It’s another series from the Wildstorm Golden Age!
Wildcats by Joe Casey (writer, 2.0 issues #5-6, 8-28; 3.0 issues #1-24), Scott Lobdell (writer, 2.0 issues #1-4; plotter, 2.0 issues #5-6), Travis Charest (penciler, 2.0 issues #1-4, 6), Carlos D’Anda (penciler, 2.0 issue #4; inker, 2.0 issue #3), Anthony Winn (penciler, 2.0 issue #4), Bryan Hitch (penciler, 2.0 issue #5), Scott Benefiel (penciler, 2.0 issue #6), Sean Phillips (artist, 2.0 issues #8-19, 22-28; 3.0 issue #17), Steve Dillon (artist, 2.0 issues #20-21), Dustin Nguyen (penciler, 3.0 issues #1-16), Francisco Ruiz Velasco (artist, 3.0 issues #17-18), Pasqual “Pascal” Ferry (penciler, 3.0 issue #19), Duncan Rouleau (penciler, 3.0 issues #20-24), Richard Friend (inker, 2.0 issues #1-4, 6; 3.0 issues #1-16), Mark Irwin (inker, 2.0 issue #4), Paul Neary (inker, 2.0 issue #5), Greg Scott (inker, 2.0 issue #6), Sandra Hope (inker, 3.0 issues #19, 24), John Dell (inker, 3.0 issues #20-24), Trevor Scott (inker, 3.0 issues #22-24), Eric Nguyen (inker, 3.0 issue #23), Tad Ehrlich (colorist, 2.0 issue #1), Justin Ponsor (colorist, 2.0 issues #1-4), Matt Milla (colorist, 2.0 issues #2-4, 6, 8), Wildstorm FX (colorist, 2.0 issues #5, 9-12, 18-21; 3.0 issues #2, 23-24), Brian Haberlin (colorist, 2.0 issues #13-14), Dan Brown (colorist, 2.0 issues #15-17), Larry Molinar (colorist, 2.0 issues #22-27; 3.0 issues #1, 3-4), Randy Mayor (colorist, 2.0 issues #22, 28; 3.0 issues #1, 3-22), Grant Goleash (colorist, 2.0 issues #22, 25-27), David Rodriguez (colorist, 2.0 issues #23-25), Darlene Royer (colorist, 2.0 issue #23), Carrie Strachan (colorist, 2.0 issue #28), Wendy Fouts (colorist, 2.0 issue #28; 3.0 issues #12, 16, 19-20), Richard Starkings (letterer, 2.0 issues #1-6, 8-28; 3.0 issues #1-12), Wes Abbott (letterer, 2.0 issue #1), Saida Temofonte (letterer, 2.0 issues #8-28; 3.0 issues #2, 4), DC Comics (letterer, 3.0 issues #13, 15), Rob Leigh (letterer, 3.0 issues #14, 16, 22, 24), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer, 3.0 issues #17, 19), and Phil Balsman (letterer, 3.0 issues #18, 20-21, 23).
Published by DC/Wildstorm, 51 issues (Volume 2 – “2.0” – issues #1-6, 8-28; “Version 3.0” issues #1-24), cover dated March 1999 – December 2001 (Volume 2); October 2002 – October 2004 (Version 3.0). (N.B. Issue #7 of Volume 2 is a standalone story – an inventory story, if you will – that has nothing to do with the major plot of the two volumes, hence its exclusion.)
SPOILERS ahead, but this isn’t really that big a spoiler-y book, so it probably doesn’t matter. And be sure to click on the images to enlarge them!
