R. I. P. WildStorm (1992 – 2010)

Posted by Grey Monday, September 27, 2010

WildStorm, from its humble yet astounding beginning in the formation of Image Comics back in 1992, to its unique imprint status via acquisition by DC Comics in 1999, has been with us for an unforgettable eighteen years. We mourned its demise while taking a retrospective look at the prolific publishing line.

On Sept 22nd, Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment made two major announcement:

One, being the relocation of all business functions related to and supporting multi-media and digital content production from New York to Burbank, California. DCE’s publishing operations will remain in New York.

Second, and the more affecting, would be the closure of both the WildStorm and Zuda imprint this December. The WildStorm Universe, as we know it, will effectively end with WildCats #30, the final issue of its last ongoing series "WildCats".

DC Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee have this to say via DC's The Source blog:

"After taking the comics scene by storm nearly 20 years ago, the WildStorm Universe titles will end this December. In this soft marketplace, these characters need a break to regroup and redefine what made them once unique and cutting edge. While these will be the final issues published under the WildStorm imprint, it will not be the last we will see of many of these heroes. We, along with Geoff Johns, have a lot of exciting plans for these amazing characters, so stay tuned."

While Zuda, the company's webcomics imprint has been dying a slow death, WildStorm is doing comparatively fine, though understandably badly affected by the very same sales decline plaguing the entire industry.

Many creators have reacted to the sad news over Newsarama, and The Beat, with the majestic Warren Ellis making some intriguingly somewhat funny comments looking back at the latter.

My experience was that Wildstorm, particularly Jim Lee and Scott Dunbier and certainly several of the editors I worked with (John Layman especially comes to mind), looked after their creators, and kept a personal connection. They probably weren’t the best businessmen — one of the reasons I turned their STORMWATCH into THE AUTHORITY is that I found out that, despite the fact that no-one was buying STORMWATCH, they kept it going because they liked reading it in the office and wanted to keep me employed. And I felt so bloody awful about that, and at the same time had been so struck by Bryan Hitch’s STORMWATCH issues, that the train of thought that led to THE AUTHORITY began.

And I would say that their altruism and my crushing guilt worked out for them, except that 11 years later Wildstorm is being shut down. But in that time, they have published remarkable work — EX MACHINA, the ABC titles, SLEEPER, THE WINTER MEN, AUTOMATIC KAFKA, ZERO GIRL and FOUR WOMEN among others — and I hope the men and women who worked in Jim’s house can find something to be proud of in that. I’m just sad that I won’t see any more comics with the Wildstorm mark.

With that comment, Ellis somehow pointed out the nature of WildStorm. Allow me to elaborate after a brief walk down memory lane.

Originally known as Homage Studios, the studio was founded by artists Scott Williams, Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee, and Joe Chiodo in San Diego, California. From its formative years growing out of the roots of Homage and starting out with Image Comics in 1992, there is no doubt, both from then or retrospectively speaking, that WildStorm was the most ambitious line that ultimately saw through its ambitions by becoming the most formidable and influential line amongst Jim Lee's other Image partners (yes, that totally included Todd McFarlane and his never-changing Spawn. Nope, not a typo). Jim Lee, being arguably the biggest star of the Image Six, went on to create the biggest and most successful universe (something Rob Liefield totally sucked at, depsite the very brilliant Judgement Day reboot executed by the maestro Alan Moore for his Awesome Comics). In a time where superheroes are getting old and predictable, Image and WildStorm provided rejuvenated fire to the genre, offering everything from sex-ploitation (Gen¹³'s Caitlin Fairchild, anyone), top secret government conspiracy espionage a'la X-Files (the action-packed, always entertaining Team 7), to top notch works from established writers (Alan Moore surprisingly worked on an extended period on Wild C.A.T.s).

Yes, speaking of Alan Moore's unexpectedly prolonged tenure on Wild C.A.T.s. By imbuing the team with character and depth by following up on the initial premise of the Autobots/Decepticons-esque eternal war between the Daemonite and Kherubim, Moore enriched the series without major revamp and making the series more intriguing than ever, with then-up-and-coming artist Travis Charest (where are you now, Travis Charest?). Introducing the Kherubims as corrupt power-hungry politicians, underlying commentary on racism with Daemonites treated as second-class citizens, Tao, the traitorous villain, and the resolution of Fire From Heaven, a crossover particularly heavy on its continuity with the fates of Kaizen Gamorra and Spartan changed forever.

Also noteworthy at this period is the very much underrated crossover limited series between McFarlane' Spawn and the Wild C.A.T.s in an interesting spin on the Days Of Future Past concept with a time-traveling tale.

