Another month, another slice of beautifully rendered, elegantly presented sci-fi comic goodness. John Lynch’s road trip across America and through the secret history of the Wild Storm universe continues as do the ramifications of the cold war between IO and Skywatch turning hot. Last month we saw Lynch meet Fairchild’s mother. Who will it be this time around? Will Lucy Blaze’s single-handed slaughter of two IO Razor CATs go unanswered? And will Jack Hawksmoor finally work out who he is? There is only one way to find out…
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
The last month has been a Wild Storm free time, but, with last week’s issue of Michael Cray and now a new issue of the parent title on our hands, all that is over and it’s time to dive back into the rich, complex and slow-burning narrative that we’ve come to know and love. I hope that, like me, you’ve fruitfully used the month’s hiatus to meditate on the realities of life and death and the endless struggle that stretches out all too briefly before us as we shuffle through this veil of tears. Or perhaps you’ve instead been wondering just what the implications of the events of issue 12 of this wonderfully involving series will be: whether Mitch’s death will go unnoticed and/or unavenged, whether IO will be able to make use of the data they’ve just filched from Skywatch, whether Skywatch will do anything else to punish IO for its indiscretions. Or perhaps you’ve been wondering just what John Lynch has to do with any of this. If so, then welcome to issue 13. Answers await…
Why do we love comics so much? (I know I’m assuming here, but you’ve just started reading a comic book review so I’m reasonably sure there’s some comic love going on in that heart of yours.) I would imagine that there as many answers as there are comic book fans, but for me, it’s the coming together of a number of different factors. First, there’s the whole extended universe thing – the excitement you get from being plunged into a world that is rich and varied and capable of expanding in often surprisingly new directions. Then, there’s the fact that it’s a hybrid medium, a unique combination of image and text. Much has been made of comics’ increasingly filmic qualities and I get excited about that too, but a page of comic art can be studied in ways that a film scene can’t. That each figure is drawn, is deliberately posed, gives the artist greater control and, potentially, subtlety when it comes to conveying meaning (and, yes, we’ll be getting to some specific examples in a moment). Although, like film and television, the comic is a collaborative medium, the creative aspects of that collaboration are smaller-scale, meaning that the story can be created more precisely. Plus, comics are fun. Their potential to surprise, to play with narrative form and structure, is exciting. Anything can happen in comics. Anything at all.
Well, we had to wait a little longer than usual for this installment of what is shaping up to be one of the year’s best series. It should come as no surprise to anyone that this issue has been worth the wait. Issue 7 marks the start of the series’ second story arc and sees an expansion of the title’s cast of core characters. It also fails to deliver on the dramatic ending of issue 6, but you can’t have everything, can you? Although we may have to wait to see exactly how Henry Bendix’s response to the revelation that IO has been stealing Skywatch tech plays out, let’s see what we do get…
Aaaand… I was right. It doesn’t happen very often so allow me to bask in my own self-reflected glory just for a moment. As I guessed last month, this issue does indeed open with the kind of action sequence to make Michael Bay go weak at the knees. It’s been a long wait (since issue 1 actually), but we finally get to see Deathblow in action and, bloody hell, it is brutally, gorily glorious. But, this issue isn’t just about Michael Cray putting the beatdown on two hapless IO goons. There’s a lot more going on here and I suggest you buckle up. There’s a lot to take in.
I’m not sure whether I’ve pointed it out before, but The Wild Storm is what was in the old days called a maxi-series. Each issue’s cover features a strip of numbers below the title running from 1 to 24 with the current issue’s number picked out with an arrow of the kind I used to use when keeping score at snooker as a spotty youth. I mention this simply to remind everyone that we’re currently only a sixth of the way in to whatever Warren Ellis has planned for this reimagining of the Wildstorm universe. Or, to put it another way, don’t let last issue’s explosion of action, glorious though it was, fool you into expecting more of the same this time round. For some, there’ll inevitably be a bit of disappointment at this and I understand that. I don’t want you to think, however, that we’ve returned to an issue of people talking wittily at one another about things of which they’re already aware but about which the reader doesn’t have a clue. Oh, no. This time around, we begin to get… information.
This issue starts pretty much right where the last issue ended. Grifter makes short work of the remaining Razors in a couple of panels that constitute both economical and spectacular storytelling, only to be threatened with nuclear devastation by a bloodied but still operational Razor who has no compunction whatsoever about sacrificing his life in the service of IO. Kanesha pulls the pesky bit of glass out of Adrianna’s head and they escape in a weird snake-like flash of pink light just before the Razor goes off taking the disused IO facility with him. I suppose this is a little bit underwhelming, but I’m prepared to be somewhat forgiving of this resolution to a situation that positively bristled with drama last issue. For one thing, Kanesha later makes it clear that she had no idea that pulling the glass out would work. For another, I’m not convinced that Adrianna’s been entirely unaffected by the experience. As always with this series, we’ll have to wait and see what the ramifications of this moment are, but I’m willing to bet that there will be some.
