The Restrained Explosions of Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt's The Wild Storm Volume1

Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork in The Wild Storm Volume 1 is an interesting beast, especially paired with Warren Ellis’ writing. For a large portion of this book, Davis-Hunt is a utility player, a hired-gun set to execute this revamping of Jim Lee’s old Wildstorm universe. In many ways, it looks familiar. If you’ve read any 1990’s era Image and Wildstorm comics, Jacob Marlowe is still a dwarf, Grifter still wears a bad-ass bandana instead of a mask and Henry Bendix is still a bald bastard. If any of that means anything to you, well I guess you’re probably almost as old as I am. And can we be honest for a moment? Character design has never been Jim Lee’s strongest points so Davis-Hunt has a lot of room to take those “classic” designs and improve on them.

Davis-Hunt’s work largely does what the story requires of it; it allows us to know who we’re looking at and what they’re doing. Occasionally Davis-Hunt’s character modeling slips and people suddenly have grotesquely large foreheads but it’s only momentarily distracting. For a tale of spies and covert activities, Davis-Hunt’s art along with three different colorists- Steve Buccellato, Ivan Plascencia, and John Kalisz— doesn’t try much to hide or obscure anything that we’re seeing. In fact, it’s surprisingly clear and maybe just a bit too crisp for the darkness of the story (more on that in a bit.). Davis-Hunt is very Jim Lee-like, without really getting lost in the details or even his own head like Lee’s artwork is capable of doing all on its own.

For most of this book, Davis-Hunt’s art feels like an instrument that Warren Ellis is wielding but that’s something that you can say about most Ellis books. There’s a very surface level-only approach to the artwork in this book. That is, until the moments when Davis-Hunt has to go deep into his images and sequences and really peel back the layers of this story. We see it early in the book, where an anxious scientist has to reveal the alien-tech armor that she hides within her own body. And we see it late in the book, where one of the wetwork operatives is ambushed in his apartment. In both of these sequences, Davis-Hunt slows the world down and delivers some character defining moments for Angie Spica and Michael Cray, characters we knew in other lives as The Engineer and Deathblow.

It’s in these moments that Ellis and Davis-Hunt’s work starts to look like something as narratively revolutionary as Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority or, dare we say it, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen. While not constantly in a widescreen format or slavishly devoted to a 9-panel grid, The Wild Storm Volume 1 finds inspiration in both works visually with call-backs to those comic storytelling methods without ever reaching the story development grandness of either of those previous works.

It feels like there’s some narrative misdirection happening in this first volume as Ellis lays out what feels only like the most basic of possible conflicts in this world. In the first few pages, he and Davis-Hunt introduce us to a world where all of the players are isolated but crossing paths. In what may be comic’s closest approximation to a single-cut panning shot (think the beginning of Robert Altman’s The Player,) agents of secret organizations International Operations, Skywatch, and Halo cross paths on the street of New York City without ever crossing into each other’s story yet. Everything’s connected but we’re going to have to wait to see just what those connections are. Ellis and David-Hunt are showing us how we have to read this story without beating the audience over the head. In fact, this reading lesson is probably only apparent on a second or third reading of the book.

Everything and everyone are connected and while Ellis drops some hints about the pasts of these people and organizations, he lives in the present. These characters are defined by the here and now, by the moments that they are living in. In his writing for the past 10-15 years, Ellis has grown to be very lean and economical with his words. The stark clarity of Davis-Hunt’s artwork lets Ellis pare back what he needs to put on the page. In this creative partnership, it almost reads like the artist and the writer are holding something back, concealing a narrative momentum which could make this a very bland story.

But when they need to, they stop holding back and the story and its darkness explodes. It’s those moments of Spica’s armor coming out of her body or Michael Cray fighting for his life when The Wild Storm becomes more than the words and pictures on the page. It’s in those moments where the page-structures which echo past, great works that the book starts to reach for greatness. Ellis and Davis-Hunt hold those moments back in reserve, only unleashing them when they’re ultimately needed to propel the story forward.

Those are the “Image” moments in this book and maybe that’s what differentiates this incarnation of these characters from Jim Lee’s original. Every page of Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. was full of sound and fury. That was/is the Image style of Lee, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri and Todd McFarlane. Every page was cranked up 11. And Ellis and Hitch followed that model on The Authority as well. In The Wild Storm, Ellis and Davis-Hunt allow the story to simmer for long periods of time as they work on plot, theme, and character. Pages and pages coast along at a comfortable volume until the moments where they try to out-Image Jim Lee and blast out pages as a blaring 111. And as quickly as they turn up the volume, they pull back down to a more comfortable level and start the slow march to the next moment that will blow out your imagination.

As re-imaginations of old concepts go, Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt are clued into what made Jim Lee’s creations some of the hottest properties circa 1995 while creating a story that’s firmly planted in 2017. And it’s also completely an Ellis book, complete with his fascination for “tough” men and the ways that technology has shaped our society. It’s far from a perfect book but it is an ambitious work from its creators. That ambition has a lot of charisma that makes this a more interesting comic than it has any right to be.

The Wild Storm Volume 1
Written by Warren Ellis
Drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt
Colored by Steve Buccellato, Ivan Plascencia, & John Kalisz
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Published by DC Comics