WildCats vol. 4 #1 (2006), by Jim Lee and Grant Morrison. DC/WildStorm.
Whatever aesthetic merits (or lacks thereof) the reader might associate with the words Jim Lee, Grant Morrison, and superhero comics, there's no denying this: none of them have historically been much involved in anything that could be deemed a commercial failure. Lee's early Image books may have fallen out of print, and his X-Men issues may line the fifty cent bins like birdcage newspapers, but those things sold millions -- literal millions! -- of copies before their pages yellowed, turning a hot artist into an entrepreneur who gets invited to the Warner corporate family's high-stakes poker games in the bargain. Morrison's far-out mature readers comics may not have sold for much when they first hit the racks as single issues, but when the last brick-and-mortar comics retailer bites the dust in 2024, you can bet it'll have some We3 and Invisibles on its shelves, and not remaindered copies either. And superhero comics... are superhero comics. They sell. Some people with a limited understanding of the medium even go so far as to say they "keep comics alive", and while that's as ridiculous as contending that McDonald's "keeps food alive", they do prop up a pretty massive construct.
That construct, however, isn't the comics art form; it's the comics industry in its current state. An industry in which "Jim Lee" and "Grant Morrison" are two of the top ten most important names of the last two decades or so. An industry that does not just frown on commercial failure, but regards it with a holy terror, a plea for salvation. Lee and Morrison have been two of its more prominent saviors for a while now, and they're received with the appropriate hosannas at the big conventions and properly hagiographied in the big news sites and the company press releases. But like I said, all that would be true with or without any aesthetic merit to their work. The corporate superhero books are never intended as comics art. They are comics product, and only the happy accidents and random intersections of history have rendered anything that even requests we look at the thing that other way. Succeed commercially and it doesn't matter what you put on the page. Fail commercially and it matters just as little. Either way: it's not important. What matters is the money, and since Lee and Morrison have raked so much of it into the corporate coffers so consistently they've been sanctified. But neither of them has a spotless record, not even a spotless past five years. This is an article about the time the two joined forces, only to produce that most horrifying of superhero comics anathemas: a commercial failure.
So hop in the time machine: it's late 2006, the most recent boom period for the heroes, with Marvel's Civil War crossover (the one Big Blockbuster Hero Comic of the decade to bring sales that surpassed the hype) out in front. Things were good all around though, and by all around I mean at Marvel and across town at DC -- yeah, did you know there are actually two companies that publish comic books? As has been typical over the last couple decades, Lee and Morrison were in the thick of it, Lee with the fascinating Frank Miller collab All Star Batman, a book which did as much as any other to turn the stupidity inherent in the heroes into an art form; and Morrison with the legitimately transcendent Frank Quitely-led All Star Superman, plus the issues of his Batman run that were actually fun instead of sleep-inducing to read high. Those books were the guaranteed sellers, though, the combination of characters and creators they boasted enough to place them at the top of the pops no matter how phoned-in the stories got. The WildCats relaunch that hit in October, on the other hand -- that was a chance taken, and the marketplace does not fall kindly on such things.
In a way it's astonishing that a Jim Lee/Grant Morrison comic could ever fail. In another, the idea that a comic that didn't feature decades-old action-figure characters could ever be successful enough to justify the allocation of those two names on it is ludicrous. WildCats volume 4 #1 was the marquee comic of a wider attempt at revitalizing the moribund properties of Lee's DC-owned WildStorm publishing imprint, and its failure to accomplish its assigned task, as well as the failure of the whole WildStorm relaunch, is as good a signpost as any for the place where superhero comics' early-2000s ascension turned into their late-2000s decline. Furthermore, as the sole comic of both Lee and Morrison's last decade in the medium that can be called truly unsuccessful, it's almost by default the most interesting thing either produced in that space of time.
Let's open up that bag and board.
