Storm Chasing Part One: STORMWATCH

A new series exploring some of the most interesting and influential superhero comics of the past twenty years, starting with the tale of a doomed United Nations superteam at the turn of the century.

Next month, DC comics re-launches their long defunct WildStorm line with artist Jon Davis-Hunt and writer Warren Ellis’ The Wild Storm. It’s being advertised as the story of a secret war between a menagerie of vicious, superpowered covert agencies and a brilliant engineer on the run from all of them. It’s my most anticipated comic of 2017, both for its creative team and for the characters it brings back from comic book limbo.

WildStorm began in 1992 as artist and writer Jim Lee’s studio at Image ComicsIt published both a superhero universe and several lines of separate, creator-owned titles including Brent Anderson and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and several of Alan Moore’s later projects. Lee sold WildStorm to DC Comics in 1998, and for a few years it flourished as a home for both creator-owned projects and what were, at the time, wildly unconventional cape comics. Bryan Hitch and Ellis’ The Authority. Dustin Nguyen and Joe Casey’s Wildcats Version 3.0. Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker’s Sleeper. John Cassaday and Ellis’ Planetary. Together, these books made up a body of work whose influence was both immediate and far reaching.

Between low sales, creative teams moving on and the beginnings of storytelling stagnation, WildStorm foundered. DC shut the line down completely in 2010 (although some tie-ins and licensed titles would bear the brand through 2011), and attempted to incorporate some of the line’s superheroes into the mainline DC universe with The New 52. But as The New 52 tied itself into a knot with its perpetual attempts at edginess and piles of poor creative decisions, most quickly slipped back into obscurity except for the Batman/Superman pastiches and lovers Midnighter and Apollo. Given such history, it is tremendously exciting to see WildStorm coming back under the direction of one of its finest creators.

At his best, Ellis’ writing combines his deep love of technology and its possibilities with his cynical, wise humanism to tell stories about where humanity is and where it might be able to go -- if it did the work and paid attention to itself. His work in the original WildStorm superhero universe runs the gamut from bleak to transcendent, and collectively set the tone and feeling the creators working on WildStorm would pursue at the line’s height.

To celebrate WildStorm’s return, I’m going to spend this month exploring a few of the original line’s best-regarded books. Each week I’ll dig into a different book, moving in roughly chronological order. I’ll start with Tom Raney and Ellis’ time on StormWatch in 1996 and wrap up with the long-in-coming conclusion of Cassaday and Ellis’ Planetary in 2009. I’ll also be looking at the first issue of The Wild Storm when it arrives on February 15th. Before we get started with StormWatch, I want to note a few things. The first is that most of these books contain potentially triggering material. I’ll provide warnings where appropriate. The second is that, as this series is a deep dive, there will be spoilers. Also, outside of its biggest titles, most of WildStorm’s output is currently both obscure and out of print. I do not currently have access to the second volume of Wildcats. That run, with art by Sean Phillips and writing by Joe Casey, leads directly into Wildcats Version 3.0. It is not essential to understand what is happening, but it does offer some context for events later in that book’s run. If I manage to get my hands on a copy, I’ll write it up. Otherwise I’ll write about that second volume in concert with 3.0.

And now that the housekeeping is done, let’s talk about the weather and the people who watch it. Let’s talk about how power corrupts and beautiful dreams can blind people. Let’s talk about the vanished art of the intracompany crossover and who’s left to save the world at the end of the millennium. Let’s talk about Tom Raney, Bryan Hitch and Warren Ellis’ StormWatch.

TRIGGER WARNING: StormWatch contains violence and serious body horror, as well as an exploration of the personality of a serial killer and a villain who is an Orientalist stereotype.


“My name is Henry Bendix. I am the Weatherman. I am the controller of Stormwatch, the United Nations Special Crisis Intervention Team. I am the world’s policeman. I am the weatherman – and I’ve got your New World Order right here.” – Henry Bendix, the opening line of the run.

