Thursday, 28 June 2007

Comic Review: Stormwatch Volume 5 - Final Orbit

PUBLISHER: WILDSTORM, 1998
WRITER: WARREN ELLIS
ARTISTS: BRYAN HITCH, MICHAEL RYAN, CHRIS SPROUSE

The final chapter of Stormwatch suffers from not being about Stormwatch. Sorry if I'm sounding like a broken record, but Ellis clearly has nothing but contempt for the characters by this point.

The first issue of this collection again features very little of the field team, mainly covering the fall-out from "The Bleed", and the sub B-movie discovery of a populated asteroid which infects a survey vessel that's brought onboard the station. And that's pretty much it, not a lot happening here.

The next section is the double-length WildC.A.T.S/Aliens crossover. Now, to get the positives out of the way, I've never really had much against the WildC.A.T.S - much like Stormwatch, once Image/Wildstorm started employing writers on the title they turned into a fairly decent bunch of characters. The story is well-paced, with a terrific amount of tension, and it's gratifying that they don't just go in and slaughter the Aliens who seem to have done away with Stormwatch with such consummate ease - they leave with half of the team in very bad shape. Chris Sprouse's art is also terrific - low-detailed, square-jawed stuff that just really works.

On the other hand it's meant to be a Stormwatch book and most of the characters get very short shrift. I know I may be missing the point (probably something about heroes getting snuffed out as quickly and meaninglessly as anyone else) but it's pretty irritating when Fuji and Hellstrike are just shown as empty costumes on the floor, with only the scantest explanation (how exactly do the Aliens kill them? About the only person to compromise Fuji's suit was The bloody High, and even he couldn't do much with Hellstrike beyond making him gurn a bit). Lauren doesn't do much better but at least Winter gets a suitably heroic end.
The final issue tidies up what few loose ends are left, confirming the end of Stormwatch, giving a brief taster of The Authority with the return of Jenny, and niping the projected return of Bendix in the bud. But then the first objective is moot - Stormwatch ended with "Change or Die", and it's really been leading towards The Authority ever since.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Comic Review: Stormwatch Volume 4 - A Finer World

PUBLISHER: WILDSTORM, 1998
WRITER: WARREN ELLIS
ARTISTS: BRYAN HITCH, MICHAEL RYAN

This, for me, is probably the low point of Ellis' Stormwatch. The basic problem is that Ellis is clearly bored of writing the book. On the one hand, fair play, if you're bored you're bored. On the other, why keep writing it? It also doesn't make for a spectacular SW collection. Both of the stories contained within do have their merits, don't get me wrong, it's just that if you've got here on the back of the tight SW characterisation of the previous three books, you're going to be disappointed by this one.

The opening three-parter "A Finer World" focuses largely on a previously secret Stormwatch team. They're a bit of a nod towards Planetary, as this team is a clear analogue of the JLA. The two surviving members of this team - Apollo and The Midnighter - assume centre stage for this story, fighting misuse of the Engineer's Nevada Garden (from "Change or Die"). The rest of Stormwatch don't get much of a look-in besides Jackson and Christine. While the two new characters are enthralling, as is their back story (which both adds and detracts from Bendix's madness; on the one hand, it shows that he didn't start following his agenda overnight but on the other something about him having all these hidden resources and agendas doesn't sit with his earlier presentation) but it just doesn't feel like a Stormwatch series. It's clear Ellis is more interested in the new pair, and has an eye on the forthcoming Authority. As an origin for Apollo and The Midnighter it's a great story but it's also a clear sign Ellis was utterly bored with the book.

The second story "The Bleed", is also more interesting for its' relationship with the Authority, rather than as a Stormwatch story, dealing as it does with the introduction of the Bleed, the space between universes that the Carrier travels through in the later series. However the concept's explored via a rather average parallel universe setting. Like most alternative universes, once you've been through once spotting people in the background (the Stormwatch team in this world includes members of the WildCATs, Gen 13 and so on) and seeing who's doing who's job, it's pretty dull. There's some respectable characterisation in there and as usual some terrific ideas, but it all feels so uninvolved, especially as The Bleed isn't a charismatic alternate lead. About the only interesting thread is that it's increasingly obvious Jackson lacks authority as the Weatherman and seems somewhat out of his depth.
There's still enough going on here to justify buying the thing if you're an Ellis fan, though your appreciation will be tainted by when exactly you access the book. If as I did you read it in order, before The Authority, it'll come as a disappointment. However, I suppose if you were working backwards from The Authority and looking at SW as a prequel, it'd sit a little bit easier.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Comic Review: Stormwatch Volume 3 - Change or Die

PUBLISHER: WILDSTORM, 1997
WRITER: WARREN ELLIS
ARTISTS: TOM RANEY, OSCAR JIMINEZ

Just a warning, I've tried to steer clear of spoilers for these reviews, but "Change or Die" isn't a set of stories that can be discussed without them, so read on with that proviso.