The purpose of WildCats #1's existence as a commercial object is stated above: it's-a-platform-for-the-WildStorm-characters-to-sell-like-they-did-in-1992, which was the height of the era when the fan base was most in tune with the publishers' real wants and needs. (Back then nobody on either end of the producer-consumer equation cared what was actually in the comics, because they stayed in the mint-condition mylar bags they were shipped in so their accrued value could make millions for the millions who forked over one ninety five for them. Comics product, not comics art. Don't you get it? Don't you see it? You think the publishers weren't happier then selling abject garbage that nobody bothered to read in the high millions than they are now with stuff they can pass off as competent being thumbed through for ten minutes by an audience that barely breaks six figures? Really? Go read some more of that "powerful... worthy" [-ComicBookResources.com] Jonathan Hickman Fantastic Four run then. I digress.) But the reason for the comic's aesthetic existence is a little murkier. The WildCats -- that's "Wild Covert Action TeamS", by the way -- were never the most interesting of characters, not even in Lee's WildStorm stable. There was a small outcry when the surprisingly-decent third volume of the series was canceled, but there was hardly a rabid group of fans awaiting a fourth. The steroidal, surface-level mode of storytelling that Lee had introduced the characters with wasn't exactly a good match for Morrison's psychological, complexity-based style, and to be quite honest Lee had done better work almost every non-WildCats gig he landed.
The big pull of Lee and Morrison's WildCats seems almost to be a superhero comics-specific display of bravado, one inevitably caught up in the genre's equation of quality with commercial success. Could two of comics' biggest stars create a book with enough aesthetic merit to sell a group of properties nobody cared about? Get to the thing that matters via the thing that doesn't? That's the way we get any good hero comics at all -- quality, even in a vacuum like the comics industry, outs. To turn the WildCats into a bestseller, the comic itself would have to be good, because heaven knows nobody was lining up to buy the characters like they do for Batman. It's a hell of a general goal -- "make a good comic" -- and the book reads like that's about all the forethought that went into it. Too, Lee and Morrison's abilities to accomplish "good comics" were and are fairly mismatched. Morrison boasted a decade-plus run as mainstream comics' most consistently intelligent and entertaining writer before he gave up last year, while Lee is a strong visual stylist who has serious trouble constructing an adequate sequence and little compositional skill all around, in addition to never having drawn a script that was much more than halfway amusing.
With that said, WildCats #1 is a good comic, the scattershot uncertainty of it producing something quite rare in modern hero comics: a genuine 22-page thrill ride, unpredictable and occasionally even innovative, the sheer style of it taking precedence over any editorial mandates or meta-story concerns. From the outer-space-to-earth zoom-in that opens the issue, complete with a Jim Steranko op-art filter slapped over the final panel (below), it's clear that Morrison and Lee a) don't really know what they're doing stylistically (and indeed, might be working at cross purposes), and so b) are just throwing big things out there to see if they stick.
That's a solid approach in superhero storytelling, which does well with ersatz affectations and random big ideas, and this issue is a textbook example of it. Morrison's writing swings from wildly expository to '80s-action-movie minimal in what seems at times like a parody of the distracted, hyperbolic early-'90s mode of comics scripting, but it keeps enough dazzle in the wording and enough ideas in the balloons that it never actually reads badly. Every few pages is like a catchy riff on a different style of schlocky genre-comics writing, with only the focused kinesis of Morrison on his game making an effort to hold them together. It's just enough; the comic is jumpy and asymmetrical and pulls in different directions all at once, but each scene carries an individual vigor, a real edginess that's quite novel in a field where the bestselling books are well into the thousands of installments. Morrison obviously doesn't care about the WildCats as characters the way he does about, say, Superman, and the syrupy reverence that bogs down so many hero books is cleared away here. It doesn't matter that there's nothing to replace it with, because the open space makes this a comic you can really move through.
There's a refreshing directness to fractured action scenes and declamatory dialogue when they don't depend on anything but themselves, when the reader isn't expected to take them in the context of half a century or more of backstory. Everything that happens in this comic, even the continuity callbacks to previous WildStorm books, is unmoored, and it doesn't matter if you've never read hero comics before in your life because this is the oily crude of what they do: they hit hard, they throw ideas together and make loud sounds when they smash, they confuse you a little, and they do it all with such conviction that when they're over they somehow leave you wanting more. Morrison doesn't attempt to construct a perfect, crystalline story structure or delve deep into the archetypes or personalities he's playing with; instead he sets the WildCats up like action figures and makes them fight, and that's hella entertaining for the fifteen minutes or so this comic takes to rip through.
