The Michael Cray series is proving to be an interesting experiment, but perhaps not quite the one its creators had in mind when they first conceived it. As the first spin-off series from Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt’s The Wild Storm, it represented an opportunity to expand the Wild Storm universe significantly, perhaps tying into the larger ongoing narrative of the main series in interesting ways. This isn’t quite how things have turned out. Instead, the focus has been on Michael Cray assassinating damaged alternate versions of DC characters and, only a few issues in, the formula already has a distinct whiff of staleness about it. The series does rather pose the question of precisely how long a very good idea can be mined before it’s outlived its usefulness. The answer appears to be… not very long at all. But, I may be wrong. Perhaps things will start looking up with this issue. Let’s find out, eh?
Warren Ellis might just be the biggest tease in comics right now. With the delicacy and lightness of touch of the most exotic of dancers, he has unpeeled the various layers of the Wild Storm universe, each revelation accompanied by narrative moves of pulse-quickening, breath-taking skill, enabled by the extraordinary art of Jon Davis-Hunt. There is, of course, a fine line between teasing and frustrating. It’s a subjective judgment and individuals’ mileage varies considerably with this sort of thing. Some readers are undoubtedly frustrated with this series’ apparent reluctance to bring the building tension between IO and Skywatch to a climax and, if they were expecting things to start here, they’ll be disappointed. For, yes, this is another issue that, despite its somewhat misleading cover, is concerned principally with set-up and background.
The Michael Cray series has been an interesting one so far, but one for which my initial enthusiasm has waned. After a very promising first issue, the second disappointed on a number of levels, not least in its double deus (‘dei’) ex machina resolution to Cray’s confrontation with the Wild Storm universe’s Oliver Queen. The announcement of Barry Allen as the focus for this month’s issue raises the possibility that this 12 issue series will simply become a magical mystery tour of a dark ‘gritty’ version of the DC Universe, in which our favourite heroes are presented as twisted alternative characters that are simply grist for Michael Cray’s increasingly super-powered mill. I hope there’s something more going on myself, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, here’s issue 3…
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.
After the startling expansion of the Wild Storm universe last issue and the brutal action of the one before it, we’re probably due a bit of a rest and that’s more or less what we get with this ninth issue of the Wild Storm. That’s not to say that this issue is dull, boring or without incident, though. Far from it. It’s just that, whereas the last couple of issues have broadened the series’ focus, this one deepens it. Allow me to explain…
Every so often, I forget. I forget how vast and positively bubbling with potential the Wild Storm universe is. Warren Ellis, though. Warren Ellis does not forget. As can be seen from the really quite outrageous turn this issue takes about halfway through. With the exception of one or two moments here and there, the series so far has concentrated on delineating the nature of three major players in the Wild Storm universe – IO, Skywatch and the Halo Corporation. Up to now, it has been a series steeped in early 21st century obsessions with technology, power and the clandestine activities of organizations rich in both. This issue, however, Ellis reminds us that, as intriguing and fascinating as those organizations are, they are not the sum total of the Wild Storm universe. Far from it.
The Doctor is in, ladies and gentlemen. And she will see you now…
Quick question. Which Marvel comic ends with the line “Oh my God. It’s wearing underpants.”? (Hint: You’re about to read a review of it.) Like all the best comedy, NextWave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is a relatively short, but still memorable reading experience. Fawlty Towers, The Day Today, Father Ted – none of these classics of British TV comedy outstayed their welcome; all of them have attained legendary status at least in part because their legacy is unsullied by mercenary attempts to milk the golden cow long after the creamiest parts of its output have been savoured. (That metaphor got away from me a bit there.) NextWave: Agents of H.A.T.E. is a similar beast. Only 12 issues of it exist, but they are among the funniest superhero comics you will ever read. So buckle up, turn off your Etheric Loop Recall Televocometer, and get ready for a rollercoaster ride of… well, profanity-laced madness, mostly. Oh, and underpants. Really big underpants.
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 am beginning to wonder if Warren Ellis is deliberately structuring this series on a three issue cycle in which we get two issues of conversation-heavy set-up and world-building followed by an issue of balls-to-the-wall full-blooded action. Last issue was impressive more for its art and dialogue than anything else. This issue is no less skilfully written but is less impressive and (say it quietly) just a little monochrome compared to the last couple of issues’ technicolour spectacle. That is not to say it’s poor. By no means. But it is a more cerebral talky instalment and, while this series continues to be one of the most intelligent and well-written comics currently on the market, there are nevertheless niggles here. Allow me to explain.
This issue is all about character interaction. There are four key conversations here and a promising fifth that gets interrupted by the story’s conclusion. The first one is between IO’s chief Miles Craven and Deathblow himself, Michael Cray who is still coming to terms with his brain tumour. With the promise of IO paying for his medical expenses as an enticement, Craven persuades Cray to go after and execute Angie ‘Engineer’ Spica. Although, at just two pages, this conversation is relatively short, it is nevertheless impressive for making Cray a fully three-dimensional and likeable character, despite his assignment pitting him against the one character in this series so far that we can say without too much quibbling is ‘good’. With Craven having just left him, Cray’s final two panels of dialogue (“Strange damn world. I love it. …I don’t want to die.”) are rather touching. I’ve waxed lyrical about Warren Ellis’ writing skills before, but this is worth noting as a powerful example of the dictum ‘less is more’.
