30 Sept 2010

Thought Balloon: Wildstorm - Almost Gone But Never Forgotten

By Matt C
Over the last week or so comics news sites have been awash with stories of DC’s restructuring, reshuffling, relocations and redundancies. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty here as there's plenty of comment and analysis of the situation elsewhere. There's one thing I did feel I needed to mention though, and it's probably the same news that fanboys across the world greeted with sadness: the closure of Wildstorm.

The publishing house launched by superstar artist Jim Lee in 1992 under the Image umbrella, which went on to be absorbed by DC Comics in 1999, is shutting its doors for good at the end of this year. While the imprint may not have been inundated with critical plaudits in recent times, if you rewind back a few years they were a force to be reckoned with.

I admit I wasn't onboard when they first arrived on the scene. Along with most of Image Comics' early output, their apparent reliance on T&A and 'kewl' concepts (remember those ads that described the books variously as "Hot!" and "Violent!"?) was a real turn-off (obviously I later realised that was a bit of a sweeping generalisation!). It was only at the tail end of the '90s and the early '00s that I began to take notice thanks to Alan Moore's America's Best Comics imprint and Warren Ellis' groundbreaking run on Stormwatch and then The Authority. ABC gave us Tom Strong, Top Ten, Prometha and - most notably - The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Authority pretty much set the tone for superhero comics for the next decade. A very big deal, in other words.

For at least five years Wildstorm were putting out (under their own banner or one of their various imprints like Cliffhanger and Homage) some exceptional comic books. Personal favourites include Planetary (natch), Sleeper, WildCATS, Arrowsmith, Global Frequency and The Intimates. I could list a lot more, but you get the idea.

For me, the moment Wildstorm lost their momentum, the momentum they began to fall behind, was when they canned Joe Casey's Wildcats 3.0, a series that had pushed the superhero genre to places it had never been before in a brilliantly audacious manner. It wasn't exactly selling like hotcakes, and speaking to Casey 'off the record' at Bristol Expo a few years ago his future plans for the title sounded like they'd eventually make the entire Wildstorm Universe largely redundant. Looking at where we're at now, perhaps that wouldn't have been such a bad idea, but the editorial bods didn't like this direction and relaunched the book with Grant Morrison and Jim Lee at the helm. And it lasted one issue.
Wildstorm have attempted to resuscitate their major properties since then but the interest just hasn't been there. Ex Machina received a lot of praise, and the finale of Planetary was an all-round success, but of late it seems their focus has shifted towards licensed video-game tie-ins (the first issue of the Gears Of War comic was reportedly the biggest selling book of 2008 when sales outside the direct market were taken into consideration). There was a pervading sense that perhaps Wildstorm had now lost their raison d'etre but in the past few months Brian Wood's triumphant DV8: Gods & Monsters miniseries suggested that all that was really needed was some new blood to bring some fresh perspective to their characters. I guess it was just too late in the day to change anyone's minds (or more likely - and sadly - too irrelevant to the big wigs and their long term business projections).

The kind of creator-owned stuff Wildstorm dealt with will no doubt appear at place like Vertigo or Image (although one less place for folks to pitch their projects is never an ideal situation). I guess we'll see the likes of Grifter, Apollo, Midnighter and various Carriers appear in the mainstream DC Universe at some point down the line, but I can't see them really retaining the unique identities they've forged during the last 20 years if they do.

Wildstorm's closure will be a huge loss to the industry: as the market adapts to the increasing prevalence of digital distribution it's doubtful we'll ever see a time when top tier creators get to play in a large superhero sandbox with such creative freedom again. Truly the end of an era of great comics.


Justin Giampaoli said...

Amen, Matt. I'm hopeful that places like Vertigo or Image will continue to be creative outlets for some of these offbeat properties, however... I thought it was interesting that Warren Ellis said simply he could not have done a book like Global Frequency anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said there, Matt.

- Rob N

Ian said...

I'm with you on all of that Matt. It's just a shame looking back how much a shadow of its former self that Wildstorm has become. Just look at that list of comics you give, from both Wildstorm and ABC and then have a look at what Wildstorm has out this month. Sadly, there's no comparison and I blame DC 100% for the way this has turned out. I just hope they won't be turning their attention to Vertigo in the same way. They are already moving Swamp Thing back into the DCU. What's next?

Joe T said...

@ Ian, where did you hear this about Swamp Thing? In all honesty, I can't see why a character can't exist under different imprints, take the Punisher for example. Max,616 & Ultimate.

I must confess, I have only read a few Wildstorm comics in my lifetime. It never seemed to grab me enough, however the grifter is pretty cool

Ian said...

Joe, the Swamp Thing story was picked up on several online newsites back in July/August time. The current rumour is that he's going to be in Green Arrow first off. The most annoying thing is that the move torpedoed a proposed Vertigo Swamp Thing series that would have been written by China Mielville!