Michael Cray, Wildstorm, and the 6.

Michael Cray #1I have discussed the new Ellis-helmed Wildstorm line before and my concerns regarding an art direction that has veered so sharply from its predecessor. Gone are the cinematic layouts, unique fonts, lush colors, and perhaps overly rendered figures giving the work a three-dimensional pop. The art in early Wildstorm was busy and complicated and I truly miss it. It was representative of an eager creative class that wanted to make its mark on the world by bringing in new influences not shared by the men who came before them—a perfect blend of classic American cartooning and dynamic East Asian visual storytelling. A collection of men who cherished Neal Adams, Walt Disney, Ryouichi Ikegami, and John Woo.

But Wildstorm has had various maestros over the years and the art direction shifts to match their preferences. Jim Lee is no longer at the helm. Warren Ellis is.

I am frustrated…but also understanding? Today’s audiences do not have any nostalgic reverence for Wildstorm’s early incarnations. Given the line’s meager sales during the World’s End era, those early fans are long gone. And so Ellis leans on what he and his fans have nostalgic reverence for when selecting creative partners. The stamp of Watchmen is clearly evident in the first issue of The Wild Storm, as I have stated in other short pieces. And in his personal newsletters Ellis reminisces on the British illustrators of his youth and their impact on his creative partner Jon Davis-Hunt.

“From #7 to #12 we are to expect covers reminiscent of 1970s science fiction paperback covers, or basically, my father’s bookshelf when I was about six, naming the likes of Peter Elson, Jim Burns and Angus McKie.”Warren Ellis

The new Wildstorm is wholly British now, in both its literary and visual expressions. I think the sweeping aside of the line’s Asian and Asian American roots does Wildstorm a great disservice—akin to a removal of Milestone’s African American foundation. And if you replace a publishing house’s cultural lynchpin, what remains? Can it really be a continuation of what came before?

Michael Cray #1And so enters Michael Cray to further cloud these murky waters. Ellis has tapped black creators Bryan Hill, N. Steven Harris, and Dexter Vines to work on the next Wildstorm series (along with Milestone founder Denys Cowan on covers). The series features a new iteration of Deathblow, now black and more intelligent and successful than his white predecessor. The work perhaps lampoons that fact in its early pages; we see Cray given a speech all too familiar to black children—Bryan Hill’s version of “twice as good for half as much.” The new Wildstorm universe will blame Michael Cray for more and give him less.

It is a bitterly hilarious comment on a black man’s place in the new Wildstorm, in the comics industry, and in American society. Hill is a black screenwriter, not a comics-industry alum, and is yet another instance of the mainstream’s preference for recruiting established black writers from other mediums for minor projects instead of allowing black comic writers to work their way through the ranks as scribes from other racial groups do. I also predict sales of this work will be a fraction of the original Deathblow series even though the creators involved are phenomenally talented and the character is already more intriguing than his alternate-reality predecessor. Twice as good for half as much.

I have questions! (I always have questions.) I have repeatedly praised Wildstorm and Milestone for their ability to successfully build truly multi-cultural publishing houses instead of using members of marginalized groups as “seasoning” for primarily white institutions. But are founders who are men of color necessary for that success? Can you create a multi-cultural line from a world envisioned and rebuilt by a British white man? Can fans put their trust in a new imprint when its first public act was to jettison its Asian artistic roots? I’m wary.

But let’s drill down. I have discussed the lionized nine-panel grid and its current prominence in the universes beneath the DC umbrella. I have noted how it is linked in the collective memory of the industry to European works. The number nine has significance, but I am a writer, not an artist. And so it eludes me. It is a mystery within the new Wildstorm universe (and DC as a whole) that my brain doggedly pursues. And it has been made worse with the addition of the six-panel grid repeated throughout Michael Cray. Six and nine.

Nice.

Six-panel grids are as American as apple pie and their presence in a wholly black work for a line recreated by a British white man is odd, subversive, and delightful. What is it doing here?! What is the message being conveyed? I’m stumped.

Jughead #193When I think of a six-panel grid I immediately think of Archie. I consumed Archie’s Double Digest at an absurd rate in my youth and the layout of the first page of Michael Cray instantly brought that comic to mind. And while the Archie line is currently a rainbow coalition of characters it was initially very straight, very Christian, and very white. So what in the world is this layout—known for its overwhelming presence in historical humorous comics for and about while children—doing in a work about a black assassin working within a technologically advanced dystopia? That is weird. And fascinating. For, Lord knows, blackness is as American as apple pie too, but America is loath to admit it. And so inserting blackness into American comics in this manner, reweaving it and us back into its cherished patterns, feels like the righting of a great wrong started long ago as the industry built itself upon racist black caricatures and chased black men such as Orrin C. Evans out of publishing.

But while Asian men such as Kevin Tsujihara and Jim Lee hold the highest positions one can achieve at both Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, I cannot help but lament the lack of their presence at Wildstorm. And I do not think Wildstorm can be Wildstorm sans the presence of Asian men within the imprint’s new foundation.