Of all the early Image books that appeared in the early to mid-1990s, WildC.A.T.s was perhaps the most Image-y of them all. Unlike Spawn and Savage Dragon, which Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen stuck with far longer than anyone expected (Larsen has always been a one-man show on Dragon, and McFarlane was involved with Spawn for a long time and is again these days), Jim Lee did not last long on WildC.A.T.s – he did draw the first 13 issues, but then his interest waned and he let others take over the writing and drawing, which meant we got some interesting comic by James Robinson and, in one of his weirder creative periods, Alan Moore. But WildC.A.T.s seemed like both the most successful of the early Image books and the red-headed stepchild, by dint of not being under its creator’s direct control for too long. It ran for 50 issues, and then it ended. But behind the scenes, Jim Lee was selling his part of Image – the imprint known as Wildstorm – to DC, and in 1999, Wildcats (without the periods) was reborn, as part of the “Wildstorm Golden Age” that began when DC started publishing the imprint’s books. Wildcats became the standard-bearer for the imprint for a time, and the 50+ issues that DC published form a powerful statement on superheroes, PTSD, and corporate influence in everyday life as good as anything that’s been published on those topics. Joe Casey, as idiosyncratic a mainstream writer as we have, was the driving force behind it, although Scott Lobdell* began the series and seeded what Casey took over. Wildcats (the second and third series) has never really gotten the praise it deserves, as other books from the Golden Age were higher-profile and, perhaps, more consistently excellent, but Casey will always practice subversion in his stories, and Wildcats casts a baleful and cynical gaze upon what we want from our superheroes, and does it quite brilliantly.
* (As always with creators, I’m not here to debate Lobdell’s admittedly creepy personal behavior. I can, and always have been able to, separate the artist from the art. If you can’t, that’s cool. I’m just going to point out Lobdell’s contributions to this series. Anything else is, for me, fodder for another time.)
Lobdell came up with the idea of focusing on what soldiers do when the war is over (Moore, I believe, showed that the actual war the characters were fighting had been over for centuries), and while he isn’t at the same level as Casey (he’s certainly not terrible, but he’s never been a great writer, either), his few issues do a lot to inform Casey’s run. His first issue tackles this, as Cole Cash (Grifter) and Spartan (who’s an android and therefore doesn’t have a name, but later he’ll call himself Jack Marlowe) stumble into one another in Venice, as they’re both stopping a big arms deal, although Grifter doesn’t know much about the armaments until the end of the issue, when Lord Emp, the alien who brought the team together, shows up and tells him about a dude named Kenyan, an immortal being who loved getting the two sides of the war – the (sigh) Kherubim and Daemonites – to fight each other, and the fact that he has stolen an Armageddon device. Yeah, that has to suck. Lobdell also introduces C.C. Rendozzo, a crime queenpin who will become more important during Casey’s run, and he also brings up the idea of Voodoo – Priscilla Kitaen – embracing her Daemonite heritage, although, again, Casey goes further with it. Finally, Lobdell introduces the idea of Zealot deciding that the group of assassins that she founded – the Coda – has gone to far and needs to be destroyed, which comes to a head in Casey’s final storyline (this comes in issue #5, which Casey writes but which was plotted – or co-plotted – by Lobdell, so we can give him credit). So while Lobdell didn’t stay on the book long, he laid a good groundwork for Casey to build on.
First, Casey has to clear the decks of things he’s not interested in, so his first solo foray on the book gets Kenyan out of the way. As usual with Casey, he does it in a fairly unorthodox manner, but it was clear he wanted to move on from the main core of the Kherubim-Daemonite war, so he wraps up the Kenyan storyline and also deals with Marlowe – Lord Emp – as well. While this is standard deck-clearing, it’s interesting to consider how Casey frames it, with Emp trying to “ascend” to a higher plane of existence now that his purpose on Earth is completed. Casey’s theme of soldiers without a war is hinted at with Marlowe, as he realizes how silly the entire idea of “WildC.A.T.s” was in the first place, and how petty they all were. He wants Kenyan to kill him so he can ascend, and he thinks he can get that by taunting him. Kenyan is crazy, but he’s level-headed enough to not understand what Marlowe is doing, as he thinks this is another stage in their war. People who embed themselves in war often cannot understand when someone opts out of it, especially if it’s someone they know has loved fighting in the past. For too many people, conflict is the only way to resolve differences, and Kenyan is one of those. With this opening arc, Casey shows that he’s also not interested in that. He can write violent stuff as well as anyone, but he’s usually far more interested in exploring other ways to tell stories with conflicts in them. Lord Emp thinks he has a better way, and maybe he does. Once he’s out of the picture, Spartan – now calling himself Jack Marlowe in tribute to Lord Emp – tries yet another way, and that’s what Casey really wants to explore. On the one hand, he has Spartan becoming a business mogul and improving the world through commerce. On the other hand, Grifter is still trying to find another war to fight. The two characters move through the series on separate tracks, occasionally crossing over and coming into ideological conflict over their goals and the ways they want to achieve them. Casey keeps doing this to show how different they are, even if they might want the same things.
