Joe Casey’s Wildcats run was as important to modern superhero comics as Ellis’ The Authority.
Both of these titles were just symptoms of the progressive nature of the Wildstorm brand, and Casey’s in particular showed just how dramatically you could warp an established title, while still maintaining its initial premise. This Wildcats book is really built on the same foundation and premise originally conceived by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi---only Casey’s perspective and interpretation is radically different, and that’s something that was obviously encouraged in those days. Really, I challenge anyone to name another company or imprint that pushed the conventions and boundaries of the superhero genre further and more aggressively. Planetary. Sleeper. Automatic Kafka. Stormwatch. Ex Machina. Astro City. Global Frequency. Mr. Majestic. Virtually everything out of the ABC line. The Intimates. Need I go on?
Joe Casey was right in the middle of all this, piloting the flagship title and turning it into something decidedly different from this. What other superhero title was bold enough to have Sean Phillips (a then unconventional choice) on art chores? Or position a multi-national corporation as the true superhero of the piece? Or was willing to experiment with a number of design elements, including cover layouts and title pages?
This was the creative run that solidified Casey’s well-deserved rep as one of the most acclaimed writers in the business. And it’s only proper that we spend some time talking about in this series. I’ll be breaking the series into two very distinct volumes, as I believe that’s more appropriate. But all great runs start somewhere, and Casey and Phillips wasted no time taking ownership of the characters and the concepts.
Ascension - (Issue #10, Deal of the Century)
If the first 100 days can tell you a lot about a new President and his administration, I’d say something similar holds true about a new creative team’s first six issues. The restructuring starts immediately, in the aims of retaining (yet still surprising) the established audience, all while bringing lapsed or brand new fans to the book. So the enviable task becomes “change it, but not too much” or you run the risk of alienating the current fans, who are often quite vocal if they don’t enjoy your supposed all-new direction. If you get it right though, you can have it both ways, which Casey obviously accomplished here.
He quickly settled on a voice and approach to every main character, and it was great to see that he was willing to step on the book, and kill off Lord Emp in his very first story. Emp was effectively the “Charles Xavier” of the piece, and having him ascend to a higher plane of being was both a nice farewell in the wake of his character’s recent evolution, and a narrative spark for everyone his death left behind. In some ways it effectively reset the entire concept and put the characters (and the readers) on equal footing. After the father figure and mentor dies, what does everyone do? What changes do they make to their own lives in the interests of coping and moving forward? Deaths and resurrections are great tools for altering the relationships between characters, and that’s exactly what happened in this case. And you got the message immediately---everything is different now, and actually, that’s okay.
Jack Marlowe: Corporate Crusader- (Issue #12, My Father’s House)
Sometimes the success of a story or an idea is all about timing. It hits too soon and no one cares. Hits too late and the same thing happens. So I wonder just how Joe Casey’s central conceit of “the corporation as superhero” would play in today’s bailout affected climate. Not that people had an incredibly positive view of big business back then, but it does feel like the public holds them in a slightly more derisive light. In any case, this is the story where Casey formally introduces the theme that will come to define his entire run, wrapping it around (and concealing it somewhat) in the more familiar father/son dynamic.
What makes that last bit most interesting is that Spartan (a.k.a. Jack Marlowe) isn’t truly alive, but here expresses his grief in a very believable and human way. While maintaining a respect and reverence for his father, he yearns to ultimately distinguish himself by using his resources in a much different way, correcting all perceived mistakes along the way. I can’t recall the original run or Alan Moore’s stuff, but Casey really tried to infuse the android with genuine emotions, and it gave him some cool, conflicting moments throughout his run. It was the character that the writer really seemed to dig into, while showing his eventual transformation from Spartan to Jack Marlowe. Again though, this is probably me always identifying with the “leader” in any team book, but as sharp as the character work was all around, this stuff remains a real standout for me.
“Pris…?” (Issue #16, Searing Copulation)
Still one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever encountered in anything. Even though I know exactly what happens at the close of this volume, reading this particular issue still makes me uncomfortable. Much like that moment from The Long Halloween where Harvey gets the acid thrown into his face. For two issues, Casey showed us the exploits of the murderous Slaughterhouse Smith, traveling from state to state and brutally murdering women with the last name of “Marlowe,” until he finally reaches Voodoo. Then for an entire agonizing issue, the tension ratchets up to eleven, and the only question you can ask yourself is, “When’s it gonna happen? When is this crazy ____ gonna attack her?” And when he finally does---it’s about as horrible as you imagined it would be, especially with Jeremy Stone in the next room with no idea of what’s happening.
By the time he does come to her rescue, it’s much too late, and he’s left blinded and feeling around their apartment looking for any sign she’s okay. So of course what he finds is her severed leg, with no clue she’s not still attached to it. That’s just awful, Casey…really just awful…
Take Him- (Issue #19, Blowout)
Now obviously, what I’ve just referenced above is going to set the stage for a massive senses-shattering brawl between Spartan and Smith, with Voodoo’s honor on the line.
