Friday, January 30, 2015

Recommended Reading for 1/30: Wednesday Comics

One of the great things about comics is that you can play with format, both within an issue, a full graphic novel, or across a series. I love to see creators experiment with the idea of comics. Whether it's some of the page layout tricks Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in Watchmen, J.H. Williams III's love of two page spreads, or the occasional; experiment with comics produced in landscape, not portrait, it's interesting to see what people can do. Back in 2009, DC Comics did a very cool, very unusual experiment with Wednesday Comics.

Inspired by the classic, full page Sunday color strips of the heyday of newspaper comics, DC did a twelve issue weekly series from A-list creators. They then let the creators work using pages that are far larger than a standard comic (if you're familiar with IDW's artist editions, we're talking roughly that size). The comic folded out four ways, creating a page that allowed the creators to really use the fullness of their artistic talent. It's not the only time this format has been used, the annual Thought Bubble anthology does it each year, but this is probably the most ambitious use of it.

Each creative team would do a serialized story, telling one story over twelve weeks, one page each week. DC editor Mark Chiarello gathered an amazing selection of creators to work on the anthology, and each set of creators brought something different and interesting to the table. With fifteen different stories, there was something for everyone's taste, be it a war story, a straight superhero tale, a crime comic, or a horror story. While the synthesis of art writing is important, as it is in all comics, the large format makes for an artistic tour-de-force for some of the very talented artists here, so I'll probably be talking about art a little more than I usually do. The choice of characters is interesting as well. While all the usual suspects are included (what would a DC Comics anthology be without Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and many other members of the JLA?), some creators chose to go into DC rich history and pick out some more obscure characters to feature, making the anthology well rounded and letting the creators work with characters they really have an affection for.

Instead of trying to do a generalized talk, I'm going to break out each story and give a short review/discussion of each one,

Batman: Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso weren't strangers to Batman when they worked on Wednesday Comics, having done the six issue "Broken City" story that followed up the famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) "Hush" story in the regular Batman ongoing. Best known together for the conspiracy and noir series 100 Bullets from Vertigo, they are a natural fit for the grimy city streets of Gotham. "Broken City" and the later Flashpoint: Batman both featured these creators working with many of Batman's classic and colorful rogues, but the story here is a classic noir. The story features Batman as a detective, really pulling out all the stops in it's depiction of crime in the city; it could have worked as a Sam Spade or Slam Bradley story as well as a Batman one. Batman investigates the murder of Franklin Glass, a wealthy Gothamite, and it leads down a path of betrayal and murder, featuring a classic femme fatale; Risso has a very distinct style for his female characters, and Luna, Glass's much younger wife, is the prototypical Risso woman.

Kamandi: One of the stories most beholden to its forebears in the classic newspaper strips, Kamandi from Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook follows the format of classic Prince Valiant strips. There are no word balloons, just extended caption boxes. This allows Sook to use the full panel, not worrying about the balloons covering parts of the art, and he uses it to the best effect. His backgrounds are beautiful, and the animal men that populate the dystopic future of Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, are impressive to view. The story, of Kamandi entering the territory of the ape men to aid his friends of the Tiger tribe, only to find, and lose, a beautiful human girl, has the grand sweep of the Arthurian epics that Hal Foster's Prince Valiant are known for, and it's clear that Dave Gibbons has a deep appreciation of those classic Foster strips

Superman: John Arcudi and Lee Bermejo tell a story of Superman doubting his place in the human world. While the end of the story reveals it all to be part of an alien plot, the hook of Superman wondering if he belongs among humans allows the creators to travel all over Superman's world, spending time with Lois, with Batman, and mostly with Ma and Pa Kent in Smallville. We get visions of Krypton, and we get a final battle between Superman and the aliens that shows exactly how Superman would fight in the confines of the small town he grew up in to protect the lives of the people there, and the story truly asserts exactly how human a character Superman really is. While Risso in the Batman strip moves away from drawing Batman's rogues and most of his supporting cast, Bermejo shows off his abilities to draw Superman's varied cast, many of them popping up for just a panel or two as Superman thinks about them. If you're a fan of Bermejo's art, this is a great opportunity to watch him spread his wings and draw some big super hero fight scenes, things that he wasn't able to do as much in his other Superman works.

