Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Stormwatch: PHD

The other day I was reading through a friend's copies. As they promised, it's a really good series. Probaby one of the best to come out of the whole “Worldstorm” relaunch of WildStorm continuity. You might or might not remember but it got shot to hell during the Captain Atom mini-series, which ended by killing off some prominent characters and then blowing the whole universe up, more or less, before shuffling the Captain back to the DC universe proper. So he could stand in the background for group shots in Infinite Crisis, I guess, although he did play an important role in the interesting if ill-executed Battle for Bludhaven.

Anyhow, the upshot is that the former part of Image that publishes Gen 13, the Authority, Planetary, and WildCATs, among others (Including the whole Alan Moore ABC line, although that's not really a part of the Wildstorm universe) was going to reset its universe and relaunch its titles with a bunch of high profile creative teams. It sounded good but a lot of the series have been duds – critically anyway – and, more to the point, plagued by lateness and inconsistent scheduling. Stormwatch PHD s one of the ancillary titles – not exactly in the league of Simone redoing the Gen13 origin or Morrison on the Authority – but it's at least managed to avoid a lot of those problems and ship reliably. Which is great, because it's a very nice series with a lot of promise.

It's probably selling horribly, weighed down by the rest of the line and its less than A-list billing, but I like it. It really captures a lot of what made the first Authority series such a hit but does it in a very grounded, down to earth way. Instead of the bunch of archetypal demigods running around and killing god and running the earth in between orgies that the Authority eventually evolved into (For which I, like a lot of things, blame Millar. He took a lot of the subtext that Ellis had implicitly woven and made it explicit text.) it's much more like the first few volumes. Just more grounded and down to earth. At heart, the arc I read was about a team of people with extraordinary abilities taking on a villainous mastermind. In this case it's the alien sorcerer Lord Defile while in the Authority's first arc it was the scheming mastermind Kaizen Gamora but it's good, clean Silver Age fun with postmodern polish and cynical sophistication. The novel twist here is that instead of being a bunch of superpowered people who go around beating things up to solve problems, the book is about talented - but still human – characters who are supposed to police them. It breaks away from that “human in a posthuman world” premise pretty quickly as you've got team members using magic and turning into Hulk-like rampaging beasts but the key concept isn't that the team doesn't have powers. It's that they don't have overpowering superpowers. They can't just win their battles through brute force, they're outgunned. Instead they have to rely on their paramilitary training and on their cleverness to defeat their opponents. In marked contrast with most WildStorm characters, these are fragile, failable characters who aren't going to solve problems by snapping their fingers. It makes for a very interesting comparison with the typical JLA-esque superteam. Like, say, the Authority.

StormWatch, if you'll remember, was originally Image's – or really, Jim Lee's – answer to the JLA. A bunch of international superheroes with paramilitary tactics and government backing who'd run around the globe dealing with threats. It was typical Image-era boilerplate stuff. But it's also the fertile ground from which Ellis was able to grow the Authority. Characters like Apollo and Midnighter read – initially anyway – as cheap knock offs of Superman and Batman precisely because that's what they were when originally introduced in the pages of StormWatch. It was the survivors of one of the last versions of the original StormWatch (Mostly Ellis's own pet creations, of course.) that was relaunched as the Authority.

Major StormWatch characters like Jackson King and Christine Trelane – Battalion and Synergy – hung around the periphery of the Authority titles, landing in spinoffs like the Monarchy or a relaunched StromWatch. Like the current version, the idea was a government funded group devoted to policing, to distrusting the superpowered beings in humanity's midst. I didn't much care for that series as it descended into almost outright parody and away from the original premise by the time I got around to reading it. But it doesn't matter much because it was written by Micah Ian Wright and sunk along with his career (He claimed to be an Army Ranger and, well, wasn't. He was also a vigorous anti-war agitator and that sort of thing didn't fly too well back when the Republican noise machine was still flush with success and bloolust. Seriously, guy seems to have been blacklisted. I was never a big fan of his stuff but he had some talent, regardless of what was on his resume. And that's what should really count.). Sunk so fast the final issue was never actually printed.

But that militaristic proficiency. That sense that there are real tactics and real organizational being applied to this fantastical world of shiftships and century babies, is one that's been carried forward to the current series. But the major sense is one of fatigue. Of being run down and worn out. Jackson King is there (And, I think, an uncredited Synergy – they were married in the past universe and there's mention of a wife here. The status quo of the new WildStorm universe is somewhat up in the air but I don't see why they wouldn't have kept those two characters together.), setting up the team and acting in the “wise, experienced but in the background” leadership role. but the focus is on the newly put together team of largely new or minor, underpowered characters. There's a StormWatch team of superpowered heroes running around the WildStorm universe again, it seems, and King heads that, but he's also dealing with budget cuts from his UN paymasters. Cuts which force him to set up “Post Human Divisions” in various cities around the world, made up of human operatives trained to handle “posthuman” or superhuman threats. The book centers around the first such team, model for all the others, headquartered in a police precinct in New York.

