Late again — becoming a trend whenever I get to Image stuff. You know, though, I tried, for this one. I really tried. It was all supposed to be so simple. A big crossover of the WildStorm universe’s properties, pre-DC. Alan Moore and Warren Ellis scripts. Some of their key artists, too: Jim Lee. J. Scott Campbell. Brett Booth. I should have been able to find something to say and knock this out in my sleep. And then, well… I actually sat down and tried to read it. Find out more about this personal Comics Vietnam after the jump.
I’m honestly a little surprised that I can’t summarize Fire From Heaven from memory. I read the whole thing, front to back, twice. Still, the impression it leaves is so fuzzy and inarticulate that I found myself forgetting the plot while I was reading it, even on my second go-through. For full context, I don’t have a PhD in WildStorm. I can recognize just about any Marvel villain who ever showed up in Thunderbolts on sight, but when it comes to WildStorm, my reaction skews toward “Who–?” Fire From Heaven is, simply put, the worst possible comic for someone unfamiliar with WildStorm to read. It’s not just enamored with the convoluted mythology of its own universe, it’s obsessed with it — both in elaborating on its own past, and bloating its present.
There’s a certain model that got followed in the 90s more than other crossover styles, particularly in independent companies. Extreme/Maximum used it as their go-to; the other Image imprints probably used it; WildStorm does it here. Simply put, a threat beyond all conception (which is why we have never seen or heard of them before — double points for total lack of build-up) wanders up and everyone has to band together to stop them. Often, the heroes will be imprisoned, which gives them an excuse to sit around and have dramatic revelations (here, Fairchild meeting her father; in Extreme Destroyer, Shaft discovering that he’s a possibly a mutant or gen-active or whatever). Then, generally speaking, there’s an enormous cataclysm that drives hope that the story is serious business. Then, after one final rallying of the troops and a battle that is (to quote a nerd-famous movie poster) beyond good, beyond evil, and beyond your wildest imagination, the villain is bested (often via a dramatic sacrifice of someone important, but not too important), the world is saved if irrevocably changed, and the books flow back out with new status quos, roster shake-ups, or lingering subplots that cause future sturm und drang.
So I suppose the above is a summary of Fire From Heaven, except there’s so much else going on, too. As far as I could tell, this crossover is an attempt to use literally every single character and ongoing plotline in the WildStorm U. Considering that there are only four or five books involved, this shouldn’t have been a problem, but WildStorm’s ruthless expansion of its universe meant that even at 20 or so total pieces, there’s still not room for the whole thing. To contrast, Crisis on Infinite Earths, while by no means my favorite comic, mostly utilized characters who were, well… old. DC almost certainly knew that Prince Ra-Man would never be a success (otherwise he would have been a success), so his appearance is an easter egg, a wink to the continuity cops and an affirmation that the DC Universe is bigger than anyone could have ever possibly mapped prior to the invention of wikis. (Not that people didn’t try! But you know what I mean.)
Fire From Heaven uses a bazillion characters, but this thing came out in 1996, when the WildStorm universe had existed for a grand total of four years. Using, say, DV8 — the bad-boys-n-grrlz counterpoint to Gen13, in case you didn’t know — couldn’t constitute a tip of the hat to fans, because this story involved sending them on their first mission ever. Discovering who created the Gen-Active gene or who was whose father just didn’t feel important, because these weren’t exactly brightly burning mysteries. Gen13 wasn’t even a year into its ongoing series. These guest-spots and complications existed because they could, or, perhaps more accurately, because that’s the kind of stuff you’d get in an X-Men comic, and this was 1996, when they were still at the top of the charts. (Momentary digression: per the statistics available on Comichron.com, in March of ’96, Fire From Heaven‘s competition was actually the Amalgam books, most of which soundly trounced the crossover; Fire From Heaven #1 was also outsold by other, unrelated WildStorm books like Grifter/Shi and Gen13: Ordinary Heroes.) This is maximalism in superhero comic book form — perhaps it’s not such a coincidence that a month before Fire From Heaven began, David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest. (This is 100% a coincidence.)Continued below
In Fire From Heaven, more isn’t just better, it’s more — which is better. This infinite self-expansion, like the blueberry kid from the Willy Wonka movie, is the enemy of coherency. Like I said above, the number of titles and nominal protagonists of Fire From Heaven should have been fairly manageable. There’s WildC.A.T.s (maybe eight main characters), Backlash (solo title), Deathblow (ditto), Gen13 (maybe six), Wetworks (let’s say six more), StormWatch (another eight, I suppose)… okay, well. Clearly WildStorm’s lust for teams meant that this would already be a dicey proposition. (Even the two “solo” books were essentially team efforts, as Backlash and Deathblow’s supporting casts receive just as much panel time in this as the “stars.”) This is further complicated by the issue of supporting casts and rivals and parents and families (most of this, to be honest, is Gen13‘s fault) and everyone else struggling to do something meaningful. When everyone is trying to be so consciously and artlessly meaningful, though, there’s just no meaning to anything.
That’s not even the end of it. In addition to involving every ongoing WildStorm title, the crossover required the creation of three separate mini-series to further support, explain, and exposit the goings-on. Sword of Damocles focused on the villains, who as far as I’m aware had barely appeared prior to this; Sigma introduced Sigma, and that blank stare I’m sure you’re giving was shared by me even as I was reading the comics; and Fire From Heaven bookended the whole deal. (There was also a Wizard-exclusive #1/2 issue, which added to the crossover’s shame by doing a better job introducing plot elements than the mass-available stuff, even if it introduced these elements in a way that was almost pointedly irrelevant.) Have you ever seen the animated movie Akira, or read the new comic Generation Hope with the one guy who’s more or less shoplifted from Akira? You know the part where he just keeps growing and growing, deforming beyond human proportions, becoming a monstrous, bloated…
You get where I’m going with that, right?
The flawed, obese framework of Fire From Heaven consumes everything. Decent artists (that is, half of the people who drew it) find their art strewn with densely verbose word balloons, with a disruptive effect similar to the way I’ve littered this entire column with parenthetical asides (like this one). WildStorm wanted a comic book crossover that had everything and more, to overload their fans with pleasure like the orgasmatron at the end of Barbarella — although this one is a lot more fatal than that one. This thing has everything, yes, except a coherent, readable story that makes effective use of the surprisingly deep talent pool available to the company. Before he was Warren Ellis, Warren Ellis came in to write Sword of Damocles, and while it’s bent over the knee of the crossover’s ludicrous plot, he at least tries to give the villains a bit of personality (“what a bunch of pricks,” mostly, but still). Alan Moore, meanwhile, was apparently on break from being Alan Moore, and despite coming in the middle of the fun, trifling riff that was his ongoing WildC.A.T.s stint, his work here could have written by anyone. I wouldn’t have known he scripted the bookend pieces if I hadn’t read his name on the cover. Maybe that’s how Fire From Heaven should best be remembered: the comic whose sheer grotesque girth brought the skills of Alan Moore to their knees.
This is one that’s best left forgotten. I can’t really think of any merits to recommend Fire From Heaven, unless you’re an obsessive fan of WildStorm continuity and need to know just which member of the WildC.A.T.s was also part of Team One (most people, I imagine, will read that sentence and go “what the hell is Team One?” Your guess is as good as mine). Really, though, I can sum up how wrong-headed and poorly executed Fire From Heaven was in a single page. This is supposed to be one of the most vividly emotional moments of the entire thing, a reunion between daughter and long-lost father.
And yet the focal point of the picture is a butt.