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Ask Chris #328: The WildStorm Blues

Ask Chris #328, background art by Jim Lee
Ask Chris #328, background art by Jim Lee

 

Q: Why aren’t the Wildstorm characters a comfortable fit in the modern, edgier DC Universe?@jdkrach

A: With Warren Ellis and Jon Davis Hunt reviving it in the pages of The Wild Storm — and with characters like Midnighter and Apollo experiencing some of their best stories ever in the core DC Universe right now — it seems like the WildStorm characters have been on everyone’s mind lately. And Real talk? I kinda love the WildStorm Universe.

It’s a universe built on an interesting twist on what it means to be a superhero, shaped by creators like Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, and Adam Warren, a roster of world-builders that somehow came together beautifully to make it all work. But the flipside to that is that a lot of what I love about it comes from the nature of the universe itself, and when you remove them from that kind of thematic setting, it makes it a lot harder for them to fit anywhere else.

 

Midnighter & Apollo, DC Comics
Midnighter & Apollo, DC Comics

 

Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that it can’t be done. Midnighter and Midnighter and Apollo have been some of my favorite comics of the past few years, specifically because of how well Steve Orlando, ACO, and Fernando Blanco have put the focus on having Midnighter deal with distinct pieces of the DC Universe — and how well Tim Seeley, Tom King, and Mikel Janin played him off Nightwing before he was launched into his own solo series.

But there’s a difficulty in that to how he was created. It requires not only a DC Universe, but a DC Universe that’s big enough to support the idea that we can have both Batman and two or three more guys who are essentially just variations of Batman. There’s a vastness and a history that are necessary to make it work, which I suspect is one of the reasons it took a good five years into the New 52 Era to really come together. I mean, it’s a lot harder to introduce us to a character who is entirely informed by what Batman is when you’re also still trying to introduce us to Batman.

And that, I think, is why you’ve seen Midnighter paired up with so many pieces of the pre-reboot universe. It’s not just that Steve Orlando clearly loves a bunch of great comics from the ’90s — although that’s pretty clear — but that things like the Ace of Winchesters (from Hitman), Freedom Beast (from Animal Man), the Subway Pirates (from Seven Soldiers), Prometheus (from JLA), and even Extraño (making his shocking return from the pages of New Guardians) imply that kind of history.

The very existence of those elements on the page implies a larger universe, one that can support the kinds of ideas that Midnighter — and by the same token, Apollo — represents.

 

Midnighter & Apollo, DC Comics
Midnighter & Apollo, DC Comics

 

The thing is, you don’t need to do all that work to make it fit if you already have that universe.

WildStorm, of course, has its roots in Jim Lee‘s WildCATs, and in addition to the amazing title that tells us that they are an Action Team that is both Covert and Wild, it does a pretty amazing job with setting the tone for the universe that would spring up around it. And really? If you go back and read them, you can say the same thing for all of those Image launch titles.

It’s always worth noting that while a lot of the conversation focuses on what they did in terms of creators having ownership of their work — and rightly so — it’s also true that the Image founders opened the door to new interpretations of what superheroes could be and how they could work. They had, after all, all “defected” from working not just in superhero comics, but in a shared superhero universe that had a throughline that shaped how everything within that universe worked.

From day one — like, literally from page 13, panel 8 of Fantastic Four #1 — the Marvel universe had been built on the idea of Superheroes As A Burden. It’s that feet-of-clay idea that Spider-Man would come to embody, where the focus was always on how having that power and responsibility could often create more problems and harder choices. It’s the driving force that revolutionized superhero storytelling and made the X-Men such a popular metaphor.

It’s always been more fragmented, but I think it’s safe to say that DC had that kind of through line too, the one that Marvel was pushing back against in the early ’60s: The idea of Superheroes as Adventure. It’s embodied by Silver Age Superman, whose default state was being mildly perplexed at what was going on around him until he could figure out a clever way to apply super-ventriloquism or whatever to turn things around, and it spread out to the entire line. Even at its most thrilling, there was a desire there to go big, to punch out embodiments of evil on this grand, almost allegorical stage.

