I’m somewhat defensive when I’m told that there weren’t any good comics made in the ‘90s. It’s just not the case. I will capitulate that the ‘90s were not the gold standard of comics. It was an era of artists first and stories a distant second. It’s fitting that the decade started with the foundation of Image as seven of the industries top artists bolted from Marvel to do things their way and then their way became the way of the industry for to long. It was a time of late books, unrealistic body types (and that’s saying something since these are comics), unfinished projects, over saturation of crossovers, and way to many pouches on uniforms. Yet when you look past all of these issues there were some very good comics produced in the ‘90s, you just had to seek them out and sometimes you had to take a chance.
Stormwatch was one of those books you had to take a chance on. When it first hit the shelves in 1993 I would never have described Stormwatch as a quality comic. It was a neat idea, a UN funded super team who lived on a space station, and teleported to earth when needed. But the execution was stereotypical Image/Wildstorm at that time. The artists ran the show, the stories were afterthoughts and it became very convoluted. It got so bad that Wildstorm thought it would be a good idea to release Stormwatch #25 after issue Stormwatch #10 then pigeonholed their creative teams into getting to that point over the next fifteen issues. The stories just weren’t good and the art devolved into everything that was bad about the ‘90s. Over exaggerated muscles, unrealistic poses, and every female wore a thong.
I dropped off most of these comics when I left home for college in ‘93, as I just couldn’t afford them all and I wasn’t enjoying many of them. I didn’t leave comics altogether but my pull list dwindled. I gravitated toward books like Preacher, Starman, and The Invisibles. Then the superheroes started to come back. It was low-key at first with Mark Waid on the Flash and when Grant Morrison relaunched JLA for DC and every publisher took notice and realized that writers mattered and classic takes on superheroes was cool again, but what about a comic publisher that didn’t have any classics to mine from? In that case you bring in a top-notch writer and give him free reign.
Warren Ellis’ became the writer of Stormwatch with issue #37. There was no relaunch, no new volume, and no massive ad campaign. Above the title was a simple phrase, “Beginning a Dynamic new era of….”. Without notice Stormwatch would become a must read for any fan of comics and specifically those of the superhero comic. But to label it a simple super hero book doesn’t do it justice. It was a political thriller, a horror film, and a commentary on how dangerous superhero society would really be and what they ‘should’ be accomplishing rather than what they ‘were’ accomplishing. It was brilliant.
I lucked upon Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch. I was very lucky, and still am, that I had a great LCS and as I had been going to them since I was in high school they knew I loved a good superhero comic. So they tucked the first few issues away for me. I laughed when I saw them in my pile one week. I agreed to give the issues a shot and if I didn’t like them I could bring them back for credit. Of course they never returned to the store and Stormwatch joined my pull list. Warren Ellis, in one issue, threw out everything that didn’t work for the Stormwatch concept, and kept everything he wanted to play with and then made a few monumental additions and one necessary revision.
Stormwatch continued to be a UN funded super team. But Ellis cut the fat and whittled the team down. He kept some long-standing heroes as his main focus. There was the Russian Winter, who could redirect energy, Hellstrike, an Irish detective who was a being of pure energy and held in a containment suit, and Fuji, a former Japanese sumo wrestler who was a gaseous being and kept in a battle armor. These three comprised the top team, Stormwatch Prime. The American Fahrenheit who could control flames led Stormwatch Red along with super strong Kenyan Flint, and newcomer Rose Tattoo who was a skilled assassin as well as the living embodiment of murder and Henry Bendix’s hidden weapon. Rose Tattoo wasn’t the only new addition as Stormwatch Black, the covert team, was comprised of returning but augmented winged Stormwatch officer Swift as well as newcomers Jack Hawksmoor and Jenny Sparks. Hawksmoor is the King of Cities as Aliens had replaced most of his internal organs as a child so he could only inhabit large cities and he could control them to fight crime. Jenny Sparks was the first Century Child introduced by Ellis and she could control electricity. After reading Stormwatch #37 I had no idea the importance that Stormwatch Black would play on the future of comics but I think Ellis did as they would go one eventually to become the Authority. Rounding out the Stormwatch team was second in command Christine Trelane, training officer and former Stormwatch Commander Jackson King (Battalion) and Henry Bendix, the Weatherman, who controlled all of Stormwatch and who Ellis would turn into one of the biggest bastards in comics.
