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That Year’s New Big Thing: The Rise and Demise of the WildStorm Universe

By Mark Clapham on 23 September 2010

This week DC announced that books set in the WildStorm superhero universe are being cancelled as of December 2010.

While the announcement was accompanied by talk of ‘exciting plans for these amazing characters’, its the end for the WildStorm universe as a self-supporting line of superhero books.

This decision is both entirely logical due to the long-term malaise of the line, but surprising in that said malaise had gone on for so long that it didn’t seem DC would ever pull the plug. A look at the most recent DC Sales Charts over at The Beat shows a line with sales figures in the same range as already-axed DCU books like ‘Warlord’ and ‘Magog’.

That sales column went up last week. Skim down to the comments and you’ll find a discussion about how much longer the situation with the WildStorm books would be allowed to go on. Not much longer, as it turned out. (And if you spot some of Dante Von Madeupname’s opinions here, that’s because he’s me, using a pseudonym so my personal details didn’t get swallowed by The Beat’s mis-firing comments system. I’m allowed to plagiarise myself.)

Now, looking down that chart, there are a lot of Vertigo and DC Kids books on the bottom end of the chart as well, so why is the WildStorm Universe line getting the boot and not these other titles? Well, because those lines are different to the DCU titles, they attract different types of readers to the main DC superhero comics, and they contribute to a broader publishing line.

By contrast, what was the WildStorm lines USP in 2010? What differentiated them from DC superhero titles beyond being set in a separate fictional context and selling a lot less?  The answer – not a lot, which is almost certainly why they’ve been axed.

I think the rise and fall of the WildStorm Universe tells us something about the role that novelty, rebellion and that nebulous, ‘Wizard’ magazine-backed idea of ‘Hotness’ plays in the comics industry. When WildStorm Universe (‘WSU’ from here on) titles hit big, it was when talent with a degree of fan-buzz launched new properties that put an interesting, often contemporary spin on superhero archetypes.

Sometimes these were established talent coming off mainstream titles with a following: when Jim Lee started WildStorm and drew ‘WildCATS’ #1, he was bouncing off the back of his hugely successful ‘X-Men’ run. ‘Gen 13′, on the other hand, launched J Scott Campbell’s career. The last big WSU hit, ‘The Authority’, was a case of established talent (Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, followed immediately by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely) breaking out and being allowed the editorial leeway to do so.

Those three books – ‘WildCATS’, ‘Gen13′ and ‘The Authority’ – were all big hits initially, certainly under their launch teams (in the case of ‘The Authority’, a sharp turnaround allowed two creative teams to put their stamp on and still retain heat), and were undeniably massively influential.

But like pretty much every superhero launched in the last couple of decades or so, they are based around the standard superhero archetypes: the mission-based superhero soap, the young superhero team, the God-like superhero team who can take on anything.

In the latter case, ‘The Authority’ very deliberately played with the iconography of the Justice League – although characters like Jenny Sparks and Jack Hawskmoor have no obvious analogues, Apollo and the Midnighter are Superman and Batman with the homoerotic tension turned into overt romance.

These are all good spins on standard superhero stories, and ones that are hard to do with long-established characters. Books like ‘WildCATS’ and ‘Gen13′ could be sexier, more violent, and have costumes more closely rooted in contemporary fashions and tastes than would be possible with a long-running Marvel or DC title. Story types could be current as well – born in the era of ‘The X-Files’, the WSU is full of complex military conspiracies and black-ops.

Top talent putting their personal spin on the superhero genre made these books, but it also limited them.

For a start, talent moves on, and while sometimes a red-hot replacement team can come in with their own ideas, that’s harder on an established title than it is launching one from scratch, and harder still to sell to a readership who came for one name and are stuck with another. Lightning was caught twice with the Ellis/Hitch, Millar/Quitely double threat on ‘The Authority’, but that kind of smooth transition is rare.

Secondly, a spin is only a spin for so long, then it becomes standard practice and finally it gets passe. The ‘widescreen’ approach to superheroics that is the greatest legacy of ‘The Authority’ was taken by Millar and Hitch and applied to the Marvel icons (albeit in a toned down, PG-rated form) in ‘The Ultimates’, and since then those conventions have become just another set of tricks in the superhero comic toybox.

Finally, and this overlaps with the previous point quite a bit, what’s new becomes old becomes dated, and the more contemporary and ‘edgy’ it is the faster that happens. The ‘WildCATS’ characters are now staggeringly 90s relics, locked in the time of their creation, as are so many characters that became super-hot in the early Image years. ‘Gen13′ are the teenage icons of people old enough to be parents themselves. ‘The Authority’ are what constituted edgy a decade ago.

This an ongoing process, the creation of superheroes who are minted as responses to the existing icons and templates. I’m willing to be corrected – that’s what the comments section below is for – but most superheroes fit into a set of templates created by Marvel and DC from the late 30s into the 60s.

There’s probably a dozen or so, from Batman’s dark avenger template to Captain America’s patriotic heroism, but I’m hard pressed to think of a totally new superhero archetype minted in the last three decades. Most fit into one of the standard types, and are forever overshadowed by their hallowed predecessor.

For instance, since Spider-Man left school and grew up, there have been countless alienated teen-boy superheroes created within and outside DC and Marvel to be that generation’s Peter Parker: there’s Marvel’s own Darkhawk, the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle, Invincible, even Kick-Ass. All are different spins on that teen male hero, some in very different settings, all for slightly different audiences – but all more or less walking in Spidey’s footsteps, combining male adolescent angst with superhero action.

Some have been successful, others not – but Spidey remains the original, and is yet to be usurped. The longevity of the most recent challengers has yet to be decided. What is hard to imagine is a character like Invincible or Kick-Ass – characters synonymous with writers Robert Kirkman and Mark Millar – being successfully handed down through generations of creators in the way that the iconic figures of Batman, Superman, Spidey et al have been.

The icons remain iconic, beyond dated and into timeless, and their continued appeal is demonstrated by the number of key WSU creators who have gone on to work on the bigger name heroes, up to and including Jim Lee’s work on Superman, Batman et al since WildStorm was taken over by DC. Hot new superhero books come and go, but the draw of those big titles and characters remains strong.

Creators tend to do great work either on the icons, or by putting their own spin on them. Few do great work putting a spin on someone else’s slightly dated spin on the icons, and readers respond accordingly.

That the WSU characters lasted so long, and that WildStorm managed to have several waves of success with them, is to their credit, and that they’ve come to the end of their run of topicality is nothing to be ashamed of. It certainly doesn’t take away WildStorm’s other achievements in terms of their championing of creator-owned books, advances in comics production and reproduction, and so forth.

Who knows, it’s entirely possible that someone will come up with a new spin on those properties, relaunch them under the DC banner and put them back at the top of the sales charts. I suspect, however, that it’s more likely that the next time the market has space for expansion there’ll be a whole new generation of current, edgy superhero books capturing storming the charts as that year’s new big thing.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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