04 November 2009

Alan Moore Month - Alan Moore's Complete WildC.A.T.S

Alan Moore's Complete WildC.A.T.S.
Written by Alan Moore
Pencils by Travis Charest, Kevin Maguire, Ryan Benjamin, Jim Lee and Others
Inks by Troy Hubbs, Richard Friend, Trevor Scott and Others
Published by Image Comics. $29.99 USD

With the notable exception of the Neil Gaiman-written Sandman, whose broad scope of stories dealing with dreams, nightmares and the beings who create or experience them lending itself to varied artistic depictions, most ongoing comics series benefit from a stable creative team. The writer and penciler get comfortable with each other and build up a respectful, trusting collaborative relationship. If I told you that eight other pencilers, one layout artist, twenty-three inkers and one finisher constituted the "Others" not listed above, would you quickly get the idea that this was a comics run that experienced its share of problems?

Alan Moore had gotten back into so-called "mainstream," i.e. superhero comics, with some fill-ins and spin-off miniseries for Image, but WildC.A.T.S. offered him an opportunity to go a little deeper. As with his '80s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing, here was a chance to take characters who were established but not too long in the tooth, and invest them with greater meaning, shading and purpose. Some of the WildC.A.T.S. were Kherubim, aliens from a plan long at war with the Daemonites. Amid the giant, the stripper, the bad boy and the Wolverine imitation, it's no wonder Moore latched onto the idea of exploring the eons-old war for his first story arc, "Homecoming."

Moore dives in headfirst with his first issue, a really funny, playful "gathering forces" issue, as Savant and Majestic put together a new WildC.A.T.S. to take the place of the departed team, off on their trip to Khera. Moore acknowledges that the original characters are already second-rate, so there's a good deal of meta-fun in finding third-rate replacements for them, and then trying to make them interesting. Savant's amoral efficiency is fresh, and one almost feels for Max Cash, who's as wicked as his big brother Grifter but coming up short in the charisma department. Majestic's a haughty Superman who's now slumming, Tao is a super genius but hard to figure out right away, and Ladytron, well, she's the ultimate bad girl, but with a softer side under the $75M cyborg body. Moore really seems to be enjoying himself and brings the reader along, with third-wall comments like Max wondering whether he turned two pages at once when Majestic is conned by Tao into reversing his position. With Charest's art like the logical evolution of Jim Lee and a purposeful script good enough to make readers forget about the original team they'd been reading about for 20 issues, Moore was off to a great start.

As soon as the second issue, there was a problem, as Charest was already having to use a fill-in artist. That it was Kevin Maguire, and doing his usual fine work, was all well and good, but a fill-in after just one issue is unusual to say the least. Maguire proves to be a terrific match for Moore, as he can handle action but also humor and emotions equally well. Nowadays, an editor would have probably scheduled Maguire for a story arc and let Charest get a head start on the next arc.

The story that would be called, "Homecoming," proves to be something of a model on writing a superhero team comic, giving attention to each character and shaking up their relationships with each other. Somewhat true to his reputation of the time as a deconstructionist, Moore tears down the old 'C.A.T.S., showing their original raison d'etre--the war against the Daemonites--to not exist anymore. The war is over, and as often happens with soldiers when that happens, their unity falls apart. In the two centuries since they left Khera, class divisions have become more vast and contentious, and the Daemonites are not to be feared but pitied, as they are herded into ghettoes, while the native Kherans, the violet-hued race called Titanothropes of which Jeremy/Maul is descended, are treated much like the Native Americans have been: second-class citizens. Unlike the Daemonites, the Titanothropes can move around, and have voting power, but only as swing votes between Emp's and Zealot's clans/political parties. Into the political and class struggles, Moore mixes in an assassination plot and doomed romance, but he also makes time for some fun ideas like a castle made of "intelligent ice" that holds its form at room temperature, and Coincidental Mansion, a hotel that throws off normal probability.