The second conversation is between Zealot and a ‘daemon’. I am assuming that this is an introduction to Ellis’ re-working of the Kherubim/Daemonite dynamic that formed the foundation of WildCATs’ initial run in the 90s before being so gloriously subverted by Alan Moore a few years later. Zealot has been charged with investigating Camp Hero in Montauk, the mothballed IO base that formed the setting for issue 3’s jaw-dropping action set-piece. I must confess that I’m slightly surprised that there’s that much of a base to investigate, but I’m willing to let that slide given how stylishly the Daemonite encounter is presented.
In the same vein as my regular praise for Ellis’ writing, this is as good a moment as any for my likewise regular acknowledgement that Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork is glorious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he may well be one of the top five artists currently working in comics. He reminds me of a slightly more refined Liam Sharp (and there’s no slight intended to the inestimable Mr Sharp); he has the same ability to work in meticulous detail while sacrificing none of the dynamism required of an action comic artist. In fact, if anything, his line work is somewhat clearer and, while his panel layouts may be more restrained, his faces are a little more expressive. Page 5 is a great example. Zealot’s exploration of the wrecked IO base becomes a perfectly paced exercise in suspense, largely due to Steve Bucellato’s subtle colours and Davis-Hunt’s framing and perspective. When the Daemonite emerges from the shadows at the bottom of the page (a moment rather given away by the impressive cover), it is beautifully, spine-tinglingly disturbing.
That conversation between the Daemonite and Zealot represents a further opening up of the WildStorm universe and provides some subtle hints as to the nature of the relationship between Daemonites and Kherubim. Satisfyingly, it would appear that Ellis is not content merely to replicate the rather simplistic dynamic between the two races that first appears back in the original Image run. In that sense, the conversation is a prime example of what Ellis is doing with this series, balancing respect and innovation pretty much perfectly.
The centre piece of the issue is the next conversation between Adrianna ‘Void’ Tereshkova and Angie. It’s here that we see Adrianna’s origin and get a better feel for her character. I’m not going to spoil that conversation here other than to point out that we get an explanation of the Bleed that is typical high concept sci-fi from Ellis and that, again, Davis-Hunt’s artwork is clear and appealing.
The final major conversation is the second one between Miles Craven and Michael Cray, in which the latter says he’s not going to eliminate Angie because she’s a “bad target”, a conclusion at which he’s arrived because he’s been able to review the raw footage from the Razor CAT’s attack and interpret it himself. This leads to a moment when (finally) Craven’s mask of oily politeness slips and we see a ruthlessness that is belied by what we have previously seen of his more human relationship with his boyfriend. The issue ends with the promise of (hopefully) some action next month, but that ending is resolutely low-key, entirely in keeping with the ongoing tone of this series.
Some random observations to finish with: we get more Voodoo (yay!), even if it’s only one page (boo!); Michael Cray’s had one hell of a life; Davis-Hunt draws cars, leaves, alien demon-creatures and Angie Spica extraordinarily well; speaking of Angie, I still love her and would like to give her the hug she so obviously needs.
Whether you will enjoy this issue depends almost entirely on your attitude to slow-burning stories that prioritise character interaction, a slow incremental exploration of an expansive universe, and a multi-layered plot over gratuitous action sequences. We’re five issues in and we’re getting a clearer idea of who’s doing what and why they’re doing it; we’re also getting a much better feel for what makes the various characters tick and how they got their powers. All of which is fine. Up to a point.
I mentioned niggles at the start of this review. I shall spell them out here. At the end of last issue, we left Angie alone and somewhat emotionally bereft. This issue we see her steal (quite a bit of) money from a cash machine (do AMTs really issue $100 bills???); it would arguably have been nice to see her try to cope on her own, to see her, actually, involve herself in a bit of superheroics. Instead, Adrianna locates her pretty easily and we get a conversation that, although interesting in its own right, moves the focus away from her. Now, it may seem a bit counter-intuitive to suggest that the plot slow down at this point, but Angie’s currently our most sympathetic viewpoint character and I think there’d have been some mileage in showing her coming to terms with her suit and also taking at least some steps to finding out who she is becoming. The Adrianna conversation is just a little too neat.
As good as the dialogue is here, it’s neither as witty nor as awe-inspiring as what we had last issue. The stuff about the Bleed is interesting, but we don’t get anything near as impressive as the slow build-up to the double page spread of the Skywatch satellite last issue. The action quotient is down to pretty much 0 here. I don’t mind that so much myself, but I wouldn’t want to see it become too regular a thing. Neither would I want to see a book this self-evidently good lose readers because of its slow burn. That said…
I still trust Ellis. He continues to write engaging, interesting characters and continues to give us a masterclass in how to introduce a world in a layered, reasonably organic way. While this issue is not an especially ideal jumping on point, it is nevertheless entertaining, well-written and well-paced. And, it should go without saying, exceptionally well-drawn. Its ending suggests that we’ll have some action next time. We shall see. For now, this is still recommended reading. It’s comic book storytelling of a very high calibre and I’m still very interested to see where it’s going.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)