WILDSTORM: REMEMBERING THE TWENTY BEST
I’m ten years too old to have grown up with Wildstorm, but as former CBR senior editor Andy Khouri recently pointed out, it was a company, then an imprint, that shaped a generation. Or at least reflected one.
In the way that those of us who grew up in the 1980s found ourselves coming of age just as comics were undergoing a metamorphosis from innocence to experience, from purity to a Swamp Thing anatomy lesson, the teens of the 1990s found their concerns echoed in the sentiments of the likes of Grunge and Burnout, before growing out of it just in time for Warren Ellis to show them how foolish they’d been.
Yet even though I was over-the-hill by the time “Gen 13” made its debut, I was there at the beginning, picking up every single issue of “WildC.A.T.S” as drawn by Jim Lee. Reading “Wetworks,” at least for a while. Buying “Stormwatch” well before it was any good at all. The energy and youthful passion in those comics wasn’t enough to sustain my interest for long, true, but I stuck with those Wildstorm comics a lot longer than I stuck with the titles from what became known as Top Cow, or whatever Rob Liefeld’s company was called at the time.
And then, just as I was no longer paying attention, Wildstorm began to matter more than just about anything else in the comic book industry. Alan Moore doing “America’s Best Comics,” a banner that may have been retro-hyperbole, but wasn’t too far from the truth, in some cases. Warren Ellis spinning superhero and genre comics in a direction that they’re still headed, a decade later. Joe Casey. James Robinson. Ed Brubaker. I may not have grown up with Wildstorm and watched the transformation happen, but I found myself picking up more and more Wildstorm comics as the late 1990s wore on. And it’s only in retrospect that I have realized it wasn’t a smattering of random comics from random publishers that changed the game heading into the 21st century. It was Wildstorm, not completely, but largely, and when I sit down to write the history of the 1990s in comics – which I am scheduled to do, though it may take a few years – I suspect the last few chapter of the book will be able to be summarized as, “And that’s when Wildstorm became amazing!”
So in these days when we’re counting down to the official demise of the Wildstorm imprint – though we all know that it’s been a while since it has seen its best times – I don’t want to simply lament what used to be. Or what might have been. I just want to talk about the good stuff. The Top 20 Wildstorm Comics of All Time. And it’s a list with a lot to be proud of. When you look at the Wildstorm output as a whole, and how big a percentage these 20 comics represent, you could make a case for Wildstorm being the most aesthetically-successful mainstream company (or imprint) ever. I wouldn’t stop you.
THE 20 BEST WILDSTORM COMICS OF ALL TIME
20. “Ex Machina,” by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris
The most recent “important” series from Wildstorm to reach its conclusion, “Ex Machina” was far from perfect – Tony Harris seemed to be drawing mannequins for much of the run, except when Kremlin was involved – but it dealt with a different kind of hero in a different kind of world. Neither cynical nor blindingly optimistic, Brian K. Vaughan’s portrayal of a superheroic New York City is emblematic of its time without being too allegorical. Mayor Hundred is a fascinating, screwed-up hero, and the final issue of the series puts an exclamation point on the whole project.
19. “Deathblow,” by Brandon Choi, Jim Lee and Tim Sale
This outranks the Brian Azzarello revamp and makes a surprising appearance in the Top 20. Well, if you’ve read it, maybe you’re not surprised, because it’s one of the best-looking comics to ever come out of Wildstorm (and even if it’s from the pre-official Wildstorm era of Image, it’s still a Wildstorm production) . That’s right, it’s Jim Lee and Tim Sale doing their best Frank-Miller-from-Sin-City impression, but it may be the best art they’ve ever produced. Okay, Sale may have gone on to do more interesting work with Batman and the Marvel characters, but this is the best-looking Jim Lee series in history. It was a time when he was experimenting with his style, and with the complete absence of tiny lines and crosshatching, it looks fantastic. I remember the story as being pretty cool, too, but I could be wrong about that. Every time I’ve picked it up to reread it, I’ve just found myself staring at the art.
18. “Tomorrow Stories,” by Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie, Rick Veitch, Kevin Nowlan, Jim Baikie, and Hilary Barta
I’m partial to the Jack B. Quick stories, and there’s probably a time in my life when I would have dismissed this series as “Jack B. Quick, some Eisner gags and some other stuff,” but this is a talented creative team and every single issue of “Tomorrow Stories” is worth reading. It’s Alan Moore riffing on comic books of the past and providing satirical takes on the modern world. It’s a tribute to the Silver Age and Mad Magazine, and if that sounds like the basis for a good comic, then you’re right. Especially with this gang of artists involved.
17. Stormwatch PHD,” Christos Gage and Doug Mahnke
Gage is doing some career-best work on “Avengers Academy” right now, but this is where he first made his mark on the industry. It was one of those rare police-procedural-and-superhero mash-ups that actually works, and it featured the kind of mystery and suspense that made the story genuinely compelling. Gage established himself here as a guy who can write characters who each have distinctive voices, and, oh yeah, it’s got art by Doug Mahnke which means it looks gorgeous and disturbing at the same time.
