Sunday, 2 June 2013
Warren Ellis's Stormwatch
Stormwatch is the first entry in what can be considered a loose trilogy of Wildstorm titles for Warren Ellis. The second part would be The Authority and the concluding part would be Planetary. I didn’t realise this when I read them because I read them out of sequence. Not that you have to have read them in publication order of course, but certain references and recurring characters will make more sense if you do. My reading habits are a product of living in the age of collected editions.
Everyone who writes about Stormwatch mentions that its themes bled into The Authority and on into Planetary. It’s because the latter two titles are so incredibly highly regarded that it’s worth noting that the author figured out his voice for both here first. It’s interesting for its place in history and Ellis’s career as much as anything else.
It also helps to disguise the fact that, at times, Stormwatch can be a little rough around the edges. Part of the reason for that could be because this book was something Ellis inherited rather than created himself, the opposite of which would be the case with the later titles. This results in the author writing out numerous members of the existing cast and introducing his own new creations.
Authority stalwarts Jack Hawksmoor, Jenny Sparks, Swift, Apollo and Midnighter are all introduced here. So are the ideas of the Doctor and the Engineer. It’s clear at a glance that Ellis wants to be writing something wholly original rather than tinkering with the legacy of other people’s work.
The plots bear a striking similarity to The Authority. They’re on a smaller scale and tend to involve existing members of the team more, likely because Ellis didn’t have the sway at this point to use the approach he would later on, but they’re similar enough to the stuff turned out on The Authority to be an obvious precursor. It’s very much in the vein of shadowy cabals, secret societies and corrupt governments. Basically exactly the sort of thing Ellis has been doing for much of his career.
And yet it’s not solely just The Authority before The Authority. Ellis employs techniques that the “wide screen” approach wouldn’t lend itself to. Most obvious is issue forty-four. It’s a flashback story recounting the life of Jenny Sparks and employs artistic techniques that invoke various eras and titles, from pulp detective stories to Watchmen. It’s a less refined approach than what we would eventually see with Planetary but that it’s injected into just one issue, instead of across an entire series, makes it a little more focused.
This book is also of interest because it demonstrates the level of direction Ellis would garner within the Wildstorm Universe. As noted this was a book he inherited from other people. It was designed to sit alongside a wider range of titles and feature a level of crossover. By the time Planetary rolled around Ellis was essentially writing a creator-owned series in a shared universe. Stormwatch is the beginning of what would become Ellis’s impressive influence on an entire company’s output.
Content-wise the run is probably best known for a twist regarding one of the central characters. I shan’t spoil the nature of that here but I will say that it works well and adds a great deal to the plot. It’s also a rarity in comics in that it doesn’t happen for the sake of shocking or being a part of a company-wide crossover. It’s clearly something planned from the start. Yes, this is a vague paragraph. It’s tough to address a large part of the book whilst at the same time trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not read the book (this is intended to be a recommendation after all).
If there’s one thing that I don’t especially care for about Ellis’s Stormwatch it’s the art of Tom Raney. It’s very of its time. You can tell from glancing at almost any page that it’s a nineties team book that was put out opposite the phenomenally popular X-Men. It would be overstating things to say it’s style over substance, but not by much. Something about Raney’s efforts just doesn’t quite gel. Whether its limbs being posed at peculiar angles, collapsing buildings looking like they’re doing things that defy physics (and not by design), or his sloppy approach to fight scenes (of which there are many) there’s always something just a bit off.
The below average artwork isn’t enough to stop Stormwatch being a very enjoyable read. Ellis produces some great work in its own right which becomes even more fascinating now that we have the benefit of hindsight to see where his career headed, both with specific follow-ups and with the general themes and tropes he’d adopt in general.