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In June of 1993, a fourth title joined WildStorm’s fold, and it was the first whose heroes seemingly didn’t have an explicit connection to the shared backstory of Kherubim, Daemonites, IO, and Stormwatch.
That hero was Union, co-created by Jim Lee and Mike Heisler – a longtime letterer and only occasional writer. (He’d later write a long run of the Gen13 spin-off DV8).
Union has a rich origin that nods to Superman’s, though his Krypton is not an exploding planet but a sister reality to our own that is in a constant state of civil war. When Ohmen, a warrior Relayer of the Protectorate, is shunted through an explosion of energy from his world to ours he crash lands on the Maine coastline.
Union’s mini-series is a pair of parenthesis, two stories opened in the first two issues without the full information we need as readers to understand them, and then two issues that resolve their mysteries in reverse order.
That makes for what is undoubtably the best first issue yet from WildStorm, and even the exposition-heavy final issues is a thrill since they answer so many questions. Union #0 provides a thick spreading of glorious connection-making context to fill in Union’s past and tie him to more closely to another Wildstorm title. It’s a bit leaden told all in one shot, but it makes re-reading the series even more fun.
The real draw here wasn’t the mysterious superhero from another dimension, but the artwork. Mark Texeira was mostly known as a Marvel utility player who launched Ghost Rider and drew Punisher and Sabretooth. His wild, untamed pencil-work and inky blacks were nothing like the high-gloss figure-work of the other Image founders and their proteges, but a near neighbor to Sam Keith and Jae Lee.
Maybe that’s why it seems like the early digital colors are fighting against Texeira’s linework in the first two issues of Union. While some of the gradients help enhance the inherent dimensionality of his characters, too often the colors are garish or overwhelm his rough lines. Despite the struggle, Texiera delivers wild, beautiful work – especially in the domestic scenes that could easily be just talking heads. The colors settle down by #3, and by the end of #4 it’s the best Texiera’s work had looked to date.
Despite the unevenness of the pace and the colors, Union feels like a title that’s truly grounded in a universe that’s already-formed. It’s filled with references to Supreme, Youngblood, and Cyberforce, and it opens by featuring Stormwatch so prominently that the first issue could have easily been Stormwatch #5.5.
That’s a tribute to Mike Heisler, who bucks the WildStorm trend of super-cool action to unfurl an exceedingly human mystery of how much we can trust Union as a reliable narrator. We see him deliberately withhold things from us and from his human companion Jill, and that makes it hard to completely trust him as our protagonist even when he professes to be doing good.
Jill is the most well-rounded character we’ve had yet in a WildStorm book. She’s an actual human being who loves art and sometimes does stupid things in the name of romance. She makes gallows-humor jokes to herself and absent-mindedly explaining why she switched to painting abstracts when she was in a world of beautiful landscapes. Even if her budding romance with Union is rushed, this book is grounded in human emotion more than any of the other Wildstorm material to date. Together, she and Union give off major Lois & Clark vibes from the classic Reeves Superman films.
If Union had pushed forward from this mini-series to continue the story with Heisler and Texiera still at the helm it would have catapulted into must-read territory for me along with Stormwatch! Instead, it was the first WildStorm book to take a brief hiatus and return as an ongoing series (a pattern Gen13 would follow). However, Heisler does stick around for every issue of Union ever published, so maybe I’m in for a treat when I get back to the title’s ongoing relaunch later this month.
Want the full details? Read on to unravel the mystery that begins in Union #1. Here’s the schedule for the rest of this month’s WildStorm re-read. Tomorrow we find out what Backlash and Grifter have been up to in Kindred #1-4.
Need the issues? These issues have never before been collected! For single issues – try eBay (#0-4) or Amazon (#0, 1, 2, 3, 4). Since the ongoing Union series hit these same issue numbers, be sure to match your purchase to the cover images in this post.
In Union #1 we open on a tense scene in a formerly bucolic setting. Stormwatch One’s leader Battalion faces down Union over the smoking remains of the tiny New York town of Chichester. Winter can tell that the crater is infused with an energy much like Battalion’s, so he has a lot to answer for!
We flash back to six months prior. Jill Monroe is holed up for the winter in her coastal Maine cabin amidst a total whiteout when through the snow she sees a strange green light in the sky plunge to the ground. She rushes outside to find Union collapsing onto the icy surface of the waters outside her cabin. She intrepidly reels him in while hanging onto a clothesline and keeps him safe for days until he awakens.
We glimpse vignettes of their interactions over the course of weeks. Union devours chicken soup and books eagerly. He watches as Jill works on her abstract paintings, engaging her with surprising insight. Later, he displays the power of his Justice Stone, which allows him fly and materialize a staff of pure energy. The last thing he remembers from his own reality is defending himself with his Stone against enemy warriors in the midst of a lightning storm. Had the sheer amount of energy somehow ripped a hole in the fabric of reality?