Spartan’s story is the more difficult to “sell,” both because Spartan is an android and therefore doesn’t emote all that often, and also because it’s about business, and while Casey himself might be interested in that kind of thing, it’s not easy to sell to the comics-reading public. “Jack Marlowe” sets up Halo – Lord Emp’s old company – in Los Angeles, and begins changing the world, as he puts it. He gets a big assist in that when he finds his old teammate Void on the roof of the Halo building, after the entity has become unbonded from Adrianna Tereshkova, the human it had been melded with in the first iteration of the team. Void allows Marlowe to tap into other dimensions for unlimited energy, and eventually, Marlowe takes Void’s abilities into his own body when the entity is sabotaged and dissipates. This gives him the ability to teleport, among other things, but it also means that Halo can put out products that far surpass their competitors’, including batteries that last forever, which forms the foundation of Marlowe’s business empire. This causes some drama, but what’s frustrating about this story is that Marlowe has become invincible. He decides to hire Noir, the arms dealer that Lobdell introduced in issue #1 of Volume 2, who is far more than just an arms dealer – he’s a computer genius to boot. Noir is completely amoral, and Marlowe keeps him happy by paying him a lot, but eventually Noir decides he wants more power, so he tries to destroy Marlowe. Casey attempts to make it dramatic, but by the time Noir makes his move, it’s clear that he’s completely outclassed, and Marlowe defeats him quite easily. He angers others, from the Los Angeles police to two accountants whose office he buys, but no one is in any position to stop him, and what he’s doing is completely legal anyway, and it’s clear he’s making millions of lives better. Casey checks in on him often, but it’s usually to show how others react to him. At the end of volume 3.0, he’s still thinking about business and how he’s going to conquer the world through capitalism. It’s an interesting premise, but Casey didn’t do as much as he could with it, mostly because it’s just hard to get people to care about this stuff. Once Casey went this route in a creator-owned series, Sex, he could do it because the expectations weren’t as high and the sales didn’t have to be as high (I assume, as that’s an Image book and this was for DC), but even there he has to throw in a lot of … what’s the word? Oh yes, coitus. Spartan does not copulate. I believe Robert Duvall told us that.
Grifter’s story is much more interesting, because it fits more into a traditional comic book and can come with requisite action but it still subverts a lot of the traditional superhero tropes. In the very first issue, we get hints about his problems to come. He’s in Venice to steal the money being exchanged in an arms deal, and while he admits to himself that it’s not the same a the “high life” as a Wildcat, it pays the bills. After Spartan shows up and blows it all to hell, Cole confronts Lord Emp and threatens him because of “what happened to Zealot.” He decides against it, however, and begins to leave, telling them that he “wasted” too much of his life as a team member, “keepin’ the world safe, from what?” Lobdell gives him the hints of bitterness about his life that Casey later allows to flourish. In issue #4, Lobdell shows “what happened to Zealot,” as six months before the events of this series, she was killed while rescuing a bunch of kids from a Daemonite attack in northern Ireland. Almost immediately, we discover that she’s not actually dead, but Grifter doesn’t know that, and the loss of the woman he loved shattered the team and shattered him, as well. In issue #6, Kenyan taunts Cole about Zealot’s death, but Grifter still doesn’t know she’s alive. All he knows is that he can’t get over it, and he’s acting recklessly because he doesn’t care about his own life anymore.
