Monday, August 3, 2009

WildC.A.T.s #42

Image Comics, 1997, 22 pages, $ 2.50

Writers: Brandon Choi, Jonathan Peterson
Pencilers: Mat Broome, Mike Miller
Inkers: Sean Parsons, Mike Miller
Colorists: Wendy Fouts, Mike Miller, Bad@$$
Letterer: Bill O’Neil
Cover artists: Mat Broome, Al Vey

WildC.A.T.s #42, cover-dated September, 1997, is remarkable mainly in how unremarkable it is, right up to the way it came into my possession a couple of months back.

To make a long story short, I wanted a copy of Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 and couldn’t find one except in a bundle with four other comics, of which this was one. On the plus side, the set ended up being cheaper than the single copy of the comic that I actually wanted—and which they told me they didn’t have when I specifically asked for it—would have been. So, I guess, thank you, Golden Age Collectables in Seattle!

But I digress.

As a series, WildC.A.T.s* was in a spot that’s somewhat similar to the one it’s in today: right in the middle of a period that isn’t particularly memorable**. The astronomic sales of the first few issues were long gone, Jim Lee himself was nowhere near the book, and the property was about a year away in both directions from the kind of material that people tend to remember. From today’s point of view, the closest WildC.A.T.s #42 comes to being in any way conspicuous is an early advertisement for the first relaunch of StormWatch by Warren Ellis and Oscar Jimenez, which later led to The Authority.

As a comic taken on its own terms, WildC.A.T.s #42 is a random, typical superhero comic—no, scratch that: a random, typical superhero comic by the standards of 1997. The story is the second chapter of a two-parter, its cover price of $ 2.50 is surprisingly close to what most mainstream comics still cost today, and it’s generally a brightly-colored mess. It’s also historically confused, since the otherwise useless—though extensive—recap page refers to German soldiers from World War I as “Axis troopers.”

About the plot, I’m not sure. The gist of it is that some of the WildC.A.T.s have traveled back in time to prevent their arch-enemies, the alien Daemonites, from handing the Germans their very first supply of poison gas. “<Once the Germans start using my bio-chemical agents in battle, humanity’s final descent toward extinction shall be irreversible!>” bad guy Adolphus Koch, alias Defile, handily explains, in the kind of line that used to be shorthand for “villain speak.” Much of the rest of the dialogue is in the same league.

There’s another group of time-travelers, and there are about five pages of story taking place in the present, but I’m not sure what’s going on with any of that. The recap page, as suggested earlier, is no help at all, because it just tells me the part that I could actually have figured out myself from reading the story. Generally, it’s a lot of characters running around doing a lot of things that the X-Men were particularly known for five years earlier; besides the time-travel angle, there’s also a token mysterious member who, purely by chance, runs into one of his ancestors, for instance.

The panel-to-panel storytelling is sometimes competent and often shaky. Lord knows how the ridiculous two-page intro sequence is meant to be unfolding, for instance—or what its purpose is meant to be, for that matter. The artists seem to have mainly concentrated on making two generic F.B.I. agents look like Scully and Mulder from The X-Files, which I guess they almost pull off in one of the panels, if you get past the distorted faces and the screaming second-hand Jim Lee style of the artwork. Backgrounds are the exception. Consequently: lots of speech balloons and caption boxes that are either redundant or have to cover for shortcomings in the artwork. After all, someone has to tell the story, if the artists can’t be bothered.

In fairness, the writers do take a brave stab at irony here and there and have some ideas in mind about lessons that some of the characters might be learning. But ultimately, it’s all too heavy-handed and haphazard to add up to much of a moral. Speaking of which: Why am I reviewing a nondescript Image comic from 1997, again?

Well, the reason why I read it when it came to me was because I was genuinely curious. I didn’t read any Image comics in the 1990s, and I was wondering how a random issue like this one would hold up. And when I read it, what struck me, mainly, was that the level of craft it puts on display is—let’s face it—very shoddy, but was perfectly acceptable and commonplace ten years ago. After all, I did read a lot of other superhero fare in the 1990s, and, without going back to check, what I can say about it now is that a lot of it probably wasn’t much better than WildC.A.T.s #42. And a lot of the time, I didn’t really mind, and neither did much of anyone else. It seemed to be accepted that mainstream comics, as a general rule of thumb, tended to be crummy, most of the time.

So if there is a moral to all this (and there might not be, other than that spending 1,000 words on a 12-year-old issue of WildC.A.T.s is a gigantic waste of time and electricity), it has to be that we’ve come quite a long way in the last ten years. Not that there are no more crummy genre comics, but it certainly seems to me that the standards have risen by a notch or two over the last decade. On average, I think it’s fair to say that mainstream comics, much like television shows or videogames, are generally of a better craft in 2009 than they were in 1997. Simply put, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and when they do, it tends to be an accident or an error of judgment. (Or Jeph Loeb.)

And so here I am, grateful, after all, for this crummy 12-year-old Jim Lee comic that I didn’t actually want and that Jim Lee didn’t even draw. Now, with my palate properly cleansed, I will read my Phonogram (from, you know, Image Comics!) and appreciate it like I should. And so should you.

Grade: D-

* The acronym in the title stands for “Covert Action Teams.” They dropped it at some point, and it’s just called WildCats now.

** It’s not exactly the same spot, mind you. In 1997, comics retailers pre-ordered an estimated 38,200 units of WildC.A.T.s #42. In June 2009, they bought an estimated 7,863 copies of WildCats #12.

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