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Comics You Should Own – StormWatch vol. 1 #37-50; vol. 2 #1-11

by  in Comic News Comment
Comics You Should Own – <i>StormWatch</i> vol. 1 #37-50; vol. 2 #1-11

It’s time to look at the comic that turned a marginally well-known writer named Warren Ellis into a superstar named “Warren Ellis”! Won’t that be fun!

StormWatch by Warren Ellis (writer), Tom Raney (penciller, issues #37-40, 42-46, 48-50), Pete Woods (penciller, issue #39), Michael Ryan (penciller, issues #41; 3, 8-11), Jim Lee (penciller, issue #47), Oscar Jimenez (penciller, Preview and issues #1-3), Bryan Hitch (penciller, issues #4-11), Chris Sprouse (penciller, WildC.A.T.s/Aliens), Randy Elliott (inker, issues #37-46, 48-50), Richard Bennett (inker, issues #47), Chuck Gibson (inker, Preview), Jason Gorder (inker, issue #1), Mark McKenna (inker, issue #2), Eduardo Alpuente (inker, issue #3), Paul Neary (inker, issues #4-11), Scott Williams (inker, issue #7), Luke Rizzo (inker, issues #8-11), Kevin Nowlan (inker, WildC.A.T.s/Aliens), Gina Going (colorist, issues #37-50), Wildstorm FX (colorist, Preview and issues #7-11), Mike Rockwitz (colorist, issues #1-3), Laura Depuy (colorist, issues #4-6, 11, and WildC.A.T.s/Aliens), Bill O’Neil (letterer, issues #37-41, 43, 45-50), Michael Heisler (letterer, issue #42, 44), Clem Robins (letterer, Preview and issues #1-3), Amie Grenier (letterer, issues #4-6, 10), Denice Park (letterer, issues #5-9, 11), and Bill Oakley (letterer, WildC.A.T.s/Aliens).

Published by Image (in conjunction with Dark Horse for WildC.A.Ts/Aliens), 27 issues (#37-50 of volume 1, StormWatch Preview, #1-11 of volume 2, and WildC.A.T.s/Aliens, which comes after issue #10 of volume 2), cover dated July 1996 – September 1998.

Lots of SPOILERS ahead, people. Deal with it!

When Warren Ellis began writing StormWatch, he certainly wasn’t the star he would be coming out of it, when he relaunched it as The Authority. He had written a terrific Hellstorm comic, some decent but overwrought Doom 2099 comics, he had begun writing Excalibur and some other X-books (a Storm mini-series), a nice little story on Thor, a fun Legends of the Dark Knight arc, and some other stuff.

But he wasn’t “Warren Ellis,” even though he had begun experimenting with certain themes he would later use (in Hellstorm, he wrote about a bar where one could have their soul destroyed, which shows up in StormWatch #46). His work on StormWatch freed him, as in his earlier work he was perfectly able to incorporate Marvel history into it and still make it compelling (it’s one of the great thing about Hellstorm, frankly), but it also became clear that he wasn’t terribly interested in doing that. About halfway through his StormWatch run, he began Transmetropolitan, and his evolution into “Warren Ellis” was complete. StormWatch is the highest-profile book he was working on during those few years (1996 and 1997) when he shifted from a weird work-for-hire guy to a full-blown comics celebrity. It’s not the only reason why StormWatch is a great comic, but it’s one of them.

StormWatch and then The Authority (which is a lesser work, unfortunately) is Ellis’s final statement on conventional superheroes, and he’s rarely gone back to them since.

His idea of superheroes isn’t terribly unique – Alan Moore did the same thing on Miracleman a decade earlier than Ellis did – but the interesting thing about Ellis is that he never turns his superheroes into gods and he never forgets who they’re fighting for. His heroes are wonderfully flawed, which makes these comics more tragic than we might expect from a superhero comic. He points out how difficult it is to live up to ideals, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. The flaws in his heroes mean that they often can’t see the evil lurking right in front of them, as Ellis sets up a nice dichotomy between the naïve superheroes – it’s not a coincidence that Nikolas (Winter) and Lauren (Fahrenheit), the Russian and the American who grew up in the Cold War believing in black-and-white good-and-evil sides, are the two most idealistic and trusting of the group – and the brutal realities of the “real world” … as real as the WildStorm universe can be, of course. Ellis gives us villains that are his favorite kind of superpeople – those who want to make the world “better” but fail to do it in the “right” way.

