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Tue, December 16th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

STORMWATCH: AN INTRODUCTION

I get the feeling that a lot of people who read the Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch "The Authority" -- particularly those who've come to it most recently -- have never sampled the original two years' worth of comics that preceded the series. It's not like those issues ever got fancy hardcovers or Absolute editions. Five trade paperbacks (with volume numbers hidden on the back covers) were necessary to pack up all of these issues in the early days of the trade paperback economy. That includes the "Aliens" crossover that would make a new printing troublesome, I'd bet. These comics deserve new life. Maybe an Omnibus style collection could work? I don't think the buzz on "StormWatch" or "The Authority" is big enough today to convince marketing of the potential for such a thing, though.

While we wait for that to happen, let's flash back to those comics: "StormWatch" Volume 1 #37-50 and "StormWatch" Volume 2 #1 - 11 with the "Aliens/WildC.A.T.S." crossover.

STORMWATCH: VOLUME ONE


Evolution of StormWatch: Volume 1, #1. StormWatch #37, Warren Ellis' first issue. Volume 2, #1

Let's go back to 1996. Warren Ellis wasn't Comics' Magnificent Bastard Writer Warren Ellis yet, though he was a star was on the rise with a run on Marvel's "Excalibur" and a smattering of short Marvel runs on "Thor," "Storm," "UltraForce," and "Doom 2099." He wasn't quite a household name in comics, but he was landing on some radars. Two titles happened next to boost his popularity, once and for all. "Transmetropolitan" began a 60+ issue run at Vertigo, just after Ellis landed the gig writing "StormWatch," a long-running and little thought of title from Image Comics. It was Jim Lee's second title at Image, forming the second half of his studio's name. ("WildC.A.T.s" + "StormWatch" = "WildStorm")

In "StormWatch," Ellis quickly establishes many of the things that make his writing so distinct. It's all there -- the self-loathing superheroes, the wise-cracking, hard drinking, chain smoking strong female character, the wild science, the worldly viewpoint, etc. Much of it looks crudely done, in comparison to his later "Authority" run or "Transmetropolitan," or even "NextWave." Series artist Tom Raney's work shows the after affects of the WildStorm house style of the 90s. It almost shouldn't work, but its lack of refinement and rougher line fits in well with the stories.

Ellis starts with a good housecleaning. The team of superpowered world-class heroes working for the UN had grown too large and aimless. In the first oversized issue, Ellis quickly gives the team a direction, manages the characters into bite-sized chunks of smaller squads with separate purposes, and even introduces some new and memorable characters, like Jennie Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, and Rose Tattoo. All of this is done under the command of Weatherman Henry Bendix. Bendix -- no relation to Brian Michael, though with a similar hairline -- is the leader of the organization, operating with a freewheeling style that requires separate teams for dirty work, for covert work, and for general defense. He has his disagreements with his bosses and, of course, the United States of America. But he gets the job done by any means necessary, even when it confuses or scares his underlings. He rules with something not unlike an iron first. As you might imagine, this could -- and does, eventually -- alienate some of the team members.

It's a strong set-up that helps to focus the characters and the stories into something a reader can easily grasp. The characters are likeable, possessed of confidence, skill, and just a bit of cockiness, even when they're confused or out of kilter with the commands of their boss. Some of them are bound to rub you the wrong way, but you have to admire their dedication to their jobs. Ellis' crisp conversational dialogue adds humor and attitude to even the most mundane situations. When it comes time to explain the high concepts, the characters often use metaphors and comparisons to make large ideas understandable.

More importantly, Ellis structures the series in a way that's easily accessible. Each issue in the first two trade paperback collections is a one-off story. Elements carry through multiple issues and the dramatic conflicts rise as the series goes on, but you can jump on with any issue, get something new and different, and be satisfied at the end of the issue. Ellis doesn't get too many chances to slow down with this style. It's always on the move, so the characters might seem, at first, to be little more than ciphers with quick wits and nasty powers. Over time, though, they flesh out and you'll find some favorites. There are plenty to choose from.

The stories move quickly, with well-defined parameters and scenes that never stretch on too long. It seems like the major conflict of the issue might stretch across six to eight pages in the third act, but everything else is limited to one to four page scenes. They're a series of bite-sized chunks that keep characters moving and a reader interested. It's that juggling of characters that the Warren Ellis of a decade ago did so well, despite his relative newness to the form. It would be made even more structured by the time "The Authority" came along, but that's a tale for another time.

