Stormwatch: A Big Bag of Knockoffs

Stormwatch: A Big Bag of Knockoffs

The early '90s were a hell of a time in comics. Superman died, the X-Men were everywhere, and even garbage would sell literally millions of copies. (For comparison, the best-selling titles in 2017 were lucky to break 100k copies.) Eight of Marvel’s most popular young creators left and formed their own brand so that they

The early ’90s were a hell of a time in comics. Superman died, the X-Men were everywhere, and even garbage would sell literally millions of copies. (For comparison, the best-selling titles in 2017 were lucky to break 100k copies.) Eight of Marvel’s most popular young creators left and formed their own brand so that they could publish their own garbage and reap more of the profits. Stormwatch was part of that garbage.

I could spend all day tearing apart all the things Stormwatch got wrong, from its terrible panel layouts, to its terrible dialogue layouts to its deeply racist color art, to its deeply racist and sexist everything else. It has Grade A Escher Girls all over the place. The guns make no sense. But all of this is pretty par for the course in early ’90s comics, so I’m just going to point out a couple of egregious examples. Then, because this is WWAC’s Year of the Knockoff, I’m going to laboriously list the many characters and other elements that are shameless knockoffs of existing IPs.

In the Golden Age, comics were dominated by huge, heavy captions that told most of the story, often narrating the exact same information conveyed by the art and dialogue. Over time, the trend has generally been toward clearer storytelling in art and lighter captions. In the ’90s, a lot of editorial focus was on the art, and captions were often used quite poorly. The first issue of Stormwatch contains an amazing example.

Page six has a large central panel featuring the villain team posing dramatically. They each have a caption next to their head that tells their names. This layout is a classic feature of the 90s that allowed creators to get away with skipping character establishment entirely. (The hero team got the same treatment on pages two and three.) Page seven is a full-page spread of the hero team also posing dramatically, almost identically. At the bottom of the page, Hellstrike says, “Just give the word, Battalion.” This raises the tension of the standoff and primes the reader for the two teams to engage, possibly in an even-more-dramatic two-page spread of the two teams moving toward one another. Instead, we get this:

Stormwatch (1993) #1: co-created/story by Brandon Choi and Jim Lee, pencils by Scott Clark, inks by Trevor Scott, colors by Joe Chiodo, letters by Mike Heisler

Stormwatch (1993) #1: co-created/story by Brandon Choi and Jim Lee, pencils by Scott Clark, inks by Trevor Scott, colors by Joe Chiodo, letters by Mike Heisler

A caption tells us “The word is given,” but we don’t actually see that moment. The first panel has skipped us ahead to several moments later, when both teams have spread out and paired up. What was the word? I can imagine Jim Lee and Brandon Choi sitting in an office struggling to figure out what Stormwatch’s catch phrase would be. “Avengers Assemble” and “To me, my X-Men” were taken. “Stormwatch Strike?” Apparently the result of that hypothetical meeting was both of them shrugging and deciding to skip it.

Just as the villains are never really established, we have to wait until issue six for Fuji and Diva, the two primary supporting characters, to get even a paragraph of establishment. Stormwatch is ostensibly a team book, but these first issues focus incredibly heavily on Jackson King, to the point that the others become supporting characters.

Issue six marks a change in the creative team, with Brandon Choi taking over scripting duties in addition to the vague responsibility of “story” that he has shared with Jim Lee since issue one. We finally find out that Diva was an up-and-coming Italian opera singer until she gained the powers of the mutant Siryn from X-Force. We also find out her name, Alessandra Fermi. Fuji doesn’t even get that much.

So who are Stormwatch, anyway? They’re knockoffs of a bunch of DC and Marvel characters, mostly. The book revolves around Battalion, Jackson King, who is basically a knockoff of the archetypal ’90s character Cable (created by writers Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson and artist Rob Liefeld, one of the co-founders of Image). Unreasonably muscular, vaguely defined psychic powers, and really big guns, King is African American, but predictably the colorist teams often seem to forget that. There’s a panel where they give him blond hair, even.

