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WildC.A.T.s: Covert Action Teams was the first book released from Jim Lee’s WildStorm imprint of Image Comics, and it has remained one of the most memorable thanks to his dynamic art and enduring characters like Grifter and Voodoo.
Was it any good?
My answer is a qualified, “sorta?”
At the time, there wasn’t a better-looking book on the stands, aside from perhaps Todd McFarlane’s beautiful early issues of Spawn. Plus, WildC.A.T.s came equipped with an epic, centuries-long good versus evil plot coming to a head in the modern day – a story much deeper than much of what Marvel was fielding at the time.
So why the hedging on if it was any good? Of all the many awesome aspects of WildC.A.T.s, the actual plot and script of the book aren’t especially one of them.
WildC.A.T.s opens with a messy arc built on simple dual-missions – locate a newly discovered Gifted One while trying to wrest control of a powerful Orb away from their enemies, The Cabal, who are about to bring their hellish demon planet to Earth.
Jim Lee and his BFF and co-writer Brandon Choi play things very close to a Claremontian gameplan here, complete with an undefeatable warrior woman, a budding ingenue who saves the day, an indestructible boy scout, and several last-minute reversals. What makes the arc messy is no less than four total factions in the finale, which gives as much panel time to Liefield’s Youngblood as to the WildC.A.T.s.
As a result, we don’t get any real character moments – just slow moments between fight scenes. The good guys are good (if a little violent), the bad guys are bad (and also a little violent), and everyone wants the girl who can see Daemonites and the orb that crashed onto earth from space.
Luckily, some of these characters have enough cool implied that you’ll let it slide. Grifter and Zealot quickly steal the show as both the most-interesting and most visually-arresting characters – when they’re not on panel it feels like the book is running low on oxygen. This is especially true when Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood invades issues #3-4, as they’re just one big interchangeable lump of extreme costume designs.
My distinct impression has always been that Choi and Lee were superior storytellers without a good story. I know that sounds contradictory. What I mean is that they clearly made up an amazing universe and some compelling characters, but when it comes to plotting them through an arc there’s not a lot that’s memorable. I feel as though if someone just told them what situation to put the characters in (as Chris Claremont would do on his arc), the book would be great.
Should you re-read this run to prepare for the WildStorm relaunch?
Despite nitpicks at the story, there’s no denying the impact of Lee’s bold artwork at the height of his early-90s powers. Plus, it’s clear that Lee and Choi have put a lot of effort into the world-building of the WildStorm Universe. That’s ultimately the saving grace of the lumpy introduction: the promise of the wider conflicts to come.
It’s terrific if you can’t get enough of Lee in his early prime, but storywise I’d say the “Killer Instinct” crossover with Cyberforce or Chris Claremont’s Huntsman arc pack more wallop.
Want the play-by-play? Keep reading for a summary of this introductory story. Here’s the schedule for the rest of this month’s WildStorm re-read – tomorrow I tackle Stormwatch #1-3 & 0
Need the issues? WildC.A.T.s #1-4 were collected way back in 1993 bagged along with #0 (so if you buy an unbagged copy, it might not include #0). Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase single issues – try eBay or Amazon (#0, 1, 2, 3, 4)
I’m typically torn on where to read #0 and negative-numbered issues. Sure, they’re meant to fill in prequel stories prior to the launch of a title. However, as readers sometimes having that information in the launch timeframe isn’t beneficial – it’s much more worthwhile and revelatory to have it at the later point when it was published.
WildC.A.T.s #0 isn’t that. It’s not some eye-opening origin reveal, although it does have that component as it relates to Void. Instead, it’s literally just the pre-credits portion of the story occurring 24 hours prior to WildC.A.T.s #1. It was originally shipped along with the trade paperback of WildC.A.T.s #1-4 as if to say, “Hey, sorry we didn’t give this the best opening – here’s what we’ve come up with, in hindsight.” While Lee doesn’t illustrate it, Brett Booth delivers his best imitation with Alex Garner on inks.
(While I’m not planning on giving panel by panel recaps in this series, given that #0 was meant to fill in some blanks and is not as easy to come by as the following four issues, I’m going to give it some extra attention.)
Issue #0 opens with Void meditating on the next “gifted one” the team would locate to aid them in their impending battle against Daemonite forces for control of an “orb of fantastic power.” While this erstwhile member is clearly meant to be Voodoo, that somewhat ignores the fact that the team (such as it is, with three other members) will also meet Grifter and Zealot, who are more useful than all of the rest of them put together.
For an issue put together in retrospect, #0 misses a lot of obvious openings.
We get a flashback of Void’s origin – a member of the crew of the Mir Space Station Pustota who died and was reborn a silvery psychic lady who then apparently spent 20 years just bumming around until she dug up Jacob Marlowe out of a pile of trash in an alley. Marlowe AKA Lord Emp and his completely loyal and effectively immortal android sidekick Spartan (AKA Pretty Much Cyclops) arrive to interrupt her and exposit an awful lot.
They, in turn, are interrupted by Marlowe’s executive assistant Jules, who says The Gnome has located a gifted one who may also be hunted by The Cabal, led by the totally awesome-looking Helspont. We also meet Warblade and Maul in the Danger Room – ahem, I mean Combat Training Room, and they are as one-note as ever.
Seriously, it’s a good thing Voodoo, Grifter, and Zealot join the team by the end of the first issue, because the group of characters they started with are all beige to the max.
Void is Jean Grey without the personality, which is saying a lot. Maybe Rachel Summers is more apt, since she has an unhinged-in-time component to her. Spartan is so Cyclops that it’s painful, and Warblade and Maul are more or less Wolverine and Colossus (or, more accurately, Strong Guy) boiled down to their most basic of archetypes. Jacob Marlowe is a lovable drunk scamp who went from bum to billionaire. To Lee and Brandon Choi’s credit, his dwarfism isn’t really much of a plot point – he just happens to be a short dude who has been alive since the middle ages.
Speaking of, Grifter and Zealot get the drop on Gnome meeting with representatives of The Cabal, who are trading in information and already know Voodoo’s location (“the third gifted one” – were Maul and Warblade the other two?), and then The Triad subsequently get the drop on them.
While Grifter is a clear Wolverine/Gambit analog, Zealot is the act of true pure creation in Lee and Brandon Choi’s toybox. She’s part Wonder Woman, part something entirely else thanks to the intricate history of the Coda sisterhood and her complicated relationship with Grifter. WildC.A.T.s spends more time in it’s first 15 issues fleshing out her backstory than describing anything useful about Daemonites.
We get Grifter leaving the fight to locate the Gifted One, a split-second tease of Voodoo about to hit the stage, and then the issue is over. Like I said – just some pre-credits business to help provide more context to issue #1.
“Gifted One” here avoids any chance of a mutant-related lawsuit and instead goes the Inhumans route – these Gifted Ones are descendants of Kherubim stranded on earth – effectively, part “Angel” versus immortal and possessive devils. It’s a fascinating religion-replacement dichotomy that the book promptly ignores without much comment.
While we’re explaining things, C.A.T.s, by the way, are “Covert Action Teams,” and since we don’t put periods in acronyms like PIN anymore I’m dropping them from here on out. The way the acronym is casually tossed about gives the impression that it describes any group of super mercs for hire. Our heroes are deemed “Wild” for their apparent lack of affiliation, but it’s a generic term that could apply to any team. What their purpose in life is other than chasing Orbs and kinda not liking people possessed by Daemonites is lost on me.
Oh, the Daemonites. Here’s what to know and understand. They are creepy aliens who can possess other humanoids and slip into their bodies. For some reason, all of them in the Cabal appear to have chosen to inhabit fragile humans except Helspont, who occupies the totally badass body of an Acurian (sort of a energy-bleeding version of Ghost Rider with a horned skull). He’s one of Lee’s most over-the-top character designs in the series, especially with his vivid yellow, purple, and blue coloring.