"Change or Die" is the crowning climax of Stormwatch Vol. 1 and at the same time is the series' last gasp of glory. It's a masterful story. The High is easy to read as a rebuttal of Miracleman - the attempts of himself and a small pantheon of (mostly) benign superhumans (clearly based on the JLA) to change the world into an utopia is undone by corruption within his own ranks and by too much of the world simply not wanting a utopia. The High's group also features a couple of concepts to be evident in The Authority - the Doctor and the Engineer - and they're generally a well-rounded bunch of characters rather than a lazy plot device.

The story also serves to tie up several of the ongoing subplots opened up by Ellis' run. The most important of these is Henry Bendix losing it. in some ways it's a bit of a shame that he does, it could have been more powerful if he simply utterly believed in his way of doing things. His slide is actually better handled than it seems on the first read as he simply seems obsessed with making sure the world changes at the pace he wants and it's only when he reveals his infatuation for Rose Tattoo that he really goes mad. As I say, it's a bit of a missed opportunity that he simply goes off in the deep end but it's still a great story, and the development had been hinted at - we already knew Rose wasn't your average superhero while there were hints about his possibly psychopathic character with the killing of Dr. Krug in "New World Order" and the police action on Gamorra in "Mutagen".

Rose is the other main thread brought to an end. She's described as basically a personification of death, which in a way is a bit obvious (what the Hell else could she have been?). What's more of a letdown is that once this elemental force is unleashed on The High's followers she kills just two of them before Jack simply breaks her neck. It's a bit of a let-down.

Despite all this, there's a huge amount to praise in this story. Superman avatar John Cumberland's backstory is seamlessly intertwined with that of Jenny Sparks, really making the character feel like he hasn't just sprang into existance for this story while all of the SW team get their little moments. It's nice the way that one of the things that catches Bendix out is his own misjudgement of his team's willingness to kill without question while Winter gets a few great scenes, stoically battling Cumberland, and trying to talk sense into his followers. Ellis does a fine job of making space for a Stormwatch ensemble piece, fleshing out the rough characters of The High's followers while also giving centre-stage to the inevitable confrontation between Jenny and Bendix and still finding time for Jackson to return to the field. Overall it's a masterpiece that transcends some of its' minor faults with its' scope.

The book also contains the preview and first arc from the inferior second series of Stormwatch. This sees the team radically reorganised, with Jackson as the new Weatherman and a single official field-team (comprising the old SW Prime and the remaining two members of SW Red) with SW Black being used for black ops. The preview is a smug little issue, though it does allow a brief restating of the characters.
"Strange Weather" sees this new look put into proper action. It's the last actual SW story and does feature some ongoing strands, mainly that a change in Weatherman hasn't improved relations with America. It feels a little like Ellis is going through the motions, though. There are some really nice character moments but the actual storyline doesn't hold well at three issues long. It does form a decent foundation for the relaunched series but as this wasn't used, it just feels like a dull story. Overall the book's worth the price for "Change or Die" though. It's just a shame the second volume would be such a damp squib.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Comic Review: Stormwatch Volume 2 - Lightning Strikes

PUBLISHER: WILDSTORM, 1996-1997
WRITER: WARREN ELLIS
ARTISTS: TOM RANEY, JIM LEE

The second volume of Warren Ellis' excellent Stormwatch run contains arguably the weakest set of stories from the first volume. This is relative, of course, and it's still good stuff. The first three episodes focus almost entirely on single characters.

