Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stormwatch and the Construction of the New DC Universe

Quick, identify the ONE character on this cover that's still alive.

Some time ago, Image Comics started a series known as Stormwatch.  It seemed, at first glance, to be an upgraded version of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, put out by the same company, with a Jim Lee twist.  Team of superhumans works for the United Nations, as opposed to the United States, for the betterment of mankind, fighting alien invasions, superhuman terrorists, and the like.  Team swag includes orbiting satellite, a dozen plus tech-fitted members representative of countries from all around the globe, snappy banter to spare, and plots with slightly more personality than hatchet-marks.

The Stormwatch series ran through a good number of issues, with peaks and eddies, finally falling into the hands of one Warren Ellis, a relatively new comic writer at the time, who sought to take the characters in different directions than they had previously explored.  One gaseous and cybernetically enhanced model hero by the name of Fuji, for instance, confessed during Ellis' run that he had an orgasm every five minutes.

Then, in the grand tradition of writers seeking to breathe life into stale franchises, Ellis had nearly every member of the main team murdered in a WildC.A.T.s/Aliens crossover.

The remaining members, those in Stormwatch's Black Ops division, went on to form the Authority, a team of megapowered individuals including one Jenny Sparks, the living embodiment of the 20th century, and fittingly, quite British.  The Authority represented every liberal creed given the power to take over the world.  This team was given over to Mark Millar once Ellis had moved his attention in the Image Universe towards his hit-series Planetary (which will never ever ever re-emerge in the DCU, so don't ask).  Millar went on to become megastar supreme burning bright in the sky with projects like Kick Ass, Ellis went on to other projects with other companies like Avatar and Marvel, and the Authority, Stormwatch's child, in a fashion, floundered through a series of hedonistic, convoluted, bizarre and massive storylines, culminating in the near-total destruction of the planet Earth.  At one point, Grant Morrison signed on to do a limited series run, which died after two issues. Jenny Sparks, who died on December 31, 1999, was replaced by Jenny Quantum, who followed a grand tradition of ultrapowerful kid superheroes (see Franklin Richards) by hyperaging herself.  Regardless of the Authority's melodrama, the mantle of Stormwatch was taken up once again by the excellent Team Achilles, whose writer, Micah Ian Wright, apparently lied about his background and got it cancelled.  There was a cheery effort made with Doug Mahnke  and Christos Gage with another Stormwatch iteration, Post Human Division, but that lasted only about a year.   

In the background of all this, at some point, perhaps reflected in the time that the Wildstorm iteration of Earth was utterly annihilated, DC Comics bought Wildstorm.  When the New 52 revamp/reboot occurred a short time ago, many heroes and villains of the Wildstorm stable of characters were transferred into the new universe.  The first arc of Stormwatch centers on the team's mission to recruit Apollo and Midnighter, lovingly referred to at times as "the gay Superman and Batman", and stop a monster in the moon from destroying the planet.  

The story of Stormwatch never got the coverage that the Authority or even WildC.A.T.s seemed so prone to getting.  Great artists come and go, but a stable writer for "wide-screen" superheroics can make a lasting impression on an entire universe world of characters, at least until a massive revision renders it moot.  Stormwatch outstrips the Justice League in the new DCU in terms of power, potential, and personality.  We know Superman from so many angles we can likely predict his every line. Even the most DC oriented character in the new Stormwatch, the Martian Manhunter, is a far cry from the Justice League staple he once was.  The background for this title is rich for mining, so long as the people in charge of making these donuts remember that people like their donuts fresh, not day-old.  

To that end, it's nice to see Peter Milligan and Miguel Sepulveda working on the title again.  During their brief break, the "Gravity Miners" storyline, reader interest was already in danger of waning, if only for the fact that some characters weren't jelling properly, in character or overall tone.  There's a stability to this title with Milligan writing it. He knows the voices of each character and knows the plot threads for this title set a year from now.  Miguel Sepulveda's artwork seems to get better with each passing issue, and the chops he earned with cosmic characters in the Marvel stables seems to serve him well in this series.

