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.)
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.)
It’s been a little while since I’ve updated the blog. This is not, I should point out, because I’ve not been writing. It is simply that I’ve not been writing here. Over at the Weird Science DC Comics site, Jim Werner has been kind enough to allow me to post some indie reviews and has asked me to do some reviews of DC crossover titles too. As Jim is such a nice chap and, consequently, is a man to whom it is remarkably hard to say ‘no’, I’ve been more than happy to oblige. Those reviews will turn up here eventually, but I’ve been a little dilatory in transferring them over, for which failing I can only apologise. In addition, I’ve made my podcasting debut on the Weird Science behemoth of a podcast which can be downloaded here. I appear about eight hours in. (Well, I did warn you.) I’ve also got a slightly longer section on their latest podcast. If you want to hear me discuss the Batman/Shadow and Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossovers, that’s the place to go (6 hours and 20 odd minutes in for that one).
Apart from that, I’ve been reading some stuff you might be interested in.
I suppose the big new thing I’ve been reading is comics in translation, specifically European comics. Every now and then Comixology has a sale and I bite. Recently, I finished Raptors which is a four volume series about renegade vampires and the two New York cops that become entangled with them. Written by Belgian creator Jean Dufaux and with art by Enrico Marini, the story starts very well with some wonderfully atmospheric moments. The Raptors are a brother and sister team of vampires determined to wipe out the ‘mainstream’ line of vampires who they believe have become ‘soft’ and ‘corrupted’, trading their predatory nature for the ability to walk in sunlight and, essentially, behave like human beings, albeit horribly selfish ones. This is a pretty good premise and the story is indeed rather entertaining. The final volume suffers from being a bit rushed and, consequently, a bit confusing. Lenore, the main character, makes some decisions that are a little difficult to reconcile with what’s come before but, on the whole, this is stylish stuff. The title does contain some nudity and is really for readers aged 18 and over.
Also on Comixology, I’ve acquired Warren Ellis’ original run on Stormwatch which is a useful touchstone when considering his current run on The Wild Storm for DC. The political sensibility is definitely there, but the early stories are still very much rooted in the gaudy action of the 90s/early 00s superhero genre. They are, arguably, the superhero genre taken to their logical conclusion once you factor in real world politics. Henry Bendix may seem to be well-placed to identify and fix the world’s problems, but his interventions do have unforeseen consequences, particularly his questionable decision to include Rose Tattoo on the team. What’s happening with The Wild Storm at the moment is much more subtle and much more character-based. The ready-made structure of the Stormwatch series just isn’t there and, as a result, relationships between characters and factions are less clearly defined, all of which makes for a more engrossing and enjoyable read. There’ll be a review of issue 3 of The Wild Storm up shortly, incidentally. If you’d prefer, you can see it at the Weird Science site now.
Other stuff I’ve been reading is Tim Shipman’s All Out War which offers a very engaging insight into the shenanigans around Brexit. It is not especially interested in the pro and con arguments for staying in or leaving the EU; what it does do is trace the political manoeuvrings behind the scenes and the (some would argue disastrous) steps Cameron took that ultimately ended his career. I’m only a dozen or so pages in, but already it’s proven to be very enlightening. If the ‘inside story’ of one of the biggest political decisions/catastrophes/upheavals of the last few decades is your cup of tea, this is worth checking out. It’s exceptionally readable, well-researched (Douglas Carswell’s dad was apparently the man on whom the character of Dr Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland was based. Fancy) and rather fascinating.
Well, that’s me done for now.