Raney, Hitch and Ellis’ StormWatch is one of the most anxious superhero comics I have ever read. From the opening page of its first issue, the run is oppositional, unsettled and ultimately unsettling. It is 1996, and the new millennium is fast approaching. The last years of the 20th century are an open question mark. Individual nations are more aware of their boundaries and limits than ever, even as the recent demise of the Soviet Union seems to herald a new era of international cooperation. The United States, the last superpower, questions its identity at home and seeks to impose its will abroad. Henry Bendix, the ruthless, iron-willed commander of Stormwatch, the UN’s posthuman response team, sees this. And he realizes that if Stormwatch is to survive in unsettling times, it must change.

Resolved, Bendix goes to work. He fires most his superpowered staff, reconfigures those he retains into new units and brings aboard a few key new personnel. Jennifer “Jenny” Sparks: the spirit of the 20th Century, an eternally young and seemingly immortal adventurer who is also the living embodiment of electricity as a concept. Despite severe burnout, she agrees to come aboard when Bendix asks for her help in actively changing the world, rather than responding to threats. Jack Hawksmoor: a childhood victim of alien abduction and augmentation who has been rebuilt with a vast psychic connection to the world’s cities, one that grants him superhuman strength, agility, and a sort of collective telepathy at the cost of being physically unable to live outside a city. He signs on for Stormwatch’s resources and the chance to do more than any one private detective, even a superpowered one. And Rose Tattoo: a mute, brutal woman who is exceptionally skilled at killing people. Bendix does not tell his subordinates any more than this, and with good reason. The rebuilt StormWatch is quickly put to the test, and over the first half of the run they face a wide variety of enemies. Their foes are determined to either preserve the status quo or completely and utterly upend it, and they are all are more than willing to ruin the lives of all those around them to see their goals achieved. StormWatch face off against a nude German cyborg who believes himself to be the embodiment of Nietzsche’s superman. They bring down superpowered killer cops who cannot abide people of color owning stores or moving into white neighborhoods. They break a cult leader who builds quick and dirty superhumans with the dream of resurrecting imperial Japan. They expose murderous American isolationists and do battle with assorted other sociopaths.

In their downtime, the team tries to reckon with the rapidly changing world around them, the boundaries of their own interpersonal relationships and their increasingly mercurial, increasingly ruthless boss.

Bendix will stop at nothing to protect and change the world. He forbids romantic relationships between Stormwatch members, except for one that had begun before he reorganized the team (and even then, he pulls both parties out of the field). He interferes against the security council, already anxious about all his operations on US soil, each time pushing their boundaries a bit further. He imprisons people without trial. And he exacts revenge for a biological terrorist attack by ordering Rose Tattoo to go to the mastermind (a problematic Fu Manchu archetype who runs a small nation he has molded in his image)’s country and kill exactly the number of people the initial attack killed.

The first half of StormWatch comes to a climax when a flying man in blue and red swoops down to the United Nations building in New York, burns the flags of every member nation and announces that he and his friends have come to change the world for the better. They offer revolutionary nanotechnology completely free of cost, dose all of London with a short term burst of hallucinogenic drugs, expose a wide range of government secrets, obliterate a dictatorship’s government, slaughter those responsible for perpetuating patriarchy in China, and politely warn those who would stop them to stay out of their way.

Their man in blue and red is The High, a golden age Superman/Captain Marvel pastiche, and an old friend of Jenny Sparks. Both were traumatized by the twentieth century. Jenny did what she could for the world, where she could, until drinking herself into oblivion seemed the best option. And even then, she could not stay away from doing good even at her surliest and most misanthropic. The High, on the other hand, traveled the world, studied with wise people and then literally spent a decade sitting on a chair in the Rockies thinking. He ultimately developed a well-meaning but painfully naïve utopian ideology: if he and the crew he has assembled offer the people of Earth a better world, they’ll happily take it. The High dreams of a world that does not need superheroes to protect it, or governments to lead it. A world driven by the creed of “Think for yourself and question authority.” As he puts it in a televised address:

“The world is growing used to costumed crimefighters, special men and women who seem to hold your world in their hands. What we’re doing is handing that world back to you. Fighting crime is no good unless you look past crime, to its root. Saving the world is no good if we leave it the way we found it. It is our intent to hand you a saved world, to offer you tools that will make you great. And then – you will never see us again.”

The High’s dream is beautiful, but his optimism is flawed and his methodology shaky, particularly when compared to that of his friend Jenny Sparks. While Jenny spent the century working with the best of humanity, the worst of humanity and everyone else in between, the High had kept to himself. She’s acutely aware of the humanity’s failings and foibles and how deeply rooted they are; he sincerely believes that offering a potential solution to them is enough to obliterate them.

Jenny treats her teammates as peers, and understands that Stormwatch is a diverse team both culturally and ideologically. The High looked exclusively for people with a radical drive to change the world like his own, and he views them as friends first and foremost. When a few key members prove to be horrible people, their abhorrent actions (giving superpowers to killer cops and a sociopathic teenager for something between a distraction and fun, and torturing an ex-StormWatch member who came to help the group in good faith) take him completely by surprise and either leave him paralyzed or prompt him to lash out.

Furthermore, despite knowing that he will get global pushback for his attempt to upend human society, the High is not at all prepared for the ferocity of the response, even with his distrust of men in power like Bendix. Had he been more cautious, he might have realized that Bendix would not stand for anyone changing the world but him. Indeed, when the High and his team go public, Bendix’s self-control and stability go entirely out the window. He orders StormWatch to assassinate the High’s team, and if possible to destroy their wondrous technology before it can spread. When Jenny finds out what Bendix plans to do, everything comes crashing down.

Henry Bendix genuinely does want to change the world, but he also wants to be the only one to usher in that change. He believes that he alone knows how to guide the world into the 21st century, and anyone who would offer an alternative, particularly an alternative as trusting as The High’s utopian anarchism, must be destroyed.

At the end of a century that was marked by massive upheaval time and again, Bendix chose to subscribe to the faulty Great Man theory of history. He ceased to care about anyone besides himself and Rose Tattoo, who is revealed to be the anthropomorphic embodiment of murder. As Jenny Sparks puts it, Bendix either wants to be God or he is completely and utterly terrified that the new world the High promises renders him obsolete. Bendix and Jenny briefly fight, and Jenny seemingly kills him, but Stormwatch are too late to save the High’s team, even after Jack Hawksmoor manages to kill Rose Tattoo. Between her, the group’s own infighting (recruiting a man with the obsessively black and white morality of a Steve Ditko character turns out to have been a very, very bad idea) and a missile strike ordered by Bendix, all end up dead save for the High himself.

His dream shattered and his team dead, the idealistic superhero succumbs to rage and despair, and takes to the skies to bring down Stormwatch’s satellite base and avenge his losses. Jenny, the ranking officer aboard the satellite, is forced to kill her old friend to save the lives of Stormwatch’s support staff. The first half of the Ellis-penned StormWatch ends with the High vaporizing on the satellite’s force field while Jenny mourns.


The deaths of the High and his team, and of Rose Tattoo and Henry Bendix, leave Stormwatch flailing. Jackson King, a former field team member and trainer codenamed Battalion, takes up the mantle of Weatherman. King is an excellent superhero and a deeply ethical man. He immediately commits to rebuilding Stormwatch into a genuine international peace force, rather than Henry Bendix’s private army. But taking up the title of Weatherman means taking up the history as well as the responsibilities. Stormwatch was already unpopular in America, and between Bendix’s repeated police actions, the exposure of his depravity and the survival of a garden of the High and his team’s wondrous nanotechnology in Nevada, the organization’s political enemies succeed in locking them out of the country completely. King subverts the order by reassigning Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor and the winged Shen Li-Min, codenamed Swift to the covert Stormwatch Black team, based in New York city, separate from the primary team and officially nonexistent.

While Stormwatch succeeds in politicking their way back into the US to combat a group of freshly created rogue posthumans and maintains Stormwatch Black’s presence in New York, King mostly operates with a conscience and a respect for (if not strict obedience of) international law. In the mind of Henry Bendix, who survived Jenny’s attack and lives under the protection and advanced medical care of the secretive US government agency IO (International Operations), this means that they can be beaten. He respects King’s innovations as the Weatherman, but views his respecting the world as a fatal weakness, one he plans to exploit.

As Bendix plots his revenge, Stormwatch works to deal with the fallout of their former leader being a murderous, power-hungry psychopath. Years before he reorganized Stormwatch and made his full play to take control of the world, Bendix trained a secret field team, one that he could deploy away from the prying eyes of his handlers. He sent them into the heart of an American military installation to steal advanced medical technology that he could weaponize, and everything went wrong. Most of the team (pastiches of the Justice League) were killed, save for the Midnighter and Apollo. Those two, rough analogues of the modern-day Superman and Batman who are deeply in love with each other, survived. They uncovered Bendix’s plot, realized that their boss was a power-hungry bastard, and chose to go underground, fighting evil where they could.

