There are two reunions in The Wild Storm #22: the full assembly of the latest iteration of The Authority that the series has been building up to over the last two years and Warren Ellis’ reunion with the team he first brought together out of the ashes of Stormwatch nearly twenty years ago.
Reunions are a big deal in comics and more often than not rooted in nostalgia and novelty, usually creating either fun diversions or disappointing reminders that some things can’t be recaptured but Warren Ellis isn’t interested in nostalgia, he’s been trying to beat it out of us by all available means since 1998. Warren Ellis has returned to the Wildstorm universe with Jon Davis-Hunt in tow to consolidate power.
When Ellis first sat down to promote The Wild Storm, he demurred. He used his inside voice to explain that he accepted Jim Lee’s invitation to stage manage a ground up reboot of the entire stable to go back to the things that Lee and his friends were into in the 90s, observe how they’ve changed since then, and play it out on the page.
Of course, the overlap between things that Jim Lee and friends were into in the 1990s and what Ellis was into at the same time is almost a complete circle even if they had very different perspectives on those things. It’s why Ellis has been met with open arms in every one of Wildstorm’s many iterations and why for a lot of people — myself included — Wildstorm is more synonymous with Ellis than Lee. A point brought into sharp focus by Ellis’ claim in 2005 that he had more trade paperbacks in print at the time than any other writer in comics, many of them from Wildstorm.
The messy soup of 90s ephemera that Ellis alluded to was conspiracy theories, alien abductions, military equipment fetishism, trans/posthumanism, Michael Bay, and John Woo. All topics that Ellis has relentlessly mined in work across comics, blogging, prose fiction, and straight journalism. Ellis is also a restless oil painter, returning to old canvases again and again to sharpen the edges and refine them whenever he thinks he’s achieved a better understanding or more compelling take on a given idea.
The Wild Storm presented itself for the ideal opportunity to indulge that impulse to its furthest logical conclusion and Ellis seized it by the throat. As a result, The Wild Storm isn’t just a paycheque or a casual stroll down memory lane for Ellis. It’s the consolidation of the most chaotic and diffuse period of his career into a perfectly shaped diamond rod to be dropped from outer space for maximum, catastrophic effect.
The Wild Storm is a pristine open field for readers who have no idea what falls under its umbrella, but pieces of Ellis’ work from far outside Lee’s original imprint return like children with startling resemblance to their parents including Planetary, Supreme Blue Rose, Crooked Little Vein, Normal, FreakAngels, James Bond, miscellaneous blog entries across multiple hosts, and his work for Wired and Reuters.
The most jarring remembrance of prior Ellis work in The Wild Storm comes from Michael Cray (typically known as Deathblow) ranting to his therapist about how Elon Musk is slowly building the infrastructure for the very wealthy to completely pull out of public utilities, quite possibly resulting in catastrophic collapse. These are Ellis’ words refracted through Cray, originally written for Esquire in 2015 as part of a piece on forecasting the long term effects of tech disruption. It’s more than just an Easter egg or a rehash because The Wild Storm takes place in a world where this has already occurred so far outside of the general public’s view that they have no idea how precarious their existence has become.
The World Storm is the story of a planet divided by two deep state conspiracies: Skywatch in control of space and orbiting the Earth in a cloaked space station, and International Operations in control of all things terrestrial. It’s a status quo that sits at 11:59:59.09 on the atomic clock and turns over to midnight thanks to a single unforseen act of altruism. A butterfly flapped its wings and now the entire planet reaps the whirlwind.
Angela Spica, originally a founding member of The Authority as The Engineer, is the butterfly. She’s introduced as a rogue IO scientist experimenting on herself with technology that IO stole from Skywatch, and to make matters worse, she unknowingly interferes with IO’s attempted assassination of a tech mogul who is actually an alien in disguise and the brains behind the WildCATs.
The surface tension view of this sequence of events is Angela, already bleeding and semi-delirious, assembling a cyborg body out of nano technology embedded in her skin in broad daylight and flying up to catch a man falling out a window dozens of floors up. The web of textual and intertextual meaning of this seemingly simple event are the kind of dazzlingly complex structure that few people other than Ellis can weave together coherently.