Deadman: Artist and co-plotter Dave Bullock works with scripter Vinton Heuck to conjure a story of Deadman on a journey to a Hell world to save the soul of a girl whose murder he witnessed. In this world, Deadman is corporeal again, so we get the pathos of Boston Brand having a body (a classic plot for Deadman), while getting a view of a dark dimension where Bullcok can go wild drawing monstrous demons and bleak locations. It's a story tinged in horror while still maintaining an edge of the super heroic, and it's end is more on line with the tragic stories of Deadman than the more super heroic ones.

Green Lantern: There are a couple kinds of Green Lantern stories that really work for me. I prefer my Green Lantern cosmic, but I do understand the people who see him as an Earthbound hero. This story, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Joe Quinones, actually falls closer to the second kind of story, as Hal Jordan must deal with an alien presence menacing Earth, and it sells me pretty well on the Earthbound Lantern. Hal Jordan must stop an old friend of his who just returned from space who was infected by an alien fungus, and prevent an alien invasion. The story setting is very much set in the 1950s/1960s, and that is a time period that I think Hal Jordan works in better than any other. That was the era of the test pilot as modern cowboy, the space race was in full swing, and a swaggering character like Jordan, with his cocky attitude and bomber jacket, fits right in. The plot, with a man turned into an alien monster by space fungus, also seems like something out of a 50s B horror movie, adding to that retro feel. I'm always amazed Busiek hasn't written more Green Lantern, as it seems a character who would be right up his alley, and I'm glad he got the chance to write him here.

Metamorpho: I'll read anything Neil Gaiman writes, and I admit I was surprised to hear he would be writing Metamorpho for this project. One of the most obscure characters of the lot, Gaiman has a sideways connection to him, as Element Girl, a supporting character from classic Metamorpho stories, featured in the classic Sandman #20, "Facades." And Gaiman has a ton of fun with the story, writing a wacky story of treasure hunting and monsters,tossing in game boards and related mini-strips, while playing on the comedic attributes of Metamopho's supporting cast. But it's Mike Allred, king of the madcap comic, who takes what Gaiman gives him and runs with it. Allred draws the character with customary style, completely off the wall, but this feature has one of the best uses of the oversized format. There is a two page spread (spread out over two weeks, but beautifully presented together in the collection) that has Metamorpho and Element Girl making there way through a periodic table, the dialogue with each box fitting the element abbreviation into it. It would take a pair of mad geniuses to pull that off, and fortunately Gaiman and Allred are exactly that.

Teen Titans: One of the most traditionally super heroic stories in the book, Editor Eddie Berganza and artist Sean "Cheeks" Galloway turn in  a Titans story featuring a best of the team line-up, mixing classic Titans like Nightwing with newer members like Miss Martian, Galloway's energetic, anime influenced style carries the story, making for some of the most kinetic pages in the series.

Strange Adventures: If you're a fan of cult favorite cartoonist Paul Pope, his take on Adam Strange, the Earthman who becomes hero of the alien world Rann, is going to blow you away, and if you're not, this is a story that will make you one of his devotees. It's a story populated by alien warrior baboons, magic, and warrior princesses. His take on Adam's adopted home of Rann owes a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books, with Alanna, Adam's alien beloved, bearing a resemblance to Carter's alien princess Dejah Thoris, and Rann having a very Barsoom (that's what the Burroughs books call Mars) vibe. Pope's hyper detailed art is on display throughout the series and is served very well by the gigantic pages.  Pope adds some interesting other wrinkle to the Strange mythos, giving him a different, older body on Earth, which is a nice touch, and he even tosses in a cameo for Doctor Fate, whose design looks gorgeous under Pope's pen. This is a story deeply influenced by the pulps, and has that big crazy pulp vibe throughout.

Supergirl: This is another of my favorite stories in the anthology. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner give us a story of Supergirl and the Super Pets, Krypto the Superdog and Streaky the Supercat. The Super Pets are acting up, and so Supergirl must chase them all over, encountering Aquaman and Doctor Mid-Nite along the way. The resolution is a fun little twist, and this is the funniest of the stories collected, a completely all ages adventure. Conner is at the height of her artistic power, not just showing off her talent for drawing expressive faces, but her delightful talent with animals. Krypto and Streaky are absolutely adorable throughout. This is a perfect story to share with your kids, and the big pages and colorful art are great for little eyes.