Gen¹³'s best-selling debut issue with an amazing thirteen (eventually, fifteen) variant covers brought the frustrating concept of variant covers to a new high, cementing the survival of this particularly perturbing concept till today.

Jim Lee also continued to prove his eye for upcoming breakout talents, by discovering talents like Travis Charest, Brett Booth and J. Scott Campbell. Attempts in branching out the franchise of WildStorm into other media were ultimately met with disappointment with the Saturday morning cartoon series of the WildC.A.T.s lasting only one season, while a full-length animated version of Gen¹³ was produced but never released. However, WildStorm's release of their superhero riff on Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering card game, Wildstorms, was popular enough to spun off into a crossover set of cards with Marvel.

The novel concept of setting up imprints also worked out tremendously with WildStorm. An imprint called Homage Comics was launched in 1995, focused on established writer-driven books. Titles as diverse as Kurt Busiek's Astro City, James Robinson's Leave It to Chance, Terry Moore's Strangers In Paradise to Warren Ellis' Red were published to critically acclaim.

Another imprint were then set up in 1997. Cliffhanger, a line focused on creator-owned series from then-popular artists were well-received with J. Scott Campbell's Danger Girl, Joe Madureira's Battle Chasers, Humberto Ramos' Crimson, Joe Kelly & Chris Bachalo's Steampunk, Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's Arrowsmith and Warren Ellis's Tokyo Storm Warning.

It was in 1997 that the WildStorm Universe saw a successful revamp with the help from prominent creators like Alan Moore and Warren Ellis. Ellis' work on Stormwatch cemented both the creator and the title's reputation in the comic industry.

Then came 1998, when DC Comics acquire WildStorm. And it is at this very same time when comic readers were fortunate enough to embrace a complete return of Alan Moore, with his America's Best Comics line launching from WildStorm.

While it might take some other people's inner comic geek self to make them say this, I am perfectly proud to admit that I bought the entire line. Every single title from the line was comic goodness. Promethea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tomorrow Stories, Tom Strong and Top 10. Every week you get a new comic book written by Alan Moore. Just think about that. So how did something that amazing come about?

Well, according to Wikipedia:

According to the interview Moore gave George Khoury in the book The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, when Lee first saw Alan Moore after the takeover, the tall figure of Moore holding his snake-headed walking stick impressed Lee so, he was sure Moore - who was then still ignorant of the sale - was going to beat him senseless. Moore was reluctant at first, but ultimately decided to accept his new situation as he had promised work to a number of his artist friends from Rob Liefeld's defunct Awesome Comics line. In the same interview, he said that it was better to go back against a principle for the greater good, than to have no principles in life at all.

Always the one looking out for others, Alan Moore. And no, no sarcasm when it comes to my favorite comic writer ever.

However, with WildStorm being sold to DC Comics without Moore's knowledge, the collaboration soon fell through as the feud between DC and Moore were well-documented in the industry. With the 32nd issue of Promethea, where the entire ABC Universe faces the Apocalypse, the imprint's "universe" officially ended as Moore bid farewell to an ensemble of some of the most intriguing characters ever in comic-dom.

Nevertheless, 1999 is indeed a significant year in WildStorm history, apart from the critically lauded ABC line. As mentioned earlier in Ellis' quote, the game-changing storyline from his "Change or Die" arc took Stormwatch to the next level. After a deadly encounter with the infamous xenomorphs, creatures from the Alien series of films in a crossover book with Dark Horse, WildC.A.T.s/Aliens, Stormwatch disbanded. From its ashes came The Authority, a ground-breaking series known for its uncompromising attitudes, intense graphic violence, visual flair of a "widescreen" scale created from the relentless mind of Ellis and the incredibly intricate artwork of Bryan Hitch. After twelve issues of awesomeness, Ellis handed the title to then-up-and-coming writer Mark Millar and then-relatively-unknown Frank Quitely. And the rest is history as Millar and Quitely masterfully took the already cutting edge series to the extreme and never look back. The Authority has since took over the United States of America and remain a staple feature of the WildStorm Universe, surpassing even the WildCats in its status. I would even go further to highlight the fact that Marvel's popular Ultimate Universe, in particular their most popular Ultimates (incidentally by Millar and Hitch) wouldn't have existed if not for the influence of The Authority.

And who can forget the absolute flip side of the Batman/Superman "World's Finest" partnership, with the pairing up of quite possibly the first gay superheroes, Midnighter and Apollo. And to everybody's surprise, this is one relationship that got everyone sticking behind, driving away any potential emotions of homophobia.

Ellis was a key contributor during his collaborative years with WildStorm, offering yet another critically acclaimed hit with his seminal work, "Planetary", a delightful celebration of Sci-fi pop culture, literature, and comic book history, with amazing art by John Cassaday.

