Friday, September 4, 2015

You Don't Need A Weatherman

Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Randy Elliott, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Richard Bennett (1996-97; collected 2000): From 1996 to 2000, Warren Ellis was pretty much the State-of-the-Art in sophisticated superhero story-telling. And he did all his best work at Wildstorm, an Image imprint that would be sold to DC pretty much at the end of the bulk of Ellis' work at Wildstorm. Once Ellis had his feet under him on his first major work for Wildstorm, the pre-existing Stormwatch, he combined Alan Moore's mordant wit and Grant Morrison's Silver Agey hyper-science-fictionalism (!) with his own pragmatically optimistic take on the superhero: maybe they could be just good enough and idealistic enough to save us from ourselves.

Lightning Strikes continues Ellis' introduction of his own characters into Stormwatch, Jim Lee's United Nations-sponsored superhero response team. Stormwatch came complete to Ellis with Justice League-like orbital headquarters and SHIELD-like armies of agents and piles of heavy, science-fictional weaponry. 

It also came with a Nick-Fury-like Director dubbed 'The Weatherman.' This was Henry Bendix, and in this second collected volume of Ellis' Stormwatch, the team is just beginning to realize that Henry Bendix is a homicidal megalomaniac who intends to save the world by taking total control of it. 

But this is just becoming apparent: for now, Stormwatch continues in its missions to save the world from Extinction-level threats. Stories focus on Ellis-creation Jack Hawksmoor, defender of cities, and holdover Battalion, for whom Ellis has plans that will move him away from being team trainer. 

Team co-creator and Wildstorm publisher Jim Lee supplies art for another standalone that pits Stormwatch against some particularly awful results of alien genetic experimentation on humans. Lee's art is perfectly suited to the material, while regular artist Tom Raney keeps things humming along in his installments. Raney's main job was to cleanly depict Ellis' occasionally violently harrowing action sequences while also working with Ellis' words to make the once-cardboard characters of pre-Ellis Stormwatch into appealing individuals. Raney succeeds. There's no epic here yet, but it's coming. Recommended.

Stormwatch: Change or Die: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Randy Elliott, Oscar Jiminez, and Richard Bennett (1997; collected 2000): Warren Ellis's run on Wildstorm's Stormwatch builds to one major event here that will ultimately set the stage for Ellis and Bryan Hitch's 'widescreen' superhero team The Authority in a couple of years. 

We learn more about the enigmatic Jenny Sparks, nearly a century old and not looking a day over 20. She controls electricity. She also claims to be The Spirit of the 20th Century. And as crazy-ass Stormwatch director Henry Bendix's plans for world domination get flushed into the open by the return of an idealistic, Superman-like hero called The High, Stormwatch finally faces the rot within itself. 

Tom Raney and Oscar Jiminez do nice and sometimes startlingly gruesome work on the visuals, as Stormwatch battles an enemy it should be allies with and ostensive allies who are really enemies. It's a little like a John Le Carre novel, only with more punching and exploding. Highly recommended.

Stormwatch: A Finer World: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, Michael Ryan, and Luke Rizzo (1997-98; collected 2000): Warren Ellis' version of Stormwatch begins its transition to being The Authority as we meet two soon-to-be members of that follow-up team, Apollo and the Midnighter. They're riffs on Superman and Batman, respectively. They're also lovers. 

And they're on the run from Stormwatch, which they believe still to be run by nutty leader, the Weatherman Henry Bendix. He had them created as part of a secret team and then abandoned them when that team's first mission turned catastrophically wrong, leaving the two as the only survivors. They've been fighting evil in the shadows ever since. But new Weatherman Battalion wants to bring them into the light, preferably as allies.

Artist Bryan Hitch, he of the 'widescreen' action sequences and art that reminds one of comic-book great Neal Adams as funneled through later artist Alan Davis (Excalibur, The Nail), handles the penciling on the Apollo and the Midnighter issues. He'd return to those characters in the first 12 issues of the subsequent The Authority, to widespread fan-love. It's bombastic, finely rendered art, offering a nice counterpoint to writer Warren Ellis' shadowy conspiracies and a nice amplification of Ellis' large-scale action sequences. 

The volume concludes with an alternate world take on Stormwatch, accidentally brought to 'our' Stormwatch's attention by a tunnel in The Bleed, the weird stuff between universes. It's a bit of an oddity -- enjoyable, but overly reliant on the mythology of shared universe book WildC.A.T.S. for its eucatastrophic finale. Michael Ryan's pencils are perfectly solid superhero stuff, though they lack the zing of Hitch or long-time Stormwatch artist Tom Raney. 

This version of Stormwatch had only a couple of issues left in its existence, though somewhat confusingly that, too, would be tied intimately into WildC.A.T.S. (geez, I hate typing that).  Two issues of Stormwatch and an extra-length WildC.A.T.S. Vs. Aliens (yes, the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise) would end this team's existence. While Stormwatch was always a United Nations-sponsored superteam, The Authority that would follow, with mostly new members, would seek to save the world without government support, and sometimes despite it. Recommended.

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