With the Image books, though, you didn’t have that kind of through line coming from multiple books over the course of years. You had single creators — or small groups working tightly together on a single vision — and the result was that each book provided a different take on what superpowers could be, which would be filtered through comics for the next 25 years.

Youngblood was about Superheroes As Weaponized and Militarized Celebrity. Savage Dragon was about Superheroes As Violence. Spawn… well, I’ve never read a page of Spawn so you’ll probably have to ask Charlotte, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that it’s about Superheroes As Something Dark And Spooky To Be Feared.

But WildCATs… well, WildCATs was weird.

 

WildCATs, Jim Lee
WildCATs, Jim Lee

 

I’ll cop to not being the biggest Jim Lee fan on the block, but WildCATs legit has one of the best world-building high concepts that superhero comics have ever seen. The big idea — which somehow didn’t make it into the cartoon’s theme song about how they’re heroes (not zeroes) with invisible powers — involved an interplanetary war that had been raging for thousands of years between Khera and the Daemonites.

As you can probably tell from the name, the Kherabim were the good guys, and the Daemonites were essentially just giant lizard satans who wanted to murder everything. The twist, though, was that while we’re just joining the story now, this conflict actually got to Earth a long, long time ago — long enough for the super-powered alien DNA to be mixed into humanity, casting a wide net of people with the genetic potential for super-powers.

It’s a great premise, because it combines that easy origin story that you get from stuff like Marvel’s mutants and DC’s metagene with an overarching thematic plot that can unify everything into a single story, or for characters to be defined by their rejection of it.

Plus, it gave us the most ’90s dude of the ’90s, whose name is literally “Cole Cash.”

 

WildCATS, Jim Lee
WildCATS, Jim Lee

 

He is amazing. He doesn’t even have a face, he’s just entirely composed of hair, trenchcoat, guns, and bandana, and his brother’s name is “Max Cash.” I don’t have any jokes here, that just rules.

Anyway, given all of that, it’s kind of easy to interpret WildCATs as being built on the theme of Superheroes As Gods, especially given that most of Lee’s later work at DC would be built around that premise. I think that’s probably true for the book itself, but for the universe that grew up around it in the wake of its success, it took on a different theme. Different, but related. And weirdly enough, I think a lot of it comes from one of the less interesting parts of the WildCATs high concept, which was that Jacob Marlowe was actually an alien using technology to manipulate the market and become an extremely wealthy technologist.

Because the theme that the WildStorm universe would end up with was the idea of Superheroes as Decadence.

A lot of this evolution happened because WildStorm cast a much larger net than any of the other Image launch titles, spreading out over multiple titles with multiple eras, but that still stayed a small enough bunch that they could be tied pretty closely together from that thematic standpoint.

On the surface, stories like the widescreen superheroics of The Authority, the dark, gritty crime and espionage of Sleeper, and the horny teens of Gen13 wouldn’t have a whole lot in common, thematically, but they’re all built on that idea in one way or another. There’s always this idea that having superpowers is your ticket into a different social and economic class, something that removes you from the rest of society. It’s the kind of thing that plays off as something like the inverse of Astro City — which, incidentally, was originally published by a division of WildStorm.

You even see this idea playing out in Alan Moore’s run on WildCATs, arguably the most influential title for shaping that universe, along with StormWatch. The premise of that run — half of it, anyway — is that we find out that the Kherabim/Daemonite war has been over for centuries, and our heroes just didn’t hear about it because Earth is kind of remote. There’s an idea that Khera has flourished as a decadent empire, while the Daemonites — who we’ve only seen up to this point as supervillains — are now an oppressed minority, continually punished as third-class citizens.

It makes for some really interesting stories, but it also means that the ideas that we see playing out, whether it’s hard-partying teens stumbling into nouveau riche superheroics or “proactive” superheroes declaring themselves to be above anyone else’s ideas about morality, are made to fit in a universe built on those themes.

That’s why analogue characters — WildStorm mainstays like Midnighter and Apollo or Mr. Majestic — flourish in those stories, because they’re divorced from the conceptual purity that Superman and Batman need to work in theirs. And when you incorporate them into a universe that’s built for that conceptual purity, that’s defined by it, well. It’s a tough trick to pull off.

 

Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.

 

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