It's also the only way anybody could ever hope to get a satisfying comic out of Jim Lee. Like I said, Lee is much more of a visual stylist than a pure cartoonist; his compact, muscled figures, deftly placed crosshatch-shadows, immensely detailed backgrounds, and hyperbolic action blocking have all had an enormous influence on modern superhero art. Lee is the one artist who really came through the Image comics-art revolution with his reputation unscathed, and not just unscathed but heightened. Nowadays Lee, like contempraries Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, definitely has his detractors, but open a hero comic, especially one published by DC, and the influence is obvious. He's marked the genre he chose, bent it to his way of seeing things in a way only a very small handful of artists before him have. That said, Lee's stylisms were always the least idiosyncratic and interesting of the Image garde, his overdetailing and questionable figurework never set free to be what it was in the manner of Liefeld, always grounded to a pedestrian George Perez/Alan Davis '80s action comics realism. Too busy to work as cartooning, never quite overdone enough to work as legitimate comics weirdness. Of course, his ability to walk that tightrope between pleasure and guilty pleasure is why he's been so successful, and his success is certainly the only reason he drew this comic, so here we are.
In a lot of ways, Morrison's ragged, almost improvisatory script seems tailored to Lee's strengths, the rapid cutting between scenes energized by the disconnected, at times seemingly random sequencing of Lee's action-saturated panels, the quippy, occasionally meaning-free dialogue perfectly reflected by the characters' constant posing, as though every 15 seconds of time in this comic is a new advertisement for itself. Which makes total sense -- I mean, this is COMMERCIAL COMICS as slick 'n' sexy and unashamed as they get, all the cheap thrills of superheroes minus the reverence for history and some of the usual content controls. Every panel looks like a mid-2000s ad for some new brand of cola or teen clothing line or collectible card game (remember those?), and that's because this book is Jim Lee selling WildCats to you. The story's completely apprehensible because it's superhero comics, it's just not that hard, and anyway who expects much story in a first issue these days? The first hit is about the attitude, the aggression, the proving to the reader that this is something they can't get anywhere else.
Jim Lee has those things, he does them well. If you remember that this is supposed to be a sequenced presentation of multiple events that share a context, it falls right on its face, but the thing about this comic is that you don't read it that way. Lee's art, greatly helped by the blinding glare of Alex Sinclair's colors, whips along so fast and hits so hard and carefree that it's impossible to see the experience of engaging the artifact this comic is as sharing anything with Love & Rockets or Peanuts or, honestly, even Watchmen. At least not while you're in it. It's a bizarre thing -- commerciality that you can only access once you've already bought the product (unless you read it in the store, I suppose), meaning without reason, an almost Dadaist exhibition of the purest essence of a very strange thing, namely modern hero comics. And that's not just some intellectualization of shit, either. Morrison, at least, is fully aware of just how reliant on familiar tropes and concepts his comic is. As long as there's some Jim Lee action sequences to put the words over, the stuff reads so obviously as hyperkool blockbuster material that it doesn't matter what those words say. By the comic's last two scenes there are random codename-filled email scripts scrolling over stock alien invasion footage, followed by the Grizzled Lone Wolf member of the WildCats (the Grifter, bitchizz!) taking out some thugs to a triumphant voiced-over ode to his power in German. It's a bracingly abstracted reading of the ancient formula for superhero success -- do the same thing in a different way -- that's deeply subversive in its total literality.