His first “villain,” Father, is another favorite kind – a genetically engineered superperson – who believes his mission is to elevate humanity to something better, which unfortunately means killing quite a few of them. As he dies, he mutters “All I wanted to do was change the world,” which is the theme of the entire run. Ellis’s superpeople are supposed to change the world, and his bad guys are those who either do it in a way that entails killing a lot of innocent people or those who want to hold the world back from this change. It’s not surprising that Ellis leads us to “Change or Die,” the culmination of his first StormWatch run, in which the villain turns out to be Henry Bendix, the Weatherman of StormWatch, as he fights against John Cumberland and his cadre of heroes – including early incarnations of the Doctor and the Engineer – because they want to change the world in a different way than Bendix does, a way that Bendix sees as too chaotic for the “common people” to deal with. Ellis is a strong proponent of the “common people,” and as I noted, his villains are those who want to change the world in the “wrong” way, which usually means ignoring the common people and setting up a left-leaning dictatorship that comics writers are always fascinated by. Ellis is having none of that, and it’s why Bendix is such an evil villain – he doesn’t trust John Cumberland or Jenny Sparks, and therefore tries to destroy them even though they can help him change the world.

This theme is consistent across his work on the book. I mentioned Father, who shows up in issue #37. In issue #38 Ellis sets up the conflict between the United States government and StormWatch, which is under the suzerainty of the United Nations. This comes up again in issue #39, when StormWatch finds superpowered policemen in an American city who are abusing civil rights. This issue is notable because one of the policemen gives voice to the idea that is anathema to Ellis, especially in this comic: “You know why we were recruited? To keep things the same. Change is no good.”

This issue also introduces the idea of a “rogue activator,” a person like Christine Trelane of StormWatch who can activate latent superpowers. This is Wish, who works with John Cumberland and turns out to have less-than-noble thoughts about Cumberland’s mission. In issue #40, Ellis gives us the “real” Kaizen Gamorra (Brandon Choi and Jim Lee’s Kaizen Gamorra turned out to be John Colt, but I’m not getting into that here!), who claims that terrorism is his country’s “vocation.” Once again, Ellis links evil to the American government, as Kaizen tells Bendix that he purchased “gen-factor” – mutagenic material that can turn people into superhumans – from the “American military-industrial complex.” Bendix doesn’t care, and orders Rose Tattoo, one of his new StormWatch agents, to kill 233 Gamorrans, which is the exact number of people who died in Kaizen’s terrorist strike. Bendix is no longer messing around with regard to keeping the world safe, but again, it’s all on his terms, and Fahrenheit and Flint express, again, the different ways the characters feel about his actions. Lauren, as an American, believes in justice, and thinks what Bendix is doing is horrific, while Victoria, who grew up in Kenya, understands that sometimes evil needs to be excised, even though she also doesn’t love what Rose is doing.

Ellis knows that his characters are from different backgrounds and have different experiences to draw upon, and they don’t necessarily have a Manichean view of the world.

Issue #41 spotlights Christine, as she gets closer to the rogue activator, and in issue #42, Ellis returns to the theme of villains trying to change the world in the “wrong” way, in this case with a Japanese religious leader who wants to fool Japan into becoming a military power again. Raifu Waaku uses the new technology of the WildStorm universe – the gen-factor – to turn the clock back, because the world has already changed in a way that he doesn’t like. To him, Fuji represents everything wrong about the new world, as he subsumes his nationality for the greater good of humanity, while Raifu is willing to kill many Japanese just so the amorphous idea of a “country” can be strong again. Ellis has some fun (well, as much fun as he can have on this comic) with the idea of nationality and a country’s sins in issue #43, when Jack Hawksmoor has to fight against the insane, syphilitic son of John Kennedy, who goes around killing people only for the Secret Service to cover it up. It’s the most ridiculous issue in the run and the one that feels most like Ellis just ranting about the abuse of power, but it does fit in with the theme of the past haunting the present and how some people – the “villains” in the book – can’t move beyond it.