There’s so much going on that it would be easy enough to overlook the fact that Watchmen began with someone being thrown out of a window and that Ellis and Davis-Hunt are making a very specific statement of intent by starting their collaboration with someone preventing the exact same kind of murder from being completed. Once the reference is understood, though, it crystalizes what a radical departure in tone The Wild Storm represents from Ellis’ most iconic work.
Ellis and Davis-Hunt’s reimagining of how Spica’s abilities operate is the most overt and first of many references to Iron Man: Extremis, Ellis and Adi Granov’s restaging of Tony Stark’s origin that laid the groundwork for the first movie and the central plot of Iron Man 3. The cosmetic similarities between how the Extremis virus functions and how Spica’s abilities are first articulated point the way towards understanding that this new iteration of her is a calculated inversion of Stark’s iconic Saul on the road to Damascus origin.
Spica was recruited into IO as a medical scientist and transferred into the military division where she felt misused and out of place until she began working on the private, unauthorized project that became The Engineer. The exact opposite from Stark, who was an amoral arms manufacturer until being kidnapped and forced to create the Iron Man suit to save his own life, leading to a divestment from war profiteering.
It’s a considerable change of perspective for Ellis compared to the pitch black humor of his Wildstorm debut on Gen-13 spinoff DV-8 in 1995 and his typical public persona of hyperbolic cynicism.
As significant as this shift is relative to the full scope of his work, it’s been foreshadowed since his keynote address “How To See The Future” in 2012, which became the thesis for Supreme Blue Rose in 2014, which in turn set the foundation for The Wild Storm. It caps off Ellis’ constantly evolving view of the future, from pessimistic interrogations of the futures promised by post World War II consumerist utopians into the resigned relinquishing of a future of any kind exemplified by Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle into the present cycle marked by the exhortation to take hold of the present moment and claim whatever we can of it. It almost seems poetically self assured when looked at in hindsight, but it’s very much a product of being a relentlessly prolific writer who has assiduously left himself open to revision.
There’s no getting around the fact that The Wild Storm is gruesomely violent, dystopian, and brimming with sarcasm, but all of these congenitally Ellis features are in service to a world where much much more kindness and wonder have been able to survive than perhaps ever before.
It’s established immediately through the use of Spica as the primary viewpoint character through much of the first twelve issues and the relatively gentle way that she’s treated by the black ops team that is on the verge of becoming WildCATs, but it truly comes alive when her Authority comrades and The Doctor and Jenny Sparks emerge in their new forms.
The original version of The Doctor was Ellis’ idiosyncratic acid humor at its peak. He was a Dutch heroin addict with an aversion to violence who was the latest in a line of once in a generation shamans of the world. His name was an oblique reference to Doctor Who (which had been off the air for ten years and wouldn’t return for another six), had vast powers similar to X-Man, and had access to an extradimensional space where his predecessors lived similar to The Supremacy that Alan Moore had appended to Supreme and would later return to in Promethea.
The new Doctor (Shen Li-Men) is a woman, as, fittingly, the current Doctor Who played by Jodie Whittaker is. She was also one of The Authority’s founding members as Swift who was imbued with The Doctor’s abilities at the end of the most recent iteration of The Authority by Tom Taylor and Adam Warren. In Jon Davis-Hunt’s hands, she retains her connection to her historic Swift identity with psychedelic wings that manifest during her healing sessions.
By centering Shen as the member who begins assembling The Authority in their current form, Ellis and Davis-Hunt embrace a version of the notorious team built around sanctuary, kinship, and stewardship rather than the brutally violent, left authoritarian power fantasy that the original iteration embodied. It’s another pivot for Ellis that began in earnest in Supreme Blue Rose.
Conscious of Supreme’s status as a Superman surrogate, Ellis and Lotay created a story focused on the idea of endlessly rebooting superhero continuities seen through the eyes of Diana Dane, Supreme’s answer to Lois Lane, drawing attention to the ability of Marvel and DC to structure their next inevitable reordering around viewpoints that typically get short shrift. To whit, when Ethan Crane, Supreme’s civilian alter ego finally emerged in the last issue, he confessed to being “just another white guy with glasses who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Supreme Blue Rose was one of Ellis’ densest works, but at its heart it was about embracing a new outlook on the cyclical nature of superhero narratives. Instead of being cynical about the lack of permanence of closure in a format that restages its most iconic heroes’ origin stories and histories at least once a decade, Supreme Blue Rose was an invitation to embrace that cycle as the potential to find newer and better versions of those characters better suited to the times that they’re published in.
