Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: Stormwatch Vol. 1: The Dark Side

DC Comics seems to have always struggled with what, exactly, they should do with the WildStorm imprint they bought from founder Jim Lee, a move which, in retrospect, seems like a move reluctantly taken not because they necessarily wanted to publish comics featuring any of the WildStorm characters or concepts, but because they wanted founder Jim Lee working for them (That, or they wanted to get their hands on more Alan Moore material they could sell in graphic novel form for pretty much ever).

After messing about with the imprint for a long while, including rebooting the WildStorm "universe" a couple of times, when they last restored their multiverse, they gave the WildStorm Universe it's own Earth, one of the 52 parallel worlds that made up the DC Multiverse. When they decided to reboot everything, they folded the WildStorm Universe (along with the handful of DC Universe characters whose books were published under the mature readers Vertigo imprint umbrella) into the DCU proper, forming The New 52iverse in the cosmic climax of the Flashpoint miniseries.

For the most part, the WildStorm imports haven't fared well. Voodoo was one of the first New 52 books to be canceled, Grifter has been canceled and books prominently featuring WildStorm characters like Ravagers and Team 7, later launching titles meant to replace canceled books, were themselves canceled almost immediately.

Stormwatch is still standing, although probably not for much longer. It's about to pass into the hands of its third writer in the year-and-a-half since it was launched in 2011, and that third writer is going to Jim Starlin, who will be launching the book in a new direction, including Jim Starlin creation Jim Starlin's The Weird.

Having just read the first collection of the series, which includes the first six issues by original writer Paul Cornell and artist Miguel Sepulveda (plus Al Barrionuevo on parts of the second issue), I'm kind of surprised its lasted even this long. Like Cornell's other New 52 book Demon Knights (which has also since passed into the hands of another writer), Stormwatch features a pretty good script with some fairly sharp writing, but poor art that all but nullifies it. In this case, the artwork is much worse than that in Demon Knights however, and I found myself struggling just to make it through the whole volume. I think I would have preferred to just read a collection of the scripts.

Stormwatch was originally a Jim Lee creation, a sort of U.N.-sanctioned super-group of the sort Image Comics had a surfeit of. After runs by a few writers of note, including Ron Marz, writer Warren Ellis slowly but surely started turning it into higher and higher-quality book, ultimately remaking it into his The Authority, a millennial hit he produced with artist Bryan Hitch. They were followed by Mark Millar, who made his name on the over-the-top superhero series, with artist Frank Quitely and others.

Cornell gets the title Stormwatch, but the cast, their headquarters and other elements he uses are taken more from Ellis' Authority. His Stormwatch is an ultra-secretive group of power superhumans whose sole mission is defend earth from alien invasion, which they do from The Carrier, an alien warship parked in hyperspace. They are managed by a shadowy group known as The Shadow Cabinet (a name from another abandoned DC imprint).

At the book's opening, Stormwatch consists of The Engineer, Jack Hawksmoor and Jenny Quantam (all from The Authority) and The Martian Manhunter (featuring his third costume redesign and second head-shape redesign since 2006), plus new characters Adam One (an immortal born infinitely old during the Big Bang and aging backwards since), The Projectionist (whose superpower is the ability to control information media) and The Eminence of Blades (history's greatest swordsman, who has special lying powers).

Adam One is the team's nominal leader, but his spaciness born of his de-aging process frustrates many of the other characters, each of whom think they would make better team leaders. Their attention is divided among two tasks: There's an alien entity taking over the moon and using it to attack Earth for its own mysterious agenda (it wants to toughen Earth up, essentially training the planet to help prepare it for an even greater threat that is apparently on its way), and the team would really like to recruit reluctant superhero Apollo (another holdover from The Authority), something The Midnighter (ditto) also wants. Midnighter thinks he and Apollo should form their own team, and could do more good together than they could working with or for Stormwatch.

And that's pretty much the plot of the first six issues. The surface conflict is about as simple as superhero comics get; "the moon" attacks Earth by showering it with meteors and monsters, of the generic teeth and tentacles variety. That really shouldn't take up more than 22 pages—40 tops— stretched out to over 100. To Cornell's credit, that stretching allows room for plenty of characterization, and interpersonal conflicts between the characters, but the narrative can't help but feel a little flabby, due in large part to all of the stops for splash pages that show off nothing of any great interest—bad renderings of indistinct objects, mostly.

I didn't care for Sepulveda's art at all. Certainly, some of that is stylistic. He goes for "realistic," something there is certainly precedent for with this group of characters, but because of the over-the-top nature of Cornell's story, it's not particularly well-served by that style.