The rest of the issue is, for different reasons, really quite beautiful. There’s a nice scene between Miles Craven and his boyfriend that rather skilfully starts to fill in some background to Angie Spica, her suit and why her acquisition of it is so problematic for Craven. I can’t stress enough how very good Ellis’ dialogue is here. It is almost entirely naturalistic (the line about Henry Bendix looking at Craven’s black boyfriend “like he wanted to watch [him] hang from a tree that was also on fire” is a bit forced for my tastes) and it portrays both characters as very human with fully-functioning senses of humour. That both men possess the ability to talk to each other without spelling everything out all the time (which is something certain writers working on books whose titles feature the initials ‘J’ and ‘L’ could do with) is impressive, too. Given that Craven is, at the moment, meant to be our ‘bad guy’, I’d suggest this is nicely subtle and enjoyable characterisation.
There are some interesting things revealed in that conversation. IO and Bendix’s Skywatch have agreements in place to share technological breakthroughs, agreements that Craven has broken. Angie’s tech comes at least in part from something called a Breslau II which looks like a classic 50s flying saucer, although the one we see has a big ‘Skywatch’ logo on it, presumably a mark of ownership. While Ellis’ strategy of letting the reader in on interesting conversations between important characters remains essentially unchanged, in this issue readers will, I think, find that approach a bit more rewarding than they did in the first two.
This continues with our first proper look at Henry Bendix. Bendix’s evolution as a character has been quite interesting. From Picard-like efficiency and cool authoritarianism in the first issues of Stormwatch to the master chessplayer and god complex-plagued manipulator of the 90s Ellis run, the character has always been morally suspect. Here, Ellis does something I honestly didn’t think was possible. He makes him hilarious. If the fight in the IO facility was the highlight of the previous issue, the conversation between Bendix and his PA, Ms Lauren ‘Fahrenheit’ Pennington, is undoubtedly the highlight of this one. Ellis portrays Bendix as a cantankerous old man whose aversion to Earth and clearly genuine love of and awe for space form the core of his personality. Pennington is more than just a comic foil too. She speaks to Bendix as equals and there is a sense of affection and playfulness between them that, for this reader at any rate, is totally unexpected. It’s fantastic scripting and it’s capped by a glorious two page spread of the Skywatch satellite.
It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that, while the Skywatch satellite’s size is truly impressive, its technology is firmly rooted in the reality of our own NASA craft and entirely appropriate for a story whose protagonists tend to wander around in open-necked shirts and turtleneck sweaters.
The issue continues with a rather low-key conversation between Michael Cray and Miles Craven in which the pair discuss Cray’s brain tumour and ends with a simply beautiful page of Angie walking along a night time highway, having plunged into the sea earlier on. This provides a rather melancholy and downbeat ending to an issue that starts with Grifter shooting two IO Razors in the head!
This is an excellent comic. It’s beautifully written and sumptuously drawn by an art team who really are on top of their game. Given that so much of this story relies on dialogue, Davis-Hunt’s deft portrayal of facial expressions is invaluable in helping the reader grasp the nuances of the story its various characters. That said, when he needs to be, he can be spectacular. The panel in which Angie flies over a sea reflecting the light from the setting sun is just wonderful; the image of Angie staring pensively to one side against a backdrop of the star-studded night sky is similarly breath-taking. (I might be falling for Angie, you know. Just a little bit.) That Ellis refuses to hold the reader’s hand means that the characters feel grounded and their relationships feel real and this adds a greater sense of immersion to the story.
The one fly in the ointment is simply that that story is moving so very slowly. As entertaining as this issue is, we’re still not all that far on from where we were a couple of issues ago. All the action of last issue notwithstanding, Angie is still on the run. Marlowe’s ‘wild’ CAT has failed to make meaningful contact with her; IO has failed to apprehend her. Michael Cray still has a brain tumour and is still trying to work out the implications of that. We know a bit more about Bendix, true, but we’re still not entirely sure what he’s doing or about to do or even can do. And there will be some readers who are going to find that frustrating after four issues of storytelling. All I can say to that is… four out of twenty-four.
