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Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch, Vol. 1 (Hardcover) (Review)

Warren Ellis in free flow is a truly beautiful thing to watch. In the right frame of mind, working on the right idea, Ellis has a unique ability to throw out radical ideas, fascinating constructs and subversive notions, all without ever losing his step or his flow. With Bryan Hitch, Ellis’ acclaimed and respected run on The Authority firmly altered the trajectory of mainstream comic books. Part of it was definitely the style that Ellis and Hitch brought to the book, promising “widescreen” dynamic action. However, it was the ideas that gave the book a significant amount of weight. Ellis demonstrated that you could take realpolitick and graft it into a superhero book, lending the adventures a bit more depth, potency and relevance than any publisher would have dared attempt before. These ideas are all present in Ellis’ original run on Stormwatch, the series that led into that iconic game-changing comic book.

I blame it on the Weatherman…

Ellis didn’t create Stormwatch. He joined the book thirty-seven issues in, in the wake of some massive crossover or something. However, the writer did define the book. Indeed, when DC relaunched Stormwatch by Paul Cornell as part of their “new 52” rebranding, the title was pretty much an umbrella book to pay homage to Ellis’ superb Wildstorm work – as much The Authority as Stormwatch as Planetary. Of course, despite Cornell’s best efforts, the book didn’t quite match Ellis’ skill, but it was as affectionate a tribute as possible within the confines of DC’s publishing house.

Indeed, repeatedly over this hardcover collection compiling about half of Ellis’ run, Ellis seems to do things with superheroes that now major company in their right mind would allow an author to do. And it is absolutely stunning and breathtaking. Whatever one might think about the average quality Wildstorm’s publishing output, it was clear that the company allowed its talent considerably more freedom than either of the “big two” publishers, to the point that Mark Millar’s difficulties trying to write his version of The Authority after DC bought the company has become the stuff of industry legend.

Holy…

Here, Ellis is allowed to gleefully subvert and explore the notion of superheroes, introducing these super-humans into a world governed by politics. A recurring theme through Ellis’ Stormwatch is the notion that you can’t divorce superheroes for politics, and you can’t write a book where superheroes exist that looks in any way like our own world. There’s a recurring notion that the presence of these super-powered beings is harmful to humans – not just in a metaphysical “what does it all mean?” sort of way, but also in a “arghhh! my skin’s turned inside out!!!” type of thing.

When the Russian super-soldier Winter discovers a building full of mutated and deceased humans, affected by an airborne mutagen, he muses, “Our world was never supposed to spill into theirs.” Ellis seems to suggest that such overlap was inevitable. At one point, we’re introduced to a catatonic soldier who was left in something approaching brain death merely by having sexual contact with one of the team’s members. A doctor suggests, “Superhumans hurt us by standing close!”The cynical (and sinister) Henry Bendix might dismiss the doctor’s observations, but it’s hard to argue that she doesn’t have a point.

She’s electrifying…

It’s very clear that Ellis is taking the book in fairly new and bold direction. The first issue of his run is filled with characters commenting on how the very concept of Stormwatch is broken, and how it needs fixing. It reads like a mission statement from Ellis. And it’s brilliant. In the wake of the gigantic crossover that Ellis only briefly touches on, Jackson King confesses, “This outfit doesn’t work right, anymore. Our time’d be better spent figuring out why, than dancing on a traitor’s grave.” Sure enough, the opening few pages promise, “Big conference tonight, 2100 hours. It’s to reconfigure Stormwatch.”

Bendix reflects on his performance to date, “It’s time I lived up to my own ideals, the ones I held before Stormwatch became so debased. it’s time to find people who share those ideals. People who want to remake the world.” That’s certainly a declaration of intent, and it’s interesting that Bendix’s goals sound as if they could easily come from a supervillain. Jenny Sparks responds, “You’re serious this time, aren’t you? You finally want to go after the causes, not the effects?” It seems like Ellis is making his promise to the reader – this really won’t be like any superhero comic book published before.

You get one shot at changing the world…

And the result is brilliantly fascinating, and wonderfully compelling. Ellis builds Stormwatch with a palpable sense of moral ambiguity. Not the shallow ambiguity that so much media strives for these days, but honest-to-goodness moral ambiguity where it’s hard to tell if Henry Bendix is a hero or a villain as he constructs his “secret world order.” Ellis’ Stormwatch is built on delicious and conscious irony. One of the most beautifully ironic aspects of the whole thing is that Stormwatch seem to be harnessing the tools and methods of the radical political right in the service of the radical political left.

It’s clear that, in the broadest possible sense, Henry Bendix’s goals are admirable. He seems to genuinely believe that he’ll make the world a better place. He uses Stormwatch to target corrupt institutions, racist militias and warmongers – while refusing to bow to the authority of the State. While Bendix is officially in the service of the “special security council”, one wonders whether he really bows to higher authority. They seem to be happy to allow him to do what he wishes, while he does not consult them. Bendix is more than willing to challenge important and influential United Nations members, including the United States.