Ellis approached this through the lens of future forecasting, the field of study dominated by corporations and governments trying to anticipate every likely future event and meet it with the greatest strategic advantage possible. It’s a paradigm that has been central to Ellis’ entire career, especially at Wildstorm where it became the driving force behind his work on Stormwatch.
So it’s fitting that Ellis would return to Wildstorm after finding novel use for the way of thinking he imbued many of his creations with, especially Midnighter, who has the ability to simulate every possible outcome of an interaction, especially a fight, before it happens and choose the one with the outcome he wants every single time.
That Shen’s status as The Doctor carried over from the previous iteration despite the clean slate created by The Wild Storm is an indication of Ellis’ awareness and respect for the people who have been playing with his toys during his absence, but Davis-Hunt gets in on the fun in a truly spectacular way.
The pair re-enact Shen and Jenny Sparks’ romance from their original iteration, but Davis-Hunt draws them passed out together afterwards under a Wonder Woman duvet as a wink to Steve Orlando and ACO’s placement of Batman briefs and condom wrappers in their stint on Midnighter.
Once Angela Spica is coaxed into joining the pair, both as part of the future Authority and in bed, the motif of defiant sexual adventure and indulgence in the face of the apocalypse warmly recalls Ellis and Paul Duffield’s FreakAngels. Set in a drowned London, it was a somewhat more light hearted post apocalyptic romp following a group of psychically connected youths, one of whom hosted an endless pansexual bacchanal in defiance of their bleak surroundings.
It also represents the culmination of Ellis’ long journey from an ambivalently effective LBGTQIA ally to one of the community’s most cherished writers of his generation. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that The Wildstorm will end its second year in a summer of love, but it will definitely be the summer of ‘69 in at least one other sense.
But as the reassembled Authority seem to be getting ready to jump into their own title, there are still many other pieces on the board to account for. The most mysterious being a secretive IO operation called Thunderbook whose details are unknown to its current director and the facility that housed it was destroyed by Skywatch. That renewed interest brought the director who oversaw it, John Lynch, out of retirement to track down his scattered unit to warn them that they could soon be targeted.
This arc, for my money, was the richest and most fun of the series so far because it wasn’t about the rush of falling in love with old favourites in new ways but the slow realization of just how vast the world and web of conspiracies binding it are. As well as the equally slow build to what is guaranteed to be the most exciting reveal of the reboot.
John Lynch has historically been a self conscious derivative of Nick Fury with a white eye instead of an eyepatch typically drawn to look like Clint Eastwood in the same way that Bryan Hitch paved the way for Samuel L. Jackson to play Fury through his portrayal in The Ultimates. Davis-Hunt has decided to continue the tradition by drawing Lynch to look like Sam Elliott, which would be an incredible treat if it ever happened for real.
The Thunderbook recruits -who include Michael Cray and Cole “Grifter” Cash, the leader of the team on the verge of becoming Wild CATs- are more or less based on Team 7/Gen-12, a black ops team run by Lynch who were unknowingly exposed to a chemical that gave them powers. In The Wild Storm, they were volunteers who were bonded with alien symbiotes that manifested in a variety of powers who went their separate ways when Lynch left IO.
This sends Lynch on a cross country road trip that gives Davis-Hunt’s remarkable sense of place a chance to express itself even more fully than Clean Room, creating a fully fleshed out and lived in America that is increasingly lacking in comics and television.
Superhero comics have been myopically New York focused for three quarters of a century, and very much continue to remain that way despite the fact that the center of gravity of the industry has shifted to the west coast, either Hollywood or the concentration of creators in Portland, depending on how you want to look at it.
On the film and television side, tax breaks, the exchange rate, and the influence of the X-Files have conspired to make Vancouver, Canada the ubiquitous shooting location for genre while Atlanta attracts more and more production due to its downtown core’s ability to look like absolutely anywhere. A combination that leaves us starved for variation in the mainstream. Pacific Northwest Gothic or glass and steel are the order of the day.
