Inks: Scott Williams
Letters: Mike Heisler
Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon
This post is a continuation of an examination that began with Spawn #1.
Image Comics was founded on the conviction that Marvel Comics fans would follow their favorite artists into a new publishing house because they loved their talents more than they loved the properties they were working on. So confident were they that the Image founders initially rejected working with veteran writers, or be subjected to editorial oversight. Their collective stance even set off a mini-debate at the time on which was more important for creating a successful comic: art or writing? Sounds silly, given that Image is now partially known for writers like Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughan. But at least a few of the Image founders had reason to be cocky. For example, the efforts of Todd McFarlane raised the sales of The Amazing Spider-Man so dramatically Marvel established a second Spider-Man title in 1990 just to keep him from abandoning the character and the company. The first issue sold a breathtaking 2.5 million copies.
Jim Lee had an even more impressive track record. His work on Uncanny X-Men was so popular he was also given his own title in 1991 where he could exercise greater creative control. The first issue of X-Men sold a whopping 8.1 million copies, considered the best selling comic book of all time. His character designs were so influential in defining the look and feel of the X-Men franchise, they wouldn’t receive a major overhaul until New X-Men in 2001. So Lee probably had as much cause as any of the Image founders to parlay his Marvel-bred success into nurturing his original ideas. Like the other founders, he established his own studio, which he named Homage. Lee then partnered with childhood friend Brandon Choi to create a new superhero team, the WildC.A.T.s.
To anyone who was familiar with Lee’s X-Men, WildC.A.T.s would certainly seem familiar. It’s a team book. Its members call back to recognizable archetypes. There’s the boy scout leader, the berserker with a blade fetish, the psychic woman, the mountain of muscle, the amazon warrior, the rake with a mysterious past, etc. The similarities between the character designs of the two teams are unmistakeable. The WildC.A.T.s could have been inserted into Lee’s X-Men pages as background characters, and no one would been the wiser.
Lee, McFarlane, and Image co-founder Rob Liefeld were developing a distinct new drawing style at Marvel when they decided to jump ship. One that resonated with fans of the late 80s and 90s. It eschewed the naturalism of the previous generation of artists for something more stylized. More Baroque. There were differences between them, of course. If McFarlane emphasized mood and atmosphere, Lee was all about frenetic action. And WildC.A.T.s pretty much embodies Lee’s approach to storytelling, meaning that the first issue is a mess.
The comics starts out with two pages filled with irregularly shaped panels that are keen to impart a sense of chaos. But the panels are so small and confusingly composed on the page, they effectively obscure some pertinent details. This includes the story’s macguffin. Characters and word balloons are crammed tightly together as leave little breathing space.
But these are hallmarks of Lee’s style even when the rest of the story is drawn with more conventionally-shaped panels. Lee is one of those artists who fears the negative space, so he tends to minimize it with a combination of close-ups and word balloons. He also often resorts to heavy cross-hatching as a substitute for actual background detail or just leaves the space blank, both time saving devices which mimic contemporary shonen manga being translated into english.
Lee’s unwillingness to illustrate proper backgrounds results in a comic that possesses no clear establishing shots, let alone any sense of the space the characters are supposed to inhabit. If he has to pull back occasionally in order to communicate a wider view of the setting, Lee almost always shrinks the panel, basically sidestepping the need to draw complicated details while minimizing the possibility of being bogged down by the challenge of rendering tricky perspective.
Off course, this makes for a comic informed by an underlying flatness. There’s no variation in mood or emotional content. The pacing is monotonously rushed. Characters are introduced and shuffled of the stage to make way for the next set of characters. This is where the text comes in. Lee inevitably relies on text-heavy narration to properly relay what his art could not. This rereading revealed that he’s a lot chattier than I remembered. But his large cast has yet to find its voice and gel into a compelling ensemble at this point.
But if WildC.A.T.s is a poor showcase for Lee’s abilities as a storyteller, it exploits his appeal as an artist. The coloring used by Joe Rosas isn’t anywhere as advanced as that found in Spawn, but it manages to convey a shiny world bathed in primary colors that works with Lee’s individual aesthetic. The Image founders drew figures that were highly exaggerated, resulting in action scenes seemed bigger. The behavior of the heroes and villains became more operatic. But if McFarlane’s figures were grimy and had a hint of the grotesque, Lee’s were lithe and flamboyant. It points to the influence of the hyper-real sensibilities of Japanese anime. And Lee is probably the slickest figure artist among the lot of them. The Image style would set the tone for mainstream comics for the next decade, as both Marvel and DC Comics would attempt to replicate it for themselves.
The premise of WildC.A.T.s is a war between two alien factions, although it isn’t examined much in this issue. Rather, this comic is mostly concerned with gathering the heroes tasked with protecting the Earth from their evil counterparts, the Cabal. The WildC.A.T.s founder/benefactor Jacob Marlowe gets the lion’s share of the dialogue. And the other males of the team get to talk more than the female members, especially the gun-totting Grifter. But they’re not exactly the main source of interest. Lee structures the flow of the comic around panels that do double duty as pinup imagery. With the introduction of each female character, their panels noticeably take up more space. When the final member Zealot makes her grand entrance, we’re treated to a glorious two page spread of her poised for battle while accompanied by Grifter’s appreciative commentary. This sacrifice of narrative efficiency for glamour shots which satisfy the fanboy gaze is the organizing principle behind Lee’s popular X-Men tenure. Fanservice follows it’s own narrative logic.
As with the other Image titles released that year, WildC.A.T.s was a massive bestseller. But just as with the other co-founders, Lee and Choi could not sustain a regular monthly output. The series would fall further and further behind. This chronic lateness from most of the Image titles is often cited as the main contributing factor to the comics direct market crash of the 90s. Lee would eventually leave WildC.A.T.s in the hands of more capable storytellers and initiate other projects. Homage was renamed Wildstorm Productions, and would become the most prolific Image studio. The “Wildstorm Universe” effectively replaced the stillborn Image Universe, until DC purchased the studio and Lee’s creations in 1998. The WildC.A.T.s and the rest of the Wildstorm Universe would be incorporated into the DC Universe after the New 52 initiative. As for Jim Lee himself, the young artist who left Marvel to work on his own characters is now one of the chief architects of the DC Universe. For the last several years, the look and feel of some of the world’s most iconic superheroes has borne the stamp of an Image co-founder.