In the brilliant issue #44, Ellis tracks the life of Jenny Sparks, as she goes through various time periods and learns hard truths about power and its abuses. This is where we first learn of Sliding Albion, which Ellis would later bring back in The Authority, but it’s also where he shows his cynicism, as Kirby’s 1960s superhero dream is destroyed in an Altamount-style disaster, while the horrific Watchmen parody that he comes up with for her time in the 1980s shows the logical extreme of superpeople who can’t handle their power. Ellis does end it on a positive note, but it’s still a depressing (if excellent) issue, and it sets the stage for “Change or Die” nicely. Issues #45 is more of the same – in it, Jackson King is kidnapped by white supremacists who want the United States out of the United Nations, which goes badly for them. Finally, in issue #46, Ellis sets the stage for his final arc, as we discover the existence of John Cumberland, Bendix and Rose Tattoo conspire, and StormWatch goes out for drinks. This is where Ellis revisits his idea of a place the destroys souls using nuclear weapons, and it also gives him a chance to humanize the team a bit before they’re forced to fight against the High and his co-conspirators. It’s another wonderful issue, mainly because Ellis is so good at writing dialogue that illuminates his characters really well. After almost a fill-in issue, which #47 really is despite the presence of Jim Lee on artwork, Ellis was ready to take all of these themes he had been working on and end his run with a bang.

“Change or Die” in issues #48-50 is a fairly typical Ellisian arc – he can certainly write decompressed arcs with the best of them, but ultimately, he likes to get to the point, and these three issues feel stuffed and would probably have been much longer had they come out a few years later, after it became fashionable to do six-issue arcs. It’s a terrific story, even if it had been done before and would be done again, mainly because Ellis can walk that fine line between cynicism and optimism so well that the arc, for all its bleakness, doesn’t feel as drudging as a lot of stories like this do. It’s pretty much Ellis’s senior thesis on superhero stuff – it’s a story about what he believes superheroes ought to do and how they are thwarted in that regard, and while it was supposed to end his involvement with StormWatch (Ellis writes about this in issue #11, where he discusses how the book was cancelled and relaunched after issue #50, but he went into Volume 2 much more disorganized, and he implies that he had fewer ideas about what to do after “Change or Die”), it does lead directly to The Authority, which I guess would be his doctoral thesis on superheroes. In “Change or Die,” we get the superhero determined to change the world for the better (John Cumberland), who gathers like-minded individuals around him and who is opposed by a foe who doesn’t disagree with him theoretically, but because he himself wants to be in charge of the change (Henry Bendix).

The High is so blinded by his ideals that he ignores the nasty ways some of his cohorts pass the time – Blind tries to kill Jenny Sparks and then goes a bit further than Cumberland would have liked in torturing Malcolm King, while Wish, as we had seen earlier in the run, goes around activating metahumans, and she also enjoys toying with men by using her powers. Meanwhile, Ellis cleverly shows why the idea of liberal dictatorships, which superheroes always set up, are a bad idea. In other comics (including The Authority after Ellis left the comic), the superheroes set up their own dictatorships, which, no matter how well-intentioned, always fail. In “Change or Die,” Cumberland claims that his group will give humanity the tools and then disappear. Bendix is the one who wants to set up the dictatorship, with him guiding humanity where he believes it should go, and he’s the villain. Cumberland might be hopelessly naïve, but he also understands that you can’t force people to give up hatred. The best you can do is give them what they need to overcome it and let them figure it out. Bendix still doesn’t get that, so he fights with everything he has against the High and his group. He and StormWatch “win” in that Cumberland and the rest of them fail, but Jenny Sparks sees what Bendix is and gets rid of him, too, paving the way for a new StormWatch and, ultimately, the Authority.

Issues #37-50 are marvelous superhero stories, and it’s clear that Ellis wasn’t quite sure what to do after that.

He revisited the “United Nations-versus-United States” theme he had already established, and that was fine, but he does point out that in issue #4, when Bryan Hitch came on board as semi-regular penciller, he got his mojo back. He introduced Apollo and Midnighter in issue #4 (where they’re naked in their first appearance, which is why absolutely no one was surprised when we found out they were a couple) and then introduced the concept of the Bleed in issue #7 (which is such an influential idea that DC is still using it). I didn’t read these when they were coming out, but reading them together makes it feel like Ellis is striving for something that he couldn’t quite get, and for which he needed to clear the decks. StormWatch as it was constituted wasn’t working for him, and “Bleed” makes that clear, as Jackson King could have done something to help the alternate universe but decided against it, drawing the ire of Winter, who believes that they have a duty to help anyone in need, even other universes. King couldn’t see expansively, even if he was better than Henry Bendix, but Ellis could, so he had to do something.