The characters aren't amazingly well developed in the one arc that I read but they're an interesting group that promises more than two dimensional cardboard cutouts – again, a lot like the early Authority. Although they're supposedly lacking powers, there's plenty of room for future stories to give them those fantastic abilities they're supposed to lack. One character is a depowered Fahrenheit – a mainstay of the early StormWatch teams (Three guesses what her power is.) - and by the end of the first storyline, she's gotten her pyrokinesis back. And another character is a forensic scientist – complete with an extra pair of tiny T-Rex grabber claw arms normally hidden under his shirt - who changes into the hulking alien Monstrosity whenever he's excessively emotional. And, yeah, he does so by the end of the arc, too. There's Black Betty, the incongruously upbeat goth who's a not-quite magic user. The Machinist who lacks powers per se but is the kind of “only in comic books” genius who can assemble a death ray from spare toaster parts. Paris, former StormWatch cannon fodder with an knack for finding an opponent's weakness. Gorgeous, a slinky seductress with an uncanny ability to “read” people – she's the team's profiler. And there's the “asskicking everyman” leader of the group, police officer Doran. A lot of these characters are newly created for this series but, I think, what makes them good is how well they fit into the established world – it feels like they've been there, in the background of books like the Authority and WildCATs the whole time.

It's easy to see any of them being empowered or finding out they're really a meta/post/superhuman in any number of ways and, as I said, by the sixth issue, half of the team had displayed abilities far beyond your average human being. But, as I said, the point isn't so much that they don't have powers so much as it is they don't have enough. Not when you have characters like Jenny Quantum and Elijah Snow walking around. They're the “below decks” characters. Not the captains and generals who can shape the course of the word, but the footsoldiers and janitors who have to live in it.

Compare the Machinist to the Authority's Engineer, for example. Instead of being a young, vibrant scientist who's gone from being encased in a high tech nanotech suit which she uses to create various weapons to being able to create and control dozens of duplicates and, among other things fly to the moon, Dino Manolis is a washed-up, overweight former supervillain who still lives with his mother who just happens to have a knack for improving gadgets. He fought StormWatch and Jackson King – Battalion – back when they were first starting out and bounced in and out of prison in the twenty odd years since then. He never made the big time. Could never turn his talents into success or money or fame. He doesn't go to fancy parties, doesn't wine and dine with stars and starlets, he has a beer at the local bar with his old buddies. He doesn't even get paid – he's only on the team because King threatened to send him back to jail if he didn't work for them. The difference isn't night and day. It's dawn and twilight.

It's in the broken down, on their third or forth chance characters who are still trying to do good, to make something of themselves, to make sense of their world, like the Machinist that the book finds a real, emotional core. The best parts of the book, for me, are the little moments that really get at what the book is all about. Sure, you've got your fistfights and popcorn scenes but it's things like the Machinist sitting at home with his mother in the same, obviously worn out recliner he's been sitting in for year or Jackson King and Officer Doran sitting in an office trying to find something, anything to make small talk about that are the real treat. There's action here but it's mindful action, and it's got heart. Christos Gage shows off some real chops here.

The art – by Doug Mahnke - is pretty good, too, but that's really the reason I'm making this post. There's plenty of nice character designs. And, you know, it's possible to tell the female apart even if you can't see their haircuts. But some of it, especially the work on the male character's is a bit sketchy. Not so much distinctive characters like the Machinist but the average male in the story sort of defaults to your stereotypical broadshouldered, closecut jarhead type (Part of the blame also goes to the paint-by-numbers characterization and the narrative jumping all over the place in the first few issues, too, I think. The characters do have individual voices and looks, it just doesn't jump right out at me.). It took me five or six issues to realize that the characters of the team's fieldleader Doran and the team's loner/martial artist, Paris were, in fact, two different people. I thought “Paris” was just a nickname for the team leader. Even though one's black and the other, well, isn't, it wasn't until one of them was held captive while the other was the last team member to evade capture and was doing the whole “Die Hard” thing that I went “Hey, wait a minute, if Paris is tied up and being tortured by this Mozart fop, then what's he doing running around blasting aliens with a shotgun?”

Minor point that probably says more about my reading comprehension than the quality of the story but it hopefully doesn't detract from what's a really a fine book. I'm a sucker for high concept stuff but, still, highly recommended.

No comments: