Among the more notable and famous, and hot-selling, of the early Image Comics line was Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s (“Covert Action Teams”. Yeah). The book was pretty much entirely his brainchild, and co-written by Brandon Choi, and was very much a shining example of their style- an action-packed, cross-hatched, character-driven, plot-lite story full of Hot Babes, Guys With Claws, and rip-offs of his X-Men work!
WildC.A.T.s #1 came out in Aug. 1992, and was an immediate smash hit. And truth be told, it’s one of the more well-made of the early Image books, in the sense that it’s CRAP, but it’s like… crap that TRIED. I can respect feces as the result of incompetence and overrreach more than I could if it were the result of laziness. Whereas Rob Liefeld just copied his X-Force characters and his 3.5 visual traits for characters, and made endless “Paramilitary Fighting Squad” books that had no backgrounds or attempts at characterization at all, Jim Lee is actually a capable enough creator to try something new. Sure, Spartan is literally just Cyclops but a robot, and Zealot is the Generic Aloof Martial Arts Chick that Psylocke was, and Grifter just copies design elements from Gambit, but there’s a different STORY- it’s all about Angels and Devils from another planet, engaging in an ancient war on Earth. And a couple characters aren’t just swiped from Jim’s X-work. And he draws backgrounds! And every character has their own voice! Almost! This is, well, the MINIMUM amount of effort required to make a comic good, but given how few of his contemporaries bothered with anything more, it’s at least appreciated.
In a sense, it’s beautiful garbage. Jim Lee at that point was the hottest artist in the industry, and his stuff still looks great. Very thin lines, tons of detail, great action poses, and he doesn’t totally garble the anatomy like Liefeld, Silvestri and others did. He can DRAW FEET! Sure, he draws women in the exact same 2-3 spine-bending poses constantly and copies his “one-straight-leg, one giant-ham-hock” side-view-while-leaping pose all the time, but the stuff looks good. The main issue is that it’s incompetently plotted- the first issue introduces all the main heroes, but gives no answers about what’s going on, and instead just tosses them into a big fight immediately- “The Grifter” finds a stripper with innate powers, and the bad guys IMMEDIATELY attack, and the heroes we just met two pages ago are thrown into the fight, and we don’t know ANY of these people at all. Like, Warblade’s only said all of three lines so far, so why would we care about him fighting? Then Zealot makes some big save and gets a two-page centerfold image of her standing all bad-ass (with Jim’s trademark weird anatomy like the unnatural breast shapes and bent spine). Really, most of the characterization in the first issue is of the Grifter and the team’s mentor Lord Emp, who isn’t likable or charming- he’s just an ass.
The second issue elaborates upon the story… and it’s HILARIOUS in retrospect- there’s so much fighting in this comic that the Kherubim/Daemonite War is mentioned in three still panels, as Zealot explains it to Voodoo! The entire purpose of the team is laid out in half a page! And then John Lynch’s government forces attack and it’s a bloodbath… except he was only kidding, and it was a “demonstration” of his ability, and now he begs Lord Emp’s help against Daemonite infiltration. And then there’ ANOTHER fight! And issue three is just the WildC.A.T.s fighting Youngblood! So while it’s better than the typical “Image Style” book, it’s really just a series of fights and flashy pin-up panels- you don’t give a crap about any of the characters. Finally things end with the Gnome, a side-character and information-broker from earlier, popping in and debuting his OWN team of assholes to fight the WildC.A.T.s, and things just become a huge mess and nothing matters- Helspont disappears, the base explodes, and Gnome’s group (most of which are just a name and have no powers shown or explained) are gone.
The initial team was Spartan (serious leader guy), Maul (Hulk knock-off), Grifter (grim badass soldier of fortune type), Zealot (angry martial arts babe), Voodoo (pretty, innocent girl who is also a stripper), Void (unemotional mysterious chick in bodysuit) and Warblade (generic claw guy, kind of sarcastic). Not a lot of originality, but they passed the “Silhouette Test” easily- every character looked different. The whole storyline was based around the Kherubim and Daemonites- rival angel & devil-like creatures from another world, who’d landed on Earth and infiltrated there. The Wildcats were led by Lord Emp, a dwarfish, sarcastic type, and many of them were “Half-Breeds”- the result of Kherubim breeding with humans.
Jim, humorously, bailed from the book pretty quickly, after only a couple of years, and a succession of writers (including Chris Claremont, oddly enough, and ALAN MOORE of all people!) and artists took over the property- he had effectively become his own Marvel/DC- a creator who paid others to do stuff he’d profit from. A cartoon series was produced, but didn’t succeed, and the comic itself lasted for fifty issues- not bad in the Post-Crash era. Alan Moore took it over, and in one of those “Alan Moore” twists, it was revealed that EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG!- their homeworld of Khera was never that rad after all, and was actually a racial segregationist world with Daemonites on the bottom and Maul’s people barely above that. Well, at least he didn’t delve into his “Rape” well of cliches.
In 1998, Jim sold his Wildstorm Productions line to DC Comics, effectively buying in to a new company. A new incarnation of the team came out and lasted 28 issues, and a reboot (featuring “Corporate Politics” as a major theme, and Grifter & Spartan as the only returning members, leading a squad of government moles, S&M mercenaries and other assorted weirdos) came out lasting 24. A FOURTH ongoing came out in 2006, with Grant Morrison & Jim Lee as the superstar creators, but I evidently paid ZERO attention to comics at this time, because this is the first I’m hearing about it. Oh, never mind- only one issue was ever published. That explains that. Mid-2008 saw the fifth volume.
Along the way, the team had dealt with various Daemonites, a possessed Dan Quayle (then the U.S. Vice President), time travel, and a ton of roster switches- the team has tripled in overall size from its conception.
The legacy of the book is… mixed. People rarely mock it the way they did Rob Liefeld or Marc Sylvestri’s more obvious copycats of X-Books, but none the characters are particularly famous outside of comic book fanboy circles, and none stood the test of time. Grifter proved popular, but Zealot in particular became kind of a running joke for being SO utterly generic a ’90s cliche.