Joining Ellis was Tom Raney. Raney’s cartoony style was a departure from the hyper exaggerated muscle bound style that had littered Stormwatch since its inception. Over the next few issues this duo introduced several new concepts of superpowers gone wrong, messing with the psyche of the super being to the point of murder, and the consequences of super powers in a ‘realistic’ world. They also introduced the reoccurring theme of government corruption in the creation and selling of augmented super beings. The first few issues were often stand alone stories with ongoing subplots but it was really about establishing the new status quo. But then the Change or Die storyline happened and the book would never be the same.
Change or Die ran from Stormwatch #48 to Stormwatch #50 and actually wrapped up volume 1 of Stormwatch. Change was the culmination of everything Ellis and Raney had started with Stormwatch #37. Henry Bendix’s insanity became apparent, as he was obsessed with the return of a past super team led by a Superman analog known as the High. Their objective was simple, change the world for the better. This directly conflicts with the Weatherman’s goal of controlling the world through power and fear. Everything comes to a head both on the ground and Skywatch to the point no one was sure there would be another Stormwatch series. Change or Die was a must read and it set the stage for so much to come, not just with Stormwatch but the greater Wildstorm Universe as it impacted Ellis’ other Wildstorm book, DV-8 and introduced the concept of the Doctor and the Engineer who would be principle players in the Authority.
Thankfully Wildstorm saw fit to bring Stormwatch back with a Volume 2, again with Warren Ellis writing but Raney left and Oscar Jimenez was added on art. The book took on a different tone as it became more political as the team dealt with the illegal manufacturing of super humans as well as the ramifications of the governments actions. Jimenez’s art was beautiful, more realistic then Raney but his slowness saw him leave the book but it opened the door for one of comics greatest creator teams ever as Bryan Hitch joined Warren Ellis as of Stormwatch #4 and we are introduced to one of comics greatest power couples, Apollo and the Midnighter. The next few issues that comprise the arch known as A Finer World is one of my all time favorite comic tales ever. Apollo and the Midnighter are introduced as the lone survivors of a secret Stormwatch squad set up by Henry Bendix, who wanted them dead when they survived their initial secret mission. They’d been living rough on the streets fighting crime until they are brought to the attention of Skywatch and the new Weatherman, Jackson King. Hitch’s art isn’t what we’ve come to know today but it was still stellar and to see the all the different plot point’s come together was a lot of fun. I’ve read the story so many times my trade fell apart and a book I hand out to many students and friends who want a great super hero story.
Unfortunately after A Finer World the book lost momentum. There was a alternate universe story as Stormwatch tapped the inter-dimensional Bleed for the first time then we get the unavoidable end as Wildcats/Aliens one-shot spelled the end for Stormwatch as issue Stormwatch #11 is a eulogy for those lost but also a wonderful moment, at least to me, as we get the first hint of the Authority, a comic which would forever change comics.
All in all what Warren Ellis did with Stormwatch was in many ways ahead of its time. It was political commentary as well as the horrors of what super beings could really accomplish and the catastrophe that would ensue. It was a wonderful three years and there were times that I was surprised at how much I was enjoying Stormwatch as the book had never been something special prior to Ellis and after Ellis it would falter in every one of its relaunches. It was brought back as Stormwatch: Team Achilles, which saw the UN using regular soldiers to kill super beings if necessary. It was actually an enjoyable book until abruptly cancelled when it was revealed its writer, Micah Ian Wright, falsified his military record, which was one of the selling points on the book. The title returned again as Stormwatch: PHD (Post Human Division) that tried the original concept but rather being in Skywatch the team operated out of a police precinct. It didn’t work. Then the New 52 attempted to integrate the Stormwatch concept as a secret defense team that protected the DC universe without anyone knowing it. It bombed and was one of the early causalities of the relaunch.
Yet there is still hope. Warren Ellis is returning to his old Wildstorm stomping grounds with the Wild Storm. As we near the books release it looks like Ellis will be taking an updated look at many of the concepts he played with in his original Stormwatch run, this time joined by Jon Davis-Hunt and from all indications it could be as groundbreaking. I’m hoping for a great read when I finally get my hands on the Wild Storm but I’m also excited that it may bring new readers into the classic groundbreaking Wildstorm stories and the historic run of Warren Ellis on Stormwatch.