Tom Raney's art is not necessarily to my taste. It's worse here, where the ink lines conform more to the "Image style" that people so often and incorrectly believe was a house style at Image for the 90s. (It was a house style at WildStorm, but that's it.) There's something awkward about his characters in this book that's hard to describe. Again, Raney was hardly a comics veteran at this point, so some of the odd proportions of his characters can be ascribed to youthful inexperience. One thing that does work, though, is his storytelling. He doesn't get hung up in bright splashy images at the expense of the story, as is often ascribed to that "Image style." If you look at the pages carefully, you can see a lot of subtle cues that Raney added to panels to make things more interesting. Often, it's just a character giving a look or a gesture that sells a scene, or it's a set-up that you didn't realize would pay off until it's too late. While I might fault the art's style, I can't fault the job it does in telling the story.

I popped open a copy of Raney's latest work, Marvel's "Secret Invastion: Inhumans," and found that while it's still the work of the same artist, many of the rougher edges have been filed away. Raney's characters are less gangly, his anatomy more sure, and the perspective problems are gone. Since it's this "StormWatch" work that I remember him the most for, I think it's time for me to reassess Raney's work.

Raney, by the way, finished "StormWatch" with its fiftieth issue, and then moved to "DV8," a series originally scripted by Warren Ellis.

STORMWATCH: VOLUME 2

I came to appreciate Raney's art more once Oscar Jimenez came on board for the relaunch. I enjoyed Jimenez's work prior to this on "The Flash," and always thought he had a style that worked well with an Image studio house book. It's part Jim Lee, part Alan Davis. It has a smooth line and big bulky figures. But the storytelling is a bit cramped. Whereas Raney neatly packed his storytelling into panels, Jimenez's art fills the page, cramping up every area it can find, often rolling over panel borders. Characters are splashed across the page, often to the point where you almost don't know which panel comes next. Thank goodness for the lettering from Clem Robins to help guide my eye.

I like Jimenez's art style, but his storytelling needed work. He's back in comics now working with Ellis again at Avatar on "Gravel." I should pick one of those books up to see how much things have changed during his time away from comics.

Ellis' story launches off the events of the previous series, setting StormWatch directly at odds with the United States government. (If you want to know why people sometimes think Ellis hates America, there's a raft of material in "StormWatch" to bolster the argument, even if it doesn't validate it.) This, of course, eventually sets StormWatch against everyone and off on their own.

Jimenez dropped off after the first storyline, to be replaced by one-time "She-Hulk" artist, Bryan Hitch. It's hard to remember a time when Hitch wasn't drawing high profile comics. While "StormWatch" was picking up momentum by the end of its run, it still wasn't on the same level as what "Authority" became, or "The Ultimates," or even "Fantastic Four." But it's interesting to see Hitch's art in the last two thirds of the second volume of "StormWatch." It's different from what you see today. It's looser. It doesn't feel as photoreferenced. It has a thicker line to it, particularly as inked by Paul Neary. There's some level of detail less in these early issues over his later more bombastic work. The Alan Davis comparisons are much more fitting here.

Honestly, I think I like it more. It's a real eye-opener. You can see the way Greg Land's art progressed over time, from an artist who referenced photographs to one who relied on them, with a drop in the quality and pleasure one can derive from the art to go along with it. Hitch is on a similar, though less pronounced, curve. Hitch still draws the heck out of cityscapes and backgrounds and all of the things happening around the characters. Hitch's work today still has weight and a small level of cartooniness to keep it from looking like fumetti. However, comparing his current output to his art less than ten years ago shows a definite change.

And here's a fun fact: Hitch didn't draw all of those last few issues of "StormWatch." Can you believe they dropped a fill-in artist into his run? Hitch often traded pages inside of an issue with artist Michael Ryan. Can you imagine Hitch being replaced today for an issue for any reason, let along for an artist like Ryan, whose style is not at all similar?

The series ended after the 11th issue, with the end of "StormWatch," itself. The damage had been done between issues #10 and #11, in the "Aliens/WildC.A.T.s" one shot that Ellis wrote and Chris Sprouse drew. It was a fairly bloody end, but it cleared the decks again to set up "The Authority."

HIGHLIGHTS

WildStorm originally collected all of the aforementioned comics in five trades. The first two books along with the first half of the third collect the end of the original series, issues #37 - #50. The second half of the third book begins with the new "StormWatch" #1, under the new Weatherman's command. The fourth book contains the next two storylines, leading to the cataclysmic fifth volume, which only has two issues and the "WildC.A.T.s/Aliens" crossover that ended the series with a murderous bang.

