Grant Morrison and Jim Lee on Wildcats ended up being a non-starter. The first issue came out, the second didn’t, and that was the end of that. I reread it recently, though, and it is actually very good, for a number of reasons.
One of my favorite parts of Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder is the dissonance between the art and the story. Jim Lee, love him or hate him, defined superheroic art for the ’90s. Multiple artists were told to draw in his style, including Ian Churchill, and from a strictly comics perspective, he’s probably the most successful of the Image founders. Miller’s story, though, runs in direct defiance of that, dripping with pulpy narration and so over the top in its grotesque incorporation of superheroics that it seems off-kilter and wrong. Once I got it, the book clicked for me.
As in ASBAR, Jim Lee’s art is used in Wildcats as a tool above and beyond “sequential art on a page.” Lee’s style is Wildstorm. They’ve had various artists come through their doors, with an astonishing amount of great ones (Dustin Nguyen, Sean Phillips, Travis Charest, Aron Wiesenfeld, Richard Friend, Laura Martin), but Lee defined the style and still stands out in my mind as the Wildstorm artist.
And Wildcats is Grant Morrison’s take on the Wildstorm universe, but a take on a very specific time in the WSU. He’s going right after the period of time when Wildstorm was at its peak, when The Authority, Planetary, Wildcats/Wildcats 3.0, Automatic Kafka, and Sleeper reigned. It’s Grant Morrison taking what Lee, Casey, and Ellis, in particular, built and pushing it to the next level. The book begins with a bit of exposition that sets the stage: President Chrysler has just come to power, and the world is in turmoil. With a few short phrases (“from the new underwater cities to the asylum ghettoes of Europe”), he establishes this new world. It is not ours, rather, it is a comic book world. Suicide bombers don’t strap explosives and ball bearings to their chest. Now, they are radioactive supermen who lurk in outer space. Telephones are 3D and you can have your very own android for protection (“In stock now! New low price!”). And, more than anything, superheroes are everywhere and revel in their glory.
Joe Casey’s Wildcats was all about pushing superheroes to a new level. Not the next level, but one different from the one they were on. A focus relationships and business maneuvers, rather than superheroics and spectacle, was a valid description of his run, until he had to give in to market forces and jazz 3.0 up some in an attempt to avoid cancellation.
Morrison takes Joe Casey’s Hadrian, CEO of Halo and reformed superhero, and pushes him to the logical conclusion of Wildcats 3.0. Halo has revolutionized the world, providing families with personal Spartan robots, fancy telephones, and other high tech tools. It’s the end point of the Reed Richards/Tony Stark/Superhero Super Scientist character. At some point, they are either going to drastically improve the world or die as failures.
That’s not where the Casey riff stops, though. Casey attempted to tell adult superhero stories in Wildcats and Wildcats 3.0. Not in terms of sexual content, though that was definitely in effect, but in terms of approaches to storytelling, events, and all the things that make a comic book a comic book. He wanted to ditch the trappings that superheroes still held from when they were stories for children, and had varying levels of success.
During a conversation about how his plan to change the world, Hadrian flat-out asks Priscilla, former WildC.A.T. and his ex-girlfriend, “How would truly adult superheroes behave?” What’s on the next page? Psychedelic superhero sex. And I mean “superhero sex” literally. Hadrian tries to discuss what superhumans should mean to people after they finish, or rather, between sessions.
It makes sense. Superheroes are superhumans. They are essentially us, though writ large. Their emotions are purer than ours, and larger. Peter Parker’s sense of responsibility is equal to his superpowers. Superman’s purity is a slap across the face of “power corrupts.” Food and sex are easily the two biggest motivators for human beings, with almost every action being a step on a path that leads to one, the other, or both. It only makes sense that superheroes, who are just like people, but distilled, would also reflect our appetites.
In other words: superheroes go at it like rabbits who are fresh out of jail, and when they do it, it’s psychedelic and wonderful and casual and, considering the fact that they are shown in bed before they appear on-panel with each other, inevitable. The normal “Will they or won’t they? Now with added DRAMA!” that is a staple of superhero comics is gone. There’s no reason to play coy with sex any more, because kids aren’t reading it anyway. It’s going to happen.
Morrison moves from Joe Casey’s Wildstorm straight into Warren Ellis’s, though he adds a certain spin on Ellis’s usually cynical stories. The flagrantly Yellow Peril villains from Ellis’s first arc on The Authority, complete with long-finger nailed Fu Manchu figure Kaizen Gamorra. These pages are, as ever, ably illustrated by Lee, who has been playing around with widescreen layouts throughout the issue.
