Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wildstorm Subsiding...

Wildstorm has always been kind of an oddity to me since I got acquainted with it as I was also re-acclimating myself with comics at large during my college years (about eight-ish years or so ago). I knew what WildCATS was obviously - I was absorbed into the world of comics right in the thick of the 90's - it just took me a while to realize it was now an entity of DC. I heard all this buzz about these books called PLANETARY and THE AUTHORITY that I had to get on the bandwagon, at which point I saw there was a lot more to this imprint than just being a refuge for Jim Lee and his Image properties. There was this universe there sure but for the most part it just seemed like a place to put the more "miscellaneous" titles. Superhero books that were more "edgy" than your usual thoroughfare, and that benefited by being in the "larger scheme" that a shared universe could bring to the table, but not really ever needing to acknowledge it if you know what I'm saying. They weren't constrained by the big picture, because it's not exactly something that came into focus much since all the books were doing their own thing.

And there was so much great stuff at that time too. The aforementioned Warren Ellis creations, Joe Casey was still working wonders with the WildCATS themselves, and Ed Brubaker was showing off what I still think is his best work to date in SLEEPER.
These books all had such energy going for them, and combined with some long-running classics like Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY (sporadically of course, but still apparent) I thought this was pretty much as good a line of comic books as you got. Slowly though, that's sadly started to change.

One of the first "blows" obviously had to be Casey's WildCATS 3.0 coming to an early end. Critically lauded, but not the greatest of sellers, which is a shame because Casey was really working some big ideas and putting some great new twists on the concept of the Superhero, now in the 21st Century. I guess there was a sort of "push" to integrate the line back together again, show that they did indeed intertwine by having the COUP D'ETAT storyline, which had consequences for all the books, including SLEEPER and was designed (I assume) to push the Authority more towards the next logical step for the group: Controlling the United States. Honestly though, as someone who was reading the majority of the books from the imprint at the time, this looked like a bad idea from the get-go, and it played out that way too. Like I said earlier, the reason I think these books even worked in the first place is their autonomy, and tying them in together in a somewhat "event" fashion really didn't do them any favors. It's sad that WildCATS 3.0 wasn't working from a sales perspective, but that's the price you pay for being different I guess.

Now, the universal approach wasn't really working out, especially since the books that people really cared about were either not related at all (like Astro City still) or so loosely related they really didn't notice the Authority's power bid and just kept doing what it is they did oh so well (PLANETARY and SLEEPER). But again some quality stuff emerged, in the form of more non-universe related books, and again still, stuff more on the "fringe" that didn't quite fit with any one company but had that "Wildstorm Feel" as a creative venue. These being books like Brian K. Vaughan's EX MACHINA and another Warren Ellis creation, DESOLATION JONES. And when they came out, these books were easily amongst the best out there, the point I've really been trying to make this entire time. Just like Vertigo has established itself as the place for books "on the edge" I've always thought Wildstorm worked best on the "fringe" like I said just a second ago. The universe approach might have been failing, but with creative endeavors like Ex Machina and Desolation Jones, and still with Astro City and Planetary occasionally showing up to the party, do you really need it to work when it's failed to before?

Apparently, a couple years later, someone still thinks they do.

The Wildstorm panel at Comic-Con this year was dedicated to the premise of stripping the books back down and setting a backdrop for Wildstorm as a whole (this would be the reason why I decided to go on this little trip down memory lane). After the Grant Morrison debacle of '06 with the "flagship" books this imprint rode on, I thought things would go back to the "put it out there and see" approach, which I was a fan of because it was giving us books like STORMWATCH PHD and Gail Simone's WELCOME TO TRANQUILITY and so on. Now, I'm not going to dismiss this "re-allignment" of sorts as this could really work out to reinvigorate these books. I just worry that there'll be too much focus yet again on making things "Universe Friendly" at the sake of letting creativity reign. WildCATS 3.0 might not have worked, but while it was out there it was excellent and that can never be taken away.

I personally think there just needs to be more emphasis on creating more new proprietary stuff, or even related yet creator owned characters, that can play in the universe and use some toys, but not depend on it to tell its stories. The INVINCIBLE approach so to say, in that how occasionally invites some of the scarce but fellow Image superheroes like Savage Dragon or how he shows up randomly in different title here and there, but his story is still all his own and there's really no Universal effects to be seen or had because there's only a Universe in the loosest sense of the comic book term. The fact that we rarely see more brand new creator-owned products from the WS imprint makes me worry as to how much of a priority they put on scouting them. And the plethora of movie and television show adaptations that have been funneling through there fill me with no less than a sense of dread. It really does seem that there's no real sense of identity for Wildstorm these days and the cohesiveness they're looking to bank on has never really worked for them before.

I don't want to be all gloom and doom though, because there is some quality talent involved in this project it looks. Christos Gage seems to be a big ingredient in the mix, and his Stormwatch PHD was a good example of what I've been saying all along about playing in the sandbox, but using the toys however you wish. If this is a sign they're going to adopt that approach, there may be hope yet. Pulling in Abnett and Lanning, who are doing stellar work on Marvel's cosmic branch right now in NOVA and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY also helps appease my worry. Combine this undertaking with a plan to find more material in sync with something like the Ex Machina's and Desolation Jones', or to create something like a Sleeper within the universe, then maybe a storm really is on the horizon.

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