16. “WildC.A.T.s,” by Alan Moore, Jim Lee, Travis Charest, and others
Though I had been reading this series since its first issue, I’m not sure I actually liked it that much until James Robinson came during its second year (though with the delays I’d guess issue #15 was far beyond year two, in real time), and then when Alan Moore came in, he made this series work in a way it had never worked before. Even with Moore playing everything straight – there’s nothing fancy in his work on this series – he raised the quality immediately just by making some kind of sense out of the Daemonite and Kherubim situation. And, he introduced Ladytron.
15. “Smax,” by Alan Moore and Zander Cannon
The stoic Jeff Smax from “Top 10” turns out to come from a fairytale world and Moore and Cannon are brave enough to show it. Completely different in look and tone from “Top 10,” this series is a lot of fun, kind of an Alan Moore-doing-“Shrek” story, though with more humanity than that might imply. It’s apparently been compared to “Fables,” and it does bear some superficial resemblances, but then this is “Fables” done with more wit and charm. It reads smarter and doesn’t get in its own way as it tells its story.
14. “Mr. Majestic,” by Joe Casey, Brian Holguin, Ed McGuiness, and Eric Canete
If you were to do a retrospective on “All-Star Superman,” looking at its predecessors, you could do a lot worse than taking a look at what Joe Casey and pals were doing on this series. It surely plays with the Majestic-as-Superman-analogue far more directly than any other series featuring this character (and there have been a surprising amount of “Majestic” comics), and it does that kind of post-Silver Age Silver Agery stuff just about as well as any comic ever has. It was a short-lived series, but it featured some stunningly good art, and it wasn’t afraid to be ambitious.
13. “Global Frequency,” by Warren Ellis and some superstars
Before this series came out, I remember thinking that it was going to be Warren Ellis’s “Watchmen.” His career path seemed to indicate that this was going to be his masterpiece. I didn’t realize that he had already had his “Watchmen” a few years earlier, and this was more along the lines of his “Give Me Liberty.” An excellent comic, but the art matters a lot more than the story. But as a collection of good-enough stories mixed with artists of the caliber of Garry Leach, Jon. J. Muth, David Lloyd, Chris Sprouse, and Gene Ha, well, it’s pretty darn good overall.
12. “Arrowsmith,” by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco
The high concept of this series – WWI with dragon-riders – was enough to pique my interest, but this is also the comic that features the best of Carlos Pacheco. I don’t know what happened to Pacheco after “Arrowsmith,” and he’s still a fine artist, but something about his approach to visuals seems to have changed. He has never been as dynamic and illustrative as he was here. Busiek’s story of a young soldier is a good one, mostly because it’s so achingly romantic, and Pacheco creates such a beautiful backdrop in which the story can unfold.
11. “Leave it to Chance,” by James Robinson and Paul Smith
The best word to use to describe this series is “charming.” That’s a word that’s sometimes used dismissively, and to call something simply charming seems to sap its strength as something that might matter to the world at large. But “Leave it to Chance” features a plucky girl adventurer and her magical sidekick in a world of crime and corruption. It’s as high concept as “Arrowsmith,” but it feels more alive. It’s one of the great James Robinson comics, and though I’ve liked Paul Smith elsewhere, this will always seem like the purest distillation of his remarkable style.
10. “Tom Strong,” by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse
There’s a coldness to this series that it never quite shakes, and Alan Moore doesn’t write all the issues – though his tend to be the best, of course. But that doesn’t make this comic any less impressive as a high-wire adventure comic full of super-science and family and dimension-hopping and worlds of wonder. Tom Strong is Doc Savage mixed with Tom Swift mixed with whatever else is on Alan Moore’s mind. Out of all the comics on this list, I think this is the one that will most grow in esteem as the years march on.
9. “Automatic Kafka,” by Joe Casey and Ashley Wood
I don’t know what spawned this short-lived series, though the alchemy probably involved the Marvel Tech “Deathlok,” Morrison’s “Doom Patrol” and “Animal Man,” Sienkiewicz’s “Stray Toasters” and the work of Charles Schultz. Whatever was injected into it, “Automatic Kafka” ended up unlike anything on the stands. It’s achingly personal, but also abstract. It’s about the end of a super-team and the days after everything start to fall apart, but it’s also about Joe Casey and Ashley Wood, more than anything. Its legacy lives on, if in the form of company-hopping butterflies, if nothing else.
8. “Promethea,” by Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III
This thirty-two issue history of magic/magic spell is stronger as a visual essay than as a compelling story, but there’s no rule that says that comics have to hide their declarative positions beneath a veneer of narrative. Usually, writers embed their philosophies in the themes of their stories, or have characters vocalize different intentions. Moore does that, but he doesn’t do it with anything approaching subtlety. He tells you what he believes, what he means, in this comic, and he does do in a way that tells about the history of the world as well. Words and images are magic, Moore says, and J. H. Williams steals the whole show by proving him right.
