Not every comic book universe has the advantage of existing since the 1930s, but that doesn’t mean their history is any less fascinating to read about, especially when your tour guide is the immortal hardcase, Jenny Sparks.

Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Stormwatch #44 awaits!

Stormwatch44CoverSTORMWATCH #44
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Tom Raney
Inker: Randy Elliott
Colorist: Gina Going
Letterer: Mike Heisler
Editor: Mike Heisler
Publisher: Image Comics
Cover Price: $2.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $4.00

Previously in Stormwatch: Assembled by the United Nations, Stormwatch was originally a multinational force of superhumans, commanded by Henry Bendix, the Weatherman.  For a number of years, Bendix’s operations went off without a hitch, but the man himself became more and more unhinged, finally forcing his own super-agents to turn on him and take him down.  Now, under the command of Jackson King (once known as Battalion), the heroes of Stormwatch are finally discovering that there is more to the history of superhumans than anyone in the general public (or even in the ranks of Stormwatch) knows.  Fortunately for Jackson King, he has an ace in the hole, a superhuman who not only knows the secret history of the Wildstorm Universe, but was present for much of it: the Century Baby known as Jenny Sparks.

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Having suddenly popped up as part of Bendix’s Stormwatch Black team some issues earlier, Jenny Sparks has been something of an enigma to her comrades, but the reasons why are startling: Born on January 1st, 1900, Jenny stopped aging when she was twenty years old. and the world changed around her, throwing everyone into a very Buck Rogers world that she describes as “scientific romance,” with art that evokes the comic strips of that time-period.  If you’re unsure what I mean by that, just take a look at what Jenny got up to in the 30s, the decade which gave us the superhero…

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It’s a world full of energy and violence and enthusiasm, all drawn in the style of Superman-creator Joe Shuster, and it’s frankly wonderful.  As someone who has done some study of the eras of comics past, it’s fascinating to see what Raney does with this issue’s art, as each era shifts to perfectly fit the tone of one of each era’s most skilled creators.  Jenny’s 30s adventure quickly segues into the darker world of the 1940s, in the style of legendary creator Will Eisner…

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Jenny’s 1940s experience ends up reminding her of the worst that human beings are capable of, but as the Spirit of The 20th Century (a role she hasn’t quite yet embraced in the comics, but one that Ellis clearly has in mind) she keeps trying to make the world a better place.  In the 1950s, she finds herself working with the British Space Group (seemingly working alongside Dan Dare), as liaison to an alternate UK where things work very differently.  When that alternate England goes to war with alternate Europe, things get tense.

Then, things get terrifying…

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In an attempt to save themselves from a biological attack, the alternate Britain of Sliding Albion vents the toxins into the air of Jenny’s home-reality.  “Their dying act was one of contempt for us,” Jenny bitterly explains, but the transition between worlds changed the toxic bio-weapon into something entirely different…

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The extra-dimensional whatever-it-was triggered a new age of superhumans, one that certainly look familiar to fans of American superheroes of the period…

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On a meta note, it’s interesting to see Ellis clearly referencing the alt-comics underground boom of the 1960s alongside Jack Kirby’s powerful renderings, something that many similar quasi-historical texts neglect to mention.  Of course, Jenny’s 1960s world bears a lot more resemblance to the turbulent and confrontational real 60s than with the Marvel Universe, especially near then end, when things go entirely pear-shaped, forcing Jenny to once again murder someone she considered a friend to save innocents from harm.  With her participation in the counter-culture officially over, Jenny basically slept through the 1970s (another interesting choice by Ellis, seemingly reflecting a then-popular theory that nothing of note happened in 70s comics) and didn’t return to the hero game until the 1980s.

A very familiar-looking 1980s, at that…

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Jenny had been convinced to give up her retirement by a new generation of superhumans, and had a bit more success in Thatcherite England, even as the government worked against them.  When children started going missing, it was clear something was terribly wrong, but it wasn’t until Jenny began investigating a series of missing children that the true horror became clear…

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It’s to Ellis & Raney’s credit that they took the already-horrifying gut-punch of ‘Watchmen’ and made it even more visceral and disturbing, befitting the even darker and less-restrained 90s-era storytelling.  In a world where ‘heroes who kill’ are the gold-standard, making a killer hero actually seem sympathetic can be nearly impossible, and I don’t even have too large a complaint about the well-worn “children in danger” chestnut as used in this issue.  As the issue wraps up, 96-year-old Jenny actually feels that old for the first time, as she tries to sum up her career to her new Weatherman…

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That uncharacteristically upbeat ending is what really wraps this whole story up for me, setting Jenny Sparks on the path back to being a superhero, then leading a super-team, and eventually becoming the driving force of The Authority.  Of course, knowledge of this issue makes the eventual path taken by The Authority even more tragic (and also seemingly inevitable), as no one involved in the mess remembers Jenny’s lessons after she dies.  (It’s been fifteen years, I hope I didn’t spoiler that one for you.)  All told, the building blocks of what would become The Authority, Planetary and maybe even Global Frequency are lain in these pages, and the decade-spanning tale is the single best issue of any Stormwatch era to date, leaving Stormwatch #44 with a game-changing 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  This is the issue that completes the transformation of Stormwatch from big, dumb fighty-fighty pew-pew comic to a serious book with something to say…

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Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture! And a nice red uniform.

3 Comments

  1. Its interesting to see an in-depth look of comic from this era. 1995-1999 was a time when I read pretty much zero comic books. Honestly, from what I´ve seen, I dont feel like missing a lot, especially from Marvel/DC side. It might also be the reason why I cant see greatness of certain Marvel Characters and/or teams. (mostly weapon using paramilitary Deathblood Killstrikes) These companies have always been really dependent on nostalgia and heritage to me. I know Stormwatch is Image, but its basically same guys as Marvel/DC.

    • While I agree that the 90’s has been … pigeonholed in it’s approach to art and story, and the WildStom imprint of Image did have its fair share of that. I really enjoyed that collection of series. In a time when Marvel and DC were doing their often convoluted stories and dealing with their histories. Or just doing crazy things like the clone saga. WildStom was a small isolated island of creative talent that seemed to mesh well together. The relative newness of it all allowed for a shared history that was in some ways more organic that the “we acquired these properties let’s make them part of our past” that the main lines of comics enjoyed.
      I was able to find the issues that were referenced as the “past”, and the feeling of a cohesive whole was really a draw, with characters really feeling like they had a connection.
      While there were definitely some derivative characters and concepts, I think overall they were over time developed in a way that made them feel unique. Usually by the hand of what would end up being recognized, or already was, as greatly talented writers and artists.

      • There’s also a question of context. Stormwatch under Ellis is really good stuff that leads to even better stuff, but given that the book was just another generic Dethstryke Bludforce book beforehand, it’s an even more impressive feat.

        And, to be honest, 1996-1997 was a hard couple years for comics of all stripes.

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