StormWatch: Post Human Division #1

Written by Christos Gage
Art by Doug Mahnke
32 pages, color
Published by WildStorm/DC Comics

WildStorm’s StormWatch has in some ways always been a troubled title. Early on the series’s history it released an issue #25 almost eighteen months early to let readers play the “how would they get there?” game. Later the book got heavily revamped by Warren Ellis and Tom Raney, then restarted with a new #1 before being cancelled to lead into The Authority. A new book called StormWatch: Team Achilles survived for two years before getting cancelled amid low sales and creative team scandals. Now the book is back again under the new moniker StormWatch: Post Human Division. And while the subtitle may not be the most riveting, Christos Gage and Doug Mahnke’s stab at the book might just have a chance of surviving.

StormWatch has seen better days—orbiting space stations, billion dollar technology, hundreds-of-people staff. Now? This once-darling of the United Nations is severely underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed. Former StormWatch leader Jackson King’s new plan involves a series of Post Human Division groups, one in each major city and partnering with local law enforcement, to best deal with super-powered outbreaks and the aftermath, forming a team of specialists who are the experts of their field. Now all he has to do is get each of his prospective candidates to want to join the pilot program.

What surprised me the most about StormWatch: Post Human Division #1 is that this is in many ways a comic where almost nothing happens, and yet it held my attention the entire time. It’s a pretty standard set-up, where Jackson visits each of the new cast members and convinces them to sign on as part of the new StormWatch. This has the immense potential to be boring, with multiple scenes of two people talking and discussing their lives. Thanks to Gage’s writing, though, it’s anything but. Gage has most of the characters tell a story to Jackson about an earlier encounter, one that takes just one or two pages to tell—but most of them are little snippets of ideas that other writers would’ve taken an entire issue to tell. Gage boils them down to their essence, keeping the book moving quickly and with a minimum of padding. The end result? It’s immensely interesting for the reader, getting a rapid-fire collection of short stories that continue to entertain and intrigue.

The characters themselves have real potential as well, from the former super-villain moll whose lure to join StormWatch is to finally be taken seriously as the extremely intelligent woman that she is, to the perfectly ordinary cop who’s merely able to think fast enough on his feet that he can survive against super-powered attacks. In other hands they could easily descend into stereotypes, but Gage already is finding a voice for each of them. Considering how swiftly he was able to move the book from one to the next (with almost all of them being brand-new characters) and bring them all on stage, this is one of the few times where I not only feel like I’ve got a grasp on all the major characters of a new team book, but that we’re going to continue to learn about each of them as the series progresses.

While Gage is a writer whose works I hadn’t encountered before, I am familiar with Doug Mahnke’s work. Now, more than ever, his art can’t help but make me think that he’s the second coming of Simon Bisley. Mahnke is able to walk the line perfectly between beautiful and grotesque here, something that’s harder than it sounds. The book opens with a two-page splash of twisted, unreal beings destroying a city block and it’s enthralling to look at each of the figures on the page. From the small curls of hair and squiggles designing a coat, to the madness in the villains’s eyes and the catching of claws across a person’s face, nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. This is something that borders on brutal, with city buses being thrown and mortar crumbling. There’s nothing here that Mahnke is glamorizing or beautifying; this is a group of people trying to kill each other and all that it entails. Even the people in the scene are less than beautiful, with angry expressions and sharp lines forming their features. And then, several pages later, you meet the woman called Gorgeous and that’s exactly what she is; classic, calm, and flawlessly beautiful. You’re reminded at this point that Mahnke is carefully choosing what to show the reader and how. Every expression is perfectly detailed, from Jackson’s pain upon an associate discovering the truth about her chances of recovery, to the humor as Gorgeous taps Jackson on his nose. Even little panels that could be throw-aways, like two of the villains talking to each other, have little visual treasures such as what looked like simple braids suddenly looking much more like some form of thorny claw. This is some of Mahnke’s best work yet, and if Gage’s strong writing isn’t enough of a lure, surely this will be.

StormWatch: Post Human Division #1 is the latest in a series of new launches for the WildStorm imprint, and is in many ways the most intriguing. Fans of the previous incarnations of the book have a couple of returning characters, while new readers can start fresh and enjoy it equally. As a first issue debut, Gage and Mahnke have more than exceeded my expectations. This is absolutely a book to watch; in a market saturated with too much of the same, Gage and Mahnke manage to make this feel fresh and and exciting. Definitely recommended.

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