Even before it was resurrected by DC earlier this year, there was always a grim, visceral quality to Jim Lee’s WildStorm universe that set it apart from cape comics. WildStorm wasn’t without its lighthearted moments, but it never shied away from the truth about what ultimately convinces a person to become a superhero.
If DC’s heroes were all paragons of virtue and heroism, WildStorm’s were a much more pragmatic, no-nonsense bunch. Driven by more than fate, destiny, or some abstract sense of righteousness, WildStorm’s heroes did what they did because their world was filled with twisted, evil people who needed to be checked.
With WildStorm’s relaunch under DC’s umbrella came a bittersweet promise of new, inter-universal crossovers that could have meant today’s WildStorm universe might have been a brighter place than its predecessor. But in Bryan Hill, Dexter Vines, and N Steven Harris’ new series Michael Cray, it becomes clear that whatever connections it may have to DC, the WildStorm universe is still a place rooted in the kinds of familiar, real-world evils that only a very particular type of hero is equipped to handle.
Michael Cray picks up after DC’s relatively recent The Wild Storm series that brought the WildStorm universe back into existence. Cray, an enhanced assassin once employed by International Operations, finds himself in Oakland, California after having discovered that many of the people he killed for I.O. might not have been the legitimate threats to the public his former employer made them out to be.
Cray’s return to his home city is spurred, in part, by a job offer from Executive Protection Services, an I.O. rival looking to use his unique set of skills to—wait for it—kill people. Specifically, billionaire Oliver Queen. It’s important to note that in this universe, Oliver Queen’s newly returned from the island he was stranded on and isn’t the public figure he is in DC’s main continuity. Because Cray’s already spent so much of his life murdering at the command of others while not fully understanding the reasoning behind his assignments, he’s initially hesitant to accept EPS’ offer, but as he becomes reacquainted with Oakland, he begins to see and feel that something dark has infected the city.
After a tense conversation with his estranged father, a lifelong resident and pillar of the community, Cray starts to chip away at the playboy veneer that Queen presents to the public. Though Queen appears to be another tech type dumping money into the Bay Area under the auspices of improving quality of life, there are whispers that he’s secretly funding long-term gentrification efforts that flood “bad neighborhoods” with drugs in order to give police departments large, moving targets to crack down on.
It’s here that Michael Cray pauses for a moment to let you, the reader, sit with the competing narratives jockeying for dominance in Cray’s head. On the one hand, Oliver Queen sounds like your garden variety Bay Area capitalist who doesn’t (want to) see the collateral damage his programs have on the historically diverse communities he’s recently moved into. Tech bros may be assholes, but that doesn’t mean that Cray should be killing them. On the other hand, organizations like EPS—which recruits killers with superhuman abilities like Cray’s—don’t just go around killing rich people for absolutely no reason. There are much cheaper assassins for that sort of thing.
Narratively, all of this is further complicated by Cray’s race. He’s a black man who committed unspeakable acts under the direction of powerful organizations led by white people. He’s also a black man who understands the ways in which white men like Queen can play integral roles in infrastructural violence against marginalized people. It’s a dilemma that Cray struggles with until his EPS contact reveals the last and most crucial piece of information about why Queen is on their radar.
When he isn’t doing the news circuit and telling his harrowing tale of survival, Oliver Queen spends time in his Sanctuary, a recreation of the island where he repeatedly puts himself through the abuse and trauma that, in other stories, would one day turn him into the Green Arrow. Here, though, the Sanctuary isn’t just a coping mechanism for Queen, it’s a hunting ground. Unknown to the rest of the world, Queen’s been abducting men (he prefers combat veterans), trapping them in the Sanctuary and hunting them through the jungle The Most Dangerous Game style. Plans for gentrification aside, this Oliver Queen is a bloodthirsty murderer and he wears the green suit while he’s killing.
It’s this information that ultimately brings Michael Cray into the fold and sets the tone for the rest of the series. Though it doesn’t immediately register as such, Michael Cray is very much a superhero origin story, but for the new phase of a superhero’s life. So often, we wonder what becomes of heroes after they hang up their capes and leave the alien invasions to the next generation. Michael Cray insists that they keep fighting different battles closer to the ground.