Let's take a look at some of the highlights of the run:

Volume 1 -- "Force of Nature"

Issue #37: And so it begins, complete with a cover homaging Kevin Maguire's classic "Justice League" #1 cover. After all, Bwah Ha Ha Batman and Guy Gardner has so much in common with StormWatch. . .

Issue #38: "Reprisal" is the introduction of Jack Hawksmoor, as he swoops in to help solve the murder of an ex-StormWatch member.

Issue #39 is drawn by Pete Woods, whose style I've always enjoyed. This is a tale of Jenny Sparks' team, working undercover to fix a small town with a superpowered police problem.

Volume 2 - "Lightning Strikes"

This volume is mostly single issue stories centered on individual characters.

Issue #44 is the memorable look at the history of Jenny Sparks. Being born at the turn of the previous century, we see snippets of her life across the 20th century, illustrated in the comic styles of the time. Tom Raney shows off some serious drawing skills in this issue, imitating Will Eisner's "Spirit" style, some romance comics, some Kirby work, Neal Adams, and culminating in a mutipage sequence torn straight from the style guide of "Watchmen." Even the cover is a "Watchmen" homage. Well done. It's a visual trick that gets used an awful lot today, but was a pretty new thing back then.

Issue #46 is a different kind of issue, as all of the teams get together to go around the world on a pub crawl. The StormWatch transporter works well not just as a mass transit device, but also as a designated driver. It's a very character-centric story, as Ellis shows us the differences between the teams, and how some characters are more aware of their surroundings than others. The characterization in the series might never have been very deep, but it's issues like this that made the characters likeable and provided a nice change of pace from the monthly craziness.

Intermixed with all of that is our second serious look at the murderous Rose Tattoo. So, yeah, it wasn't all fun and games, was it?

Issue #47 is an all splash page issue drawn by Jim Lee. It was an attention grabber for the series, right down to the almost cliched pose cover with the blaring lettering, "Feel the Fire!." I don't know how well it did in spiking the sales numbers for the series, but it was definitely worth a shot. Lee is inked here by Richard Bennett, not Scott Williams, which is why the art looks more, well, cartoony. It's a thicker-lined version of Lee's line. Ellis throws some vaguely horrific concepts and characters at Lee to draw here. It's not the strongest issue by a long shot, mostly centering on a couple of Very High Concepts that need dialogue to be sorted out.

Volume 3 - "Change or Die" - Volume 3

Issues #48 - #50: This is where everything changes.

The three part story that ends the original "StormWatch" series also threatens to end the institution of the WildStorm Universe. It's Warren Ellis at his subversive best, setting up a powerful opposing group of costumed cretins and allowing the StormWatch characters enough intelligence to realize that perhaps their differences aren't so great, apart from one or two bad seeds. The mirrors are obvious. And it's a theme -- of superpowered beings trying to help the world -- that Joe Casey would later use in "WildCats" with the Halo battery. It goes a little better for Halo in that series, though. In StormWatch, trying to help the world gets you a big fight scene.

But the thing that really jumps out at me now is how the seeds for "The Authority" are sown in this three-parter. Ellis lays on the philosophy with a thick butter knife in this story, talking of the pains of change, the duties and responsibilities of great power, and the very idea of authority and who should be allowed to wield it. The very word, "authority," comes up multiple times. I don't think Ellis was explicitly plotting out a new title, but this story certainly sets that up.

It's also a bit of a pre-cursor to Ellis' "Planetary" run. The story centers on a man known only as "The High," who's a clear "Superman" analogue, coming to this planet the same year Siegel and Schuster created the character. He's dressed in red and blue spandex. He was raised by farm folks. He has a strong intelligence and belief in the future that humanity deserves better. He does have some rougher spots, such as the company he keeps and the means he takes to his ultimate goal, though. Still, this storyline works as an early mold for the stories seen in the first year of "Planetary."

Things would only get more blatant after that in Volume 4.

It's also a place where Ellis and his artist (still Tom Raney) got to play with the cover design and its importance to the story. The stories in these three issues began with a panel on the cover, continued onto the inside front cover (in black and white) before carrying through the rest of the issue. This, no doubt, helped to pack a lot of story into a busy three part series. It also made the cover more important, even if just in an atmospheric way.

New cover designs would show themselves in the second volume of the series.

Volume 4 - "A Finer World"

Gone now are the one-off stories. This trade collects two stories that stretch out over six issues. The main characters have been well established, the universe has been reset, and Ellis is free to explore a bigger canvas and have bigger action.

The big addition to the series here is the introduction of Apollo and Midnighter, clear Superman and Batman analogues from the get-go. I had completely forgotten where they had come from, but this trade begins with them homeless and fighting crime, distrustful of StormWatch, and possessed of power beyond anyone's control. How they get brought in is a great story.

