Wild, wild comic art
La Jolla’s WildStorm Productions looks to past, prepares for future
By Aaron Wells
Gotham City has Batman. Metropolis has Superman. San Francisco just got the X-Men. La Jolla? It’s got WildStorm.
From their secret ocean-view headquarters on Prospect Avenue, WildStorm Productions’ comic artists have spent the last 15 years making the other heroes look good. Yet beyond comic book professionals and fans, the studio remains essentially unnoticed, La Jolla’s hidden pop-art gem.
In 1992, superstar comic book penciler Jim Lee was fresh off a successful relaunch of “X-Men” for Marvel Comics. Seeking the creative control of his own characters and their four-color destinies, Lee, together with several of the industry’s power-player creators, founded Image Comics. WildStorm Productions, Lee’s own imprint under the Image banner, and its growing artist stable and studio arrived in La Jolla in 1993.
The studio found great success in the increasingly crowded comic book market of the early 1990s, with several of Lee’s creator-owned superheroes such as “WildC.A.T.S.,” “Stormwatch” and “Gen13,” the latter based, for a time, in La Jolla.
Soon, other projects of other notable creators were being published under the WildStorm brand, including the de/reconstructionist superhero series “Astro City” and the dark Western, “Desperadoes.” These projects helped to cement WildStorm’s reputation as a creator’s publisher.
At the peak of the speculator-driven comic book boom in the mid-1990s, WildStorm had 120 employees and occupied extra spaces in San Diego and Santa Monica, in addition to two offices in La Jolla.
But the boom turned inevitably to bust.
The retail market collapsed, neighborhood comic book shops closed up, distributors consolidated and publishers folded. Even publishing giant Marvel Comics filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1997.
WildStorm was not immune to the downturn.
“It looked really bleak for a while and people were wondering if there would even be comic books printed in the U.S. anymore,” Lee said.
In 1998, Lee engineered sale of his studio, its stable of creator-owned properties and its indie-cred to DC Comics, the other pillar of the comic book industry and a subsidiary of Time Warner.
“It’s great for both sides,” Lee said. “We run (WildStorm) as if it were an independent shop and we do a lot of different things for (DC) that they aren’t able or set up to do.”
The sale also allowed Lee to get out of the boardroom and back into the studio to do the thing he got into comics to do: draw.
Lee was able to work on some of DC’s iconic characters, including acclaimed runs on both Batman (“Hush,” 2002-2003) and Superman (“For Tomorrow,” 2004-2005).
With no visible signage, one might think the WildStorm offices are fortresses of creative solitude, but they are not. Through each of its incarnations, WildStorm has remained an artist’s studio, with staff artists working side-by-side in the bullpen, while colorists and letterers fill another space putting on the finishing touches.
Artist Livio Ramondelli, who joined Wildstorm in 2007, loves the atmosphere not only for the collegiality with the other artists, but the ready and instant feedback tossed back and forth in the studio.
Joel Gomez, an artist who previously worked with Marc Silvestri and the late Michael Turner at Top Cow Productions and Aspen Studios, agrees with Ramondelli.
“The perspective of others is always a benefit, even if you don’t want to hear the criticism,” Gomez said.
Healthy competition also keeps the creative juices flowing as WildStorm artists wage “Iron Chef”-style battles on their art blog, Gelatometti2.blogspot.com.
On the blog, two chosen competitors are given one hour to produce a work featuring the day’s “secret character.” At the end of the day, the highest number of positive blog comments determines the winner.
These informal contests help to break up long days at the pencil (or digital stylus) and offer the comic artists opportunities to learn from one another, Gomez said.
A Comic Studio’s Mid-Summer Dream: Comic-Con
Mid-summer is, without question, the height of the season for the WildStorm team.
It is their busiest time of year, with the convention circuit in full swing and the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world – Comic-Con International – happening right in their backyard.
Once a show organized by comic book readers for comic book readers, Comic-Con, which is currently underway at the San Diego Convention Center, has blossomed into a pop-culture mega-event.
This year’s Comic-Con, which runs through July 27, is expected to break the 2007 attendance records of 125,000 visitors.
With an estimated economic impact of $32.1 million in 2006, the convention certainly is considered big business for the city. To comic fans, it’s worth more than that. It’s a chance to meet the artists.
The WildStorm artists can be found in Artists’ Alley, a space at the convention where the fans can buy prints and sketchbooks. And, of course, a fair share of Hollywood celebrities will be signing autographs.
“It’s like the Cannes Film Festival, but for nerds,” said Lee, who is attending his 21st consecutive Comic-Con. “That’s what the industry was pining for for years. You can’t complain if you get what you wished for.”
WildStorm at Work
One thing Lee doesn’t do is complain about the business opportunities presented to WildStorm by licensed properties.
DC’s CMX line of English translations of Japanese manga operates under WildStorm’s auspices. And, 25 percent of the studio’s August comic book solicitations are based on licensed properties from other media, including a comic book series based on massively multiplayer online role-playing titan, “World of Warcraft.”
Meanwhile, Lee and seven WildStorm artists are hard at work on the design and concept art for the DC Universe Online massively multiplayer online role-playing games, Sony Online Entertainment’s newest attempt to reclaim some of the lucrative online gaming market for itself. Lee, in his role as executive creative director of DC Universe Online, introduced the sizzle reel for the game at last week’s E3 Conference, the videogaming industry’s Comic-Con equivalent, and attended the New York premiere of the new Batman film, “The Dark Knight.”
Eight of the WildStorm artists are contributors to the “Thought to Pop!” exhibit, which runs through July 26 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. WildStorm has also garnered nominations in four categories for the 2008 Eisner Awards, the comic book industry’s Oscar equivalents, including one for Lee himself in the best cover artist category.
Maybe it’s time for that conference call with Peter Parker and Clark Kent on how to maintain a secret identity. At this rate, WildStorm won’t remain hidden for long.
Aaron Wells is a Carmel Valley-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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