Stormwatch #44 (1997)

Stormwatch #44 (January, 1997)
Writer – Warren Ellis
Pencils – Tom Raney
Inks – Randy Elliott
Colors – Gina Going
Computer Colors – Laura Depuy & WildStormFX
Letters & Edits – Mike Heisler
Cover Price: $2.50

I was struggling to come up with a preamble that wouldn’t simply be a “hey, get a load of that cover… pretty cool, right?”… and, I probably would’ve mentioned that Stormwatch is one of those properties I was somehow able to sidestep during much of my comics collecting career… and how names like “Jenny Sparks” mean next to nothing to me.

But then… as I sit here, preparing to write… my coffeemaker explodes!  I’m just sitting here waiting for my coffee to finish brewing, when all of a sudden… there’s this hiss… then a great big blue spark fires out its back end.

And I smirk at the coincidence between seeing a spark… and reading about a Sparks… before the reality sets in that I’m going to have to go shopping for a new coffeemaker at some point today.

Let’s do this.

We open with Jenny Sparks being chatted up by Battalion (not that Battalion) about her past.  She says she’s both too tired, and too sober to get into it.  After a bit of prodding, however, she decides to give in and share her story… which begins in the 1919-1920.  Jenny was twenty, and at this point she appeared to have stopped aging.  She describes the 1920’s as an age of “Scientific Romance”… it is also when the alternate Earth “Sliding Albion” was discovered.

Into the 1930’s… where the art takes a decidedly Golden Age tone.  Jenny is fighting against corruption.  It’s here that she meets reporter Clarence Cornwall.

Into the 1940’s… things get pulpy.  Jenny looks to be modeled after Will Eisner’s The Spirit here… and the art is all in black and white (or black and yellowed-white anyway).  It’s here that she questions Clarence Cornwall about why he attempted to gas an orphanage… and his answer, isn’t really fit to be print.  She shocks him silly.

The 1950’s brought about the British Space Group, a secret organization involving things like extraterrestrials and inter-dimensional exploration.  This bit is rendered with Ben-Day dots to evoke the times.  Anyhoo, Sparks is questioned about a parallel-England… however, before she can answer an incursion alarm goes off.

Outside, Jenny is met with the news that Sliding Albion is about to enter its Parallel World War One.  The initial assault would be bacterial… the war was only expected to last a handful of hours.  Unfortunately for Earth, Sliding Albion vented the bacterial fallout there via a shiftdoor.

The sixties began with Jenny attempting to write a book about her life… a very, uh, Crumb-y book, it seems.

As the decade rolled on, several superheroes started popping up all over London… a result of the “gift” of the bacterial fallout from Sliding Albion.  Things become Marvel-ous here, and Jenny joins up with a super-team… with all of the trappings of a Silver-Age super-team (ie. costumes and secret identities).

Into the late-sixties, we stick with the super-team for a mission on the Isle of Wight.  Via radio, Jenny learns that there are some bikers about with syringes… and her teammate Abel (the macho caveman) decided to “sort it out”.

Much to Jenny’s surprise, Abel’s idea of “sorting it out” was proving that he was macho enough to inject himself with all of the bikers’ drugs!  While Sparks and the super-team see Abel as a foaming at the mouth goon… he sees himself as something of a Superman.

Out of control, he lashes out… and begins swiping at anything that moves, including members of his own super-team.  Jenny makes the executive decision to french-fry him.  Something she regrets to this day.  The (I believe, unnamed) super-team would break up in 1982.

Into the 80’s… the art becomes a bit more, for lack of a better term, “grim ‘n’ gritty”.  Since this is London-based, we get a lot of “it’s Thatcher’s fault”… sorta like we’re reading something out of WARRIOR Magazine.  The news of the day is… babies have been disappearing… stolen from single mothers.  Jenny’s got herself a new super-team as well.

Jenny looks into the matter, and chats up an Inspector Bulstrode.  Here she learns that one of “her people” was spotted in the area where the babies have gone missing… a fella called Firesign.  Jenny ain’t buyin’ it, and decides to check in on her teammate.

Upon arrival at his flat… er, apartment (Jenny actually “corrects” herself in the issue)…  she discovers that there might just be something shady afoot.  From the next room over, she hears a few familiar voices talking about being involved in something “Jenny doesn’t like”.