Aside from Mister Miracle and Wolf, there have been few real attempts at creating idiosyncratic, lived in ideas of Los Angeles in recent comics, let alone anywhere else. When other cities make the cut like Scarlet’s Portland or even Southern Bastards’ Alabama, they’re deeply specific and don’t build outward from their spaces. The drive to build out a personalized vision of the incredible expanse of the United States central to Preacher or Y: The Last Man feels like it has largely evaporated in recent years, making Davis-Hunt’s efforts all the more exceptional.
Lynch’s encounters with Thunderbook recruit Marc Slayton, typically known as Backlash, recall Ellis taking Tony Stark out to Texas in Iron Man: Extremis to confront a right wing militia extremist suggested to be a childhood survivor of the 1992 Ruby Ridge siege. While Ellis has always delighted in cartoonish parodies of American archetypes, he has always invested a great deal in understanding American history and points of view.
It comes out in the stoic professionalism, specific sense of responsibility, and pragmatism that Layton embodies on his trip in general, but especially with his stand-offs with Slayton, whose alien implant has taken him over almost completely and directs him to kill for it. Despite Slayton’s alien whip arm, Ellis and Davis-Hunt give them the look and feel of the brutal, micromanaged violence of Cormac McCarthy adaptations like No Country For Old Men and The Counselor, giving them an entirely different feel than the John Wick inspired acrobatics of Cash and the Wild CATs.
That genre fluidity extends throughout Lynch’s journey, adjusting to the setting and the recruits he visits. When Lynch arrives in Utah to visit Thunderbook recruit Alex Fairchild, the tone shifts again to a Sam Peckinpah inflected contemporary western as morality play in the vein of Straw Dogs and A History of Violence, finding her preparing for the climactic battle in a drama that began long before Lynch arrived and reached its ambiguous conclusion as he pulled off the road, ready to turn back and help her out.
That encounter is also where it starts to become clear that Lynch’s expedition is going to take on a new dimension once he’s reached the remainder of the Thunderbook survivors. Alex Fairchild is a sex swapped version of Alexander Fairchild, who was the father of Gen-13 members Caitlin Fairchild and Roxy “Freefall” Spaulding. Alex mentions to Lynch that she has a daughter that she gave up named Caitlin, establishing for the first time that Gen-13 will be included in The Wild Storm and that Lynch appears to be on his way to adopting his traditional role of being their mentor and protector.
This puts the remaining stops on his tour in a new light: the settings and shifts in genre are there to do a lot more than just expand the scope and scale of the world of The Wild Storm: it’s to create the context and build anticipation for Gen-13’s reveal, presumably in The Wild Storm’s third year. On Lynch’s next stop, an anonymous biker bar, he encounters Phillip Chang, the father of Gen-13 member Grunge. Right before killing him, Lynch promises to find and take care of his kids, confirming his intent to assemble Gen-13.
Lynch’s next visit, somewhere in the South West, likely New Mexico, is a pure showcase for Davis-Hunt and colorist Brian Bucchellato, who come together to produce a stunning homage to Georgia O’Keeffe’s vision of the region and set the stage for Gloria Spaulding, Freefall’s mother. Gloria was originally Freefall’s mother, but as the transmission of superpowers was strictly patrilineal in the original continuity, Gloria was a civilian and Roxy shared a father with Caitlin Fairchild.
Ellis and Davis-Hunt alter this dynamic by presenting a female version of Alex Fairchild and adding Gloria to the Team 7 inspired Thunderbook. Alex Fairchild and Gloria Spaulding represent fascinating foils that will likely foreshadow their daughters’ traditionally clashing personalities.
Both women mention that Thunderbook taught them skills that they took out into the world in their conversations with Lynch: Fairchild is grateful that she learned to be a mechanic in the army and Spaulding bitterly recounts that Thunderbook taught her to steal things, so she became a master thief in retirement.
Fairchild is a folksy, yet powerful working woman with a rigid moral compass. Spaulding is a hilarious parody of Georgia O’Keeffe who lives in a minimalist, ultra modern single story home with a central spire in it to practice her gravity defying powers and dresses head to toe in black, just like the famously solitary, taciturn artist.