City slicker…

The seem to oppose the status quo, rather than reinforcing it like most superheroes do. (It is, in fact, quite telling that their first foe is rather pointedly called “Superman.”) The target militant right-wing hate groups and institutionally corrupt police departments. At one point, we discover that the Lincoln City Police Department has been employing super-human police. One explains, “You know why we were recruited? To keep things the same.” These officers are enemies of Stormwatch because they fight to preserve the status quo, hoping to ensure that “everything stays nice and safe and the same.”

Indeed, Ellis’ team are almost defined by their resistance to “the establishment.” At one point, reflecting on her life, Jenny Sparks laments the missed opportunity for genuine change when they encountered a parallel world. “I still dreamed of getting on equal terms with Sliding Albion: bringing their technology here,” she confesses. “The world we could have made.” Years later, when Henry Bendix promises to change the world, Jenny agrees to help him, with one caveat. “The first time you lose your backbone over a problem, I’ll kill you, Henry.”Stormwatch seem to be in the business of redistributing wealth and power, rather than supporting the existing system.

A harsh Winter…

However, Bendix does all this using tools that are quite deliberately fascist – right down to the use of the lightning imagery. He doesn’t just employ superheroes, but also armed goons called “Stormforce Troops” who don’t seem to be afraid of a little brutality if the situation calls for it. He detains suspects without trial, and practices cold-blooded executions. Although he boasts it isn’t “torture”, he does practice invasive methods of extracting information from uncooperative witnesses.

The irony isn’t lost on Ellis, of course, who delights in the rather interesting dynamic. Of the Lincoln police officers being held in cryogenic stasis above the world, Ellis notes “In a few years, someone might realise that the Weatherman is holding them without trial. But they won’t do anything about it. Why rock the boat?Stormwatch sees the tools of oppression reflected back against those who would typically use them. And it does this without making any moral judgments about Henry Bendix and the team. It’s left up to the reader to reach their own conclusions about the moral irony of it all.

Storming the establishment…

Of course, despite the fact that these characters might look like superheroes, they really aren’t. Bendix describes Stormwatch Red as “human weapons”, and he doesn’t seem too far off the mark. He explains, “Stormwatch Red will comprise of those members with the greatest destructive capability for acts of deterrent display and retribution.” Is this the superhero as psychological warfare, treating these individuals as nothing more than self-aware weapons of mass destruction?

And similarly, the foes of the team are not mere supervillains. The second issue sees an “act of war” committed against Stormwatch by the US President. from the US. Ellis even grants a bit of complexity to the relatively shallow yellow-peril Wildstorm villain Kaizen Gamorra, who is transformed into a figure not too distinct from Colonel Ghaddafi. Gamorra hides behind the diplomatic can of worms that his prosecution would open for the United Nations. “You try to prosecute me, and it’ll all come out,”he threatens.

Bright Spark…

Even the most generic of the threats facing Stormwatch are not as simple as they might appear. The most stereotypically “evil” supervillain attack here comes from a Japanese doomsday cult that tries to destroy Tokyo, only for Stormwatch to stop them. But, of course, the plan was more complex than that, and more firmly routed in political reality than some shallow “destroy ’em all!” evil genius scheme.

“Foreign military might operating on Japanese soil once more,” Fuji explains. “That’s what you wanted. The implied insult, that Japan cannot cope on its own. Did you want unrest? Did you intend to offer Japan your cheap, ugly superhuman generation method? ‘Here, take it, and never mind the self-defense treaty.’ ‘We can make war again.’ Did you want to create Japan anew in your own eyeless image, ‘Life’s Work’?”It suggests an endgame more pragmatic and more reasonable than a mere attempt to cause chaos for the sake of chaos, or to try to hold the world ransom.

This super-human situation is a ticking time bomb ready to go off…

There is another delicious irony about Stormwatch. In one of the chapters collected here, Ellis explores the history of one of his most iconic creations, Jenny Sparks. The “spirit of the twentieth century”, Jenny’s life is illustrated and written in the style of comics of the time in question. For example, there’s earnest social commentary of the early Siegel and Shuster Superman, the uncomfortable casual racism of Will Eisner’s early Spirit, the counter-cultural movement of the sixties. However, Ellis allow extra space to explore the impact that Alan Moore’s celebrated Watchmen had on the superhero genre.

He writes Jenny investigating a corrupted bunch of fellow costumed heroes, discovering a pathetic self-involved conspiracy that literally features a baby cobbled together from a collection of other children. Ellis isn’t exactly subtle, but he only has so much room in which to make his point. Ellis seems to reflect on how Watchmen changed comic books, suggesting that perhaps modern comic don’t need to stand in the shadow of that admittedly important and iconic work.

