Exploring DC’s Wednesday Comics—Wrapup

Wednesday Comics, DC’s experiment with reviving full-color, large format comic strips in a weekly 11″ x 17″ foldout booklet, has now completed its run.  My initial thoughts on the project (four weeks in) are here.  Now that all twelve weeks have come and gone, I find myself missing it.

DC Editorial Director Dan DiDio characterized the project as a tremendous gamble for the company in an interview given to Newsarama early in the run. Apparently, the DC editorial staff engaged in quite a bit of internal thrash about following through on the groundbreaking concept. But the good news for fans of large-sized comic book artwork is that editor Mark Chiarello stuck to his guns through all of the editorial deflection: “must be large page format, has to have that Sunday morning experience, has to be newsprint.” The project came to fruition as Chiarello envisioned it, and there haven’t been very many negative reviews.

I come to Wednesday Comics as an s-f fandom lifer. I read superhero comic books (and all other kinds) omnivorously as a child.  After discovering what Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman could do with some of the characters and concepts, I was reintroduced to superhero comics in adulthood. (I’d pretty much abandoned them until Watchmen and Books of Magic appeared on the horizon.) After  I read through the best masked adventurer/superhero stuff I could find, I started nibbling  on and catching up with the second tier. I gradually evolved (or devolved)  into maven/geek status again on comic books published during the last 20 to 30 years.

If you asked me to rate the cumulative Wednesday Comics reading experience by my own subjective tastes, I’d have to confess that most of the strips failed to excite my interest after the first few weeks—from the standpoint of pure narrative/story value. Frankly, I’m a bit more hooked by the storyline of Greg Evans’ daily LuAnn newspaper strip than by endless repetitions of the “meta-human slugs it out with alien/criminal/monster” plot that seem to dominate so much of the Marvel/DC comic book bill of fare. (When talented writers and artists persist, superhero adventures can be much more than that. They can deliver intriguing serious or comical explorations of all the turf covered by science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/crime authors in print books.)

But Wednesday Comics has another dimension that should be considered for evaluation of its aesthetic success—the quality and creativeness of the artwork. I found the artwork to be impressive enough to keep coming back each week in the hope of finding a few interesting story moments. The best of the 15 strips managed to combine journeyman narrative (in the superhero vein) with vivid, colorful artwork that could not avoid bringing the accompanying stories to life. In the face of all the hastily-drawn, poorly-integrated artwork that graces so many regular DC comic books, Wednesday Comics should be praised as a Force for Good, just on the basis of its graphical and technical production values.

According to Dan DiDio, the deciding point that sold the project to DC was the roster of all-star artists and writers that Mark Chiarello was able to recruit for it. Limiting the run to twelve weeks allowed DC to secure commitments from a number of creators whose busy schedules would otherwise have excluded them from participation. Once onboard, the artists and writers had free rein to do what they wished each week on their pages. The result of this experiment is fifteen widely-different comic strips that range in look and feel from “Hal Foster Sunday Adventure” to “New Wave Collage/Montage,” “Superhero Photorealism,” and “Linear DC Classic.”  (At this writing, all twelve issues of Wednesday Comics are in stock and can be ordered new from Comic Relief in Berkeley. Near-mint used copies are available at a discount here.)

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth makes the whole series  a collectible item for me, even if I don’t care about anything else. The combination of Dave Gibbons’ simple, but well-constructed narrative and Ryan Sook’s awesome artwork extend the tradition of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant into a new science-fantasy context.  This is stuff to fuel the dreams of the next generation’s all-star graphic illustrators.

Lee Bermejo’s artwork in Superman is also strikingly impressive. Bermejo combines a phot0realistic style that might be derived from Alex Ross’s work, only with heavier, exaggerated inking that’s suggestive of Kelly Freas. Unfortunately, the Week 2 episode linked to in the first sentence of this paragraph is probably the high point in this story:  Supes and Batman engaged in a weighty philosophical discussion  about whether the whole monster-fighting thing makes any existential sense. The rest of the story? See “endless repetitions of meta-human slugs it out with alien.”

Brian Azzarello’s Batman starts out well. Bruce Wayne saves the life of an attractive blonde and proceeds to pick her up after a sexy luncheon date. (Their liaison isn’t shown. It’s  suggested between panels “in the negative space.”) The plot thickens in a linear, noir-detective story way: the blonde’s husband has been murdered. She may be complicit, and we see Batman do his “torture-a-thug-on-a-rooftop” routine in order to extract pertinent information. By this time in my Batman-reading career, I’m inured to “drop the thug over the edge and scoop him up before he cracks.” But Azzarello eschews this s.o.p. interrogation technique in favor of a tougher one. He has Batman hold a piece of broken glass over the subject’s neck, followed by suspension of a burning cigarette a fraction of an inch from the heavy’s eyeball. Five close-up panels are dedicated to the cigarette and eyeball. This is where I began to drop out of the story. I didn’t think I needed to see five panels depicting the torture scene in order to establish (or play upon) this relentless aspect of Batman’s character.

Paul Pope, who wrote and illustrated the Strange Adventures strip,  has some comments on what he learned about pacing and internal time sense from working on Wednesday Comics.

I find that with the format of Wednesday Comics (which is really the traditional Sunday Comics page), one must condense the plot and action to the briefest yet most vivid bursts of information available—there is a lot of space on the page for the illustrations to really overwhelm the reader/viewer, but there isn’t a lot of space for story development in the sense of how we’d develop a plot or work up dialogue for a typical comic book page. In a comic book, one page may be well drawn or well written, but it is still just a single facet of a larger whole.

