Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes

One popular putdown of the superhero genre calls them “juvenile power fantasies”, a type of story that’s innately age-limited. With Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes, writer Warren Ellis demonstrates superhero comics for adults.

This is the second volume in his run, reprinting Stormwatch #43-47. The first book was reclamation work, taking over an existing series and characters and reworking them to suit his needs and stories. With this volume, Ellis let loose — it collects a set of spotlights and origins that demonstrate a more mature take on the genre. Not only are the characters’ motivations more adult, as suits the more complex nature of the threats they face, but their abilities are as well. No longer can they be summed up as simply as “super-strength” or “flight”.

Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes cover
Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes
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The first focus is Jack Hawksmoor, survivor of alien experimentation who speaks to cities and has a symbiotic relationship with the urban environment. The city wants him to solve a murder with odd ties to political history. (It’s a shame that the art in this tale isn’t quite up to the level it needs to be; the Marilyn Monroe reveal doesn’t have the impact it should because the character isn’t immediately recognizable as a likeness.) It’s got several of the elements that have become Ellis trademarks: fascination with the seamier side of US politics, hints of sexual mutilation, government conspiracy, heroes forced to become bad guys in order to defeat worse guys.

The high point of the book is the second chapter, the story of Jenny Sparks. As the electric Spirit of the 20th Century, this incredibly well-preserved (non-aging) 96-year-old’s life runs from 1900-2000 — and Ellis and Raney tell her story through the history of comics. She starts as an action hero, with art that mimics early Superman, down to the panel, and with narration that nudges at metafiction. In the 40s, she’s the Spirit; by the 60s, it’s Kirby-styled teams; in the 80s, it’s Gibbons’ Watchmen art and revealing disgusting secrets.

The walk through the eras brilliantly hits on what made each unique, and ending on a note of hope is uncharacteristically refreshing after the dirt. The book is worth reading for this story alone. It’s an excellent take on nostalgia that goes beyond “wasn’t it cool when?” to look at cultural context.

Battalion’s next story can’t help but be a letdown after that tour-de-force, but a return to more straightforward evil-fighting is needed. A black superhero in Alabama annoys some of the local racists, and his Stormwatch United Nations affiliation plays right into their militia plans for terrorism. After that, it’s supposed to be a focus on one of the weirder (which is saying something, with this crew) characters, Rose Tattoo, the living embodiment of murder, but she works better as a mystery. Instead, the teams go out together for a beer, allowing for a downtime issue. They demonstrate why Ellis’ characters can be such degenerate drunks: the more repulsive your “day job”, the more you need to be able to clear your mind through the classic aids of sex and alcohol.

The book concludes with a group mission to investigate a hidden alien breeding ground, used as a justification for the kind of team Ellis wants to tell stories about. By this point, the reader should be familiar with the characters, at least in passing, and ready for more. Ellis continued his unique take on the superteam in three more volumes before resorting to all big-screen action in the Authority.

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