The girl with the Rose Tattoo…

The story ends with Jackson King trying to convince Jenny that, even in the last years of the twentieth century, there’s still a chance for her to find her own identity, just as there’s still a chance for comics to reinvent themselves and escape this perpetual cycle of “darker-and-edgier” or “grim-and-grittier.” In a surprisingly touching moment, Jackson assures her, “But it’s not the eigthies anymore. Nor the sixties, or the forties. Things have changed. Things can still change. Life is not as grim as your eighties story, nor as hopeless. You can still see the stars, Jenny.”

I know that some people might see Ellis as an inherently cynical individual, but there’s a lot of raw optimism there. He isn’t attacking the medium, he’s just trying to demonstrate that the sort of reflexive nostalgia that so frequently entraps modern comics might be holding them back. In many ways, it seems to evoke the “pop culture archeology” of his superb Planetary, which was dedicated to a similar ideal – that the medium is a rich and diverse cultural landscape, and it’s easy to lose sight of that. Okay, so Ellis can be soul-destroyingly cynical at times, but then you get little moments like this… and it’s wonderful.

Going down a Storm…

Of course, you can sense Ellis in almost every panel of the book. And I mean that in the most complementary manner possible. Every page is bristling with these wonderful scientific and futurist concepts, many of which I will admit were new to me but have now entered my permanent vocabulary. Those are concepts like the “arachnid reaction” or the distinction between “emic and etic reality.” Ideas that I didn’t know names existed for, and of which my spellchecker still isn’t convinced.

We see Ellis handle one of his own pet fascinations, the culture of post-war Japan. The cultural mindset of the nation seems to fascinate Ellis, with an early chapter of his Planetary exploring doomsday cults on a monster island. Of course, it is deeply fascinating. The idea of a nation living in the shadow of the second world war, with doomsday cults and monsters formed in the popular consciousness as a way of dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear explosions. He pits the team against a cult leader born without eyes near Nagasaki, a clever and evocative image.

Eww…. man…

And then there’s just the ideas that you honestly can’t believe that Ellis got away with, and which are executed with such skill and energy that it’s hard to resist. One such plot is a murder mystery featuring the “illegitimate son of a President.” Of course, the President is never actually explicitly named, but it is very, very obvious who Ellis intended. The killer leaves messages like “Ich bin ein New Yorker” on his victims, we’re told his father was “one of their best-loved presidents” and he’s tended to by a Secret Service agent who has undergone massive plastic surgery to look something like Marilyn Monroe. “It’s the only face he’ll really respond to,” she comments. The reason for his violence? “Congenital syphilis.”

I find it hard to believe that the issue, published during the nineties, when comics were arguably at their most popular, managed to get past the company’s lawyers. Then again, I suppose, a lot of the people buying comics during the nineties didn’t necessarily buy them to read them. Ah, those truly were the days. Still, Ellis has a charming sense of humour and a willingness to swing for the fences that makes Stormwatch a hugely enjoyable read.

Death of a Superman…

It’s also worth noting that Ellis crafts this collection as a series of “done-in-ones.” Many would credit his work on The Authority for creating an era of “decompression” in modern comics, where stories would be stretched out far longer than necessary. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair on Ellis, as his stories were at most four issues. Here, however, he restricts himself to single-issue stories that skilfully build off one another. They allow him to play to key themes and develop subplots, while keeping each issue interesting in its own right.

I find its fascinating how remarkably dense his one-issue stories are. They read very well, but they don’t feel empty or shallow. There’s never too much awkward exposition, and there’s always the right amount of action. I’m consistently impressed with how much material Ellis can get through in the space of a single issue. Eve ignoring all the clever ideas mentioned above, Ellis is a superb craftsman of these stories. He’s a comic book writer with rare skill, and he deserves recognition for it.

Shockingly great…

Ellis is ably supported here by the artwork of Tom Raney. I know that Bryan Hitch would really define Ellis’ run, but Raney doesn’t do too badly, keeping up with his writer’s ideas and a relatively clear storytelling style. It’s easy to follow and it’s relatively fluid, while still looking very much like a product of its time. I think that is part of the subversive appeal of Stormwatch. It’s a book that is very clearly a pastiche of the Justice League or The Avengers, but it’s really so much more. Allowing Tom Raney to draw it in a style similar to those mainstream comics allows Ellis to slip his ideas in almost under the radar, so to speak.

Stormwatch is a classic. While these stories aren’t quite as radical as some of the work that would follow, there’s a willingness here to push the concept of these types of teams into a realm where they’ve never really been seen before. You can spot a lot of Ellis’ ideas throughout this work, and I think that it’s an intelligent and a fun read. The best might be yet to come, but what we’ve got here is pretty excellent as well.

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