Metal Men: DC head honcho Dan DiDio and legendary artist Jose Garcia-Lopez contribute with a story of the Metal Men, robots with personalities who fight crime and other robots. Lopez has a classic, clean, Silver Age style that works perfectly with characters like the Metal Men, whose concept is so very Silver Age. They foil a bank robbery and fight their arch-foe, the chemical behemoth Chemo. It's another simple, fun retro-Silver Age story.

Wonder Woman: Ben Caldwell goes full cartoonist on this Wonder Woman story, and provides on the most technically stunning pieces in the entire anthology. Taking full advantage of the expanded page size, Caldwell uses panels like no one else. There are pages that have dozens of tiny panels, and ones that have one massive panel taking up the entire right side of the page. The story, a dream sequence (or maybe not), fits well with the trippy art, pulling you down deep into the experience in the way a dream can. This is admittedly the most divisive piece in the anthology, with many hating it, and some saying it missed the point of the format. I think it would only have worked in this format. It is an interesting exercise, and I appreciate nit from a technical standpoint at the least.

Sgt. Rock and Easy Co.: It's interesting to place this story right after the Wonder Woman one, as the two could not be more diametrically opposed. Written by Adam Kubert and drawn by his father, the late great Joe Kubert, this story of the Kubert co-created World War II hero Frank Rock escaping capture by Nazis. What makes it so different from the previous story is how direct it is. It's told using the traditional comic book nine panel grid, and is straight to the point. It's a testament to Joe Kubert's talent that in his eighties his art was as impressive as it ever was, full of grit and perfectly paced. No one drew war comics like Joe Kubert, and adding that genre to the anthology spotlighted the variety of DC Comics catalog of characters and the history of different genres from the company.

The Flash: The Flash strip was quite possibly my favorite in the anthology. Starting out as two related strips, a Flash strip and an Iris West one, the two stories head towards an inevitable collision. Again, this is a story that would not have worked in any other format, as it is intentionally drawing from the history of newspaper strips and that format. There are also Gorilla Grodd strips mixed in over the course of the series, and the story ends with merged, full pages that are a glory to behold. From current Gotham Academy creative team Karl Kerschel and Brenden Fletcher, it's a story of heartbreak, as Barry Allen nearly loses his wife, and triumph as he goes to save her and win her back. One page features panels inspired by other classic strips, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes; the whole thing is a love letter to comic strips. Filled with heart, humor, and action, for me this is the crown jewel of Wednesday Comics.

The Demon and Catwoman: Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze join together to tell a story of two characters I don't think had ever really teamed up before: Jack Kirby's Demon Etrigan and one of comics greatest villainesses/anti-heroines, Catwoman. Trying to steal from Jason Blood, Etrigan's human host, Selina gets caught up in the rivalry between Blood/Etrigan and Morgan le Fey. Along the way, Catwoman gets turned into a literal cat-woman, and the two titular character team up to defeat Morgan. Stelfreeze is an artist who draws great monsters, so this story is perfectly catered to his skills, as he draws a mean transformed Catwoman and Etrigan.

Hawkman: Another creator not known for his work on traditional super hero comics, Kyle Baker rounds out the anthology with a story of Hawkman versus terrorists, aliens, and dinosaurs. Drawing from that same obscure corner of the DC Universe that Kamandi and Metamorpho exist in, part of this story is set on Dinosaur Island, DC's answer to Marvel's more famous Savage Land. It's an action packed story, as Baker said in an interview, "Hawkman carries a mace, and it's important for a writer to create dilemmas which can be resolved with a mace." The art blends Baker's usual style with some more computer generated elements, it has one of the best T-Rex's in comics this side of Jack Kirby.

On top of all that, if you go out and buy the collection, which collects each story in continuous pages, so you get all twelve pages of each book back to back, you get some sketch work from each of the creators and two additional one page stories. Keith Giffen writes and Eric Canete draws a story of The Creeper that is, well, creepy, and Evan Dorkin and Stephen Destefano provide a comical tale of Plastic Man and Woozy Winks day at the museum. It's a gorgeous collection, as befits such an ambitious project.

Wednesday Comics is in print in an oversized hardcover.

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