By august (in the wake of) dawn
The thing about being born in ’93 is that the counterculture revolution and speculator boom in comics completely passed me by. By the time I was interested in comics, Image was already the third tier of direct market publishing, and Jim Lee was already The DC Guy and was about to be a forefront voice in the New 52 reboot of the early 2010s.
So to think that he started off as a punk kid who bucked at the trends in mainstream comics and who, with a group of likeminded fellow artists, decided to break away from corporate superheroes to do their own thing with their own creations? It feels kind of strange. Jim Lee has always been part and parcel with DC corporate to me, not a revolutionary, counter-culture young gun.
Which makes Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. #1, his big Image Comics debut, even weirder because the last thing it feels like is revolutionary or counter-culture.
There’s a term in wrestling that defined the storytelling of WWE and WCW in the 90s: car crash booking. It’s exactly what it sounds like, storytelling that feels like a car crash. A sensory overload where every possible outcome of any situation happens all at once, refusing to allow the audience a chance to breathe or take in what’s actually happening. It felt great at the time, like anything and everything could happen, but in hindsight it feels like… well, a car crash.
And that’s exactly what WildC.A.T.S. feels like.
It feels like Lee and co-writer Brandon Choi have been told that opening in media res and filling the reader in on the situation and background of the story with naturalistic dialogue and exposition is what the pros do, but the thing is: that takes skill. Here, we open a scene in media res no less than five times throughout the course of the issue and are bludgeoned over the head with clumsy exposition in every other panel leaving me feeling like I just got mugged by a comic book.
I wish I could recap the issue, but, frankly, I don’t have a clue where to begin. In the first three pages alone Lee and Choi jump from the 1980s to 1992 to 1990 without a space to breathe. And we’re only in 1990 for four pages before jumping back to 1992, the day before the last scene we saw. Maybe this was exhilarating to kids in the 90s, but today it feels disjointed and unfocused.
It’s X-Force with the serial numbers filed off. At least when you pick up a random issue of X-Force from 1992 and it turns out to be the middle part of a six book crossover with over twenty chapters that’s a sequel to two other crossovers that have already happened that year, there’s an expectation that the reason it feels like a million things are happening all at once is because it’s working on an established, if nonsensical, continuity. If Image Comics was built to be a place where the artists got to do whatever they wanted free from editorial machinations, why does this feel like the exact same shit Lee was doing at Marvel with a palette swap?
If there’s one saving grace to this trainwreck of a comic it’s Lee’s art. While Lee would go on to become a technically proficient if rather boring and rote artist, this is him at his most unhinged. Technical considerations are left at the wayside in favour of focusing on the most evocative elements of any given scene. Establishing shots? I don’t know her. Anatomy? Never heard of it. A wide shot? Forget about it. Every panel is a close up, an action or reaction to whatever stylish, barely comprehensible thing happened in the prior panel.
It actually reminds me of Michael Bay’s Transformers. Sure, all of the dialogue is nonsensical and most of it is screamed in non-sequiturs over a blur of action and motion and it’s impossible to parse at any given moment who wants what or why, but there’s something about the frenetic, breakneck pace that sweeps you up in the momentum and refuses to let go. There’s almost something there. A staunch refusal at formalism, at any attempt at storytelling, and instead a focus on only the coolest staging of any given action. It’s almost compelling, but combined with the impossible to parse worldbuilding, the half dozen faction names thrown at us with little to no explanation, and the sheer volume of stuff happening on any given page, it feels like it was written for teenagers by teenagers.
It’s less counterculture and more anti-culture… and the thing is, I should love this.
This breakneck pacing, this level of stylised action, this staunch refusal to conform to the whims of corporate storytelling. This should be entirely my thing, but instead it feels like an entire comic was made out of the half-formed ideas jotted down in an angsty teenager’s journal who was mad that their favourite X-Men comic didn’t go the way they wanted to.
Maybe this is the downside of hindsight. Of knowing that this is exactly how every other comic in the 90s that was touted as daring and edgy at the time turned out. Maybe I’m just being harsh because I know that the 90s were rife with genuine counter-culture art – and it looked nothing like this empty excuse for a comic.
Writer/Penciller: Jim Lee
Writer: Brandon Choi
Inker: Scott Williams
Letterer: Mike Heisler
Colourist: Joe Rosas
august (in the wake of) dawn is a writer and critic often seen writing for websites like Multiversity, as well as for their Patreon subscribers – you can pledge here! You can also find them on Twitter here!
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