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Wednesday Comics

Hawkman unsheathes his knife and crawls into the gasping T-Rex’s jaws, thinking “Sadly, this is not the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

– Hawkman

Wednesday Comics is an amazing little experiment, a bit of comic book nostalgia delivered by some of the most talented people in the business with a smile on their face and a skip in their step. For those who don’t know, DC Comics – always the more boldly experimental of the two major companies – ran a twelve-week collection of newspaper comic strips. Fifteen strips bundled together, the reader was offered one page of a given comic at a time on a super-sized newspaper sheet, with a full story told week-on-week. It was a bold little experiment and while the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts, there’s much to love here.

There in a Flash...

There’s a modern trend in comic books to long for a past that never was. A nostalgia for a way that things never were. Think of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern, built upon returning to Silver Age values, albeit with a darker edge than any of those original books would have dared to play with (and abandoning the huge volume of camp). Or Grant Morrison’s tenure on Batman, which is dedicated to the assumption that everything you ever ready happened to Batman, just not as you read it (which is a way of appealing to the past, but without having to worry about specifics – Morrison could have used any junk to fill that hole in his story, but he chose continuity). Wednesday Comics is perhaps that sort of revisionist nostalgia embodied. The strip was based on the old newspaper adventure comics that use to fill up a couple of pages on the broadsheet with adventures of archeologists and such. However, here DC takes the concept and uses its own iconic creations – many of whom didn’t even exist in the era of the newspaper comic – in that context. It’s taking something old, but approaching it a new manner and selling it as a “throwback”.

The result is something which is new, but feels old and familiar and comfortable. There’s probably another discussion to be had as to whether the trend is a good thing, or if it is simply the medium eating its own tail. This sort of anachronistic blending of old and new is reflected within, with Catwoman “googling” Jason Blood in one story and Green Lantern being compared to “Dean Martin” in another. It’s simultaneously today and yesterday (and probably tomorrow for good measure) – always and never, thrown together in a big blender. Some of the stories told are timeless (Adam Strange could be set in any time), some feel decidedly modern (the Batman and Superman strips), some feel retro (Green Lantern) and some feel intentionally hokey (Kamandi).

The life Aquatic...

The default setting seems to be “the jet age, the atomic age, the space age”, with Metamorpho explicitly set in 1966. As such, the stories reflect the hokey styles and tastes of the time. This is perhaps a reflection on current tastes at DC – indeed, Kurt Busiek’s Green Lantern story seems heavily stylistically influenced by Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier (even referencing an astronaut as “a pioneer of the high frontier”), one of the books which kick-started the trend of retrospection and nostalgia at the company as a reimagining of the Justice League’s origins in the fifties.

We cannot live outside the present moment, Allen. We may create our own realities, but we must live in them now. Not in the past or future. Look around you, at the cost. An entire civilisation at risk.

Embrace the moment you’ve chosen!

– Grodd offers some advice to Barry Allen, Flash

Oh, rats...

I’m arguably more consistently impressed by Marvel’s overall strategy as a company, but DC are by far the boldest of the two major comic book companies. Marvel are good at taking ideas (the “ultimate” line, a consistent theme across the line) and running with it, but DC simply have more chutzpah. Perhaps its inherited from their sister company, Warner Brothers, who have consistently offered the most fascinating of mainstream projects, or maybe it’s just something that comes from being the oldest big comic book publisher in the world. There are obvious examples of DC taking artistic and creative directions with their established properties, like the Batman: Black and White project. 52 is perhaps a big example of the sorts of risks the company is willing to take – publishing an issue every week for a year.

Similarly, Wednesday Comics in its original form ran for twelve weeks. Each edition contained one page of several strips. This lovely hardcover edition does what is arguably the smart thing and puts each of the stories together. I never read the collection in its original format, but I can understand how the change in delivery can affect the impact of certain stories. I imagine, for example, that Metamorpho reads better collected than it does as individual pages (not least because if features double-page spreads). Anyway, even in this format, grouped together, there’s still the scent of experimentation in the air.

Yes, it's a demon punching a cat. What more do you need to know?