It’s clearest in the extended literal and thematic zoom sequence that represents scene breaks in the comic. It begins with a shot of the sun, leads to Grifter in a gutter, zooms out to the space station, zooms out to the asteroid belt, and eventually zooms out and focuses on Gamorra’s face. After hitting Gamorra’s face, the camera zooms out once again, adding Jim Lee and Brandon Choi’s character Helspont into the mix.
Helspont provides some continuity between Ellis’s world-shattering threat and the origin of the WildC.A.T.s. His introduction comes in the middle of an Ellis/Hitch-style sequence, with hundreds of crafts and a clear danger to the planet punctuating each panel.
Helspont gives way to another zoom, out to Zealot, the Coda, and Majestic. They’re fighting an army of Daemonites with swords and fists, more than willing to murder any of the monsters if need be. Again, shades of Ellis’s Authority, who were as kill happy as any heroes. Zealot proclaims her mission to be a suicide mission, and wonders if Majestros has come to commit suicide with her.
His response is the twist that Morrison adds into the Ellis mix. Majestic “gazed over the rim of the universe” and saw what the superheroes, I assume, will become. He says that he doesn’t “do suicide” before telling her that Earth is next.
And there it is- that’s the kind of threat that Ellis used in The Authority and, to a lesser extent, Planetary. Kaizen Gamorra and his Yellow Peril Horde wanted to scrawl his name across the planet. The aliens from another Earth wanted to set up rape camps and spoil the world. The giant floating pyramid was going to unmake the ecosystem. That’s the planetary-level threat that the Authority fight, entangled and wrapped up in the Wildcats formula.
Zealot says “Earth?” after Majestic tells her of the threat. Rather than a zoom, we’re rubber-banded back to the scene of Grifter in an alley and leave Ellis in the past. The first caption reads “Cole Cash,” and is a link between the massive space war and the man on the street. Zealot and Grifter are exes, of sorts, so there’s that human bond that Grant Morrison loves to use.
Grifter’s scene is the purest dose of pop comics in the book. It’s Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s, and early Image Comics, filtered through Grant Morrison’s sensibilities. His dialogue is suitably hard-boiled and gritty, delivered straight from Sin City, and has a couple of witticisms and one-liners for the Image crowd.
After that, though, once the violence starts, is when Grant Morrison takes the brutal violence that littered Image and Wildstorm and turns it operatic. Grifter goes from unarmed to armed in a split second, killing half a dozen Daemonites, as the captions turn from MIller-esque into German exclamations.
Grifter is confusion and chaos and death and death and death!
He makes it through the gauntlet without a scratch, pulls a lit cigar from a dead man’s body, and breaks off a one liner before shooting a monster in the face. “They call me the Grifter. Saving the world, one soul at a time.”
The guns Grifter used when WildC.A.T.s first launched, the loud lasers and wacky scifi pistols, are gone. These are straightforward pistols, which reminds me of a scene from Joe Casey’s Wildcats 3.0. Grifter is training another man how to be an unshaven thug with a heart of gold. Part of the weapons training is learning how to pop off one liners during combat. Why? Because that is what this kind of hero does.
From top to bottom, Wildcats #1 is Grant Morrison grabbing the disparate threads of the Wildstorm universe, most notably those of the original creators of Wildstorm and the most popular writers of the universe, and braiding them into one rope, all the while adding his own touch of forward-thinking and utopianism. He brings in Ellis’s Hard Bastards for a Hard World, Casey’s Reformed Superheroes, and the Lee/Choi Adolescent Superheroes and makes them not only work together, but make sense.
Wildstorm always had the best looking books out of Image, and for a while, Wildstorm had the best line of comics in the industry. Jim Lee’s art keeps Wildcats tight and undeniably Wildstorm, harkening back to the old days while the story plays around in the newer half of the sandbox. Setting aside the thrill of seeing him draw the characters he created or co-created, Wildcats is very much about Jim Lee drawing the birth of a new kind of superhero, something that couldn’t have been done in the DC or Marvel universes without wrecking merchandising or new media deals.
It’s a shame we only ever got one issue out of this, because I get the feeling Morrison was going somewhere interesting. His proposal certainly seems to lean in that direction, anyway.