The second half of the book is, at first blush, an alternative earth take on StormWatch. It's one in which Gen13's Roxie is a bodyguard to Weatherman Jack Hawksmoor, who is nearing completion of the removal of his alien organs. An impending alien invasion threatens the earth and StormWatch has to jump to action. Meanwhile, experiments aboard our earth's StormWatch makes peaking into the alternate reality's StormWatch possible. When it becomes apparent that our Weatherman can save their Weatherman, the moral question of "What right do you have to interfere with another parallel universe?" gets raised. It's an on-going thread throughout the series -- who has the authority to do what's right? At what point do you throw out the political playbook and just do the right thing? And is that always the right thing, with or without authorization from some nebulous third party?

Ellis doesn't go for a simple "Mirror, Mirror" storyline here, wherein one universe is the evil version of ours. The alternate world is different in much more subtle ways, though the end effect is very dramatic. The ending to this one beautifully sets things up thematically for what's to come in the next storyline.

Volume 5 - "Final Orbit"

This is the end of StormWatch, clearing the decks for it successor, "The Authority." The back cover also notes "The Monarchy," but there's a book that I doubt very many of you have thought about in the last five years. It died pretty quickly.

The trade collects issues #10 and #11 of the series (misindentified as #11 and #12 on the back cover), with the "WildC.A.T.s/Aliens" crossover sandwiched inbetween, where it belongs in continuity. Those last two issues were the bookends to the crossover event, which led to the effective destruction of the StormWatch team.

Those Aliens are bad news. Don't mess around with them.

The cover also points to Avery Brooks as Bryan Hitch's reference for Weatherman Jackson King.

It's the "Aliens" crossover that signals Ellis' storytelling shift into the format we'd see in "The Authority." The book opens with a multipage sequence of a StormWatch escape pod crashing into New York City. (This book was published well before 9/11.) The panels are all widescreen, with a single action being given greater important by its slow unfolding over multiple pages. The manga inspiration of decompression is obvious here. But it's also very effective. This single sequence sets the tone and heightens the drama for what's about to happen.

Ellis carefully scripts the book to let regular StormWatch readers know who the WildC.A.T.s are, while WildC.A.T.s readers get a crash course in the recent events of "StormWatch." The final issue of "StormWatch," likewise, recounts the events of the "Aliens" crossover fairly explicitly, in case you missed the event that didn't include "StormWatch" in its title. That struck me as odd, in retrospect.

The final couple of pages of the book are also odd. It's Jenny Sparks, Hawksmoor, and Chen standing around plotting "The Authority." They strike bold stances and are apparently talking to one another while looking directly at the reader. It's all a bit Action Movie-esque, where things are laid out for maximum coolness instead of logic.

And then they disappear into The Bleed, paving the way for "The Authority."

CONCLUSION

"StormWatch" would be reincarnated down the road for 23 issues as "Stormwatch: Team Achilles," a title that came under some controversy when it was discovered that its writer, Micah Ian Wright, lied about his military record. The final issue of the already-cancelled series was never published. "StormWatch: PHD" is the current incarnation of the team, written by Christos Gage. It's tough to tell what it's current status is. It ended once, and then restarted a few months ago. Oddly enough, many of the characters killed in Ellis' run are back in the series. Two trade paperbacks collect those first 12 issues of "PHD."

"StormWatch" under Warren Ellis holds up ten years later, though. It's an interesting and important part of Ellis' career, though I think it's slightly hidden in the shadow of the wildly successful follow-up. It's a shame that so many of the characters Ellie made likable and exciting didn't make it out alive, and that the series and the set-up it used didn't last longer.

But it's also an important book for Ellis scholars, for both the writing tics it reveals, the thematic elements that he went on to explore in greater depth later, and the experimental and wild choices made in the stories and the design of the comics, themselves.

If you thought this week's column was long-winded, tune in next week for my retrospective on "DV8."

Yes, that's a joke.

Next week: It's Christmas week! Odds are, that won't make any difference to the column. Click back to find out!

I wanted to specially highlight my Google Reader Shared Items this week. I've started being more active with sharing items with my own comments. So you can see the stories I'd like to share and my comments on them, as well. I think it makes it much more interesting. Plus, with the recent Google Reader redesign, it's easier than ever to look at others' feed highlights.

The Various and Sundry blog has a rundown of what I'm up to on-line these days, the week's new DVDs, and Tweets and Links a'plenty.

My Twitter stream is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box. Crazy.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, warren ellis, stormwatch, tom raney, bryan hitch

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