Wild, wild comic art

WildStorm Productions looks to the past, and 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 "Wild C.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.

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