Jenny Quantum forms a new use for her powers, Martian Manhunter mindwipes witnesses, and Jack Hawksmoor sweet-talks a city into putting itself back together. The first covert superhero team that's actually, you know, covert.

The new Stormwatch deals almost exclusively with extraterrestrial threats and near-cosmic incursions. They are based in a ship with Daemonite A.I. that orbits Earth in Hyperspace.  They are the best at what they do, and what they do is a secret that nobody, not even the other superhumans of the planet, is aware of.  This, coupled with the nostalgia one might feel for certain characters and the well-paced development of storylines, could lead to great success, in the long run.
The most recent issue of Stormwatch sees a fight with the Vitruvian Man and a Red Lantern.  The Vitruvian Man reveals he was a member of an older iteration of Stormwatch who was denied his true love when the "Shadow Lords" that run Stormwatch (far more intriguing than a U.N. subcommittee) had her murdered.  The Red Lantern Skallox, a being of few words, was recently one of several "upgraded" from mindless killing machine in issues of Red Lantern.  Stormwatch, being comprised of the best superhumans possible, delves into these two stories in the same amount of pages it takes some heroes, writers, and artists to deal with a conversation between two characters walking down the street.

The Da Vinci Coda sums it up, yeah.

In some ways, the New DC Universe feels rushed and crawling at a snail's pace at the same time.  An odd paradox, figuring that one out.  But there are hints at the unfolding universe that never seem to flesh out completely.  Marvel guru Joe Quesada recently said something to the effect that DC "burned down their house" with their new DC lineup, but it's a bit more complex than that. The DC staff took a beautiful old house that had been remodeled a few times already (Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, 52, Final Crisis) and, after careful study, razed it, reconstructing it to be a near-match, with a few minor additions and aesthetic alterations.  But the rich and complex tapestry of years of stories, crossovers, and character interactions is still present, we can assume?  Giving the assembly of the Justice League a marker at "Five Years Ago" presents a universal timeline that confuses at the same time as it clarifies. There are a whole spectrum of rings present in the DCU, but did the events of Blackest Night and Brightest Day actually happen? Impossible, if the Martian Manhunter, who died in Final Crisis and arose at the end of Blackest Night, played anything resembling a pivotal part, as he's a secret member of Stormwatch and has been for years, in new continuity. Or are we dealing with a clean slate, of sorts? Will the gaps be filled in, the furniture of the rooms in this new house, be uncovered with deft maneuverings or simple sweeps?  How is a world of heroes such as the ultraviolent homoerotic Midnighter able to merge with the restrained vigilantism of Batman?  Only the more talented writers in the DC offices will be able to pull it off, and only careful editorial work can make it stick.   

When we all look back on this after they get in a big fight, we'll chuckle.

Teen Titan's most recent annual (the series has a lot of quirks and flaws for me, but I think it's geared more towards teens, go figure) actually seems to be indicative of the positives and negatives of the new universe we just mentioned.  Here, the Legion Lost title crosses over, and there is a lot of talk about a Culling, and new/old characters (including Fuji from the old Stormwatch team and Warblade of WildC.A.T.s)... but it seems to be centered, almost maniacally so, on the present, discarding the past.  It's this spirit that seems to inhabit the final page of Stormwatch (before we digress too wildly) where we see the thread of the Midnighter's running monologue, wherein he muses over his bloodlust and, very clearly, for the first time in any comic book ever, sees Batman with his own eyes. Whether this is a hard-light hologram or a vision, it is not a ham-fisted or puerile point being driven home. The restraints of certain characters are exchanged, echoed, or distorted among the various other characters in the multiverse. As the DC New 52 moves into the final stretch of its first year, old fans and new see crossovers popping up here and there, a new history being written on a fresh page, rather than the old page being erased and scribbled over.  It's moments of intrigue, such as those that can be found in Stormwatch, that keep readers coming back.  Everyone working at DC would do well to keep this in mind, no matter who they are or what their role is...

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