illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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"If you're feeling sinister..."

Written by Warren Ellis
Pencils by Tom Raney and Jim Lee
Inks by Randy Elliot and Richard Bennett
Colors by Gina Going
Letters by Bill O'Neil and Mike Heisler
Trade Paperback
Published by Wildstorm/DC Comics

Reviewed by Alex Bernstein

I'll confess I'm a rather late convert to the school of Warren Ellis. I 'd been hearing about him for years - the next great British writer - many comparisons to Alan Moore. I picked up his run of EXCALIBUR and the first arc of TRANSMETROPOLITAN - and it's not that I wasn't impressed. It's that I was looking for Alan Moore and this wasn't him. While Warren's work has the mark of excellent storytelling it isn't remotely like Alan's. And so, unfairly, he suffers in this kind of comparison. Here then, is my own godawful, pathetic, British comics invasion vs. British music invasion rock analogy: if Alan Moore = the Beatles, Grant Morrison = David Bowie, and Garth Ennis = the Rolling Stones, Warren then, for me, = Eric Clapton.

I didn't like Eric Clapton at first, either. While a brilliant musician and a stunning bandmate, his lyrics were awkward. He had hits - but they weren't the perfect mega-pop-hits of the Beatles. But as I got older I began to understand him. Clapton's music was the blues. It was personal. It was, essentially, about Pain and Loss. Awkward perhaps, but always emotionally charged and incredibly human. And this is exactly how I would characterize Ellis. The baseline of everything I have ever read of Warren's is that someone - generally one of our "heroes" - is in pain. Ethical, moral, physical. What I remember of his EXCALIBUR run was that Colossus loved Kitty, Kitty loved Pete Wisdom - and all them were suffering. What I read of Spider Jerusalem was a man tremendously in pain trying to fight the system.

Which brings us to "Lightning Strikes," the second volume of Ellis' STORMWATCH run - and something of an "Ellis Sampler." The book has five separate, stand-alone stories. A major respite for a series so associated with Big Sweeping Arcs. There are many minor highlights in the book: Battalion, a perpetually uninteresting character is suddenly made real and worthy of being Stormwatch leader in the space of 22 pages; a touching and extremely ironic drinking scene with the bulk of the Stormwatch crew; a walk down memory lane with Jenny Sparks (weakened, in my opinion, by Tom Raney - an otherwise excellent artist - aping various art styles - to illustrate Jenny's longevity); and an end-piece, textbook-type story of the crew taking on an Aliens-type entity (which doesn't hold a candle to the real thing, a couple years later). This story seems mainly to serve as Jim Lee's opportunity to draw the team. No harm done there.

But the real standout piece stars Ellis' strongest creation - Jack Hawksmoor - "a man made to live in cities." Yes, Jack's a cool concept, but Ellis is constantly reminding you that the hero became this way as a child abused by aliens. Hawksmoor lives with his pain - day to day. And while he's accustomed to his abilities - he's passionate that no one else suffer such abuse (which we see even more prominently, later, in "Bleed"). In this tale Jack goes after the illegitimate son of a president who "kills because he kills." While the action is straightforward - the nature of the character makes it so much more compelling.

Perhaps Ellis' nicest touch is the recurring motif of characters staring down at the Earth from their Skywatch orbit, constantly questioning their motives - whether or not they've done the right thing. I think it's this element of introspection - humanizing the ultrapowerful - their doubts and fears - much moreso than the sheer widescreen shock value - that's set STORMWATCH (and THE AUTHORITY) as the strongest books in the industry.

Unlike any other product coming out of Marvel or DC - there's no guarantee here that the heroes will triumph. Physically or morally. But that's the hallmark of great fiction. You have to keep reading to find out what happens.

Recommended with Reservations (You're better off starting with FORCE OF NATURE.)

Alex Bernstein is a regular contributor to PopImage.

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