Grant Morrison is very good.
He’s one of my favourite writers and, along with Alan Moore, is in the very exclusive “Try Anything He Writes” club. He’s not always great, but he’s almost always interesting. He tries a lot of different things, and while he always brings that certain Morrison something, no two books are exactly alike. To demonstrate his talent, we’ve got two books that are a) very different and b) unlikely to attract me if written by nearly anyone else.
Wildcats used to be big. Really big. I remember when the first issue came out, and how it seemed like one of the most important things in the world because it was drawn by the biggest comic artist in the universe. I have no idea what it was about, and I’m not entirely sure it made sense then. Since then, the title has waxed and waned, I’ve read very little of it, and Jim Lee no longer impresses me very much. Now Lee is back, and his baby is serving as the flagship title to Wildstorm’s much-needed revamp, even if it is more than a month late.
The first issue of the relaunch suffers from one of the major flaws of Wetworks: There seems to be an assumption that the audience knows who everyone is and what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s a brief bit of exposition on the history of superheroes in the Wildstorm Universe, but after that it switches over to Spartan reassembling a superteam and scoping out old bad guys. He also has sex with Voodoo. Essentially, it reads like Volume 2 (or 3, 4, or whatever the franchise may be up to) which is supposed to immediately follow the previous volume – there’s a bit of catching up with the characters but not a whole lot of explaining. But Wildcats hasn’t had this much of a publicity push in nearly a decade, and it hasn’t had such a high profile creative team in at least a few years. All that seems to say “explain what the hell is going on a bit more clearly,” but Morrison only gives a general sense of the cast and setting.
Of course, a lack of focus on character also means you can jump straight into the action… But Morrison doesn’t really do that, either. Grifter beats up a few alien thugs, but that’s about it. The story basically treads water, updating the status quo of the characters without effectively reintroducing them or having them do anything.
The crux of the book is clearly the conversation between Spartan and Voodoo, where the former lays out the mission statement for the book: “All the widescreen battles and public displays of stupidity: It’s vulgar and frightening. Adolescent. How would truly adult superheroes behave?”
And then they have sex and we see a couple badass imposing villains who are probably significant but aren’t really explained. Morrison and Spartan talk a mean game, but haven’t put much on the table here. It feels like Morrison concentrated too much on resurrecting Lee’s prize franchise, and not enough on bringing his own vision to a title that’s stumbled about for an identity almost since its inception.
The Authority was kind of cool when Warren Ellis wrote it, but since then it’s been all about ultraviolent, in-your-face superheroics. It’s called “taking the concept and beating it into the ground,” and while that might be fine for X-Men, it’d be nice if Authority was ahead of the field in concept and execution instead of merely getting off to a good start and then being overtaken. So here, then, Morrison unleashes hs new approach: Superheroes in the real world.
Or, in the case of this issue, just the real world: The story here is given over to a mishap on a submarine. There are reports of violence, an explosion, and then the sub goes quiet. A rescue/recovery team is sent to investigate and retrieve what it can, though that means pulling the lead officer away from his rapidly crumbling marriage. When they reach the sub’s resting place, they find a disturbing lack of bodies and a large, unexpected mass that isn’t entirely natural.
And that’s it. There’s no Authority to be found here; the focus is entirely on the sub operator, his wife, and his mission. It’s a slow, deliberate pace intended to ground the story in the “real world,” complete with CNN reading recent headlines like “Pope offends muslims.” It’s an interesting tactic by Morrison, whose plots usually come at the reader like a charging rhino on steroids, and usually exist in a hyperactive reality full of wonder and absurdity.
Its success is largely due to the stellar work by Gene Ha, who’s always been good but shoots himself up into the elite with his work here. The obvious point of reference is probably John Cassaday’s more grounded work like I Am Legion – it’s stunningly authentic without being bogged down by needless details. Most important is the dull, ominous mood he brings to the book. The “real world” itself feels grey and drab, and the undersea expedition is dark and imposing. The final reveal of what caused the sub accident is impressive for what it doesn’t show, as well as what it does: A huge, imposing thing sitting at the bottom of the ocean, flitting in and out of darkness. Jim Lee might be the artistic star of Wildstorm’s relauch, but Ha is clearly the master.
Naturally, it’s not what Authority readers might expect: Not only is there no brain-splitting violence, there’s not even any Authority. But since I don’t really care about the team, I don’t have any problem with that. What is potentially problematic is the pacing: As much as this issue is a tremendous slow-burn that builds mood and tension, it might be too slow for a book that’s already bi-monthly. Slowing down the story can be an effective tactic, but it can be problematic if the plot advances only incrementally each month. This might make for a fantastic graphic novel, but a somewhat frustrating periodical.
Still, it’s a gorgeous, impressive, and daring book that doesn’t do much of anything you expect it to (aside from look really good). This is the first Wildstorm relaunch I’ve read that actually feels like it’s trying to do something new (indeed, at the expense of pissing off old readers), which is the sort of thing Authority used to be known for.