The pacing and the internal time sense the  artist and writer establish for a comic strip are critical when they have only one page per week to deliver the story. In its first six installments, Brian Azzarello’s Batman story uses a conventional progression of panels across the page to set the pace. Events move forward at a linear rate. Each week jumps to a new event in the story rather than showing a continuation of the previous week’s event, but the sense of a continuous story holds when all the sequences are assembled. The seventh (rooftop torture) installment of the story uses a split-page panel structure to play with our sense of time. On one side of the page, a single large panel (with sequential dialog balloons) shows Batman preparing his first means of torture. The other side of the page shows the second, burning cigarette torture sequence in seven small panels. The small panels then continue, jumping to a brand new (violent) event in a new locale. (Baam!)

If I might be presumptuous and quote Scott McCloud, “closure can be a powerful force within panels as well as between them when artists choose to show only a small piece of the picture” [Understanding Comics, p. 86]. I’m usually more impressed by Batman’s ability to extract information from a criminal when this ability is implied in the negative space.  [Reference: rooftop interrogation scene in Justice League Unlimited episode The Once and Future Thing, Pt. 2.  Cranky old Bruce Wayne from the year 2030 watches time-transplanted Batman from the current day start to drop an interrogation suspect off the roof.  “I can’t believe I was ever that green,” old Bruce says as he reaches for his cane and approaches the suspect. “This is how you interrogate someone.”—fade out.] 

After Week 7, the installments of the Batman strip alternate between slow-mo episodes  (that populate  the page with 3 to 5 subjective seconds of violent action) and episodes that drop back to the initial narrative pace—with a page of exposition and story advancement in normal time. The effect that the “sl0w-mo”  violent weeks had on me was to make me forget and lose interest in the dramatic elements of the story.  (Bruce slept with the wealthy heiress, but Batman is driven to find out whether she actually ordered her husband’s death.)  I’m not against playing with time in panel sequences, or flowing sequential frames into one another to communicate kinetic action to the reader. But when a comic strip seeks to emulate a good movie, the director’s craft in perceiving and assembling the overall effect  is essential. Traditional 24-page comic books can get away with panel tricks that may not work as well in serialized, weekly one-pagers—because in the 24-page book, the reader can immediately continue following the story after the interesting visual stunt. In the weekly one-pager, the visual stunt really needs to be a show stopper if you expect it to carry the story forward without surrounding panels for setup and denouement. On balance, I felt this Batman was one of the more successful Wednesday Comics strips; but when you look at just the narrative elements,  it’s really a minor story.

Paul Pope (quoted above on the Wednesday story development problem) deserves some recognition for adding a new element to Adam Strange’s character.  Midway through Pope’s Strange Adventures, the Zeta-Beam returns Adam Strange to Earth at a critical dramatic moment (typical).  But we discover that [spoiler in  the next web link] Adam-on-Earth  isn’t the dashing archaeologist we’ve seen  in adventures narrated by other DC writers.  I give Pope points for realizing his vision of Adam Strange; but I prefer this Alanna to Pope’s barbarian princess.

Neil Gaiman’s take on Metamorpho is cute and playful, but I found myself wishing for something with a bit more tooth in it. Neil is famous for reclaiming obscure characters in the DC Universe and building dramatic stories around them.  After reading about the death of Element Girl in Sandman #20, I found her appearance in this Metamorpho strip to be a bit anticlimatic. But if you can hold onto the premise that everyone was younger and more innocent in 1968, you might be able to take this story on its own terms—as a meta-textual romp (fleshed out by Mike and Laura Allred’s color co-ordinated art). You could cut out and try playing the Metamorpho  Snakes and Ladders game in Week #6, or test your knowledge of the Periodic Table of Elements against Rex Mason and Urania Blackwell in Weeks #8 and #9.  (Something Neil told me when I spoke to him at the Montreal Worldcon: he had to fight the proofreaders a  bit over using the elements and abbreviations as they appeared circa 1968, instead of going with a contemporary version. Also, Neil intended the entire sequence of Rex and Urania’s element puns to appear in a single week’s episode, but technical considerations made that impractical, so the element puns wound up being spaced over two weeks.)

What to say about the rest of Wednesday Comics

I liked Brian Stelfreeze’s art on Demon and Catwoman. These are two often-interesting characters, gracefully rendered here.  Ditto on appreciating Kyle Baker’s art for Hawkman, even if the plot  on that one also seemed to boil down to “meta-human slugs it out with aliens/dinosaurs.” 

Ben Caldwell’s Wonder Woman had one week (#9) where I thought the organization of word balloons and panels enhanced his interesting artwork instead of fighting with it. 

Teen Titans: I may be permanently spoiled for appreciating traditional comic books of TT because of the amazing and unbeatable animated series.  (I didn’t warm to the Wednesday Comics version; however, we do have this to consider.)

Green Lantern: some good power-ring and flight panels embedded in another minor story. (Should I tell you? It appears, here, that a ring-powered human has no choice but to slug it out—via green energy beams—with an alien.) I expected more story from Kurt Busiek.

The Flash: Some innovative superspeed panel effects. Lots of gimmicks in the story.

Metal Men:  Started strong, establishing all of their loveable characters.  Didn’t really go anywhere after that.

Supergirl: Cats and dogs with capes fly around and make airplanes crash. For my money, if you’re a Supergirl fan, you’ll want to save up and go here.  The Cosmic Adventures of Supergirl arecosmic.

The complete roster of Wednesday Comics strips, writers, and artists is here. I hope DC tries it again. I’ll be onboard for at least one more round. 

Lenny Bailes is a longtime science fiction fan, who helps put on small s-f literary conventions and even still publishes a fanzine. IT specialist by day and college instructor by night, he desperately tries to find time for other reading, writing, and music-making.


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