Revisiting Lobdell, Charest, Casey & Phillips' "Wildcats"

I started reading the Scott Lobdell/Travis Charest "Wildcats" run this week out of curiosity. Then I started reading the Joe Casey/Sean Phillips "Wildcats" run out of enjoyment and excitement. While the former wound up as a bit of a mess, the latter pulled the series back together and made it exciting again.

When Wildcats returned to comic shops in 2000, it did so as a bi-monthly title. Knowing Travis Charest's speed, it was a smart move. Sure enough, he only lasted about four issues, spread out over the first six. The fill-in artists started showing up at the end of issue #3, and took over half of the next issue before the first full fill-in issue happened.

That wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that the story was so scattered. Lobdell was trying to tell a tale of the gang getting back together after a traumatic event separated them some months earlier. That event and the villain du jour were one and the same -- a powerful man named Kenyan, who turned out to be responsible for Zealot's death and a lot of other bad mojo.

Grifter, being a love interest of Zealot's and the only real human on the team, became the focal character for the series. He let us see the craziness around him, from the android known as Spartan to the shadowy Noir, to the secretive and not terribly trustworthy Emp, who now had transformed into an alien and was preparing to return to his people. Not that Grifter is perfect: He's the Wolverine of the group, a bit hot-headed, reliant on his guns, and all attitude.

The overall story arc of the first nine issues of the series was wrapped up in the chase to stop Kenyan from doing -- er, something. That became laser focused when Casey came on, but it felt a lot looser in Lobdell's issues. Kenyan just happened to be around. We didn't know much about him at all, besides that he was mysterious and dangerous and connected to Emp in some strange way.

The stories sometimes had Kenyan in them, sometimes didn't, and weren't always well connected. The entire tone of those first issues was a weird mish-mash of light comedy, self-aware comic book characters, and gritty superhero-like characters. Lobdell's light touch was often entertaining, but the story structure kept readers at a distance. Characterizations were often very shallow, and I'm sure someone would object to some of the surface-level treatment of certain minorities in the title.

Let's not ignore the painfully obvious and annoying "woman in a refrigerator" moment for Warblade in the seventh issue: He's walking down the street with her. Both are smiling. They're in love and they're happy and -- you know there's a "BOOM!" coming already, don't you? It happens as soon as you turn the page, with the most obvious double page splash in the history of comics. (To be fair, the sound effect accompanying it was "FWAAABOOM." It's followed by the "WHAAM" of Warblade slamming against some debris. We see his girlfriend's dead face two pages later. Delightful.)

That whole scene was designed to settle a long-standing dangling plot line about Warblade's inevitable battle with another villain that could only end in one of their deaths. Warblade just needed some additional motivation to fuel his bloodlust.

That's what girlfriends are for, right? Sigh.

The storytelling was also questionable, particularly in Charest's work. Yes, he can draw some very pretty things, but his design sense is stronger than his storytelling abilities. There were some neat looking panels. Some reminded me of a slicker take on the kind of style Sam Kieth would use on "The Maxx," as a matter of fact. But there were many times when that hurt the story, when drawing something a bit more traditional would have helped the reader understand what was going on a little better. It often felt like the pages consisted of pretty pictures that just happened to get you through the stories. It felt like Lobdell had to cover for that in dialogue and captions.

The storytelling gap was obvious when the Charest issues would be compared to the fill-in artists'. Carlos Meglia and Brian Hitch both did issues, and they were storytelling master classes by example. Meglia, in particular, was a bold choice for the title. His style did not fit in with classic Wildcats at all. Maybe "Gen13," but not "Wildcats". The storytelling in that issue worked, though the story was so lightweight and simple that it barely felt worth a read.

The overall arc in those first six issues felt disjointed, in part because the second, fourth, and sixth issues were single character stories, mainly, while the rest of the "main story" took plan in the other issues. We got to see Maul and Voodoo together in issue #2, but then not again. We see Zealot die in issue #4, then flash forward to her alive and well without explanation and without any connection to the Wildcats in issue #5. Meanwhile, Kenyan shows up in the other issues, best of all in a memorable action flick of a comic in issue #6, where Grifter chases him through NYC in increasingly crazy and dramatically tough fashion.

By the sixth issue, some of the plot threads were being pulled back together, but it was too late.