Jack Hawksmoor's story consists of him tracking the bastard offspring of a certain US president that turns out to be a psychotic killer. It's a good showcase for Jack's urban detective skills, and gives some real depth to his powers and his personality. However, the biggest problem is the variable art of Tom Raney. It's actually quite difficult to spot the intended resemblance of two figures to historical figures, which hurts the script, as we don't get what's going on until the infodump. It does feature some nice sequences and cement's Jack's pre-Authority personality.

Jenny's tale is the best of the bunch. It's a origin-flashback type thing, where Raney shows his best side, an effortless patistiche of myriad of past comic styles which synch perfectly with the tales Jenny tells Battalion. It's full of superb moments and more importantly takes Jenny beyond the cardboard walking attitude problem a lesser writer would have made her.

Jackson's segment is a little bit of a let-down, being a rather by-the-numbers racist terrorist bomb story. It does succeed in revitalising the character a little by making him considerably more well-rounded, having defined him away from the macho field officer of the first 36 issues of Stormwatch with Ellis' meagre use of him in the preceding eight issues actually working as a strength. He's basically a new, more believable character finding a much-needed new direction.

"Rose Tattoo" is something of a misnomer. While the story does reveal considerably more about the disturbing title character and hints that all may not be well in Henry Bendix's mind, she's not the sole focus as the rest of Stormwatch go out and get pissed. It's probably to compare Rose's function as a living weapon with the humanity of the rest of the team, although you also get the impression Ellis was bored with single-character stories by this point. It's peppered with wonderful moments for many of the characters and several laugh-out-loud moments, but the Rose Tattoo scenes can probably only be appreciated fully once you've read the rest of Volume 1.

"Assembly" is an experimental piece, consisting of 22 splash pages by Jim Lee, with the only dialogue coming in narration boxes from Bendix and the mission log. It's a pretty good story, if inconsequential, while the unusual storytelling device comes across okay... It feels a bit like simply reading an issue summary, while the storyline itself is something of a throwback, simply featuring the team taking on some leftover Daemonite weapons. It's not bad, just pretty average, though there's enough spiky dialogue and Winter to keep the thing interesting.
Overall, it is the slightest of the three Volume 1 collections but it's still worth reading. In TPB form, it feels like something of a bridge, but it does take in a sense of scale and time, meaning that it doesn't feel like the revamped Stormwatch have only been going a couple of months before "Change or Die".

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Comic Review: Stormwatch Volume 1 - Force of Nature

PUBLISHER: WILDSTORM, 1996
WRITER: WARREN ELLIS
ARTISTS: TOM RANEY, PETE WOODS, MICHAEL RYAN


This is really where Warren Ellis the mainstream visionary got started. While his Excalibur run undoubtedly showed his skill for humanising and revitalising characters, the freedom given by Wildstorm allowed him to remould a whole series in the space of an issue. When Ellis arrived, Stormwatch was pretty much a dying book. It was never one of Image's biggest hitters in the early days and rapidly became one of those books no-one cared about. The series was hampered by having to keep in line with the 'Images of Tomorrow' gimmick put in place early in the run, and then by a ludicrous number of new characters thrown at the book by desperate writers.

The first thing Ellis does is seriously downsize the cast, using the fallout from Wildstorm's convoluted 'Fire from Heaven' crossover as a convenient excuse. Now, once I'd read Ellis' Stormwatch run I actually picked up some of the preceding issues, and Stormwatch pre-Ellis was undiluted crap. Having read some of that nonsense, it's incredibly pleasing to see the writer slice 50% off the cast in a single, silent panel. Two-dimensional cyphers like the manufactured maverick Cannon (co-star for much of the previous 36 issues) and most of the lame trainee teams just gone, without a word. Marvellous.

Ellis does keep some old characters on, obviously. Winter, Hellstrike, Fahrenheit and Fuji go back to the earliest days of the book, as do The Weatherman and seedling activator Christine Trelane. In a masterstroke, previous star of the book Battalion is decentralised and taken off the active team. Of the more recent additions to the Stormwatch roster, only Swift and Flint survive. Ellis instead drafts in three new characters - burnt-out 96-year old superhuman Jenny Sparks, modified city dweller Jack Hawksmoor, and silent gun-wielder Rose Tattoo.

The existing characters get a much-needed shot in the arm, and laudably take up a fair amount of this first volume. "New World Order" sets the format for this new Stormwatch, laying down the basic foundations for the new characters, but largely focusing on the older characters as they take on a Nietsche-spouting genetically engineered superhuman. It's well-done stuff, with Ellis' dialogue adding much needed spark to the formula. 

