Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 35th installment.
In the comic book industry, whenever anyone starts cranking out lists of “The Greatest Writers of All Time,” you’re likely to see a whole bunch of guys who have written a whole bunch of ongoing series for either Marvel or DC or both. Sure, there are some exceptions Frank Miller is probably slightly better known now for his work on Batman or Sin City than he is for his seminal Daredevil run, and writers like Warren Ellis and Mark Millar tend to be known more for particular bursts of intentionally short-lived projects than for any extended ongoing work they’ve done in the past but, overall, the deal with American genre comics is that they’re serialized, and the majority of the “big names” have become big names by writing those serialized, ongoing comic books. One glance at the Comics Should Be Good “Top 125 Writers Master List” and you’ll see what I mean.
But while Alan Moore worked on some serialized back-up stories in Marvel U.K. magazines and produced some features for various anthologies, for the first decade of his career, by the time he had already been anointed Greatest Comic Book Writer Ever, Swamp Thing was his only example of traditionally-published monthly, ongoing comic book work. It’s not surprising that the iconoclastic Moore would have such an unusual bibliography, but it was decidedly unusual for its time, when there were even less opportunities to carve out a career writing limited series and graphic novels than there are today. Swamp Thing was Moore’s only “run” on an American comic book series.
Until he started hanging around in the Image quarter of comic book town.
And Jim Lee invited him in to WildC.A.T.s.
WildC.A.T.s: Covert Action Teams #21-34 & 50 (Image Comics, July 1995 Feb. 1997 & June 1998)
Originally created by now-DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee (and his writing partner Brandon Choi), WildC.A.T.s was one of the first-round Image Comics series, and like the other comics in the initial line, it added pumped-up action conventions to traditional superhero archetypes. So Lee, who had risen to comic book prominence by drawing X-Men comics, created a new superteam book that featured not a wheel-chair bound leader, but an extremely short one. Not a stoic field commander with devastating eye blasts but a stoic field commander with devastating energy blasts. Not a butt-kicking psychic assassin but a butt-kicking warrior woman from outer space. Not a guy with metal claws snikt-ing out from the back of his hands but a guy with stretchy metal claws for hands. And so on.
The characters were familiar enough to be comfortable, even as Lee and Choi set these superhero archetypes against the backdrop of a massive war between two alien races, the Kherubim and the Daemonites. In Lee and Choi’s comics, the heroes were Kherubim agents, working on Earth to oppose the Daemonite threat. They just happened to look a lot like characters who would have struggled with mutants rights and Brotherhoods of Evil, but they were actually robots and aliens, mostly.
Eventually Choi gave way to writer James Robinson, and Lee moved on to generate more properties for what would soon become a massive Wildstorm line within the Image Comics cooperative. Then, with issue #21, Alan Moore was brought in.
Moore originally planned to work with then-semi-regular WildC.A.T.s artist Travis Charest, a penciler in the Jim Lee mode who had apparently discovered the work of Moebius right around the time of his WildC.A.T.s run. But like many of the Wildstorm comics of the 1990s, the art side of things tended to be more of a team project, and while Charest would draw many of the best issues of Moore’s run on the series, he wouldn’t draw them all, and the radical change in artistic styles from issue to issue (immediately after Moore took over) didn’t help to establish much in the way of a consistent tone for the new take on the series.
And Moore’s new take? Two parts, basically: (1) With the WildC.A.T.s team members off in space, a new team is formed, using some already-established Wildstorm characters and some original Alan Moore creations, and (2) The WildC.A.T.s, back on the Kheran homeworld, far from Earth, learn that the Kherubim/Daemonite war ended hundreds of years ago. Earth was such a remote outpost, no one had bothered to convey that message to them. Moore turned Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s issues, in retrospect, into the superhero version of the story of Hiroo Onoda.
Structurally, Moore’s 14-issue run (excluding the brief epilogue a year-and-a-half later) cuts between those two concurrent plots, while building toward a bigger story about betrayal from within. The original WildC.A.T.s team members return from space, emotionally scarred by what they’ve seen from the decadent post-war, politically corrupt Khera, and the two teams sort of reluctantly join forces to strike at the increasing menace from the criminal underworld.
