When I was eight years old – in the earliest days of my comic book fandom – there was no one cooler in comics to me than Jim Lee. The guy was the main man behind X-Men #1, a treasure amongst treasures to my childhood brain. He was the person I most closely associated with Marvel’s Merry Mutants as a whole, and they were my everything in my youth. Combine those two ideas, and you have someone who wasn’t just a good artist, but a person I held on the highest of pedestals, in a space typically reserved for luminaries like Ken Griffey, Jr. or Wolverine himself.
So when he and six of Marvel’s other biggest artists departed to form Image in 1992, it was clear where my attention would focus: Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s, the coolest of all the Image launch titles.
Looking back on it, that might not have exactly been the case. While it had Lee’s exceptional art and appealing characters that sure seemed like the X-Men in a lot of ways, WildC.A.T.s might not have been the well-written comic early on. It was cool, but was it good? Maybe, maybe not, with your answer likely depending on what you were looking for.
That was the 1990s in comics for you, though. The early days of what would eventually become WildStorm was long on style and short on substance to match. That was largely the case for the launch titles Image Comics, even if I did – and in some cases still do! – enjoy them. Big ideas, for sure, but not always the most fully realized ones.
And yet, if you ask the right person, they’ll swear to you that WildStorm wasn’t just an imprint that eventually found substance to go along with that style, but one of the most underrated comic houses in comic book history. A place where an uneven start and unpredictable release schedule managed to mask a line that discovered new artistic voices and delivered modern classics, all springing from the same ideas and ideals that were present at the beginning.
I know that because I’m one of those people, with every fellow WildStorm fan I find being someone else I can endlessly converse with, as if the imprint’s history is a secret language we share amongst our number.
The funny thing is, despite all of that preamble, I loved everything about WildStorm in the 1990s. It helped that I was between the ages of 6 and 16 during that decade, but that imprint was my jam from day one thanks to a range of titles. WildC.A.T.s may have been overly dramatic and an obvious play off the X-Men, but you know who loved overly dramatic comics that felt like the X-Men and were drawn by Jim Lee? This guy.
Besides X-Men and Impulse, there may not have been a comic I loved more than Gen¹³, a teen team series following the “Gen-active” 1 children of the original WildStorm squad Team 7. That series was co-written by Lee and Brandon Choi with art by a new artistic voice named J. Scott Campbell, and it was the hottest comic at the peak of the Wizard era. 2 That period for the series may seem absurd now, but in my youth, its stories of awkward teens and superheroics was just what the doctor ordered, blending big action, big emotions, and Campbell’s art into an extremely appealing product. My ’90s loves there could go and on: Backlash, Divine Right, Stormwatch …you name it. I loved it all.
While those varying titles didn’t necessarily age well nor are they looked back on fondly, the interesting part about the early years of WildStorm is they did something really specific: they set the stage for a sustained run of greatness still to come. It’s like in sports when a particularly great coach sees his assistants leave to become successful coaches elsewhere. They’re prepared to become their own greats because of what preceded them. WildStorm had a particularly strong coaching tree, as the ideas that Lee, Choi and others introduced were taken over by creators like Alan Moore and Travis Charest 3 or Warren Ellis and Tom Raney, 4 and then all of a sudden, readers were like, “Oh wait, this actually rules?”
If the early 1990s at WildStorm were the rebellious teen years, where everything is over the top and dramatic, then that period from 1995 to 1998 where Moore, Ellis and others reenergized the baseline concepts of the line were college, that time of our lives where we start figuring things out. Moore, Charest and others building up a new wave of characters like Ladytron and T.A.O. 5 in WildC.A.T.s was when you’re making new friends in your dorms. Stormwatch‘s “Change or Die” storyline was Ellis and Raney moving us out of the dorms and trying to live on your own, no matter how many packages of Top Ramen and cases of cheap beer it takes. Titles at Homage – a creator-owned imprint within an imprint featuring titles like Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Kurt Busiek and Brett Anderson’s Astro City, and more – Cliffhanger 6 were the equivalent of getting into recreational drugs and/or intramural sports, expanding your horizons beyond what you thought you knew.
And if we continue that metaphor to its natural end point, then, perhaps unbelievably, Ellis, Chris Sprouse, Kevin Nowlan and Laura Martin’s WildC.A.T.s/Aliens – a title that likely should have been ridiculous – was graduation. 7 This excellent one-shot is a clear line of delineation between WildStorm, the fun party house with big ideas, and WildStorm, the fully adjusted adult that figured out its identity and did something great with it.
That was also when DC bought WildStorm, as the once Image imprint became an imprint of the Distinguished Competition in 1999. From that point onwards, WildStorm was on an unrelenting heater for the better part of the next decade, as killer creative team after killer creative team created instant classic after instant classic. Ellis and Bryan Hitch on The Authority. Ellis and John Cassaday on Planetary. Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line, including Top 10, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, and Tom Strong. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Sleeper. Joe Casey and Sean Phillips on WildC.A.T.s, and then Casey and Dustin Nguyen on WildC.A.T.s 3.0. Adam Warren and Yanick Paquette on Gen¹³. Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris on Ex Machina. I could go on and on and on, 8 but during that time something incredible happened: the company that started out as an imitation of its predecessors became the one others couldn’t help but follow.