That “something,” of course, is the greatest inter-company crossover in history, WildC.A.T.s/Aliens, in which Ellis kills the core of the old StormWatch – Winter, Fahrenheit, Hellstrike, and Fuji – and makes way for Jenny to form the Authority. Ellis gives only Winter a good send-off – Toshiro, Nigel, and Lauren are all killed off-panel – but that’s what makes it so effective, as the xenomorphs took them out easily and almost do the same to the WildC.A.T.s. In one way, we can read this as Ellis dismissing the characters he didn’t care about, but Ellis had done wonderful work with those characters since he took over, and it’s probably more that he felt they didn’t fit in with his new idea and he needed to make it clear that Jenny’s group was dealing with a changed world. As I noted above, Nikolas and Lauren were relics of a different world, one where patriotism wasn’t a bad thing and the sides were clearly drawn. In many ways, Nigel and Toshiro were part of that world as well – despite Nigel’s cynicism, he believed in an order to the world, and Ellis wrote Toshiro as a pacifist, to a large degree – so they had to go. Bendix’s black ops that gave the world Apollo and Midnighter, the existence of the Bleed and alternate universes, and aliens that can scratch even Zealot’s impervious blade – these are threats that StormWatch could not handle.

Ellis raised the stakes, and therefore he had to create something new. That doesn’t mean his second run on the title isn’t worthy, but it’s interesting to read it as a failed superhuman team and its inevitable demise.

Ellis doesn’t break new ground in this series, but what he does is take the model provided by something like Miracleman and bring some realpolitik to the proceedings. Where Moore’s masterpiece was all about the establishment of a liberal dictatorship, the heroes of StormWatch and even the Authority aren’t that powerful, and there are too many villains to stand against them. Ellis wants to examine what the world would be like with those superhumans, and how countries that could react in an aggressive way might do so. Yes, he picks on the U.S. a bit, but that’s because the U.S. is still the most powerful nation on the planet and back in the 1990s, the mood against the U.N. could have easily turned aggressive instead of remaining a bullet point for conservatives that they never actually act on. Genetic manipulation, ultra-right extremist groups, rogue nations – all of this remains timely, and while Ellis had written about such themes before and he’s certainly done so since, he’s never done it on a comic so steeped in superhero power politics and tied to so much continuity.

I would argue he’s rarely done it as well, although that might be a function of him doing it in first in such a manner on this book, so it feels fresher. But these ideas inform Ellis’s work, and pairing them with superheroes works very well, as these themes are prevalent throughout superhero fiction, even if they’re not in so concentrated a fashion or as overt as Ellis makes them.

It’s somewhat interesting that despite this comic coming from Image in the 1990s, it’s more strongly associated with the writer than any particular artist, even though the art is strong. Tom Raney has never been a superstar, which might account for the lack of recognition of his involvement, and Bryan Hitch didn’t become one until The Authority, so that might be it. After the initial rush of Image books that featured terrible, terrible writing, the Image guys realized they needed some good writers, and Ellis was really the first one to dominate a title the way other writers had on DC and even Marvel books over the previous decade. Despite the presence of James Robinson and Alan Moore on WildC.A.T.s, those books still feel like they’re dominated by the artist, but Ellis put his stamp on StormWatch and no artist was able, really, to overcome that, despite excellent work by Raney and Hitch (and Chris Sprouse on the crossover) and good work by the others. Raney has always been a solid superhero artist, able to move fluidly with the times, and his versions of the StormWatch team fit pretty well into the mid-1990s aesthetic.

He never goes overboard on the musculature of the men, but they’re still a bit chesty, and his wedgie-creating outfit for Rose Tattoo always makes me cringe. Rose, in fact, is by far his worst creation, because as she rarely speaks (I think she says, what, three words in her entire existence in this comic?), Raney needs to indicate her moods through facial expressions, and they’re always a bit off. Perhaps that’s because Rose herself is a bit off, but whenever Raney draws Rose, it feels like he’s just guessing as to her state of mind, and usually it comes off wrong. But Raney does very good work in other aspects of the book. It’s interesting that Ellis’s creations – Jenny Sparks and Jack Hawksmoor, for instance – are much sleeker and look more like regular people, and while that might be Ellis’s influence, Raney does an excellent job contrasting their hard-bitten demeanors against the more superheroic characters Ellis inherited. He’s also quite good at creating the weird monsters that plague our heroes for a good deal of his run, and his designs for John Cumberland’s group are nifty, foreshadowing Ellis’s fascination with other genres that he would explore in Planetary, most notably. Raney doesn’t do a great job with crucial parts of “Change or Die,” unfortunately, as the final battle between StormWatch and the High’s group is poorly laid-out and introduces Bendix’s bio-weapon too quickly to have much of an impact on the reader even though it kills almost everyone except StormWatch. The final issue of “Change of Die” is pretty chaotic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it feels like Ellis was trying to cram a bit too much into it and Raney couldn’t keep up. Rose’s death, for instance, should be a more awe-inspiring event, but both Ellis and Raney rob it of much drama.

