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Wednesday Comics: Metamorpho

Earlier this week I reviewed Wednesday Comics, a rather spanking anthology from DC Comics. I kinda figured, however, it might be worth my while to break out some of those fifteen stories on their own (but not all of them) and discuss them, as it’s easy to lose sight of a particular writer/artist’s work in an anthology. And hey! It’s Neil Gaiman!

Good old Metamorpho. If ever there was a cult DC property, good old Rex Mason would be in the running. He isn’t exactly the highest profile name in the DCU – he’s not even B- or C-List (which makes it hilarious when this script introduces us to “the Metamorpho Fans of America”, followers of “the most popular comic book in America”, and he even has his own TV show). But those who know him love him and his basic concept – he “can transform himself into 94 elements!” – is wonderfully hokey. Hokey enough, perhaps, that he seems a perfect fit for the conscious throwbacks of Wednesday Comics. Indeed, that this was the character writer Neil Gaiman and artist Michael Allred chose to work on shouldn’t really be a surprise, nor should the fact that it’s one of the very few strips in the collection which boldly experiments with the format.

That shark needs a fast food chain...

You can feel Gaiman and Allred growing gradually more experimental with the strip as it moves on. The opening page is fairly conventional, before they branch out into a double-page spread (the first attempted in the collection, which is understandable, given it was collected one page at a time) complete with handy exposition from “The Metamorpho Fans of America” (which serves the dual purpose of introducing readers to Rex Mason and also setting up developments further in the strip so Gaiman doesn’t have to worry about introducing them one at a time). From there, things only get wilder, with a special “snakes and ladders” board game included for fans, an evil element man hijacking the strip and an amazing chase across the periodic table – the whole strip ending, cheekily enough, with a preview of “next week in Wednesday Comics”.

Along the way, Gaiman gleefully plays with the inherent cheesiness of the concept. “Kids! If your letter is used, you get a year’s free subscription to Metamorpho’s canine pal, Element Dog,” he cheekily suggests, as we wonder what kind of fictional world not only has a weekly Metamorpho comic, but a monthly one for his dog (indeed, the last page teases, “And don’t miss Metamorpho’s monthly comic… someday!”). Gaiman seems to realise that this project is essentially one driven by the artist rather than the writer, so he doesn’t offer anything too radical in terms of plotting or character – just allowing room for big visual setpieces.

Metamorpho's perfectly in his element here...

The story is relatively pedestrian, like a great many others in the collection, but it’s carried off with a great deal of skill. The plot essentially follows Rex and his team as they discover a “lost temple” housing “the legendary Star of Atlantis” in a “hidden valley” in the Antartic (or, as one summary puts it accurately enough, “You know. The usual.”). “Any dinosaurs?” Rex asks, clearly fairly familiar with how this will go. “Possibly a couple,” Stagg concedes. “Neat,” Metamorpho replies. As they venture into the temple, they face a whole host of conveniently-elemental-themed death traps and “a mysterious villian”.

That said, for all its conventionalism, the story is well told. Gaiman offers a wonderful retro-sixties-style hokeyness to the dialogue, with Rex asking “What’s shaking?” as he arrives or even the strange alien foe cursing, “drat them”. It’s also fun to hear the characters riffing on how “any common or garden superhero” could do this job (“Even the Doom Patrol,” Sapphire concedes, seemingly intent on finding more obscure characters than her lover, “or the Metal Men.”)

Element Girl and Metamorpho run into periodic difficulties...

In fairness, he also plays around a bit with the expectations of the time, particularly regarding the roles of women. “This journey is much too dangerous for a girl,” Stagg explains to his daughter dismissively, as she stereotypically declares of the Star of Atlantis, “It’s jewellery. And that means it’s mine.” On the other hand, the image of Rex carrying Sapphire to safety, cradled in his arms, is wonderfully juxtaposed against the image of Element Girl ferrying Stagg in a similar fashion. Indeed, it’s nice to see Gaiman writing Element Girl again, particularly after her heart-breaking cameo in The Sandman – her fate alluded to here (“Again? She died again?”).

But despite the wit with which Gaiman has written the script, the main attraction here is the artwork of artist Michael Allred. Even the regular panels look lovely, but the ones that are consciously intended to push what can be done with Wednesday Comics’ unique publishing format (oversized pizes, printed one page a week) are impressive – perhaps the most impressive artwork of the collection. It’s telling that, despite the fact than no other artist attempted even a single full splash page, Gaiman and Allred delivered two sets of double splash pages. It’s certainly impressive.

Metamorpho is going to be wanted for a-salt-ing those chefs...

I get the sense that Metamorpho really benefits from being collected in this manner, and read page-to-page. Indeed, I imagine that the comic must have been quite frustrating to read week-on-week (particularly since there were four weeks when all you were getting was half of a double splash page). Still, it’s a very skilfully put together strip from a writer and artist on top form. There’s nothing here of earth-shattering importance (no special insight into the character or his world), just and engaging and entertaining story which makes use of the difference between this project and regular comic books.

Metamorpho might not be the most popular comic book character in America yet, but I’m certainly a lot fonder of him after reading.

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