Like the early period of WildStorm, this stretch had style for days, whether you’re talking Ellis and Hitch effectively inventing the idea of “widescreen comics” in The Authority or the outrageous swagger of Casey and Nguyen’s WildC.A.T.s 3.0. I remember reading these comics and repeatedly thinking, “I have never read anything like this before!” as I mentally fist pumped because I loved them so much. But this era backed that style up with some of the finest storytelling in superhero comics, then or really anywhere. In fact, here’s a hot take for you: I’d put that five or six year timespan at WildStorm up against basically any best stretch Marvel or DC has had, and I bet you’d find it to be a lot closer at the apex than you’d think.
I don’t know what happened during that time to flip the script, but I’ve always had theories. Those were largely based around something that has always seemed clear to me about Jim Lee as a person. Consider this my personal head canon for someone I’ve never met or spoken to. Lee seems like the type who, if something isn’t working out, will find someone who can help him solve his problems. That happened in two main ways.
First, he hired Scott Dunbier. You might know Dunbier as the guy who does those incredible Artist’s Editions at IDW, but before then, he was Wildstorm’s Editor-in-Chief from 1997 to 2007. 9 From everything I’ve heard, his arrival coinciding with the rise of this imprint and his departure matching its downturn wasn’t just a coincidence. While it wasn’t just Dunbier there – writer John Layman was an Editor under Dunbier, as was the highly regarded Ben Abernathy 10 – the veteran comics man is both someone known for having an eye for talent and a deft touch at managing people. He was the man with the vision the line needed.
And the second thing Lee did – or rather, he likely did by empowering the editorial team – was finding incredible creative voices to elevate the ideas that were already rooted in the imprint and then letting them do their thing. Whether you’re talking legends like Moore and Ellis or newer names at the time like Brubaker, Nguyen or Vaughan, WildStorm’s greatest resource quickly went from its head creator and its ideas to its wide mix of innovative talent. It helped elevate the line to maybe the 1b position in terms of my favorite comics houses to Vertigo’s 1a. 11
The early days made me excited about WildStorm. The stretch from 1999 to 2005 made me a lifelong fan of it. It showcased that every idea has the potential for greatness if put in the right hands. At the time, those comics felt like the future, and fittingly, if you read them today, they feel as fresh as ever. A comic like Planetary or Sleeper is every bit as good now as it was then, something that’s rare for that period, a stretch that was wildly inconsistent as the industry was coming off a post-Marvel bankruptcy, post-Distributor Wars downturn.
It’s important that this period was as significant as it was, because the following 14 years have been as fallow as that time was robust. Sure, there were high points in there, like the conclusion of Ex Machina, quick bursts of greatness from Stormwatch P.H.D. and Welcome to Tranquility, John Arcudi and Peter Snejbjerg’s excellent graphic novel A god Somewhere, and Fiona Staples’ coming out party in the largely ignored mini-series North 40. But by the time 2010 had ended, WildStorm was toast, as the imprint closed and its citizens were integrated into DC’s New 52 initiative. 12
It wasn’t until 2016’s The Wild Storm from Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt where things started to feel like they used to again, but even then, it wasn’t sustained. Despite 24 issues of greatness, the follow up series of WildC.A.T.s fell apart seemingly because of creative differences, and that line is now in stasis with its return uncertain. It’s all of this that makes being a fan of WildStorm feel like another fandom I have, and that’s a sandbox WildStorm once played with: the larger Alien/Aliens world.
As an immense fan of the first two entries of that franchise – James Cameron’s Aliens remains to this day one of my favorite movies ever – hope springs eternal every time a new film set in that world arrives. I remember how high the highs were, so I am always crossing my fingers for a return to greatness, even as the horrid Aliens vs. Predator franchise or the competently made but bizarrely unfocused recent chapters Ridley Scott make me dubious. That’s exactly how I feel when I see new WildStorm comics coming: maybe this will be the one that gets it right.
And isn’t that the core of why superhero comics are such a lasting idea, in some ways? We’re always in pursuit of the feelings these stories once gave us. The excitement. The big ideas. The even bigger emotions. Few houses ever topped the peak of WildStorm for me, as they perfectly blended style and substance in a way that wasn’t just cool, but truly great. That’s why no matter what happens, if and when WildStorm returns, I’ll be there.
Because maybe this will be the one that gets it right.
Or, WildStorm for mutant.↩
Quick note: doesn’t it seem insane that Gen¹³ went from the most popular comic in comics basically to something that hasn’t existed for…basically a decade, in reality? I’m surprised DC has never done something with it.↩
Lowkey one of the greatest WildStorm characters.↩
Which starred the biggest names in art since the Image founders themselves, as people like Joe Madureira, J. Scott Campbell, Humberto Ramos, Chris Bachalo and more had titles there.↩
I don’t have space here for flow reasons, but I did want to emphasize one thing outside the metaphor: this was a very good time for WildStorm. The Moore/Charest + Ellis/Raney/Sprouse stuff was tremendous, and given that I’m currently rereading the former, I can attest to the fact it ages well.↩
And your mileage may vary on those, but those stood out to me.↩
And Special Projects Editor at WildStorm before then, starting in 1995.↩
Who actually took over as Editor-in-Chief when Dunbier left.↩
I should note, I was early on some of these books like The Authority and Planetary, but I joined up late with others as I took a break from reading comics during this period.↩
It’s better not to talk about those comics.↩