To be fair, Raney does a wonderful job with the High’s suicide mission and Jenny’s (unheard) pleading with him to stop what he’s doing. And his artistic masterpiece on the run is issue #44, when Jenny tells Jackson King her life story. Raney easily switches art styles to reflect the comics of that era, from Joe Shuster’s Superman style to Will Eisner to … whoever he’s aping in the 1950s section (I want to say Curt Swan, but I’m not sure) to Robert Crumb in one panel and Jack Kirby in the 1960s to Dave Gibbons on Watchmen in the 1980s. As I noted above, Ellis does a wonderful job with this issue, but the art keeps up, too. Raney does a Steranko riff in on one page in issue #50, which is pretty nifty, too. Raney might not have had the cachet that other Image artists did in 1996, but he had better storytelling chops than most of them, and in this case, that’s what Ellis needed, so Raney does his job on the book.

Of course, Hitch is associated with this book mainly because it set the stage for The Authority, but he didn’t relaunch the series, as Oscar Jimenez drew the first three issues of the new series. Ellis wrote in the final issue of the series that he never really clicked with Jimenez, but the artist’s work is quite good, and he and whoever was inking him (he had at least three different inkers in the three issues) use what some might consider too many lines but which add some ickiness to the weird things StormWatch is dealing with.

The weapons grafted into the skin of the soldiers, for instance, are horrifying, mainly because Jimenez and the inkers show every line that connects the organic and the inorganic. He also makes Henry Bendix a creepy old man, left with nothing of his former self, which shows both his infirmity and his terrifying potential (which Ellis, of course, never fulfills, as he either got bored with Bendix or simply couldn’t get to it before the book got cancelled). Hitch is Hitch, of course, and during his work on the book, we see why he became such a fan favorite – his lines are clean, and his detail work hadn’t yet become so crippling to deadlines, so he gives the world a good, realistic-looking feel even as he’s able to sustain the fantastic elements. His deadline problems were still evident, of course, so he drew only four consecutive issues before Michael Ryan needed to come in and help out, but what he does draw is pretty great. He hadn’t quite gotten to the “widescreen” revolution yet, but there is some movement toward it, especially during the Apollo and Midnighter story in issues #4-6. Hitch obviously was better suited for big-time superhero action, and Ellis was getting there, which is why Hitch’s work on The Authority seems to be a huge leap forward for him. Reading his work on StormWatch, it’s really not that big a jump, but the stories Ellis is telling on the new title were more expansive, so Hitch could cut loose a bit more.

He’s quite good on StormWatch, but there were fewer opportunities for him to go nuts. Since The Authority, it seems that that’s all he’s asked to do, mainly because he’s so good at it.

I’ve noted before (and it’s not my original thought, but I’m not sure who realized it first) that DC’s acquisition of WildStorm led to a brief Golden Age for that imprint, from 1999 to about 2004 or so. But the Golden Age really began when WildStorm was still an Image imprint, and it began with this comic. Image had begun to shift away from the founders’ vision with books like Astro City (the first issue of which shipped in August 1995) and Leave it to Chance (which shipped a few months after StormWatch #37), but neither of those were specifically WildStorm comics, so they don’t count! Did the success of StormWatch make the imprint more attractive to DC? I don’t know, but it’s pretty clear that by the end of 1998, even after the second volume was no more (the final issue came out in September 1998), that StormWatch had become the crown jewel of the imprint, and I assume the wheels were already in motion for The Authority. In that case, Ellis’s StormWatch is not only a Comic You Should Own because it’s a damned fine read, it might be one of the more influential comics of the past 20 years. Funny how that works.

StormWatch has been collected in trade paperback in several formats – I own five trades of the entire run, but DC has released two bigger hardcovers, the first of which collects #37-47 and the second of which collects #48-50 and #1-11 (although, unbelievably, it does not include WildC.A.T.s/Aliens, which is absolutely ridiculous). It’s definitely worth tracking down – I own all the single issues except for two, which is why I got the trades – as it shows what Ellis was capable of after the promise of his early Marvel work and it has such a huge influence – for good or for ill – on modern superhero stories. Ellis has done other superhero stories since this, but I don’t think he’s ever done them better.

As always, you can take a stroll through the archives for more fun comics! I don’t know which comic is coming next, but can’t you just feel the imminence of Suicide Squad? CAN’T YOU JUST FEEL IT?!?!?!?!?!?

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