Even while almost disintegrating the original team, Moore creates their replacements, most of whom had appeared in Wildstorm books here and there, his most notable original character being Maxine Manchester, aka Ladytron. She's a cyborg spree killer/robber with a lousy attitude and few morals to speak of, yet in Moore's hands she's a breath of fresh air, puncturing the stuffiness of Majestic and Savant. At the same time, she's a clear enough signifier of the changing of times that she provides a plausible reason for Grifter, who didn't follow the team to Khera, to move on. I think maybe he had a solo title to get started on as well. The new team stumbles out of the gate, violating unwritten rules like not attacking a criminal at a funeral, and this aggressive attitude leads into the next storyline.

Ryan Benjamin turns in decent work in the middle of the story. It's basically second-rate Jim Lee, but readers who followed most of the Wildstorm line of the time had to be used to third-and-fourth-rate Jim Lee imitators, so it really wasn't too bad. The main problem with the fill-ins, here and especially later, was that Charest's style, whether one finds it better or more interesting than Lee's or not, was objectively at least much less imitated than Lee's. Benjamin is just starting to get Lee down; he can't possibly approach what Charest is doing. Charest returns for the fifth and sixth chapters of the story, the fifth an extra-long issue with several pages of yeoman work from Dave Johnson and Kevin Nowlan, separately. Scott Clark, around that time penciler of other Wildstorm title, Stormwatch, comes in to conclude the storyline, which, again, is a bit of a disappointment in terms of artistic continuity.

As the original team returns, having turned their backs on the lie that Khera now is, instead of renewing their bond, Moore takes the unusual but more believable tack of having the team as we knew them almost shattered. Old prejudices resurfaced, and words were said that can't be taken back. Moore stirs the pot even more with various romantic entanglements and some fairly clever foreshadowing towards the "Gang War" storyline and its exciting conclusion. I say fairly in that, whether due to editorial interference or second-guessing the audience, Moore makes it a little too obvious that the new team's tactical leader, Tao (for Tactically Augmented Organism) is manipulative and has his own agenda.

The artistic musical chairs reaches its most frustrating point around Chapters 9 and 10, which have Charest penciling scattered pages and Benjamin doing the rest, but with four inkers on 9 and six inkiers on 10. On one page, Majestic looks totally different from one panel to the next. The "Gang War" storyline involves Max Cash being injured by a bomb in a superhero bar and the WildC.A.T.S. trying to solve the mystery, while trying to stop an all-out supervillain war, appease an unhappy Stormwatch and somehow hold some version of their two collapsing teams together. Clearly, there's a lot of plot and emotional ground to cover, especially once Moore works in some ideas from the Team One miniseries involving a prior history for Spartan as not only a '40s adventurer a la Captain America, but some forgotten romance with Zealot, back when he was a Kheran and not an android. Unfortunately, it's in Chapter 9 that Moore has to also somehow work in the events of the "Fire from Heaven" crossover with the other Wildstorm titles, which takes some of the team across the world to fight some invasion alongside lots of forgettable characters from other books.

Moore rolls with the punches, and after the pleasant novelty of Jim Lee penciling one of his scripts (or at least most of one), Mat Broome steps in to pencil the final three issues of Moore's run (with Charest returning for the final issue for a six page epilogue story). While Broome is no Charest, or Lee, he makes the most of his opportunity here with some nice work, and the very least, it's good to have some consistency. Rooting out Tao, now revealed to be the Machiavellian villain behind not only the bombing that injured Max and started the gang war but also manipulated almost the entire team, makes for a fun cat-and-mouse conclusion, and Moore finds time for a formalist exercise that's essentially a mind game the reader can be caught up in if they want. Although Moore's only writing the book for a little over a year, and under the unfortunate circumstance of not being able to develop a comfortable relationship with a too-slow penciler, might mark this run as something of a failure in the eyes of some, in fact it's a good example of Moore's ability to create good work in trying times. Rarely since have the WildC.A.T.S. been as interesting as they are in these stories, and the pages Charest managed to get out rank among the most attractive of Moore's collaborations.

Christopher Allen

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