When Casey began to write the book on his own, he began to explore this idea more. Grifter tells Spartan in issue #8 that “Everything [the Kherubim/Daemonite war] got settled without us! We didn’t make a bit of difference!” and Spartan tells him it’s irrelevant, because the good guys won. Spartan, of course, is an android, and while he’s capable of mimicking human emotions, he simply doesn’t understand Cole’s “impotence” (Grifter tells Spartan it’s not what he thinks). Grifter wants to find Kenyan because he thinks he’s involved in Zealot’s death, and he hates sitting around waiting for him to show his face again. He’s a soldier, and even if he’s simply being pointed at something by someone else, that’s good for him. Sitting around and waiting is not for him. He claims this is for Zealot, but it’s clear that he’s just not that type of person, and he’ll find any excuse to get into the action. He tracks Lord Emp to Las Vegas, stops an attempted robbery of a casino, and finds out – with Spartan – why Emp cares so much about finding Kenyan. Then, Emp is gone, and Cole gets back in the work-for-hire game, finding Maxine Manchester for some clients (who turn out to be far shadier than he expects) and bringing her back into the fold. When a super-powered serial killer starts slaughtering people named “Marlowe” in an effort to find Lord Emp, who defeated his grandfather years earlier, Spartan brings Cole in on the hunt for the man, despite the fact that Spartan could easily defeat the man. He seems to know that Cole needs the action more than he does, so he allows Grifter to take the kill shot. During this time, we also learn that Cole is having sex with women who look very much like Zealot, and it’s clear he’s definitely not over her. Casey begins to explore this a bit more in the final issues of “volume 2.” In issue #20, he meets up with Jeremy Stone (whose superhero name was Maul), the doctor who’s been studying Voodoo’s DNA to “cure” her of her Daemonite side. Stone is clearly in love with Priscilla, and Cole can see this easily despite the fact that he can’t see that he’s not over Zealot yet (isn’t that always the way?). He goads Stone into hitting him (as Maul, which Casey treats as a “Hulk” moment, as Stone/Maul is an obvious analog), then tells him that Stone (and, by extension, Cole himself) “can’t make someone love you … believe me, I know.” Grifter is wallowing, but action – in the form of the federal government trying to find out what Stone is working on – snaps him out of it, as it always does. His obsession with women who look like Zealot leads him to the actual Zealot, whom he doesn’t recognize, even when she takes him back to her room and has sex with him. He sobers up and discovers it’s really Zealot, especially when the Coda comes a-calling and tries to kill her, but she leaves before he can have a conversation with him. He finds her again, but she’s in no mood to talk, beating him up and pinning him to a wall with an arrow before she cuts him down to size: “We had our moment. But you should never have come looking for me. This is what you will always find …” she says, as she pushes the arrow deeper into his shoulder. She lets him go because of what they shared, but it’s clear she won’t be all that merciful next time. Cole, of course, can’t let it go. He goes back to Spartan to tell him about Zealot, and they make a deal to work together to find her, but also for Cole to help out Marlowe. Grifter is still playing the angles, even though Zealot told him to leave her alone. He told Jeremy that he maybe he shouldn’t try to “save” Priscilla, but he can’t take his own advice. In issue #27, he tracks her down at a diner, but their conversation leads nowhere, and later, when he saves her from death at the hands of one of the Coda, she tells him she’s going to Europe to destroy the rest of the order. Casey does a nice job writing around what they should say to each other, but are too tough or damaged to get out. Zealot continues to say she’s going to kill Grifter, but she never actually gets around to it, and Cole keeps trying to become something he’s not because he thinks she’ll respond. When she leaves, Cole focuses on other things for a time, but he still can’t let it go. In Wildcats 3.0, he gets seriously injured and spends a good amount of time in a wheelchair, but he comes up with a plan to download his consciousness into Maxine Manchester’s robotic body so he can still fight, a desperate attempt by a sick man who can’t let go of the action. In Casey’s final storyline, Cole recruits several shady characters to head to Europe to assist Zealot in destroying the Coda once and for all. The “Coda War” feels like a concession by Casey to either the fans or the higher-ups who wanted a typical superhero action comic, and it was too little, too late, but Casey was still able to infuse it with his weirdness, mostly stemming from Cole inhabiting a female (albeit robotic) body and twisting the attraction and love he feels for Zealot just a bit because the words are coming from a woman. It’s the weakest story of the entire run, but Casey manages to at least give Cole a bit of closure with regard to his lust for action and his lust for Zealot.