Just two days before our opening scene, Union is shocked to see news reports of a pair of extraterrestrials that are a obviously pair of his enemy Protectorate soldiers! How did they get to Earth? Were they following him?
We pass from Jill’s viewpoint to Battalion’s as Union tells him he is an otherworldly law enforcer who tracked several villains to Earth, but they self-destructed before he could detain them – destroying the town in the process.
Funny, that’s doesn’t ring entirely true based on what he revealed to Jill…
The explanation isn’t enough to convince Battalion that Union wasn’t involved in the destruction of the town, and before the their argument escalates further Diva and Fuji step in to pummel Union. Battalion calls them off, for a moment, as reports filter in of people found alive and trapped in the rubble. Union uses the opportunity to play hero and convince Stormwatch of his good intentions. Psychic or not, Battalion still doesn’t trust him, but he consents to letting him depart in exchange for his fingerprints..
Battalion, and then Jill, are our point of view characters in this tale. We never get to see Union without the filter of their eyes.Union has a different story for each of them of how Chichester imploded. To Battalion, the story is a few Directorate soldiers he fought immolated themselves. but when he returns Jill, he describes was a town full of Directorate who hit the self-destruct button as soon as they were found.
Is either version true? Is Union a force for good or did he kill all of those people?
Instead of another answer, we get another mystery. The issue closes with a glimpse of a weather satellite far above earth. Inside is Regent, the villain from Stormwatch #3. Somehow, he is the connection between Union, the town, and Stormwatch.
Union #2 doesn’t pick up that story. Months pass between the first and second issue, which is a standalone story of Union feeling compelled to play superhero in New York City after observing a high-speed super-burglar.
We find Jill and Union walking hand-in-hand in Manhattan, or month or more after the first issue. They are there to show Jill’s art to a gallery, but their walk is interrupted by sirens and Union’s obsession with being a good guy.
He tries to intervene in catching a speedster robbing a bank, but instead the police mistake him for an accomplice. He allows them to take him into custody even though he could easily snap them like twigs, while a common thief makes off with Jill’s art portfolio.
Union is a combination of polite and blithely officious with the police, which goes over about a badly as you’d imagine. However, when they run his prints they find that he is registered with Stormwatch … with the following note on his file:
FULL ABILITIES UNDETERMINED
PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
Union goes free, and immediately flies to to the scene of a new robbery he hears on the police scanner. His confidence gets the best of him, as the super-fast robber – The Quickness – grabs a hold of him with all the power of an electric shock. Union can’t break his grasp, and winds up catapulted through a shop window.
He flies up and tries to zero in on the speedster from above, only to interrupt Cyberforce’s Velocity on split-second trip to the grocery store in the middle of cooking chicken parmigiana at the team’s Westchester headquarters.
Union retreats, defeated, to the shabby YMCA room he’s sharing with Jill (they haven’t figured out how to monetize his powers, yet). They get in a screaming match, both a little bit in the right – Jill accusing Union of changing the stakes by focusing on common criminals rather than getting to his home dimension, and Union slinging back at Jill that she’s more interested in keeping him sheltered than letting him understand the world.
Jill leaves in a huff, an while it’s obvious her infatuation with Union is hamstringing his ability to interact with the world you can’t help but side with her.
Temporarily freed from his obligations to Jill, Union chases The Quickness with a vengeance. He hasn’t come up with a strategy to resist his electric shock grasp, but he did figure out that his foe drew power from an external source and could be overloaded. Both men are knocked unconscious. Union comes to first, and learns from the police that the robber – who they nickname Quickness – is bonded to his suit.
In Union #3, we open with someone probing Union’s memories, pulling out the recollection of a climactic battle in his home reality, with hundreds of powerful warriors swarming through the air. (The page is beautiful.)
The battle ends in a flash of lightning, and we jump cut to the crater in Chichester. This is a scene that Union the unreliable narrator didn’t previously share with us. Union is picking himself off the ground next to the smoking remains of the town, bruised and upset, screaming into the smokey air.
Now we are at the crater, no longer in Union’s memories. A security guard lies prone on the ground. Unseen, a figure standing over him says:
“Analysis of the area reveals residual energy traces of numerous – hundreds, possibly — Justice Stones … but only one of them leaves a trail leading away from this place. It must be him.”
The intriguing unspoken narrative is that Union’s tale to Jill was closer to the truth than his version for Stormwatch – yet, would Union be battered and wailing if the town had simply self-destructed?