(By the way, with Helspoint we’re now into WildCATs #1)
The Cabal have their own Void-esque clairvoyant in the form of the teenage Providence, who apparently knows exactly where Voodoo is located but not from the person who betrayed them to the Gnome who also knew Voodoo’s location, making the whole bit from the #0 with the Gnome team seem totally irrelevant. (Plotting is not this book’s strong point.)
Everyone converges on Voodoo’s club, the CATs tangle with The Cabal, Zealot saves the day, and the place blows up at the end of issue #1.
At the top of WildCATs #2 we learn that Void ported the team out in the nick of time, but for totally contrived reasons routes them through International Operations’ headquarters, bringing yet another interested party into the equation.
International Operations AKA I.O. is threaded through the initial WildCATs issues, but they aren’t much of a presence here or in the ones immediately following. They’re effectively the global mercenary cooperation that WildStorm would use to drive a lot of its historical, Weapon X type of stories, and they play a much bigger part in Gen 13 than they do in WildCATs.
While the CATs regroup, the Cabal has spirited the powerful orb that created Void to a nuclear reactor, which should be able to pump enough power through it to open a gate to their homeworld of Daemon, enabling them to overrun the Earth! I.O.’s Director Lynch catches wind of the plan, and convinces the team to intervene at the reactor.
WildCATs #3 was intended to wrap up the series, but faced with another criminally late book Lee decided to split the oversized issue into two rather than face fan and retailer disappointment.
Maul, Spartan, and Voodoo are interrupted in exercising a Daemonite from the Vice President by Youngblood, who rightfully take issue with the trio of them manhandling the demon second in line to lead the free world. Spartan is scrapped and Voodoo is forced to psychically deactivate a oversized and raging Mail.
Fortunately, Quayle’s Daemonite B’Lial is too eager to dispense of the one woman who can threaten the Daemonite conspiracy, and Youngblood is totally not cool with him trying to execute a harmless psychic stripper.
Meanwhile, Grifter and Zealot ambush Helspoint in the control center, along with an eager Warblade and a useless Void and Marlowe. They make quick work of his Cabal guards but are no match for their leader, who even manages to dispense with the seemingly indestructible Zealot.
WildCATs #4 opens with Helspont seemingly triumphant, with the WildC.A.T.s down, the orb under his control and the gate to his homeworld open. Voodoo – who, recall, had worked as a stripper just a day prior – remains on the field of battle backed by Youngblood. Having freed Dan Quayle from Daemonite occupation, she can’t seem to do the same against Helspont.
Luckily, Lee and Choi have a series of deus ex machina’s to deploy to avert this clear victory.
First, Marlowe has one last trick up his sleeve – Spartan. Yes, the Spartan who was seemingly annihilated last issue. Marlowe remotely taps some lingering source of power and motivation in his android servant, and Spartan manages to pull the emergency shutdown on the reactor.
Then, the team is suddenly and without explanation up on their feet. Warblade rallies to swipe at Helspont while Marlowe magically unplugs a critical processor from the back-up systems.
Curses, foiled again! At least Helspoint still has the orb. No, wait, The Gnome and Triad have seized the orb!
It sounds like Helspont is a really poor planner, but worse is The Gnome, who trusts Marlowe to do him a solid and let him escape with one of the most powerful artifacts on earth. Instead, Marlowe shoots Gnome’s arm clean off, sending it plunging into the depths of the reactor, the orb along with it.
The entire facility blows, with barely enough time for Youngblood to escape. Yet, it seems Void was able to tap into Marlowe’s typically latent store of power to teleport them away at the last second. And, he has one last surprise – he reveals a nude clone of Spartan, currently downloading all of the memories of the previous version (much to Voodoo’s delight).
And they all lived happily every after! Well, except for The Gnome, who is missing an arm, and Helspoint, who is missing in action entirely.