While Spartan and Grifter are the two most obvious examples of what Casey is doing, he does this with the other characters as well. Warren Ellis famously wrote “Change or Die” in StormWatch, and Casey, as he does in so much of his comic book fiction, is fascinated by this maxim. As I noted, Priscilla embraces her Daemonite heritage, but not after she goes through the trauma of having her legs sliced off by the serial killer who’s looking for “Marlowe.” Priscilla has been living with Stone, not in any romantic way, and she’s been spinning her wheels, basically. When we first see her, she’s shopping and chilling in the pool (which is basically an excuse for Charest to draw her in a bikini) while Jeremy hangs out in his lab, seemingly ignoring her but really trying to “cure” her. In that issue, we see she’s still a bad-ass, but she doesn’t really want to have anything to do with Spartan and Grifter. When she meets Samuel Smith, the superpowered serial killer, she’s on a shopping spree using a Halo credit card, because once again she has nothing to do. Without being as obvious as he is with Spartan and Grifter, Casey shows that Voodoo, as well, is adrift without the war to sustain her. When Smith lasers her legs off, she learns to regrow them with the help of an old Daemonite who is still on Earth but wants only to assist her. Unlike Cole, Priscilla is able to leave the past behind and move on, which is why Casey doesn’t use her in version 3.0. She has become a well-adjusted adult, and fiction can’t abide people like that. Casey doesn’t stop with Priscilla, of course. Agent Wax, who works for the National Park Service (Casey’s version of a Shadowy Government Organization that has a function far beyond what the public believes), goes through his own crisis of the soul, although his is not as successful as some of the others’. Wax loses his partner to Samuel Smith, and he blames himself for it. In version 3.0, he uses his power – he can sublimely influence people – to have sex with his boss’s wife, and while we’re supposed to think of this as reprehensible, Casey really doesn’t delve into how skeevy this is as much as you’d like, and Wax is the focus, as he’s trying to work things out in his own mind and his boss is a complete tool. The wife really doesn’t get much of a personality, unfortunately, and the story is not about Wax’s violation of her as much as it’s about Wax. Even in 2002-2004, this was an uncomfortable storyline, and while Casey certainly doesn’t condone Wax’s actions, it doesn’t feel like he condemns them enough. The point is that Wax is seeing his world shift, and he has to deal with it. That he does so in perhaps the most disgusting way possible doesn’t change the fact that Casey is pushing his characters through things they might not want to experience, and how they come out of it is the important thing. It’s just too bad he chose this particular route for Wax.
It’s probably too much of a stretch to say that Casey chose artists for the tone of the various stories he was telling, as I doubt Casey ever had that kind of pull. However, the artists on the book are interesting. Travis Charest gave us two complete issues and 78 total glorious pages, but his style had changed to the point where he did not work fast enough, and this is the last time he attempted a serialized monthly (or even semi-monthly) comic book series. His art is spectacular, and fits the jazzy, modern vibe Lobdell and then Casey were going for, and it’s too bad Charest couldn’t continue with it. Sean Phillips came on board with issue #8, and Casey’s writing fit his style pretty well. Phillips was over a decade into his career by then, but he hadn’t evolved into the superb artist he is today, although he was quite good even then. The biggest problem with the art is an angularity that makes his action scenes a bit stilted, and occasionally his figure work is a bit wonky. When he puts Spartan in a suit, for instance, our hero looks like a box with arms. However, Casey doesn’t give Phillips too many action scenes to draw, emphasizing instead the interactions between the characters, and Phillips has always been excellent at drawing faces so that even though he doesn’t use a ton of details, he can express emotions beautifully with very little. Cole is angry a lot, so that’s pretty easy, but Phillips’s best work might be with Jeremy Stone, who’s struggling in his work, clearly in love with Priscilla, but unwilling to break down and admit things might be difficult for him. When Priscilla is attacked by Samuel Smith, Maul grabs him, and the rage on Stone’s face is painfully etched, and then, after he reverts to human, he can’t find Priscilla (he’s been temporarily blinded), but the pain and anxiety he feels when he can’t