In fairness to DC, they have assembled the highest quality writers and artists to work on the project, with recognisable authors like Brian Azzurello and Neil Gaiman working on the project. However, as the setup would suggest, this is very much an artist’s medium. The artists are given an increased canvas size to work with (more than three times the size of a regular page) and were originally given a single page a week with which to make an impact. There’s a decent amount of experimentation going on here, with Gaiman and Allred’s Metamorpho getting the highest score for following through on the unique format – the two manage a double-page spread without seeming awkward (which is nigh impossible since there are only twelve pages and te pages were originally displayed one-at-a-time), old-fashioned board games (a version of snakes and ladders on the bottom half of a page) and a genuinely incredibly chase across the periodic table of the elements (even my brother, a science geek, was impressed at that last one).

Other series play with the format to differing degrees – Wonder Woman goes against the impulse to make things bigger and better by flooding the page with tiny panels; The Flash splits it narrative in two at the strip’s fold-line, with one path following Barry and the other following Iris (and the whole strip is an excuse for an exercise in nostalgia). However, not all of the strips play with the medium as much as they might. You’ll notice several places (notably the Superman strip, in one beautiful image as Superman floods his enemy’s consciousness with his memories) where it seems the writer and artist might have aimed for a full page, but chickened out at the last minute – giveing us one giant panel and several smaller one. And then there are strips – the Batman one comes to mind, but there’s really quite a lot of them – which seem to just treat the page as a slightly larger comic book page, which is a perfectly valid approach. The wonderful Supergirl strip is an example of how one of the best stories in the collection could be so one of the most conventionally executed. Sometimes, the conventional nature of the work has its own appeal. The Kuberts’ work on Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. has its conventionalism as its defining feature – it sticks fairly consistently to a three-by-three grid, like a blown up old-fashioned comic strip.

It's Super, man! (Well, actually, his strip is kind of a disappointment...)

Similar to the artists, the writers tend to vary their approach to the material. Some treat it as an excuse for unadulterated fun – an excuse for their hero to battle evil alien dinosaurs (I’m looking at you and your Hawkman strip, Kyle Baker!) – others use it as an attempt to play with the format and some use it to tell a story that they could really tell in any other format. It’s interesting to note the general trend that – with the exception of the Flash strip, which is amazing – the stories tend to get less conventional the further you get away from the big guns. The Batman and Superman strips offer fairly humdrum stories that would be unremarkable in any other format (and are unremarkable here). One step removed, you have Green Lantern, which is a solidly entertaining if forgettable romp (which features giant lobster men), and Wonder Woman, which starts to toy with the format a bit. You have to step out to Hawkman and Kamandi and Metamorpho before things get wild.

Maybe there’s a subconscious desire to protect the most important characters of the DC Universe and to avoid doing anything too “risky”. Indeed, the most banal story here, the Superman story, was serialised inside USA Today – I can see why the company might have wanted to avoid crazy space monkeys or dinosaur-wrestling (though instead seem to have opted for more Superman Returns emo nonsense). Still, I can’t help but imagine how much fun it would have been to let Grant Morrison, for example, loose on Batman or Superman (preferably the latter).

Green and red never go together...

The sight would be patently absurd if it wasn’t so horrible!

– Adam Strange, Strange Adventures

The writers mostly tend to focus towards the kind of crazy frenetic energy that a story being told one page at a time needs. “That is an awful lot of exposition for such a little girl,” the big, bad wolf remarks to Wonder Woman in the largest panel of her story, not a page after Cheetah wondered, “Do you need everything explained?” Indeed, the urge throughout the collection is to just roll with it. Strange Adventures opens with an invasion of blue baboons, with Alanna assuring her lover, “No time to explain” before the plot kicks off. There are so many ideas proposed so fast in such a wacky manner that little things can sometimes get lost between the panels – but that’s part of the appeal. These are stories told in twelve pages, there’s a lot of time pressure on them. What some accomplish is absolutely incredible.

What’s incredible is the sheer variety of the work collected here. There are superheroes, but also cult figures and fringe characters, and war comics and noir. Even if the individual efforts don’t quite maintain a consistent level of quality, it’s great to have them included. Wednesday Comics packages and sells itself on nostalgia and I think that’s reflected here – there’s a taste of everything, from straightforward comic relief (Supergirl) to retro superhero chic (Green Lantern) to brilliantly experimental (Metamorpho) and downright amazing (Flash).

It's Dead-ly...