Lynch’s last stop in likely in Oklahoma, where he meets Stephen Rainmaker, the father of Sarah Rainmaker, on the reservation he lives on. It’s the most amiable interaction Lynch has, finally unburdening himself with everything he’s seen since finding Slayton. He tells Rainmaker about the others and their children, precisely what he restrained himself from doing at every other stop along the way. Rainmaker confirms both that he has a daughter and that she inherited his abilities.
When Lynch tells Rainmaker his intent to find all the kids, the latter offers him the reservation as a sanctuary. After Lynch’s tense and frequently violent encounters with the others, his time spent with Rainmaker is a hard earned detente that aligns the future Gen 13 with the same values as the slowly forming Authority in stark contrast to the fragile alliances and cold professionalism of IO, Skywatch, and Halo.
Leaving just one piece of the Gen-13 puzzle. Chang and Slayton both suggested something was off with Lynch, seemingly alluding to the fact that he was also psychic in his original incarnation and the father of Burnout, the only Gen-13 member that has yet to be alluded to directly.
Lynch’s entire arc functions as a lead in to a lead in, an expertly done slow burn that keeps the sense of wonder and mystery around the future of The Wild Storm buzzing as the first players to cross the stage start to feel comfortable and worn in, ensuring that the possibilities for Gen-13 eat away at the audience until that probability wave collapses into their first appearance.
Voodoo, or Priscilla Kitaen, a half alien member of the WildCATS who typically appears as a stripper, movie star, or both has a much looser role in The Wildstorm. She’s the first legacy character the series introduces, a pop star scouting locations to promote her next album but from there she almost exclusively appears in clips from her music videos. Those videos point to the various factions of the intersecting global conspiracies at the heart of The Wildstorm, putting images of The Bleed, Skywatch’s UFOs, and the Daemons into public view out of context.
It’s an endearing piece of worldbuilding that adds to the surreality of a situation where the technology of the day to day world is exactly the same as our own current experience, but there is a surreal mix of retro futuristic and alien technology lurking just below the surface. The Wild Storm is a world of breathtaking complexity where UFOs go on bombing runs and the country is dotted with superpowered human alien hybrids, but basic cell phone malware can still compromise the most powerful espionage operations and get people killed.
Voodoo’s interstitials are where that world reaches a sense of completion, communicating just how thoroughly Ellis and Davis-Hunt have considered the ways that the various conspiracies have saturated into the world they inhabit, winking at the perennial fixation on the idea that pop stars are hiding alien, masonic, or illuminati messaging in their work.
It’s another idea that Ellis has refined over time, in some ways going back to the in world entertainment properties threaded through Transmetropolitan but has a much more direct antecedent in Supreme Blue Rose where Professor Night appeared to be on a TV series that everyone else in the comic watched, but turned out to be more literally trapped in a sublayer of reality. In The Wild Storm Voodoo walks around the same physical space as everyone else, but is clearly getting imagery fed into her dreams by the Daemons.
Thus, the long awaited reunion of The Authority puts an exclamation point on an entire world that has been built up with the intent of giving us an entirely new context for the characters and set of reasons to love them but also forces us to simultaneously reconsider the last twenty years of Warren Ellis’ career.
All the bits and pieces of what he’s assembled into his magnum opus originated at a time in his career in which he atomized himself while his peers became more specialized and exclusive. Ellis’ 2005 boast that he had more trade paperbacks in print than any other writer was entirely out of step with how success in comics was viewed both then and now.
Thanks to the continued centrality of the direct market to the culture of comics and the short term demands for generating web traffic, individual issue shipping numbers and the impact of single issues as storytelling units have only increased in importance to critics and industry observers. As I mentioned in my examination of NextWAVE: Agents of HATE, that conventional viewpoint on Ellis’ career across the mid 00s appears to be strewn with the bodies of half finished and forgotten projects.
Trade paperback programs have become a lot more important to the economics of comics since then, but they’re still looked at as gravy in the conventional view of things. Shipping numbers of single issues keep series going and pay for them, while trade paperbacks are the long tail. Ellis’ bank account told him a very different story, as did the cult following that he assiduously maintained through forums like The Engine and Whitechapel or subscription based e-mail newsletters.
