WildStorm celebrates 25 years with a new book of amazing art
Confession: when it comes to comics, I show up for the art. My first book was an issue of Uncanny X-Men drawn by Jim Lee, who’s powerful lines and perspective lent heroic strength and depth to the characters he drew.
I grew to love those characters and the stories his pencil would tell. When I learned that he was leaving my favorite series to begin a new company with other artists I admired, I was heartbroken, but also inspired and intrigued.
I left with the artists and embarked on the beautifully illustrated endeavour that was WildStorm.
Winds of change
An artistic commune of the 70s called The Studio inspired Jim Lee to become one of the founders of Image Comics, where the WildStorm universe would be born. Frustrated with the small royalty percentage he was earning and the lack of creative license he had drawing characters owned by Marvel, Jim and several other artists sat down with executives to tell them they were leaving some of the most coveted titles in comics, to try a new idea.
The exodus of artistic talent from industry giants rocked their stocks, but a new community formed in California where creators would retain the copyrights to their work. This gave creators greater control and earning-power when it came to marketing their product. Even though all of the books were published under the Image banner, no central branding would dictate what a publication could look like or the material it could produce.
As the expertly crafted illustrations propelled the fledgling company to remarkable heights, they quickly grew out of the San Diego based studio. Jim Lee and Brandon Choi moved up the snaking west coast highway to La Jolla in 1992, and called the production studio WildStorm. The name was a combination of two premier titles of the new universe, WildC.A.T.s and Stormwatch.
Eye of the hurricane
The WildStorm studio assembled artists throughout the 90s with talent that can still make us swoon with each line they pencil. Brett Booth, Jeff Scott Campbell, Humberto Ramos, and so many more worth mentioning created some of comics’ most beautiful pages. Fan-favored titles like WildC.A.T.s and Gen 13 brought the new company within spitting distance of the big two (DC and Marvel).
The artists’ work was highlighted by new techniques in comic book coloring that were largely developed and perfected at WildStorm. Before the inception of Image, comic book interiors were hand painted and printed on newspaper. Color bleeding, limited gradient of inks, and the dull finish of the paper had potential to render even the most dynamic of splash pages as flat and messy.
WildStorm ambitiously invested in digital coloring and luxurious magazine grade paper throughout each title, passing the increased production cost onto the consumer. It was a big gamble seeing as how comic sales had been in decline since the 70s, but fortune rewarded their boldness. The glossy new company used glossy pages of revolutionary techniques to awe casual browsers into submission.
One of the more appealing aspects of WildStorm was its artistic scope. Other studios had a tendency to house similar styles together so that a cohesion existed across the various titles they produced. But at WildStorm artists like Joe Madureira, Sam Kieth, and Adam Warren had distinct style and flair. The visual variety injected creative vitality into the studio that made it stand far above the maddening crowd as a Mecca for pencil pushers.
Weather the tempest
New readers lined up at registers and industry titans scrambled to keep ahead of WildStorm using variant covers, guest artists, giant crossovers, and holographic trading cards to draw in collectors. WildStorm’s impressive influence was one of many elements that created a brief industry bubble which found itself deflated in ’96. Art driven content was beginning to be seen as a superficial cover up for simple storytelling and one dimensional characters.
WildStorm leaned into the changing taste of readers and challenged the industry again. They sought out writers like Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, and Chris Claremont to write stories that branched into more varied terrain than costumed superheroes could tread. Under imprints Homage and Cliffhanger, creatives brought the strange and alluring to the studio with titles like The Maxx, Red, Strangers in Paradise, and Astro City.
The new focus on a wider selection of content and greater storytelling ability didn’t stop the books from being beautifully illustrated. New digital textures and techniques were applied, making each cover more stunning than the last. Comics began to look like they could hang next to Da Vinci, but widespread production slowdowns were plaguing their parent company, Image. Titles were regularly delayed by weeks or even months, and reader excitement started to wane.
Storm blows over
In 1998, Jim Lee felt the urge to get out of the board room and back to the drawing board. He sold WildStorm to DC Comics. The purchase enabled the two universes to co-exist. Characters of the two realms could appear in the titles of either imprint. It gave DC access to WildStorm’s wildly skilled colorists, artists and writers. In turn, Jim could draw more often, and rest assured that titles would be on shelves each month.
It also gave DC Mark Millar and Warren Ellis’ The Authority, which recreated the WildStorm universe to satirize much of DC’s and was a huge success. But disputes within would see the departure of some who would not work with either company again. Alan Moore took the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with him. Mark Millar left to work exclusively with the rival company: Marvel.
DC Comics attempted to resuscitate WildStorm and relaunched titles, but their half-hearted attempts only irked creators and weakened sales. A stormy decade after their acquisition of WildStorm, DC‘s New 52 did not include WildStorm’s most successful titles, and closed the door on the relatively independent imprint. Favorite characters of WildStorm only sporadically appeared in the DC universe thereafter.
Dance in the rain
This year WildStorm celebrates its 25-year-old history with a large volume of some of its most cherished characters in new stories. Creators and artists, feeing a touch of nostalgia, returned in droves to revisit the creative energy of their intrepid voyage that forever altered comics.
The book is on shelves now, packed with gorgeous illustrations, as well as humorous, current, and action packed tales. As I peruse its shiny pages, I couldn’t be happier.
Image Credits: DC Comics, WildStorm, Image Comics