I mean, I read that scene in the issue before this one where Grifter forces Spartan to admit that bringing this guy down has become personal. And this is what happens in comics and action movies---someone threatens people (usually women) that the hero is closest too, and it all comes down to a healthy well-choreographed fight and a few explosions in the end. It’s a great formula no doubt, but Casey gets points for a relatively quiet major confrontation that feels more mature and realistic than anything else.
A fairly obvious trap is set. The overconfident villain walks right into it, because he’s well…overconfident. Once he’s standing face-to-face with his “enemy” he launches into a very typical villainous rant. And when the hero is simply tired of hearing him talk, he tells his friend to put a bullet in the guy’s head. Simple. Clean. Precise. A vengeful act planned and executed by a robot trying his best to react like a real man. One who finds out right after the body drops that seeing this terrible man dead doesn’t make him feel anything. Grifter (who pulled the trigger) says, “Then maybe you should’ve done it.” But it’s fairly obvious that wasn’t the real problem here, and Spartan’s continued evolution into his new persona as Jack Marlowe proceeds. An act of surgical revenge that turned into yet another great character moment from Casey.
Together Again- (Issue #22, Unbearable Likeness)
While Spartan is busy trying to approximate human emotions, his friend Cole Cash is somewhere being devoured by his. The supposed death of Zealot has been a huge deal for the former mercenary, and his personal response is to pick up girls in bars that look almost exactly like her, and screw them in hotels. Which is one way to go about it I suppose, but by the time he accidentally picks up the very much alive Zealot in the same manner, it’s obvious it isn’t working out for him. Dude sleeps with her and doesn’t even realize what happened until a bunch of pissed-off Codas crash through his hotel window with big swords and bigger guns. No time to get up to speed, as there’s another two dozen of them massing in the alley below.
Only choice is to arm themselves, jump out the window, and begin killing anything that moves, over several pages of beautiful violence, skillfully illustrated by Sean Phillips. My favorite artistic sequence in the entire run, honestly. And when the violence comes to a close, Zealot passionately kisses Cash, and then runs off into the night. There’s a reason why the classics work so well, and there’s no surer thing than sex and violence. Well maybe taxes, but who the hell wants to read comics about that?More Than Meets the Eye- (Issue #26, Battery Park) Show of hands the people that didn’t think Noir was an opportunistic prick from the first moment he showed up in the book? That said, the details and reasons for his eventual betrayal were great ones, and when he reveals himself, flanked by a rebuilt Ladytron, you realize he just might’ve been as clever as suggested. However, his major mistake was with Void, who was obviously the biggest wild card in the bunch, and someone he needed to immediately neutralize. And to his credit, he did just that. What he clearly didn’t anticipate was her eventual merging with Spartan, making him not just a nearly indestructible robot, but a nearly indestructible robot that can teleport himself (and others) to anyplace on earth. Which kind of cancels out any possible physical advantage he thought he had. So again, not a huge surprise that Spartan just took the punishment and waited for Noir to spill his guts before teleporting him into another dimension.
The really cool part is that Noir’s presence, and his subsequent rant, was responsible for something of a deconstruction of the whole Jack Marlowe persona. At that time, he wasn’t going far enough, or using the power and influence of his company in a very proactive way. The android seemed to take some of these words to heart and emerged from the confrontation a little different, maybe less naïve even---but more important than all of that, Noir gave him an idea. And it’s one that kicks off the next chapter of the book, and attempts to fully realize that mission statement Casey so cleverly hid in an earlier issue. More character work people, get it before it’s all gone!
All’s Well- (Issues #27 & #28, Idaho Falls and Door Prizes)
A collection of great scenes spread over two issues that opens and closes doors for every one of the characters. Grifter and Zealot have a couple meetings (this time fully clothed) to address Zealot’s one women war against the Coda. Spartan finds Grifter to tell him he has one or two ideas. Voodoo is visited in the middle of the night by a pacifist Daemonite that believes she’s far more powerful than she thinks. Agent Wax “interrogates” Jeremy and finds out everything he’s ever wanted to know about the Wildcats. Spartan tells Jeremy nothing is standing in his way. And then Voodoo stands again.
Technically, the character arcs were so good that it could’ve all ended right then and there. Every cast member ended in a slightly different spot than they started, and I would say that’s the truest indicator of a great run on an ongoing book.
Thankfully, it didn’t end right there, as I’ll detail later on this year when we discuss Volume 3.0.
Wildcats: Vicious Circles
Wildcats: Serial Boxes
Wildcats: Battery Park
Wildcats, by Joe Casey, Sean Phillips, and Steve Dillon---this is why I love comics.
As always, feel free to leave your own thoughts about the series, including personal highlights, favorite lines, etc. on the board below. Thanks again.