At the time, Ellis’ output may have seemed chaotic, unfocused, or niche but The Wild Storm conclusively illuminates that he was working out particular ideas on very single assignment and keeping them close enough to return to once their utility became apparent. The Wild Storm, unquestionably the most ambitious and rewarding series of the year, could only be executed by a creative team with the range to achieve it.
It’s a principle tackled by David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, an open and deliberate challenge to Malcolm Gladwell’s conventionally accepted argument that ten thousand hours of practice at a given pursuit is a key predictor of genius level achievement, which in turn validates received wisdom about early specialization.
What Epstein argues is that maintaining multiple interests, trying many different things, and keeping long antennae -staying up to date on multiple fields or disciplines- is a deeply underrated set of traits that are better predictors of success than Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. Which is fundamentally the case for Ellis, the proof of which lies in how The Wild Storm unwinds so elegantly into both Ellis’ varied interests but also his varied pursuits across different genres, formats, and publishers within comics but also his blogging, journalism, and prose fiction.
Ellis isn’t just a genius, his genius fundamentally challenges the way we conceive of success in comics. While the focus is on extreme outliers like Robert Kirkman who hit one wildly popular premise and spun it into a massively lucrative franchise, or as Todd McFarlane once unknowingly told Kirkman “Once you’ve created your Mickey Mouse, you don’t really need a Donald Duck,” Ellis has created a sprawling legacy that now extends well into film and animation.
Ellis’ broad reach also complicates just how we could or should expect to see The Wild Storm. As Claire Napier noted of Kazuo Koike’s ambivalent X-Men contribution, “Scripters become known for and associated with the art of their most successful line artists; seeing their words and beats with new artists of the same artistic tradition can be unfamiliar enough, but collaboration on an existing property with an artist expected on that property destroys the essence of familiarity.”
This is a simple enough principle to understand in talking about someone like Kieron Gillen, who has been attached at the hip to Jamie McKelvie for just over a decade, but who is best associated with Ellis? Darick Robertson? Bryan Hitch? John Cassaday? Stuart Immonen? Adi Granov? Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire? J.H. Williams III? Juan Jose Ryp? Jason Masters?
It’s a conundrum that evaporates after one look at Jon Davis-Hunt. His figurative work, and his faces in specific, share a clear manga influence highlighted by his idiosyncratic under eye hatching that places him alongside Paul Duffield or Lea Hernandez in the spectrum of Ellis collaborators, but his particular talents for gore -honed on Clean Room with Gail Simone- put him in the very particular class of Robertson, Ryp, and Gary Erskine that cements him as the best possible choice for The Wild Storm.
Davis-Hunt carries with him the same versatility and genre fluency that Ellis demanded of Cassaday on Planetary, frequently providing updated versions of the genre riffs that defined Cassaday’s work. The open paneled, “widescreen” meditation on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wushu ballets in Planetary becomes a tight, granular Lone Wolf and Cub homage in Davis-Hunt’s hands. Ambrose Chase’s Matrix style gunplay becomes Gifter’s riff on John Wick (co-directed by Keanu Reeves’s stunt double David Leich), which Davis-Hunt seems to homage not just in choreography, but also portraying Grifter as noticeably duck footed (Reeves is pigeon-toed).
Davis-Hunt’s fine inking is a key aspect to how he’s able to manipulate the page and control the pacing of the reading experience in a way that none of Ellis’ prior collaborators have achieved. There’s an incredible aesthetic inversion involved in Davis-Hunt’s work on The Wild Storm as he riffs and updates on the ideas that Ellis has sharpened and repurposed for The Wild Storm. Adi Granov (Iron Man: Extremis), John Cassaday (Planetary), Bryan Hitch (The Authority), and Tula Lotay (Supreme Blue Rose) all worked large, primarily in horizontal strips and in more photo realistic figurative work.
Davis-Hunt works small and deeply stylized, extending the drama of a moment like the first time that Angela Spica deploys her drysuit by forcing the reader through a dozen tiny, detailed panels that demand scrutiny and build suspense in a way that no one else is currently attempting. All of this conspires to make him deeply familiar through his fluency in all of the classic hallmarks of Ellis’ body of work while pushing Ellis’s storytelling into an entirely new direction, making The Wild Storm an utterly unique experience.
The Wild Storm #22 is a tale of two reunions, but it’s also one small part of a work of very stable genius.