King and Stormwatch succeed in bringing the duo in and, once everyone has agreed that Henry Bendix was an awful man, Midnighter and Apollo use their anonymity on behalf of the team. They attack the US military facility that has been building weapons with the technology left behind by the Engineer, the brilliant nanotech specialist who worked with the High, and successfully steal the tech for Stormwatch. King is both grateful to have the tech out of the military’s hands and hopes to make up for Bendix’s manipulations to Midnighter and Apollo. He gives them their civilian lives back, and thanks them for helping to build a better tomorrow.

Once Midnighter and Apollo are safely off the station, King throws up. He had arranged for the two to be sprayed with remote-activated poisons before their mission, and if they had deviated from the set parameters in any way, he would have killed them. King has morals, but being Weatherman is increasingly testing them. Where Bendix’s cruelty and self-obsession allowed him to push ahead no matter the consequences, King constantly questions his own actions, particularly as Stormwatch grows ever more unpopular and his teammates begin to distrust him, questioning their purpose in a world that severely limits their actions to the point that maintaining their status quo is a herculean feat.

The team’s anxiety and uncertainty are pushed even higher by their discovery of a parallel universe and the space between spaces. At first glance, this other world’s Stormwatch seems to have things much better than Stormatch itself. Jack Hawksmoor, who has been undergoing surgery upon surgery to remove his superhuman powers, leads a much bigger team, composed of virtually every superhero (and several supervillains) that existed in WildStorm’s universe at the time. Where King is uncertain and cautious, Hawksmoor is bold and decisive. He successfully defeats the US military when the latter group forces him into a standoff, and commands the absolute respect of his team.

And it isn’t enough to save the world. When a mysterious alien vessel arrives above Earth, this mighty parallel Stormwatch is helpless. Blowing up the satellite does nothing. Sending the teams heaviest hitters on a suicide run does nothing. Whatever the aliens want, they will get it. And Jackson King, who has seen himself scarred and all but completely insane in this world, does not feel he can do anything to help.

King’s position as Weatherman means that he must prioritize the protection of his Earth, even if another Earth could well be on the brink of annihilation. Despite the protests of his staff, he won’t put his world at a risk with the massive unknown variables that direct contact with a parallel Earth would inevitably have. At the last minute, he relents, and covertly sends the parallel Hawksmoor a crucial piece of information that enables him to save his world at the cost of his life and the lives of his entire team. The primary StormWatch is left haunted, not knowing that the parallel world would go on to a better and brighter future thanks to their StormWatch’s sacrifice. King talks over his brief, tumultuous time as the Weatherman with his beloved, Christine Trelane, a former Weatherman herself:

“You’ve got your own ethics, your own standpoints, Jackson. You do what you think is right, not what Nikolas Kamarov or anyone else thinks. That’s what being the Weatherman is about.”

“That’s probably what got Henry Bendix started along the road to psychopathy, Christine.”

“Well… Maybe you need to be a little bit crazy to be Weatherman. I doubt I was completely normal when I was Weatherman. Well… I know I wasn’t.”

Their conversation continues, and King muses on the failure of his parallel self, a man who made one bad call and paid for it with the lives of most of his staff, some permanent wounds and a good deal of his sanity. A mysterious asteroid begins hurtling perilously close to the Earth. StormWatch dispatches shuttles to investigate. Too late, StormWatch realizes that the asteroid isn’t an asteroid. It’s a vessel. A massive alien vessel that, while not identical to the ship the parallel StormWatch faced, seems to be playing the same role for their universe. One of the shuttles detaches from the mysterious ship and begins its return to the satellite, but the team are completely unable to contact it.

And then most of StormWatch’s cast are murdered by Xenomorphs.