Fuji is reasonably original, though elements of his design can be mapped to other characters, such as Thug of Gatecrasher’s Technet, from whom Fuji received his weird elephant feet. Diva is Siryn of X-Force and later X-Factor, who in turn was a knockoff of Banshee, an earlier mutant with “scream” powers. Cannon is highly reminiscent of Cannonball of the New Mutants in terms of his powers and personality, but his appearance is more like that of Shatterstar of X-Force. Nautika could pass for a member of the Green Lantern Corps, but with electricity powers. Flashpoint is an even-more-racist Captain Boomerang, but with Darkseid’s eye beams.

Excalibur #45: written and pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer, letters by Michael Heisler, colors by Glynis Oliver

Thug, of Gatcrashers Technet, in his uniform as one of the N-Men. Excalibur #45: written and pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer, letters by Michael Heisler, colors by Glynis Oliver

Stormwatch in general is modeled after the Justice League, including Skywatch, their orbital satellite base of operations. They are led by Weatherman, Henry Bendix, who is visually identical to Lobot, the bald guy from Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. He takes a lot of his personality from another notable bald guy in comics, Lex Luthor.

Stormwatch’s primary antagonists are a team of mercenaries led by Deathtrap, who is quite similar in temperament to DC’s Deathstroke, but shares some visual features with Marvel’s Deadpool, who also began life as a knockoff of Deathstroke. His powers are of the same vague “psychic” variety as Battalion’s. Slayer, known in later issues as Hellslayer (presumably to avoid copyright infringement with the band), wears the exact armor of Magneto’s Acolytes (personally created by Lee two years prior) and has a large facial tattoo of a symbol or letter, vaguely reminiscent of a capital letter omega, much like Bishop from the X-Men. Razer has Rogue’s “southern belle” speech affectations and flight powers. Kilgore is a Wolverine knockoff. Brutus is a generic bruiser, but he looks a bit like Grizzly of Cable’s Six Pack.

Issue four introduces a new set of villains, the Warguard. Notable among them is Talos, who looks virtually identical to Cable’s clone Stryfe, but with only a single set of his signature head wing blade things. The Warguard are revived only to be possessed by Daemonites, an alien race who look much like Marvel’s Brood, who in turn were variations of the Xenomorphs from Alien. Daemonites, Brood, and Xenomorphs all share a penchant for infesting/possessing humans.

It’s no coincidence that the X-Men family gets mentioned a lot in the above comparisons. Jim Lee had spent most of his professional comics career up to that point drawing Punisher and various X-titles, including X-Men #1, Marvel’s re-launch of the series, which brought in nearly $7 million. Less than a year after that unbelievable success, Lee left to co-found Image. Punisher plus X-Men yields Cable and X-Force, essentially, and while Stormwatch was meant to be more of a Justice League, while WildC.A.T.S was closer to X-Force, that sensibility was what defined all of Wildstorm for many years.

Was Stormwatch a mistake? No, not at all. Its creators made mistakes, certainly, but the lessons learned helped move the industry forward. Over the years, Stormwatch improved in the quality of writing, the consistency of art, and the treatment of sensitive and controversial issues. In 1997, writer Warren Ellis took over and relaunched the title with a sci-fi sensibility and a more critical focus on US involvement in world affairs. He introduced several new characters, including two notable characters, knockoffs of Superman and Batman respectively–Apollo and Midnighter–who would go on to have one of the most prominent gay relationships in mainstream comics.

In their first letters page, the Stormwatch creators stated that “Stormwatch is an attempt at bringing attention and focus to today’s geopolitical issues and events within a superhero team format.” They may have fallen short, but that noble goal is part of a long history of comics seeking to broaden the perspectives of their readers and represent a larger audience, which continues in some of the best comics of today.

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Annie Blitzen
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