This article contains spoilers for "The Wild Storm" #1, in stores now.
Wildstorm has gone through some ups and downs in the 25 years since its debut as artist Jim Lee's corner of the upstart publisher Image Comics, and for most of the last decade or more, the needle has largely pointed southward. Now a part of the DC Comics family (with Lee a DC co-publisher), the heroes of "WildC.A.T.S." and "Stormwatch" have, in recent years, struggled to find an audience. Even "The Authority," launched to acclaim by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch before Mark Millar took over for another successful run, has failed to catch on in its last few series. With "The Wild Storm," DC turns once again to Warren Ellis to harness the esoteric quality that has been essential to the WildStorm universe's greatest successes: innovation, and doing the unexpected.
One can view DC's previous missteps with WildStorm as a misunderstanding of what makes these comics connect with readers. In the early days, it was the art, with Lee's "WildC.A.T.S." and J. Scott Campbell's "Gen13" being clear standouts. Beginning in the late '90s with "The Authority" and "Wildcats Version 3.0," it was a strong concept, expertly executed. It's never been primarily about the characters. There are certainly Zealot zealots out there, but moving characters like Grifter and Deathblow to the prime DC universe largely neuters their effect by making them one among many rather than characters with a particular role to play. Even Midnighter, perhaps Wildstorm's most popular character, failed to find his footing until writer Steve Orlando recently carved out a unique place for him within the DCU.
What Ellis understands about the WildStorm universe is that it is best used to explore contemporary fears, hopes, and anxieties. At the turn of the millennium, he gave us Jenny Sparks; now he's giving us something else.
Ellis and artist Jon Davis-Hunt's first issue of "The Wild Storm" re-introduces several major players and places them in their new context. Zealot, also known as Lucy Blaze, is an intelligence agent who's just completed an "interview [that] went badly;" in other words, she had to kill her target, a fellow gene-hacking his own body. Priscilla Kitaen is launching an album and insists on targeting a specific set of NYC billboards, due to the area's mythic and UFO significance; she is also known as Voodoo, which another character calls out as problematic. Angela Spica emerges as a damaged researcher able to manifest full-body armor. But the prime conflict appears to be between International Operations, more commonly known as IO and led by Miles Craven, and Jacob Marlowe's HALO Corp. Two tech giants molding culture, each harboring deep secrets. Marlowe, who so far appears benevolent, is a centuries-old alien being of immense power, while Craven employs superpowered assassins to remove his rivals.
There are affinities to the old continuity, clearly -- is Marlowe the Kherubim Lord Emp? Will Michael Cray, who collapses at the end of the issue, become Deathblow to right his wrongs before a brain tumor claims his life? Is an alien race called the Daemonites operating somewhere below the surface of society? After the first issue, none of this is clear; but more importantly, it's beside the point. Ellis is picking and choosing the elements that will best help to re-establish a WildStorm universe that can effectively interrogate our own world. Angie's Engineer, far from the sleek heroine whose body is fluidly enveloped in liquid metal, instead undergoes a brutal, mechanical transformation, acknowledging that the beauty and wonder of technological progress has given way to skepticism and horror at its costs; even as Angie pleads for funding to continue her research, the reader can see the immense toll her devotion has taken on her mental state. A researcher for IO, she saves the life of her boss's rival. And as the world at large wonders about the sudden appearance of the metal woman, Miles Craven has already identified her by making efficient use of surveillance culture. Our modern paranoia is both more subtle and more desperate; we know about the secret forces running the world, we can name them, and we play the game anyway.
This underlying tone makes Davis-Hunt an excellent choice for series artist. His art is stylish without being overly stylized, and the muted palette of colorist Ivan Plascencia grounds this story in the real world. The modified six- and nine-panel grids create an even, natural, almost leisurely pace for the first third of the book, such that when tiers split for Angie's transformation it's almost an act of violence.
A creator of Ellis' caliber does not necessarily ensure the success of a new WildStorm. After all, the imprint has seen some of comics' best writers tackle these heroes, going back to the Image Comics days; James Robinson wrote "WildC.A.T.S.," as did Alan Moore, but DC barely bothers to keep the "Watchmen" author's WildStorm omnibus in print. But Ellis, a creator who is perhaps only second to Jim Lee in his association with the line, has shown an affinity for using this universe; he sees how the pieces fit together, and crafts new pieces only to suit his needs. He brings the thrill of the unexpected; his run on "Stormwatch" ended with the death of most of the original line-up in an inter-company crossover. And from those ashes he created "The Authority," full of archetypal characters playing their parts in a widescreen drama embodying the era. That's why Ellis writing "The Wild Storm" and overseeing the relaunch is exciting; that's why he is primed to succeed in a way that even Grant Morrison, whose "Authority" and "WildC.A.T.S." reboots crashed out of the gate, was not.
"The Wild Storm" #1 is certainly what you'd want from Warren Ellis remodeling a universe. It's witty, it's intelligent, it has folks getting pushed out windows. There is, already, a sense of grand strategy and design, and it's hard not to sympathize with the heroes about to get swept up into it. But we're ready to be swept up, as well.