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Generation WildStorm: Growing Up in Jim Lee’s Universe

This week’s news that DC Comics will shutter its WildStorm Productions imprint came as a shock, but upon quick reflection the move wasn’t all that surprising. While always operating under the capable hands of talented people, the label had for the last several years struggled to find its footing not just in a volatile comic book market, but also among a superhero landscape that WildStorm had helped redefine.

As demonstrated by the recent outpouring of support and reverence on Twitter, the history of WildStorm tracks well with that of many turn-of-the-century babies like myself, whose unconditional affection for the comics medium (and, in some cases, employment in the comics industry) can be traced back to WildStorm founder Jim Lee’s pied piper act, where the most influential comic book artist of the 1990s lured a generation away from the safe, altruistic heroes of our childhoods and into much darker, much sexier and much more violent comic book worlds where we roamed free before he finally led us back to water.

Superman was dead or dying. Batman was breaking. The Ultraverse was… Ultraversing. But regardless of how good or bad the classic superhero stories were at the time, all the excitement was with Image Comics, through which Jim Lee presented his WildStorm Universe. More than any of the other Image partners and their respective product lines, WildStorm was an ambitious and ultimately successful attempt to create a new superhero-esque mythology. For many of us, Lee and his collaborators were the first to present a world of superpowered men and women who didn’t necessarily wear costumes and who didn’t necessarily fight for the good of all mankind — or at least, not in the traditional sense. While the WildC.A.T.S. did defend Earth from the alien Daemonites, the success of the WildStorm Universe had more to do with shadowy government conspiracies and covert black-ops than it did with truth, justice or the American way.

It also had a lot to do with Caitlin Fairchild’s breasts.Part and parcel with WildStorm’s exploitation of our adolescent tendencies towards bombastic anti-establishmentarianism was the label’s exploitation of our adolescent tendencies towards naked women. Image Comics was primarily about striking, digitally colored artwork in those days — the super cool “WildStorm FX” credit in most of the books hit another mark of our future-obsessed brains — and WildStorm delivered as well if not better than anybody, and perhaps in no purer form than the thirteen different covers of “Gen13,” a prime example of WildStorm’s appreciation for design and illustration, and creating art for art’s sake.

A hugely popular comic about vulgar, superpowered teens fighting the evil authorities who created them while in various states of undress, “Gen13″ would go on to introduce us to the Lipstick Lesbian and feature a villain modeled after Trent “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” Reznor. Truly, “Gen13″ was a generation’s farewell card to our moms and dads at Marvel and DC.

While it’s absolutely true that WildStorm first defined itself by the “X-Files”-style paranoia stories like “Team 7″ and variously excellent/shameless artwork like that of “Gen13,” what’s typically overlooked is the comic book evangelism practiced by Jim Lee and his team. Like Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, WildStorm had a way of making kids feel like they were part of the process, and that they too could create cool comics and make a living doing it.

Jim Lee made a practice of cultivating new talent, with Campbell himself picked out of an art contest to become a major star of the 1990s. While Marvel and DC made the comics industry appear like fortresses one had to “break in” to, WildStorm (and Image) preached a more inclusive gospel that inspired many of us to get together after school and start creating our own stories. I still have a folder of logo designs and story outlines for comics created by my friends and I in our school library, written and drawn in spiral notebooks and photocopier paper, and I know I’m not alone.

This advocacy for the comics medium continued throughout the 1990s, with WildStorm founding the first of many, many imprints for different kinds of work, much of it focused on some of the pre-eminent writers of the day. Kurt Busiek’s superlative “Astro City” found a home at WildStorm’s Homage imprint, as did James Robinson’s “Leave it to Chance” and Terry Moore’s “Strangers in Paradise.” Later, WildStorm would deploy these writers and others of similar calibre across its own line, with Alan Moore’s “WildC.A.T.S.” and Warren Ellis’ “StormWatch” and “DV8″ being among the most notable successes.

WildStorm’s championing of these writers tracked with its audience’s aging process. Our brains were becoming more sophisticated, and so did our tastes. The work of Ellis and Moore and Robinson served as a bridge that we crossed to a place called Vertigo, where many of us spent most of our time in the ’90s, exploring very dark and “edgy” things like astonishingly violent preachers, outlaw journalists and, of course, faeries. It was during this mid-to-late period of the 1990s that our love of comics was probably made permanent, with the superhero genre being, with some exceptions (“Starman,” “Astro City”), little more than a nostalgic indulgence.

But Jim Lee got tired of running a company and wanted to get drawing again (that’s the version I like best, anyway), so he sold WildStorm Productions to DC Comics and set to work drawing that company’s classic superheroes. Concurrently, a newly DC-fueled WildStorm began what we remember as a superhero renaissance. Like Caitlin Fairchild’s breasts, the influence of “The Authority” cannot be overstated. It seemed so obvious that this was how superheroes were meant to be: big, loud, violent, mad — “widescreen”, as they called it at the time. Ellis and artist John Cassaday further remarked upon the genre with “Planetary,” as did Alan Moore and a host of collaborators in his WildStorm-sponsored America’s Best Comics line, which included the so-called “post-superhero” books “Tom Strong,” “Promethea,” and “Top Ten.” Joe Casey’s heady “Wildcats 3.0” and Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ ultra-gritty superhero noir “Sleeper” also distinguished themselves in this incredibly strong period for WildStorm.

Naturally, WildStorm’s influence and that of its signature creators was felt at Marvel and DC for years to come, perhaps most obviously in Marvel’s hugely successful Ultimate line, which was a new Marvel canon imagined in the WildStorm style. These books — superhero books! — were just as compelling as anything we’d read before (or maybe since), and it was through them that our generation of readers and professionals became truly inspired, in many cases by the concepts and characters we thought we’d left behind. WildStorm’s winking approach to superheroes is falling out of fashion today, but it was a success nevertheless.

This success had a paradoxical effect on WildStorm itself. With the imprint’s creators, innovations and audience now spread across the broader comics industry, WildStorm found itself without a clear purpose, at least in the eyes of readers. Certainly, important work was still created at WildStorm, like Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ “Ex Machina,” and the imprint became home to a number of lucrative film and video game licenses, but the WildStorm Universe struggled. Multiple reboots, revamps and relaunches did little to bring WildStorm’s characters back to prominence. The best prospects for commercial victories were new “Authority” and “WildCats” series written by Grant Morrison with art by Gene Ha and Jim Lee, respectively, but in uncomfortably familiar fashion, both collapsed under the weight of heightened expectations and blown deadlines.

It was announced this week that WildStorm will be shut down, its original titles cancelled and its licensed books rebranded as DC Comics publications. The stable of characters like StormWatch, Gen13, WildCats and the Authority will be reintroduced at a later date to DC Comics readers as part of the DC Universe, presumably in a manner devised by Geoff Johns. We certainly hope that works out for the best, if for no other reason than because it’s madness that a comic book about ultra-violent homosexual Batman and Superman analogues isn’t a best-seller.

WildStorm may not be utterly unique in its evolution or its creative output, but what is special about Jim Lee’s company is the journey it took with its audience. There’s a distinction and sentimentality for WildStorm that we usually reserve for cruelly killed off record labels or cancelled television series. But there’s no oppressive Daemonite-like force we can rage against for the closing down of WildStorm. In a sense, and speaking on behalf of our younger selves, I think WildStorm was just too cool.

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