find her and the relief he feels when he touches her leg are palpable, making the reveal that the leg he’s touching has been severed all the more horrifying. Phillips keeps the stories low-key, which despite some of the superpowered stuff going on, is how Casey likes it. Spartan is figuring things out, and the art makes it clear he wants to keep it all quiet before he finally reveals himself. That Noir, who turns out to be less than trustworthy, helps him come to conclusions about the future of the company is ironic, and Phillips does well with both Noir and Spartan as they have their final confrontation, as Noir remains confident in his abilities until the ultimate moment, while Spartan is thoughtful about what Noir shows him. In Wildcats 3.0, Casey is joined by Dustin Nguyen, who is a slicker and more fluid artist than Phillips (I don’t mean “slicker” pejoratively; Nguyen’s lines are just thinner and his inker – at this time usually Richard Friend – didn’t make them heavy, despite a nice usage of spot blacks in the artwork), and Casey responded with a bit more “superhero” action in Version 3.0 even as he leaned into Spartan and Halo changing the world through commerce. There seems to be more stuff set during the day, as Nguyen’s finer line seemed to fit the brightness more than Phillips’s heavier line, and we also get a bit more of a sense of humor in the early issues of Version 3.0, with the somewhat odd attack on the fresh-faced suburban family in issues #4-5 a highlight (they happen to be highly trained assassins, so the attack makes some sense). Wildcats 3.0 is all about Spartan stepping out of the shadows and into the light, and Nguyen’s style fits that very well. Once Nguyen left the book, the other artists – none of whom were bad – were either aping his style or just artists who drew like him, so the visual tone of the book didn’t change, but even someone like Duncan Rouleau, who’s a fine artist himself, couldn’t quite match Nguyen, as Rouleau is just cartoonish enough that his work on the more serious “Coda War” doesn’t quite mesh. It feels like Casey simply asking a friend – he and Rouleau are half of the Ben 10 team – to help him out as his book spirals the drain. The art after Nguyen is perfectly fine, but it doesn’t quite feel right, and it’s too bad that Nguyen couldn’t draw the entire run or that the book sold enough so that a regular artist could have come on board.
This run of Wildcats is frustrating, like a lot of comics, because it’s clear that, despite actually managing 47 issues, Casey had only scratched the surface of what he was trying to do. He was trying to do a lot, which is par for the course for him, and while he managed to get some of his ideas out there, Wildcats couldn’t make enough of a dent in the comics market to last. This still feels ahead of its time, as superheroes making the world better through innovation and technology are still not terribly mainstream (it’s not surprising, given the pressures to keep the status quo intact), and even the idea of superheroes suffering from post-traumatic stress isn’t that embedded in the culture. Casey (and, to be fair, Lobdell) took characters that had been fighting forever and asked what happened once the fight went away. As usual with Casey’s writing, he’s not content to simply write big-time superhero bashes, as he often considers the price superpowered people have to pay for their lifestyles. Spartan becomes even more distant, vanishing into his corporation in order to please the only father figure he knew, while Cole dives further into action and sex. Priscilla stagnates; Jeremy obsesses. Casey doesn’t care all that much about action, which is why the way the series ends is the tiniest bit disappointing, but it just shows how desperate Cole is now that his war is over, and so it still fits in with the overall narrative.
The entire run, both iterations, has been collected in trade paperback, but Version 3.0 appears to be out of print or hard to find. That’s too bad, because both sections of this comic form a fascinating look at superheroes who don’t quite know how to exist in the world, and Casey doesn’t necessarily take the route you think he will. I linked to the second trade below, although the first is worth getting mostly for the Charest art (the stories are fine, but it was clear Lobdell wasn’t sure where to go with it and then Casey began tearing it down, something he accomplishes in volume 2). Casey has written better comics, certainly, so I wouldn’t call this his masterpiece, but it’s still a very interesting and complex comic that asks hard questions and doesn’t always furnish answers. That’s not a bad way to construct a work of fiction.
If you’re interested, you can always check out the archives!