7. “Kurt Busiek’s Astro City,” by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
This series has been quietly coming out for so long – and with so many delays and breaks – that it’s a bit shocking to look back on it and see how immense the story actually is. And though it’s structured as an anthology series of sorts, with each special or miniseries focusing on a different character or group, this is actually one big story. The story of comics, not in the manner of “Promethea,” which is so declarative, but in the manner of a comfortable old yarn, spoken with a slight tinge of regret. “Astro City” is a bittersweet superhero saga, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. “Sleeper,” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
“Point Blank” was fine, but “Sleeper” (both seasons) escalated the street level Wildstorm P.O.V. to something special. Sadly, I can’t get Tom Cruise out of my head when I think about this series now, but that’s my brain’s fault – and Sam Raimi’s fault – and shouldn’t cast a shadow over this excellent series about a super-powered mole. What really makes this series work, besides Sean Phillips’s art, which certainly helps, is that Brubaker twists things only slightly off-kilter. This is almost a conventional superhero story, about a hero infiltrating a team of evil, but it’s not quite that. And in that not-quite, which Brubaker expands and explores, he finds something new to say about criminals and superheroes and everything in between.
5. “Planetary,” by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday
Now that we’re down to the Five Best Wildstorm Comics Ever, the other writers drift away and we’re down to the big two: Moore and Ellis. They dominate the Top 5 for a reason, and it’s a simple as this: they produced some of the best work in their career for Wildstorm, within a four-year span around the year 2000. This was the “Miracleman,” “Watchmen,” “Dark Knight Returns,” “American Flagg!” seismic shift for the new generation, and “Planetary” was certainly a part of it. Sure, “Planetary” may ultimately end up feeling a lot more thin than its first dozen issues implied, but it still helps mark a major shift in genre self-consciousness and the redefinition of cool. Ellis, Cassaday, Wagner, Snow, and Drummer, exploring possibilities.
4. “Top 10,” by Alan Moore and Gene Ha
Though this series was promoted as a simple “what would cops be like in a world in which everyone had super-powers,” it immediately established itself as a strong ensemble series about a group of well-defined characters. That they were visually interesting only helped. That Gene Ha hid panel after panel of Easter eggs featuring characters from every era and genre only made it more interesting. That Alan Moore takes all this and then uses it to comment on comic book absurdities while still making the characters feel real – that makes it astonishing.
3. “Stormwatch,” by Warren Ellis, Tom Raney, and others
Read the pre-Ellis “Stormwatch” comics, then read the beginning of his run starting with issue #37 and you will see the moment when 1990s comics turned into 21st century comics. It’s not such a radical shift as when Neal Adams first started drawing “Brave and the Bold,” but it’s an important one. Ellis imbued the series with an edgy cynicism that had been implied in the series but never actually given resonant form. And when he kicked off volume 2 of the series, things became even more refined and streamlined. The Age of Ellis had begun, and continued in…
2. “Authority,” by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch
You know how every sci-fi movie in the six or seven years after “The Matrix” did whatever they could to ape that film’s style? That’s what happened to superhero comics after Ellis and Hitch hit with “Authorty.” It helped that comics were also aping “The Matrix” at the time, and it was a logical continuation of that version of cool to have heroes clad in leather, but Ellis and Hitch took iconic superheroes and gave them a strong political presence. They tackled issues and took control, a logical extension of the Bronze Age era of Relevance, but with a darker spin. Razor sharp and diamond hard, Ellis and Hitch’s “Authority” resonates.
1. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
The best Wildstorm comic of all time is actually two six-issue series and a hardcover (and, yes, “Black Dossier” is a masterpiece, if a flawed one). I’ve been an intense, passionate fan of Kevin O’Neil since “Marshal Law” #1 – and his “Nemesis the Warlock” is my all-time favorite “2000 AD Strip,” even beating out “Zenith” – but ignoring my personal bias toward the art in this comic, this is still easily the best of the Wildstorm comics. What Moore and O’Neil do here is more than just mash together some of literature’s greatest characters, which, by itself, would be a pretty great concept for a comic, but they tell the story in a tight, focused way that works like one of the futuristic clockwork contraptions in the corners of Nemo’s ship. Moore shows such a deep affection for these literary characters, and such a deep understanding of how they would operate in a singular universe, that every single installment of the story feels like a perfectly crafted gem of a story. The characters resonate, the knowing winks to the world of great literature are fun, the plots are full of danger and mystery. And “Black Dossier” tells a Virginia Woolf story in the manner of “Punch” magazine. “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” is the best of Wildstorm, and as the imprint fades away, at least we can console ourselves by remembering that this comic is still alive, even at a new home.
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan