Crisis On Earth-50? - Part 1

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Currently struggling through another in an interminable series of revamps, reboots and relaunches, the embattled DC imprint is floundering, with a hazy brand identity and inconsistent schedule hampering its ability to build an audience. It might be difficult to recall that less than twenty years ago, WildStorm presented a legitimate threat to both DC and Marvel. In the first of a two-part analysis Broken Frontier looks at the history of WildStorm and its characters, now officially the inhabitants of DC's "Earth-50".

Founded in 1992 by Jim Lee as his imprint within upstart publisher Image Comics, WildStorm Productions enjoyed phenomenal success in its initial years. Its early signature titles, such as WildC.A.T.S., Stormwatch, Gen13, Deathblow and Wetworks reaped the fruits of the speculator craze of the early 1990s, some routinely selling over a million copies a month. Right out of the gate, WildStorm enjoyed successes unheard of for an independent publisher.

Unfortunately, a fall from these lofty heights was almost inevitable, and came sooner than anyone had expected. The speculator bubble began to burst in 1993, and over the next few years, WildStorm became a victim of its own hype. Always plagued by publication and shipping delays, the company was no longer able to retain the casual buyers who had been lured into comics shops on the strength of "event" books and the promises of high resell value. Sales numbers began to drop precipitously.

The Image publishers realized the need to diversify their product, and for a while that approach served them well. While WildStorm was unable to move into other media as successfully as Todd McFarlane Productions, Lee began to restructure the imprint as a publishing line for more experimental, mature superhero comics. Lee had created a fully-fledged fictional reality in the WildStorm Universe, and did not have to worry about long-term franchises to the same degree as Marvel or DC.

WildStorm soon became home to creators interested in the superhero genre but unwilling to "dumb down" their stories for the stereotypical Marvel Zombie or DC fanatic. Writers such as Alan Moore, Joe Casey and Warren Ellis brought their unique aesthetics and sensibilities into WildStorm with their takes on Stormwatch, an acronymless Wildcats and Gen13 spinoff DV8. Lee also began the Homage and Cliffhanger subimprints in 1995 and 1997, respectively, both of which focused on creator-owned properties such as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, J. Scott Campbell’s Danger Girl and Joe Madureira’s Battle Chasers.

Further change was in the wind for WildStorm. Beginning to tire of his role as publisher and wanting to refocus on his original career as one of the industry’s top pencillers, Jim Lee began to look for a buyer for the company. In 1998 a deal was finalized, and WildStorm became the property of DC Comics. Scott Dunbier, Editor-In-Chief since 1997, took on a new role as Group Editor, and began to shepherd WildStorm through its peak of creative vitality.

The year 1999 was a landmark one for WildStorm. The merger with DC completed, the company became the definitive home for super-hero comics aimed at a more mature, discerning audience. Warren Ellis launched The Authority, a successor to Stormwatch that proved hugely influential in terms of its cinematic framing and extreme content. Ellis’ Planetary also debuted that year, presenting an examination of various 20th Century pop culture genres through the eyes of three superhuman detectives. The other major development of 1999 was Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics, a subimprint featuring five series all penned by the legendary scribe; The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10, Tomorrow Stories, Tom Strong and Promethea were all met with popular and critical acclaim.

The first misstep on WildStorm’s new path came, ironically, from within its biggest success story. Following the initial twelve-issue run of The Authority, Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch stepped aside, as Ellis had always intended. They were replaced by writer Mark Millar and penciller Frank Quitely, who began pushing the limits even further, with increasingly graphic violence and sexual innuendo, as well as having the Authority take controversial political stances. Corporate parent DC chose to censor the book on a few occasions; following the 9/11 attacks, its future was even more uncertain. A fill-in arc from writer Tom Peyer was poorly received, and while Millar’s final issues did eventually see the light of day, they were heavily censored. The series was cancelled immediately thereafter.

In a bid to capitalize on The Authority’s success, WildStorm had relaunched most of its super-hero books under the mature-readers Eye Of The Storm imprint in 2001. Following the conflict with DC over The Authority, however, the line never seemed able to gain any traction in the market. While titles such as Wildcats 3.0, 21 Down, Point Blank and Sleeper received near-universal acclaim from critics, sluggish sales and a nonexistent marketing initiative kept any of them from lasting very long. A further blow was suffered when it was revealed that Micah Ian Wright, writer of Stormwatch: Team Achilles, had made false claims about his military service; the series was subsequently cancelled.

Join us on Monday for the second part of this article when Patrick examines the gradual assimilation of the WildStorm characters into the DC Universe.

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