In the WildStrorm/Dark Horse Comics crossover, WildC.A.T.S/Aliens (which, for licensing reasons, is not collected in the two StormWatch trades published by DC but is available for purchase digitally on Comixology), the Wildcats, a formerly underground team of superheroes who once battled a covert alien infestation, reassemble and infiltrate the StormWatch satellite after one of its escape pods crashes into New York. The pod contains the super tough superheroine Flint, who, much to her alarm, has fought something that can burn her otherwise indestructible skin. Aboard the satellite, the Wildcats are horrified to discover that most of StormWatch’s field team and support staff have been killed by a heretofore unknown alien species. These creatures are smart, tough, experts at killing and determined to make their way to Earth and breed. Despite being badly outclassed, the Wildcats fight their way to a small group of StormWatch survivors, including King and Trelane, and manage to help them escape while destroying the technology that would allow the xenomorphs to escape the station. Nikolas Kamarov, the badly wounded field commander of StormWatch and one of King’s sharpest critics, stays behind and sets the satellite on a path into the sun. The world is saved, but just like on the parallel world, StormWatch has been all but obliterated.

StormWatch closes with the organization’s formal dissolution. Given the extreme expense of maintaining a satellite and a team of superhumans in the first place, even before the US stopped footing its part of the bill, replacing the lost team simply is not possible for the UN. King and Trelane are left to mourn, to wonder what can be done to protect the world now that its primary defense is gone (the Wildcats simply aren’t equipped to operate on the an international level the way StormWatch was, and their team is more fractious even at the best of times) King would be wrong to blame himself for the deaths of his team, but StormWatch failed for a reason. It was first and foremost the creation of a power-mad cretin who intended it to be a weapon against the world, with the treaties and laws that bound it more a formality to be shouted down. Without Bendix, StormWatch chose to act lawfully, but between the damage their former boss did to their reputation and their refusal to simply flaunt the rest of the world, they were not able to build the strength they would need before a major crisis overwhelmed them. And, lastly, on a purely practical level, King and Trelane are left to wonder what happened to StormWatch Black, who seem to have gone to ground.
In truth, StormWatch Black have been tracking Bendix, and they foil his plan to move against their few surviving teammates before it can begin. Jenny Sparks kills Bendix again, and this time it sticks. They then gather to honor their fallen comrades, and Sparks makes a vow.

“Things have got to change. You poor bastards. You weren’t ready for an alien infestation. Just like you weren’t ready for the Bleed. Things are getting worse. In the end, they got too big for you. And I wish we’d been there. There has to be someone left to save the world.”

Sparks, Hawksmoor and Swift speak of new teammates they’ve been gathering, and hold to their new vow. Sparks summons a portal with the word “Door.” And StormWatch ends with the spirit of the 20th century and her allies heading towards tomorrow. The new millennium is only a year away. The world will live. The world will change.

This StormWatch run has two key artists – Tom Raney, who drew most of the book through the conclusion of its first published volume (the end of the High’s story) and Bryan Hitch, who drew about two-thirds of the second volume (from the introduction of Apollo and Midnighter to the dissolution of Stormwatch, with the first arc being drawn by Oscar Jimenez). Taken together, the two men’s work forms a continuum of the way superheroes were drawn from the mid-to-late-1990s, with Hitch’s work specifically laying the foundations for the look and feel of today’s cape comics and the absurdly popular movies they inspired. But Tom Raney should not be written off simply because he isn’t a major source for Chris Evans’ Captain America costume.

Raney’s StormWatch tends to be cartoony, particularly his wonderfully expressive faces. The Stormwatch team’s adventures put them everywhere from a bar run by an easy-going, aging Superman pastiche (there are A LOT of these in this period of WildStorm) to the horrific aftermath of their battle with the High and his team. While his action can be frustratingly muddled in places, the responses to the action and the quieter moments always land well.

His costumes, which are introduced in his first issue and stick around to the end of his time on the book, feel like a middle ground between the ugly, overdesigned whatsists the team are wearing initially (Lines and nametags everywhere) and the simple, practical, militaristic designs Hitch would introduce. Raney’s costumes still have ‘90s tech gear, but they’re largely simple, colorful and distinct to each team member while creating a unified feel through the organization’s logo and most of the team sharing at least one costume color with another teammate. He’s also comfortable drawing his cast in simple suits, a casual costume that would become one of Ellis’ favorites across many of his later books.

