It’s Sunday on Wednesdays now! (Exploring DC’s Wednesday Comics)

Wednesday Comics  is something new and special from DC Comics: a large-format weekly periodical that offers gorgeous artwork and tightly-paced writing. It presents the serial adventures of 15 popular DC heroes and villains in full-color 11″ x 17″ glory.

Sunday comics supplements in today’s newspapers aren’t really what they used to be. Market forces have reduced the size of the panels, the number of pages, and the quality of what you can see there. The Wednesday Comics reviewer over at SCI FI Wire nails this down eloquently, although he’s more scornful of modern Sunday comics pages than I would be:

… decades before; there were continuing adventure strips, some of them downright glorious, with vistas of art and detail that made their exotic settings live and breathe. [….] It was the time of Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff and Chester Gould and Hal Foster, and it was beautiful.

Speaking of Prince Valiant/Hal Foster, when I first opened Wednesday Comics, my eyes were immediately drawn to Ryan Sook’s vivid rendition  of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. Kamandi has been having a bit of a comeback lately. Batman has dropped in on Kamandi’s post-catastophe future Earth twice in the Cartoon Network’s  Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series. If you’ve got a young science fiction fan in your household, he or she might love the Kamandi strip: far-future adventures of the last boy on Earth in a world populated by Jack Vanceian animal-men. (It might not hurt to ask writer Dave Gibbons to add a few high-ranking animal-women to the mix.)

I’ll confess to a “nostalgia for lost youth” factor in my enthusiasm for Wednesday Comics. When I was 10 years old, there was nothing I liked better to do on Sundays than snag the comics and pore over stuff like this. (Alden McWilliams, the linked-to artist, also had a turn drawing Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers; but some people think Twin Earths is the best long-running comic strip of all time. Of course, in the classic Sunday Comics, all of these pages were rendered in full color. My Google-fu was only able to produce this small-sized sample.)

The roster of contributors to Wednesday Comics is impressive. Brian Azzarello’s Batman strip (drawn by Eduardo Risso) has a sharp, modern-DC edge to it—with Bruce Wayne still wearing the cowl. Sgt. Rock exhibits Captain America-like endurance before a Nazi interrogation squad in a story written by Adam Kubert and illustrated by his famous father, Joe. (Joe Kubert created Sgt. Rock in the 1940s.)

Neil Gaiman is present, writing the lesser-known Metamorpho: The Element Man  (art by Mike Allred with color by Laura Allred). Metamorpho has a slow startup, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek backstory furnished by kids from the “Metamorpho Fans of America.” Possibly, Neil intended this to evoke our recollection of Timmy from Alan Moore’s  “Strongmen of America.” Week 4 of Metamorpho features a dramatic appearance by Element Girl, who shares Rex Mason’s element powers. Longtime Neil Gaiman fans may recall that he’s always had a bit of a thing for Element Girl. She was featured in her declining years in Sandman #20, where her face (false mask, flesh-like) fell off at a restaurant into a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese.

I can’t fault Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures/Adam Strange on execution. But the strip runs against my fanboy prejudices on what the characters are all about. Edgar Rice Burroughs fans may enjoy the depiction of face-painted Alanna fighting tusked beast men in her brass halter cups. Here, the streets of “Ancient Ranagar” are filled with Hopi/Pueblo buildings. The slim towers and jetcars of  Carmine Infantino’s city are nowhere in sight.  Me, I’m imprinted on Infantino’s city of super science, the flying cars and jetpacks. I’ll concede the possibility that it’s time for something else, now. But unlike most of the other strips, this one feels like it goes against the grain of a well-established backstory.

Ben Caldwell’s Wonder Woman dives into the psyche of young Princess Diana without establishing a familiar continuity for the reader. This could work if each week’s page wasn’t overloaded with large text balloons. These undercut the force of the artwork, which would be more impressive if Caldwell didn’t cram so many small panels onto a single page. The panels are also a bit difficult to follow, sequentially. I give him points for trying to experiment, but I’ll probably keep sampling Gail Simone’s regular monthly book if I want to know what Wonder Woman is up to.

Demon and Catwoman by Walt Simonson (art by Brian Stelfreeze) is an interesting experiment—a strip dedicated to two of DC’s favorite villains. Or, if you’re a hardcore fan, you may hold out for the point of view that Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and Jason Blood (Etrigan the Demon) are fascinating grey characters, not villains at all!

Kyle Baker’s Hawkman is another standout strip. Baker writes and draws a high-flying Hawkman in aerial combat with an alien race—successfully combining the “Thanagerian” and “mace-and-chain warrior” aspects of the character.

One more subjective opinion: the best way to read Wednesday Comics is while on-the-go—on a bus, in a waiting room, or in a coffeehouse. The strips that work for me all have an intrinsic understanding that the story should move—with well-crafted integration of text and panel artwork. (This is where Caldwell’s Wonder Woman fails, in my opinion.) In most of the strips, the axis of kinetic energy—plotted against depth of plot and characterization—hits just the right spot,  especially when I can unfold and read “in transit.” Karl Kerschl’s classic tale of The Flash vs. Gorilla Grodd, for instance  (with Barry Allen’s inability to ever make an appointment on time), loses some  of its charm if I try to follow it from my living room couch.

The individual installments of the Wednesday Comics strips are only a page long. But most of them display impressive mastery of a basic principle for successful newspaper comics: each episode should contain hooks and conclusions that stand on their own; but the episodes mustn’t lose track of the point that they belong to a gradually unfolding, ongoing story. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dan DiDio, DC’s Executive Editor—and the man responsible for shaping Countdown and Final Crisis—still remembers how to plot and write a “classical” DC story. His Metal Men strip builds on the love that DC fans feel for those characters, showing them as their inimitable selves instead of trying to destroy them.

After  four weeks of serial adventures, the Wednesday Comics strike me as being surprisingly free of the creative and editorial facets that have made me lose interest in DC’s regular comic book line. (See my comment on Jim Henley’s early post.) DC’s year-long serial productions like Countdown and Final Crisis seem to operate on the assumption that they will sell books not by selling stories, but by selling splash scenes (which require the establishment of increasingly-manipulated plot premises). The problem with this is that a comic book story told in serial installments still needs to be a story—not a set of disconnected scenes patched together with “as you know Bob” expository lumps.

I’ll be continuing to buy Wednesday Comics in the foreseeable future, and recommend it as an accessible entry point into DC’s universe of superheroes and villains. You can find the full roster of strips and artists here, along with a preview of what will be happening this week. (I’ll be at Worldcon, hoping I can find a copy there.)


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