Union awakens in a high tech lab, where he is suspended by all four limbs by some form of power dampener. Our previously unseen (and quite boastful) narrator reveals himself He is Mnemo, and he is reminiscent of X-Men’s Mojo – an overgrown, rotund infant in a floating yellow throne. He gloats that it was easy to attract Union with the same energy that infused The Quickness, and just as easy to overload Union as Union disabled his speedy foe.
Back in Maine, Jill has been alone for two days blaming herself for storming out on Union. Suddenly, she notices her open door just as a voice demands, “Where is the Relayer Ohmen?!”
Back at Mnemo’s lab, Union breaks free and shreds the mad scientist’s assistant, a cyborg with a knockout punch. Mnemo echoes a theme we heard in the last arc of WildCATs: his interest in cybernetics is purely selfish – he wants to escape his own twisted frame. Union lashes out at him, but he’s just a hologram. At an unseen base, Mnemo’s chuckles to himself. He can recoup the cost of his destroyed lab by selling his services to Kaizen Gamorra. What’s more important, is he has a clue to unlocking the powers of the unconscious Relayer in his custody – who has a broken Justice Stone.
Union flies back to Maine to reconcile with Jill, only to find her sitting in her kitchen flanked by a pair of Protectorate soldiers – including his former lover Eliya!
Their confrontation opens Union #4. Eliya, it seems, was Union’s superior back on Aegena. She’s since found herself a hunky new Relayer, Maikone.
She also brings startling news that recasts the destruction in Chichester. It seems that the Directorate forces have recently given up on their war, surrendering to Eliya without a fight. Their superior officers and ruling family have disappeared from contact! In their confessions in exchange for amnesty, they reveal that they used an astral gate in Aegena’s upper atmosphere to disguise their movements.
That’s as much as she’s figured out, but it leads Union to reveal the rest of the story – and it is so much more messed up than you could have possibly guessed.
Union is intercepted above Chichester by a pair of Directorate guards who beat the tar out of him. He lands in nearby lake where a man is fishing with his young son. Union tries to warn them away from the quickly descending Protectorate, and the father says not to worry – before brutally beating Union with his own Justice Stone weapon!
That’s right – it’s not that the town is a cover for the Directorate, it’s that the town is the Directorate. It’s a safe haven and breeding ground for high-ranking officers to live their lives away from the war torn Aegena. The Directorate agents fairly assume Union is like a super-powered suicide bomber, on a one-way mission to disrupt their island of peace. He tries to fight his way out of their custody, only to encounter their monarch, Darian.
Union takes a beating from Darian, but in the process manages to grab his staff and lay a hand on stone. Somehow, Union’s stone reacts with Darian’s, and the king disintegrates right before Union’s eyes! A dome of energy expands outward from him, vaporizing the other guards and moving out to level the entire town.
When he comes to afterwards, Union tries to take his own life by jamming Darian’s surviving staff and ramming it into his own Justice Stone. Instead of killing himself he absorbs it – changing the color and calibration of his powers! If you check back in Union #1, you can indeed see that his early powers glow green (as they are in the flashbacks in #3), but when Stormwatch finds him his powers are blue.
Eliya surmises that the lightning strike that sent Union through the Astral Gate may have allowed him to come to Earth with his stone still calibrated for Aegena, which would make him a super-solider even to his peers. However, one mystery remains: the gate was opened from Earth, not Aegena. Who could have created it? And, how did it fall into Directorate hands?
Union declines to return to Aegena with Eliya, and she realizes she cannot force him to obey now that his stone is vastly more powerful and merged with Darian’s. They leave him behind to reconcile with Jill.
Union #0 tells us the story of Ohmen’s entire life, seemingly in real time.
Okay, not quite, but it is an exhaustive dump of an origin story. I’m not going to cover it, but here’s the gist.
The Directorate is a ruling class who staged a coop, and the Protectorate is the remaining vestiges of the former peacekeeping corps who resisted the change in power.
Ohmen is born to two members of the Protectorate, one of whom is a high-ranking Pathfinder and academy instructor, Hadron. He graduates to earn his own Justice Stone along with childhood friends Eliya, but doesn’t have the ambition that she does to rise through the ranks of service.
Elsewhere at that same moment of Ohmen’s borth, the Directorate’s ruler Darian’s son Darnel is born. He dismisses his simpering older child Rijian to tend to his new hope for extending his family’s rule to a new generation. Darian banishes Rijian to Earth to keep an eye on their colony, which the prince is more than happy to do to stay away from his despotic father and experiment with refining the Justice Stones.
Terror attacks from each side take the lives of Ohmen’s father and Rijian’s mother and brother. Ohmen resists the need for revenge, but it radicalizes both Eliya and Riijian. Rijian’s becomes Regent, the deadly foe from Stormwatch #3. Later, Ohmen’s mother passes away and he throws himself into service, finally getting promoted and getting thrown through the portal to Earth in one of his first major battles.