She stomps into the next room like she owns the joint… and asks for some clarification.  Firesign, Matt, comes clean right away… yes, he is stealing babies.  He orders some teammates to kill Jenny… and so, they open fire… right there in the apartment!  Matt freaks out a bit, because if the bullets go through the wall… they might hit somebody…

… somebody like his wife, and Frankenbaby.  Ya see, that Sliding Albion fallout might’ve given superpowers… but it also made the “supers” sterile.  Due to the nature of their work… and the damage it can do psychologically… they weren’t really desired by adoption agencies either.  And so, with little other choice… and really, placing the wants and needs of a “super” over those of a “civvie”… Firesign decided to keep stealing babies, in order to “create” one.

We wrap up with Battalion telling Jenny “chin up”… after all, she can still see the stars.  Ooooookay.

Up until that last panel… this was a fantastic issue!  It feels like they simply ran out of pages here, doesn’t it?  So much awesome story (and Good God, that art)… then, much like my coffeemaker, it just hisses and goes kaput.

I guess if the worst thing I can say about an issue is “I wasn’t ready for it to end”… it’s a pretty dang good book, and lemme tell ya… this was a pretty dang good book.  In fact, it was pretty excellent.

I mentioned going into this issue… I couldn’t pick a “Jenny Sparks” out of a lineup of blonde women with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths… but, the way this was written so just so engaging, I couldn’t help but walk away from it actually caring about this character.  She doesn’t seem like the nicest of characters, but the stories she tells here kinda illustrate why that might be.

I love that this is not only a look back on Jenny’s long life… but also a look into the history of comics and pulp-storytelling conceits.  The way the writing and art were able to evoke the tone and tenor of the various “ages” of comics, without turning it into an exercise in navel gazing, or clobbering us over the head with “references”… just spectacularly done.

I love how “superheroes” as a concept (outside of “mystery men” and “pulp heroes”) make their first appearance around the Marvel Age of Comics… and really, they’re depicted as spending their first 20-30 years trying to figure things out.  You gotta figure, if heroes were to suddenly just appear… we civilians would be a bit wary, and distrusting.

Some of us, like those Syringe-Slingin’ Bikers… might see fit to challenge them.  If you’re a fan of professional wrestling, you’ve probably heard stories from “back in the day” where some tough guy would try and “challenge” the big tough wrestler while at the bar after a show.  I kinda see this the same way.

Moving into the grim ‘n’ gritty 1980’s… the “supers” still haven’t really “planted their feet” yet.  There doesn’t seem to be much agreement as to their “place” in the world.  As we see with Firesign… he is so dismissive of human (that is, non-super) lives, that he sees no problem abducting their children… and using their parts to “create” a baby with his wife.

While that story is… very dark, it doesn’t feel completely out of place… and also, it lends even more to the shaky and uncertain nature of the first couple of generations of superheroes.  It’s a weird mix of ordinary and extraordinary… and I feel like it works incredibly well!

Warren Ellis is a writer I could normally go either way with.  I will say that I’m surprised this is the first time he’s come up here at the blog (982 discussions in!).  I find that I grow tired of him launching new series’ full of energy and awesome ideas, only to tire of them six or so issues later… usually leaving the book in the hands of a less uh, “sales friendly” writer… and so, the book/concept withers within a year.  There’s also his cynicism which certainly has the ability to grate on me.

Tom Raney.  Ho-lee cow, what an absolute clinic he put on here!  Evoking all of these different styles… making them all work, and flow… I really can’t say enough how much I appreciated that.  Really… the art alone would be reason enough to track this one down.  The fact that the story is also pretty great… I mean, I can’t think of a reason not to seek this one out.  Though… I will warn you, in case you were just skimming the images… the N-word does make an appearance (censored panel above).  It’s here to depict how gross the person saying it is… but, better safe than sorry.

This issue has been collected (in what I assume is the long out-of-print – though, still rather inexpensive) Stormwatch, Volume 2: Lightning Strikes trade paperback.  It has not been made available digitally… which, doesn’t really surprise me.  Though, I am curious as to whether or not they would censor that panel should they ever decide to upload it.

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