By 2004, WildStorm continue to take bold moves toward a decidedly indifferent superhero future with their WildStorm Universe. Following the cataclysmal events of Coup D'Etatwhich resulted in The Authority taking control over the U.S. Government, an unexpectedly brilliant series were set up: Sleeper. At a time when Ed Brubaker is still relatively unknown in the comic industry, a finite series successfully mashing superheroics, crime, and espionage was born. While the series proved to be an internet darling and was a success with critics, the series underperformed commercially and was thus canceled after twelve issues. It was then brought back by popular demands for another twelve-issues run as Sleeper: Season Two, which ended with an unforgettably bleak ending.

Yet another testament to WildStorm's relentless scope of publishing in 2004, another landmark new series taking superheroics to yet another philosophic height were introduced. Ex Machina, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, was an intelligently piece of superhero work unlike any in the business. Interwoven with contemporary politics, ethnics, moral debates, and yes, superheroes, Ex Machina went on to took home the 2005 Eisner Award for Best New Series. For those interested, the awe-inspiring first issue is gamely provided by DC/WildStorm right here.

Gradually, after the acquisition of WildStorm by DC Comics, the DC Universe started to interact with the WildStorm Universe. The connection was further deepened after the return of the Multiverse after DC's Final Crisis, from minor signs like WildStorm's unique Bleed concept introduced to DC Multiverse to major all-out crossover like the DC/Wildstorm: DreamWar between the two distinctly different universe.

Meanwhile, the WildStorm Universe continue to experience the worst kind of crossover events you can imagine for an universe populated with superheroes. Yes, even worst than the eventual non-consequential (by comparison) Civil War that Marvel had. In 2008, after enduring one world-changing event after another (from Wildstorm: Revelations, to Wildstorm: Armageddon, to Number of the Beast), the universe jumped the post-apocalyptic shark with Wildstorm: World's End, where every imaginable bad things happened.

Wildstorm editor Ben Abernathy had this to say to Newsarama:

"This direction evolved following our WorldStorm launch a few years ago. Looking at the landscape of the industry, we realized we needed to move our universe in a different direction, something that the “Big Two” couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do for a long period of time. And we decided that direction should be toward a sci-fi/horror direction of a post-apocalyptic setting (to a degree, an almost logical extension to where the WSU has been headed for years). There have been “visions” of a devastated, bleak future in other mainstream super-hero books, but nothing with the lasting impact or direction that the World’s End books will be tackling."

Following that, WildStorm has since continue to diversify its publishing scope with licensed properties like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, World of Warcraft, The X-Files and Dante's Inferno. With expectedly sub-par results.

And here we are at the end of the road with DC making the heartbreaking announcement.

Jim Lee has since spoke out on the fall out of the event, on Newsarama.

"It’s a ways off. I don’t want to mislead any WildStorm fans. At the same time, honestly, I think taking a bit of a breather on them and then re-energizing them with some new focus and direction will be very good for those characters. I feel very confident, as co-creator on a lot of those properties and characters, that this is a very good creative move for them."

Echoing back to what I mentioned about Ellis' statement. It is well-documented of Jim Lee and Scott Dunbier's relentless enthusiasm to push the envelope of this comic industry that is simply put much smaller than we ever thought. So small that when corporate giant moves, earth trembles and small imprints like WildStorm (that has frankly speaking cheated death for longer than one might thought if you considered the history) gets the red card treatment. Ironically, while the superheroes/villains alike in WildStorm Universe took on the apocalypse in its strive, the real world is that Armageddon nobody can take on. We can already count our luck that Vertigo lives on to fight another day (perhaps, complete with enhanced superpower now that the fallout of the demise of WildStorm are certain to send some of its more cutting edge superhero titles to the mature-reader line).

Reader might at this moment felt that we are overreacting to the closure of the imprint. However, the fact that nobody is certain enough on what is on the horizon for these wonderful characters from WildStorm Universe to speak something on it disturbs me. Word is, they will be reintroduced to DC Comics as part of the DC Universe, under the supervision of probably Geoff Johns. And that disturbs me even more. WildStorm is an unique universe in itself, much like Marvel's 616, or DC's very own Earth-0, a difference not distinctly felt immediately but immediately noticeable in Kurt Busiek and George Perez's JLA/Avengers crossover. Can a pair of iredeemable ultra-violent homosexual pastiches of the World's Finest live in the same universe as the original deal? Even if the answer is yes, I'm certain what we will have then are watered-down versions of Apollo and Midnighter.

To the end of an era in comic history. We mourn the demise of WildStorm with four ironically titled "This Is WildStorm" wallpapers taken from DC's WildStorm site. Yes, it's still there. Grab it while you can.

This WAS WildStorm.


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