Raney’s men are still power fantasies and his women are still sexualized, but his work is cleaner and clearer than many cape comics in the early-and-mid-1990s. Despite his frustrating action, he does good work on StormWatch, and shines in the quiet moments that help the book be more than bombast and impact.

Once Hitch comes aboard, StormWatch begins the work of creating the modern superhero costume that Hitch would continue in The Authority and his work on The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2, with noted frustrating yutz Mark Millar. Take Apollo and Midnighter in particular – their outfits, while clearly superheroic, are simple. Apollo’s bodysuit relies on big, clear blocks of color and the Stormwatch symbol (later to be replaced by a stylized image of the sun in The Authority). It is also quite clearly spandex. Midnighter prefers leather and sailcloth, his coat hiding him until he moves. And when he moves, it is dramatic and powerful. These costumes, with their focus on recognizable fabrics, practical construction and blocks of clearly defined color, are some of the forerunners for today’s trend of simple, elegant superhero costumes. Hawkeye’s purple arrowhead on a black shirt/jacket. Ms. Marvel’s red and blue suit, built from a burkini and split by the yellow lightning bolt of her namesake. Jaimie McKelvie’s Young Avengers costumes, specifically Hulkling and Noh-Varr’s bodysuits, owe a great deal to Hitch’s work. Hitch’s work would come further to the forefront in The Authority, where he drew the book’s entire first year. What he began in StormWatch he could codify there.


Earlier in this piece I described StormWatch as one of the most anxious cape comics I have read. I stand by that. The entire work is defined by a constant questioning. First it’s the motivations of the world powers, particularly the US. Then it’s Bendix, particularly as the depths of his self-obsession are revealed. And finally, it’s Stormwatch itself, a superteam built to uphold a paradigm that may soon be obsolete, and that the team itself is not certain it can maintain without becoming corrupt. In the end, the team is pulled apart by the ambiguity and limits of its purpose, and by the damage Bendix did in shaping them into an instrument of his will and then running when things stopped going his way. Having to go up against xenomorphs offscreen certainly did not help either.

It would be wrong to call Ellis’ writing here elegiac. StormWatch simply does not have the sort of history that a character like Superman does, and while its sorrows do read as genuine, this isn’t a book about bemoaning the transformation of an artform or the loss of an icon. The best way to describe StormWatch’s tone would be weary and cynical, but with moments of deep and genuine grace. On a textual level, this is down to the horrors the team faces and their subsequent struggle to define themselves after Bendix’s betrayal. The moments when they can find joy, either at a bar, or in the grace of saving a life, are things to be cherished. When the team investigates a horrific, flesh mutating virus outbreak in a small American town, they are stunned to discover that the first people infected gave their lives to create an airtight seal that would save their friends and families.

On a metatextual level, Ellis’ time with StormWatch serves as a pilot for his later work in The Authority and Planetary and as a blueprint for the tone of the WildStorm universe as a whole. Ellis would continue his exploration of superhumans, their global impact on the world and the notion of the status quo with Hitch in The Authority. Planetary, the John Cassaday-drawn history of 20th century pulp/superhero detective story would pick up the notion of playing with genre (several of StormWatch’s best moments see Raney deliberately shift into a pastiche of other comic artists, including Dave Gibbons of Watchmen and Jack Kirby) and digging into the comic medium’s history.

More generally, the WildStorm universe is not a particularly happy place, and the massive power of posthuman people has severe consequences for themselves and for the world they live in. Whether that’s through a massive battle that wrecks Moscow, captains of industry panicking at batteries that never die or a man with extreme psychic powers being a selfish, childish creep, power has consequences, and sometimes those consequences are disastrous.

At its best, the WildStorm universe takes that premise and runs with it, telling superhero stories that have a strong twist of science fiction, both social and otherwise to them. That can all be traced back to StormWatch. It’s a cruder, more unrefined work than its successors, and its momentum is stop-and-start thanks to its sizable ensemble, but it remains quite readable, and an interesting document of premillennial concerns. It’s a good start to one of the most interesting periods in cape comic history.

NEXT WEEK: The Authority. Bryan Hitch and Warren Ellis bring the twentieth century crashing down. Then Frank Quitely, Dustin Nguyen and Art Adams almost save Mark Millar’s disastrous ball of smug.

This article featured artwork from Tom Raney and Bryan Hitch.