The bulk of the comics collected are solidly entertaining if you’re in the right mindset – there’s a big happy middle with lovely art and smooth enough writing. Sometimes the art is better than the writing (the Deadman strip looks amazing and the writing is pretty okay), and sometimes vice versa (I found the art of Wonder Woman tough to follow sometimes, despite the clever stuff going on). Sure, there are some clunkers (Teen Titans and Superman), but there are some gems as well. I honestly believe that the Flash comic included here may be one of the best stories featuring the character I have ever read – it’s the crown jewel of the collection and an example of what the project could be at its very best. It’s meta-fictional, but never loses sight of its characters; it’s clever, but never loses sight of its audience; it plays with the format a bit, but never loses sight of itself.

I wouldn’t mind a follow-up (and the sheer volume of excitement which accompanied this series pretty much assures one), but I’d make a note of where things can be improved. Characters like Batman and Superman bring “big name” appeal to the project, but it’s a bit of a downer when they’re among the least impressive entries – DC shouldn’t be afraid to offer us a little something crazy with the established characters. Bring back the teams that worked (assuming they want to come back) – we know who they are (Neil Gaiman & Michael Allred and Karl Herschl, Brendan Fletcher, Rob Leigh & Dave McCaig) – but feel free to shuffle up the order. I have to admit that I’m surprised we didn’t get an Aquaman story (though he did have a couple of cameos). The king of seas would seem the perfect character for this sort of pulpy narrative.

There are two extras included – one page strips for The Creeper and Plastic Man – which were originally intended to run if certain artists and writers had difficulty making the deadline. While Plastic Man isn’t exceptional, Beware the Creeper kinda works, in a sort of a dark set-up sort of way. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if DC decided to give one-page strips a go in the next iteration of this project.

It looks like an acid flashback...

Anyway, for those looking for a listing of the characters and stories included:

  • Batman – story by Brian Azzarello with art by Eduardo Risso
  • Kamandi – story by Dave Gibbons with art by Ryan Sook
  • Superman – story by John Arcudi with art by Lee Bermejo
  • Deadman – story by Dave Bullock/Vinton Heuck with art by Dave Bullock
  • Green Lantern – story by Kurt Busiek with art by Joe Quiñones
  • Metamorpho – story by Neil Gaiman with art by Michael Allred
  • Teen Titans – story by Eddie Berganza with art by Sean Galloway
  • Strange Adventures – story and art by Paul Pope and José Villarrubia
  • Supergirl – story by Jimmy Palmiotti with art by Amanda Conner
  • Metal Men – story by Dan DiDio with art by José Luis García-López and Kevin Nowlan
  • Wonder Woman – story and art by Ben Caldwell
  • Sgt. Rock – story by Adam Kubert with art by Joe Kubert
  • The Flash – story by Karl Kerschl and Brenden Fletcher with art by Karl Kerschl
  • The Demon and Catwoman – story by Walt Simonson with art by Brian Stelfreeze
  • Hawkman – story and art by Kyle Baker

I’m considering running a series of small articles discussing some of the more interesting strips (Wonder Woman and Flash seem logical choices), but not necessarily all of them – because I think that each of the teams brings something unique to their particular story. I don’t know – we’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see. But the whole collection gets a rather heart recommendation for anyone looking for just some solidly entertaining comic book tales, or interested in a king-sized portion of nostalgia.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent and thorough review. Some astounding knowledge in m0vie comic book posts!

    What are your thoughts on JTHM, Squee, Lenore and so on as an introduction to the comic book world for younglings, albeit of the relatively emo persuasion? Or what are your thoughts on Jhonen Vasquez and Roman Dirge in general?

    • I’m going to have to make a confession. My non-superhero comic book experience is pretty narrow. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, a few issues of Chew and some Ex Machina (which is, arguably a superhero comic) – and your typical classic fare like Maus. Lenore I know mainly from the newspaper, and I wouldn’t be the biggest fan. I grew up on Dilbert though – and it’s actually a stunningly accurate depiction of corporate life.

  2. I can’t wait for the second one either but I don’t think they should bring back any of the people that worked on the first one. I am questioning if they should even use any of the same characters. Maybe Batman and Superman but that’s it. I also think they should keep the same exact format and not use any one pagers, just 12 weeks of one page strips that can be collected neatly just like before. The only way I can see it being better is if they increase the number of strips from 15 to 20. Think about it that means that Mark Chiarello will definitely make more of those one pagers just in case.

    • I know they kinda have to use Superman and Batman, but I think the characters are so big that it kinda stunts the risk-taking aspect of the production. I thought both stories in this edition featuring the characters were at best straightforward and simplistic (Batman) and at worst downright boring (Superman).

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