In any case, the art isn't very good. At the risk of sounding overly cruel, it looks like someone who can't draw at all trying to produce Bryan Hitch-like imagery using only coloring effects and photo-collaging, with the only actual drawing going on around the faces of the characters. Many pages look a bit like Barry Kitson drew faces in the middle of a bunch of coloring effects. These effects are so prominent that it can be hard to see the art underneath them at all, and on nearly every page I found myself asking "What am I looking at?" and answering "I don't know or care, but I don't like looking at it."

Here, look at this sequence, in which Martian Manhunter's shape-changing powers are revealed:
Sepulveda's affects this by overlaying the form J'onn is in with the form he's taking in one panel between the two forms, the comics equivalent of a cheap TV special effect from the 1960s or so. There are lots of ways to intimate shape-changing powers—during his JLA run, for example, Howard Porter drew J'onn and the White Martians semi-dissolving into little sandstorms of molecules when transforming—and this method isn't invalid or anything. But note that his arm doesn't move at all in that second image, and his size increases so dramatically that he moves closer to the reader.

Basically, Sepulveda didn't want to draw John in human form twice when he could get away with doing it once, so while the script says John lost concentration and slipped back into Martian form by accident, he does so without moving his arm, which was lowering his sunglasses. In other words, his body parts haven't transformed into a different shape, but he turned from one immobile shape to another; his forms aren't action figures so much as sculptures (He changes shape twice more; in one instance, the super-imposed image process is used again, while in the other a special effect suggesting light being bent ripples over his limbs).

Oh, and Sepulveda's Jenny Quantam?
She's a hobbit.

While the art is pretty terrible, it's not all Sepulveda's fault. The book's colorists Alex Sinclair, Allen Passalaqua and Pete Pantazis deserve some castigation, as well—maybe if every millimeter of every page wasn't flashing, glowing and resembling a photograph, the book wouldn't look so terrible (Oh hey, was that the problem? Did all three colorists all color ever page? No wonder the art looks so busy!).

And he's not responsible for these terrible character designs. The Engineer and Jack look unchanged (Well, Sepulveda seems to draw Jack in capris instead of suit pants, but otherwise...). Jenny is just a little girl wearing little girl clothes. Apollo's costume looks okay, and the most radical change with his look is his haircut.

I have no idea what to make of Midnighter's redesign. He originally looked like movie Batman with his ears sanded off, and his cape exchanged for a black trench coat. Now he looks like a leatherboy nightmare, and, for some reason, he wears a lot of bulky armor for a fighter who is so good he should rarely if ever get hit, and he has big spike on his chin because...um...some reason, I'm sure.

Martian Manhunter looks...man, I don't even know where to start with him.
There's a sketchbook section in the back of the book that notes how much trouble they had coming up with a design for J'onn (I thought the last redesign, a variation of his classic costume, but with pants instead of a pair of panties and pirate boots, looked fine). Ultimately, Jim Lee had to step in for a final design, and, in Lee's sketch, we see J'onn's arms are armor-like, and his head is super-weird now, sunken on the sides with a raised, ribbed ridge on either side and funny earl-like shapes. There are sketches of earlier versions by Cully Hamner in which he was apparently also flirting with giving J'onn a new nose.

What I found most interesting in this portion of the book is how many artists were involved with these designs: Hamner (Jenny, Adam, Apollo, Midnighter, Jack), Lee (J'onn), Sepulveda (Engineer, Projectionist) and even Joe Prado (Eminence of Blades). Crazy Jane, a character featured rather prominently in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol run, was apparently also considered for inclusion in the cast, and even designed. They apparently did a lot of work and had a lot of talented folks behind these designs, but when it came time to actually draw the comic, the designs are almost always buried by coloring effects or weird storytelling choices (The Eminence of Blades, for example, spends most of the first six issues wearing a space suit, so he just looks like a generic astronaut holding some glowing blue swords).

The Hamner drawings show a lot of life in them, life lacking form the characters in the actual story and are also drawings, and thus suggest comic book characters in a way that the comic itself fails to. Paul Cornell and Cully Hamner's Stormwatch might have been an alright comic. Hell, Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda's pencils-only Stormwatch might have been an alright comic.

But the comic DC actually published? I think it's probably the worst of New 52 I've read so far, and I've only been reading the ones that at least look or sound promising to me.

1 comment:

JohnF said...

It's a sad state of affairs when Jim Lee is the guy you turn to when you're out of ideas for a character design.