Believe it or not, there's an actual ideological point to this comic too, or if that word's too strong at least a hook, an agenda that the other books your three bucks could have gotten you in October 2006 didn't have. Morrison's revamp of the WildStorm universe wasn't just exciting because of how bizarre it made the whole thing of superhero comics look; underneath the shiny reptile skin it seemed bound and determined to answer the big questions so many post-Frank Miller comics have grappled with and succumbed to. In the issue's most memorable scene, former WildCats members Voodoo and Spartan play with the idea of getting the band back together. "Every time I think about those days," Spartan tells his gorgeous, telepathic ex-girlfriend, "it fascinates me all over. Our naivete, our limited vision of what we could be." Yep, those Image years of comics that sold eight million copies without breaking a sweat were fun and everything, but man! The books themselves sure blew, or at least Morrison thinks so. "How would truly adult superheroes behave?" he has Spartan ask us, and there's the hook, the thing we're supposed to be excited to pick up the rest of the series to see explored. As it happens, though, there were no more issues after this one, and the very next page of the comic gives a much more compelling and elegant answer than hundreds of pages of Jim Lee fight scenes could ever have been.
Six panels. How would "adult superheroes" behave? They'd FUCK! And they'd do it bathed in the intensity of four-color printing at the very bleeding edge of its capabilities, Alex Sinclair pouring ketamine hues over the spiky forms of weird Jim Lee contour drawings. Two things: "adult" and "superheroes", and two more that match up with them in the simplest and most direct of ways: "hot sex" and "bright color". The rest of this comic is just the justification. This is the meat, the real thing that hasn't been done before or since, the pervy adolescent wish fulfillment aspect of hero comics finally grown up enough to have a real sexuality and not be ashamed of it either, to put the point of it on the page with the same lunatic joy that undercuts the best bangin' fight scenes and far-out conceptualizing of the genre's acknowledged classics.
So yes: superhero comics for adults. This is it right here. WildStorm had come closer to it than most in the past, with Warren Ellis' Authority killing parent figures and telling Bill Clinton to eat it -- and those comics for twelve year olds were the bomb when I was twelve. And the hero idiom itself had even gotten a bit closer than that, with the Watchmen characters paralyzed by self-doubt and not certain who they really are inside, and that shit was the bomb when I was fourteen. But in case you ever wondered, the next step happened for a single glorious page, and that's really all that's necessary to justify this comic's existence. It's probably the best superhero page of the millennium so far.
But even if WildCats volume 4 #1 could escape its identity, could transcend the aesthetic boundaries of mainstream comics in a seven-by-ten-inch fit of glossy-papered brilliance, it never had a hope of moving beyond the limitations of its market as the commercial object it was really supposed to be the whole time. In retrospect it looks like an obvious fool's errand: the WildCats, of all things, reimagined as the world-beating best-seller that would bring us back to the money-slathered golden days gone by? Impossible. That was lightning that only strikes once, and it remains high on the list of the comics medium's most utterly inexplicable moments. But to simply dismiss the idea as ridiculous forgets the temper of the times that produced it, that 2006 feeling that superhero comics were a force nothing could stop, that the glossy pages were made of stardust and gifted hacks like Lee and Morrison were the inheritors of a monumental artistic destiny. I was 16 years old, I believed it. And this comic did nothing to let me down.
But it sold, I forget, maybe sixty or eighty thousand, which is blazing hot for a WildStorm book, and in the current era of diminished economic prospects for the superheroes, a total killing for pretty much anything. Back then, though, not so much. It really was a different time. So beneath the promises of a second issue that never materialized and the assurances that the WildStorm relaunch was still totally happening and the crushed hopes of -- I mean, there had to be some other stupid kids like me out there waiting for this shit to change the landscape, right? -- beneath that supremely light, barely visible veil of foreboding left by the superhero industry's most ambitious failure in years, Jim Lee and Grant Morrison went back to their respective Batmans, and they were very happy.
But what of this comic, those sixty or eighty thousand copies sold? Like I said, it didn't transcend what it was in any way that ended up mattering. It's a superhero comic, a little shard of random brilliance in a few stapled pages, searing color and punching and yelling and all so sure of itself that it begs to be treasured. It's a superhero comic, something for kids from the future to find in remainder bins and get their minds blown by, an isolated piece of trash culture that screams loud and colorful enough to blow minds. It's a superhero comic, and despite so much, that's a wonderful thing for a comic to be.
NEXT UP: Part 2! Because WildCats wasn't the only cool part of the WildStorm relaunch....