It would seem to be kind of a cliché plotline from Moore, a writer known for unorthodox choices, or at least for presenting ironic twists that readers might not expect. And that’s, ultimately, what he does here, as the superteam-vs.-supervillainous-underworld turns out to be a shell game, coordinated by the WildC.A.T. known as Tao, a Moore creation and the weakest member of the team. Tao whose name stands for Tactical Augmented Organism is an enigmatic member of the support staff. At best, he’s, as his name would suggest, a tactician who can help coordinate field work from the headquarters. Throughout Moore’s run, characters comment on Tao’s lack of powers, emphasizing his apparent weakness.
Yet, in the end, he’s the real mastermind behind most of the trouble facing the team. He wants to control them all like puppets, and it’s clear that he does have significant powers. He is a master manipulator, who can persuade almost anyone of almost anything.
From a distance, it’s not dissimilar from the role Ozymandias played in Watchmen, and it wouldn’t be very difficult to draw parallels between the two. Both characters serve the same basic purpose in their respective stories, though Moore telegraphs Tao’s possibly sinister nature a bit more clearly in WildC.A.T.s while Ozymandias was more of a surprise reveal in Watchmen. Then again, the twist here could have been: would Alan Moore really have the smartest and least aggressive superhero end up as the secret villainous mastermind once again? Would he repeat that formula, really?
The answer is yes, but perhaps as a commentary on Image Comics or, more likely, as an attempt to meet the perceived needs of the audience he was trying to reach, Tao’s big plan is neither as grandiose nor as morally complex as Ozymandias’s. While the latter certainly had the hubris to think that his faux-space-invasion scare tactics should justifiably sacrifice millions of lives to save billions, the former simply seemed to want to manipulate everyone around him for pleasure and power. Tao’s immorality has no shades of gray.
Like most of Moore’s Image Comics work, his WildC.A.T.s comics start with vigor, and the charm begins to wear off after a few issues. Unlike most of the other Image Comics by Moore, this run actually lasted longer than a few issues, so that trend-toward-blandness becomes an increasing problem as the run develops. But the Tao reveal and the final conflict where other new team members like Mr. Majestic and Ladytron face life-threatening challenges, undermined only by the house ads in issue #34 showing that they will clearly survive to star in an upcoming spin-off project provide a satisfying conclusion to Moore’s fourteen issues, so there’s a bit of a saving grace in the end.
The rotating art teams are a problem throughout, with only Travis Charest and Dave Johnson doing consistently strong work, and there’s even a few issues as Moore’s run rambles towards its climax where the series crosses over into the “Fire From Heaven” Wildstorm event, and that’s a digression that doesn’t help the integrity of Moore’s story.
But for all of its faults with its saggy middle and divergences to deal with some outside-of-the-series continuity porn about the duality of the Spartan character and how he’s really been split into a good and evil version and a whole bunch of other mini plot points that have little to do with the story, Moore seems to be crafting from the beginning these fourteen issues of WildC.A.T.s end up being worth a reread and, in retrospect, hold a more influential position in the history of comics than I had remembered. For much of the Moore run, particularly the Travis Charest-drawn issues, the comic has that aggressive, “widescreen” approach that would play such an integral role in the Warren Ellis Stormwatch and Authority runs that would follow Moore’s lead. I had forgotten how much of a debt Ellis’s Wildstorm comics the comics that would set the template for much of what followed in the superhero mainstream in the early 21st century owed to the Moore WildC.A.T.s run that immediately preceded it. The house ads for the early issues of Ellis’s Stormwatch appear in Moore’s final issues here, and it’s almost like the passing of the baton, seeing them juxtaposed like that.
Of course, this was Alan Moore doing slightly edgy, slightly twisted takes on the most banal of the superhero archetypes and standard serial plotlines. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about any of this stuff, it’s just merely good most of the time and in a comic book industry where “merely good” superhero comics stand out, it’s not a surprise that these were the comics that were formative influences on a lot of what followed over the next ten or twelve years. Or longer. These WildC.A.T.s issues from the mid-1990s don’t feel decidedly different than much of what DC Comics is doing these days, for example.
Jim Lee, not coincidentally, was and is involved with both. I suspect he’s not going to give Alan Moore a call anytime soon and ask if he wants to do something really cool with the Justice League.
NEXT TIME: What if Spawn teamed up with and/or fought the WildC.A.T.s. in the future? That totally happened! And Alan Moore was there.