Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The End of Wildstorm

Today, DC comics, in a move that’s been a long time coming, finally killed Wildstorm.

Back in the heady days of the early 90s, when 90210 ruled the airwaves and people thought comics were an investment opportunity. Wildstorm’s titles were sold on the strength of artists like Jim Lee, J. Scott Campbell, Travis Charest, and unbelievably, Scott Clark. But what people really remember about Wildstorm is what Warren Ellis did in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

His revolutionary run on Stormwatch introduced a darker, more sophisticated type of superhero comic to the mainstream. They weren’t grim for grimness’ sake, like so much of the drek that was published in the 90’s. Instead, they were more like spy fiction with superpowers. They just happened to have costumes because that was the vocabulary the comics buying public understood. Ellis refined the formula on the second volume of Stormwatch, the Authority, and to a lesser extent Planetary, when he introduced widescreen storytelling. Essentially, this meant decompressing the story and letting great artists like Bryan Hitch have the room to draw really, really awesome fight scenes.

After Warren Ellis left Wildstorm in the early 2000’s, the company floundered. Joe Casey was doing an outstanding and forward thinking run on Wildcats, but only about 3 people were reading it. Meanwhile, Mark Millar did an extremely exciting run on the Authority with Frank Quitely that more or less continued the style Ellis established. Unfortunately, in his final storyarc, he was met with heavy editorial interference and censoring by DC. I won’t get into the whys and hows of what happened there. It’s easy enough to find for yourself on the interwebs. However, that was the beginning of the long decline of Wildstorm that culminated with today’s decision.

What made Ellis, and later Millar’s stuff, so appealing is that it was extremely edgy superhero comics. They were crashing mile long spaceships into islands, introducing gay Batman and Superman analogues, and an evacuating the entire planet into another dimension. And it was all done in a style that had never been used on mainstream American superhero comics before. By the time they finally got around to publishing the end of Millar’s run on the Authority, DC had already published a widescreen style JLA run with Bryan Hitch on pencils and Marvel was publishing books like the Ultimates. Both companies, but particularly Marvel, had coopted the style and edginess that made those Wildstorm books so appealing.

All of this went on while the Authority was involved in a very nasty and very public censorship fiasco. By the time it came back, it was a shadow of its former self. Soon the entire Wildstorm line was trying to be cutting edge and relevant but failing miserably. It was like watching your Dad do the Macaerena at a wedding.

Despite attempts to stop the bleeding with top creators like Ed Brubaker, and sensationalistic stunts like having the Authority take over America or having the apocalypse take place, Wildstorm was never able to recapture their late 90’s/early 2000’s magic. Throw in the spectacularly mishandled Worldstorm relaunch, where Grant Morrison failed to turn in work on both Wildcats and the Authority, and it’s a wonder that this decision took this long.

Wildstorm have scrambled to do something with the characters since then, but every effort has met with little success. The comic industry took what it needed from those titles and moved on, leaving only the sad pathetic carcass of a once relevant imprint behind. Almost a decade after it helped revolutionize the comic industry, Wildstorm’s biggest moneymakers are video game and movie titles. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

I think the moment I knew that Wildstorm was done for good, was when the bleed showed up in Final Crisis. Introduced by Warren Ellis, the bleed was the barrier that separated alternate universes. It’s a relatively harmless concept, but when it was introduced, I couldn’t have imagined DC’s management allowing their writers to use anything from Wildstorm books in the DCU. Those books were too graphic, too controversial. Now, they’re using elements from them so Superman can save Lois Lane in a major summer crossover.

You can’t get more mainstream for that and if Wildstorm is mainstream, then its just redundant.

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