. His beautiful fine lines make Shen’s drug trips gorgeous and surreal, making us believe that she’s changing reality because Davis-Hunt doesn’t do anything special to differentiate the trips from reality, which makes them more effective. He does a nice job with the action, too, which, for someone so precise, isn’t always easy. Instead of attempting to be fluid and perhaps not being up to the task, Davis-Hunt remains crisp and precise, but because his details are so exquisite, he captures each moment as if in amber, so while the fights don’t exactly flow, they do work very well. Davis-Hunt’s detailed art also helps in some of the more horrific scenes in the book, as he gives us some terrifying images of bodies coming apart, showing us the astonishing power some of these individuals possess and why that scares the hell out of some of the other characters. Ellis isn’t exactly going for a “superheroes in the real world” vibe that so many comics aim for, but he does want to show the consequences of such powers, and Davis-Hunt is a very good partner to do so.
The Wild Storm was supposed to lead to a rebirth of the WildStorm universe, but that foundered for any number of reasons (sales, I imagine, but perhaps not solely). There was a Michael Cray 12-issue series in 2017-2018 (which I haven’t read), and Ellis was supposed to write a Wildcats series in August of 2019, but that has never seen the light of day. I don’t know if the accusations against Ellis have had any impact on the new WildStorm, although it seemed dead prior to those coming out, so perhaps not. I’m not going to argue that we should or shouldn’t read Ellis’s comics because of what kind of person he is. That’s up to you to decide. But The Wild Storm is a fascinating examination of power and how it’s used and how those in power don’t always want to be recognized, and what that can lead to. While it slowly morphs into a more traditional superhero comic, Ellis is really good at those, too, so the quality remains high even if it loses its subtlety. If you’re interested, I’ve linked to the first trade below, which is dang cheap, if you ask me. Give it a look! And remember, I have a bunch of other stuff in the archives!