Ellis is building a world here. He’s weaving a grand narrative that is not going to be resolved in a few issues’ time. This issue continues the leisurely pace established in the first two instalments of this story. While the background we get here is important and very welcome, the lack of impetus moving forward is an issue. That said, I trust Ellis; if you can hang on, I suspect the eventual payoff will be worth your patience. And, in the meantime, you do get some gorgeous artwork and truly excellent dialogue.
(NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
Those of you who remember the brash 90s version of the WildStorm universe (or even its noughties iteration) might well be rather bemused with Warren Ellis’ character-driven intrigue-heavy take on it so far. Up to now, we’ve had two issues in which, while there has been some incident (the most important being Angie ‘Engineer’ Spica saving Jacob ‘Emp’ Marlowe’s life), much of the panel space has been devoted to groups of people sitting around talking to one another, all presented rather beautifully in Jon Davis-Hunt’s immaculate art. Well, if you were worried that this series was going to become a cerebral, over-talkative snoozefest (albeit a smartly scripted one), you can breathe a sigh of relief. All that talking was necessary to give this issue’s action context and emotional impact. And, dammit, it is good.
The issue opens with the kind of sequence that reminds you just how good a writer Warren Ellis is. In IO’s headquarters, important people are talking about the developments of the last couple of issues, while a rather attractive young Asian woman, whose casual dress comes complete with a tastefully understated union jack tee-shirt, moves from screen to screen taking in the conversation as she goes. All the while, the IO employees are completely oblivious to her presence.
As a way of introducing readers to a new character while reminding readers of the ongoing fall-out from the last two issues, it’s both economical storytelling and wildly imaginative. Not only that, but Ellis uses this opening as a way to tie the book into the (or at least a) wider DC Universe with references to Commander Steel, Martian Manhunter and Ted Kord before showing us the enigmatic young lady back in her apartment. It is here that she has a notice board on which post-it notes with the names of the major players we’ve encountered so far are stuck with thread linking them to each other and intriguing labels like “Hyperstitional Warfare”, “Nine Treaties” and “Human Property Schism”. While her identity is not entirely clear, it seems likely that this is either Jenny Sparks or Jenny Quantum. She appears to have the attitude, idiom and memorabilia (including a lighter engraved with the words “Mars Expedition 1955”) of the former and the ethnicity of the latter. In any case, this is all we get of her this issue.
Because we’re back to Angie who’s holed up in her disused IO facility, tinkering with her flight equipment, when she’s visited by our rogue three-person CAT (Covert Action Team) of Void, Grifter and Kenesha who complete the teleportation they began last issue. They start a conversation with Angie but are rudely interrupted by the IO CAT we saw Miles Craven deploy last issue, too. Things kick off.
Look, if you’ve been a comic fan for any length of time, you’ve seen this kind of thing hundreds – if not thousands – of times before. A team of bad guys take on a team of good guys while the big bad guy watches remotely from somewhere far away. This is done so very well, though. For one thing, there’s no posturing or trash-talking. There is just an exchange of fire between two highly professional groups of killers, rendered beautifully by an artist who is at the very top of his game. Important details are shown without interrupting the ongoing flow of the fight. Craven’s commentary draws attention to one or two of these details, but, again, the brief interruptions reinforce the sense of excitement and tension rather than disrupting it. In short, this fight is well worth the two and a half issues we’ve been made to wait for it. Ellis absolutely knows what he’s doing here.
And, to top it all off, there’s a gut-wrenching development at the end (which I won’t spoil) that suggests that not all the characters Ellis has introduced us to are destined to last the full twenty-four issues. The sense of jeopardy in that final page is powerful and I’m rather miffed I’m going to have to wait another month to find out what happens next. All of which is a sign of a very assured, accomplished bit of writing.
This issue was a remarkably quick read, particularly in comparison to its wordier predecessors. That is not to say, though, that the story is in any way slight or superficial. The art is not just beautiful (although it most assuredly is that); it is an integral part of the storytelling – important details are highlighted clearly and faces are both consistently and pleasingly expressive. In terms of pacing and development, the Ellis’ plotting is spot on; his dialogue is naturalistic but never superfluous. In short, this is comic book storytelling right out of the top drawer. I’ve been re-reading Ellis’ initial run on StormWatch and, as good as that is, this blows it away. It’s mature – both in its portrayal of super-powered characters and the moral universe they inhabit. If that interests you at all – or you have even a passing interest in the fate of characters you may have enjoyed a couple of decades ago – this book is a must-buy. It is effortlessly involving, dramatic, witty and intriguing stuff.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check it out for reviews, comment, podcasts and fun.)