With issue #8, the series became monthly, and Casey and Phillips were off to the races for something of a legendary run in comics from the last 20 years. Phillips may be better known today for his collaborations with Ed Brubaker -- including WildStorm's "Sleeper" -- but he did amazing work on "Wildcats" with Casey, as well.

I don't know how much of Lobdell's story Casey knew when he came on the title. Maybe Lobdell gave him extensive notes, or maybe he took what was on the pages of those first seven issues and tried to cobble something together to clear the decks. Either way, it worked. By narrowing the cast down to a core of characters and giving them strong motivations and personalities, Casey told a coherent story that saved the contents of some of those earlier issues. Sean Phillips was a breath of fresh air, too. With his signature style and strong storytelling skills, you felt like you were watching a story unfold and not just seeing the visual highlights while the narrator guided you through.

Phillips had consistent title page designs, those thick black borders on all panels that were always square or rectangular-shaped, and a sense of where to place the shadows to give the book an almost noir superhero feel. There was a moodiness to those pages that wasn't there before. Most importantly, that consistency of style from page to page lets Phillips guide the story. The reader isn't jumping around visually from page to page with things flying out of panels, or floating heads stuck in odd places between panels or askew panels overlapping. You're locked in to the format and you can enjoy the story. It's similar to the way the new "Mad Max" movie relies on center focus so much -- lock the viewer into a specific format, keep it consistent, and it'll be easy to follow.

This isn't, by the way, to suggest that Phillips' art is boring or that his pages look repetitious. They aren't and they don't. There's plenty of variety in these pages, from panel sizes and shapes and combinations, to borderless panels and inset panels.

While telling what feels like a superhero noir story, Casey still maintains a sense of humor. But, unlike Lobdell's, it feels more germane to the story. It feels like it comes out of the characters and their situations more than it did with Lobdell's scripts, where it sometimes felt tacked on. (And, honestly, it sometimes felt tacky.)

Casey scripted two of the last three issues that Lobdell plotted. The transition between the two was fairly seamless in that way, and I can see some of the hints of what Casey would write on his own in the dialogue in there. So either Casey did know where Lobdell was going, or he just started grafting his own story in there before fully taking over.

And in the issue Casey didn't script (the Warblade one), the dialogue felt lightweight, cliche, and painfully melodramatic. For example, after telling people he wants to call out Pike for one final showdown, Warblade has this page:

What does that mean?!? Is he actually transforming into his superhero identity and back? Is it a dream sequence? Why would he tell the townsfolk to paint the town red? Isn't that what he's planning to do with Pike?

Let's just go straight to the next three issues instead of pondering that too closely:

In Casey's tale, Grifter goes off the reservation, wondering why Emp held back from stopping Kenyan once and for all when he had the chance in earlier issues. Enlisting Noir's help, he hacks into Halo's computers to dig up more information, then brings Spartan into it. Spartan was very loyal to Emp, so getting him to turn was the hard part. After that, they all follow Emp to Vegas for a final showdown with Kenyan and all the revelations you could ask for. All the hints that were dropped in dialogue and quickly forgotten in earlier issues come back to play.

When the three-parter is over, the series' status quo -- not that it had much of one for the first seven issues -- has been upended. More importantly, the decks were cleared for Casey to start telling his story, which really begins in issue #11, when Emp wills Halo to Spartan.

But that's another story for another day...

And there are lots of those stories. First with Phillips, and then with Dustin Nguyen, Casey's run on Wildcats lasted just over 40 issues. Though, as I recall, it stopped suddenly and all too quickly, it's a great run of stories that were unlike anything else in superhero comics at the time -- or even at this time. I don't plan on reviewing all of those here, but don't be surprised if it pops up once or twice in the weeks ahead as I enjoy reliving that ride.

If you have those early Charest issues, go ahead and flip through them. There's some isolated very pretty art in them. Lobdell even scripts a few funny moments. st don't look for a memorable or lasting story. Those won't come until you get to the Casey issues.

One last thing I couldn't find a spot to mention earlier: Comicraft's lettering in the series is great. I'm not sure which font it is, but it has a strong, hand-crafted lettering feel to it. Very organic. It's ornate by most superhero comics standards, but it does help give the book its own look and feel. It looks like they were also varying the stroke width on the word balloons to give them an imperfect feeling. I love that technique.

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