Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Comic Review - Stormwatch Volume 1: Force of Nature

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.

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