"Reprisal" sets up what will become the subplot for the rest of Ellis' run, that of massive tension between SW and the USA, as American forces allow the murder of Undertow. The storyline fleshes out Hawksmoor to a larger degree, while also using Ellis' tried-and-tested "superheroes down the pub" (cf. Excalibur #90), introducing the recurring setting of Clark's Bar, ran by a retired... oh, you'll spot it. 

"Black" focuses on the Stormwatch Black team (Jenny, Jack and Swift) infiltrating a town under the thumb of racist, superpowered cops. It mainly serves to add depth to Jenny, Jack and Swift (who, despite being an older character, is basically a blank canvas as her previous characterisation was basically "She's from Tibet and has wings and yeh"). 

"Mutagen" is probably the best story from this collection, featuring a chemical bomb attack on a plane that affects Scottish village. In features flecks of characterisation for Stormwatch Prime (Winter, Fuji and Hellstrike) and Red (Fahrenheit, Flint and Rose Tattoo), but is more notable for the Weatherman's decision to kill 200 inhabitants of Gamorra as an eye-for-an-eye reprisal for the bombing of the plane. At this point, Ellis doesn't place judgement on the actions undertaken, and it's left to the reader to decide.

The weakest story in the collection is "Activator". While the focus on  Christine Trelane is a good idea, the plot is predictable, and the whole story feels a little padded and inconsequential - while one part is an important detail for future stories, it doesn't feel worth the effort. The book closes with "Kodô", a welcome focus on Fuji, featuring a great take on Japanese nationalism. It's packed with great moments for the rest of the team as well, plus some superb ideas.

Overall, while it's not on the level of The Authority, it is a great collection of superior superhero titles, and is the ideal place to start if you're new to Ellis, or want to expand beyond mainstream superhero comics.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Comic Review: Captain Britain Volume 1 - Birth of a Legend

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK, 1976-1977
WRITERS: CHRIS CLAREMONT, GARY FRIEDRICH
ARTIST: HERB TRIMPE

 

This book contains the first 23 issues of Captain Britain's UK weekly series. It's all on high-quality paper, with nice forewords from Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe, and even a replica of the mask given away with Captain Britain #1 (though whether you feel like cutting this out and ruining your book is down to personal taste). The art benefits from being squashed down to US-format sized pages too, looking much more detailed than it does in t he original comics, and the cover for each issue is faithfully reproduced.

The stories themselves aren't too bad. At least not while Claremont's in charge, having a nice Silver Age colourfulness to them (thanks to Trimpe's big, clunky Kirby-esque pencils). Brian's well-defined, especially the ongoing theme of him learning new aspects of his powers all the time, and he can /just about/ write convincing British dialogue, though his usual exposition trouble keeps it bogged down. The basic set-up is a bit of a copy from Peter Parker's school/college years, with Courtney Ross as Mary Jane, Jacko Tanner as Flash Thompson and CID officer Dai Davies serving as a surrogate J. Jonah Jameson (and his more reasonable female sidekick, such a memorable character I can't remember her name, functions as Robbie Robertson). The Hurricane is a decent stab at a villain too, meaning some nice big technicolour fight sequences. Follow-up act Dr. Syn is a bit more of a failure, with the scripts not really explaining what he is or what he does.

It all really hits the wall later on when Gary Friedrich takes over writing duties. Friedrich just has no feel for the UK whatsoever - practically the first thing done is bringing in Captain America, the Red Skull and Nick Fury, and the comic gradually loses any sense of individuality thanks to his inept scripting. You can almost smell the alcohol in the pages. The TPB ends on a cliffhanger - which hopefully means a book tying up the remaining 16 issues, the Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain strips and the two-part Marvel Team-Up storyline that introduced the character to American audiences will follow soon.

It's not bad material, it's just packed full of missed opportunities and poorly thought-out ideas. The potential would be realised in the Alan Davis/Dave Thorpe/Alan Moore/Jamie Delano run and the Davis/Moore TPB is the place to go to find out just how superb Captain Britain can be. 'The Birth of a Legend' collection is an affordable way of collecting the issues cheaply and in a superior format. It's an enjoyable read, but more one for confirmed fans who realise what they're letting themselves in for.