Friday, July 10, 2009

Wednesday Comics

Let the grand experiment begin!

When I first learned of Wednesday Comics, DC's weekly anthology series printed in newspaper format on newsprint, I was dubious. DC's last two weekly series started n a high note and completely collapsed, ending up feeling like a complete waste of a year's time and money. However, Wednesday Comics is intended to run for only 12 weeks, so perhaps a limited lifespan would encourage cleaner storytelling. Also, each page of the 16 would have its own story, with its own character (or characters), writer, and artist. So if one story was not to my taste, there would be plenty of other opportunities for storytelling goodness.

Issue #1 came out this past week, and while Wednesday Comics is not a smashing success, it is not a failure by any means. In fact, the issue has really excited me from what had been the doldrums for the last couple of years, epitomized by how much I couldn't care less about the poorly handled death of Bruce Wayne or the universe-shattering implications of Final Crisis. Other than the few things I was really enjoying—Green Lantern and pretty much anything Paul Dini was writing—everything felt like it had been treading water and my pull list at the local store was getting smaller and smaller as titles either got cancelled or I dropped them. But I had seen the names associated with Wednesday Comics and had some interest in the characters, so I decided to give it a try…even though my well-founded cynicism had caused to me have a few doubts.

The first thing that leaps out at you as you open Wednesday Comics is how big the art is. Expecting something like the size of the newspaper Sunday funnies section, I was startled to find that each page does contain exactly one story, and so the artist has to work with about four times as much space as a regular comic page. That large a canvas gives the good artists a brilliant opportunity to show their craft, but it also gives the poor artists more rope to hang themselves with. I actually took far longer to read this comic than any I have read in a long time (allowing for sheer confusion like in the case of some of Morrison's work). Details jump out at you, and even the amateur critical eye (such as mine) has plenty of art to work with. But along with the art, this large format puts a premium on page layout. With this much space, artists can do some fascinating things with the pages or just make brutal fatal mistakes. As you unfold the comic, the first image that leaps out at you is a pair of eyes, taking a large chunk of the space above the fold, looking up and reflecting the Bat-signal. It is striking and stops the reader's movement, drawing them to investigate further. IT is a really strong beginning.

The Batman story, written by Brian Azzarello, represents some of the risk-taking the writers can take as well. Most of the page is a conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, with the real "Action" only taking place in the last four panels along the last row. And even then, the action consists of the point-of-view moving closer and closer to the subject, a pair of fingers moving, and a pair of eyes closing, all without any dialogue. And yet those images are some of the most evocative I have seen a very long time. Between Azzarello's scripting and the art of Eduardo Robins and Patricia Mulvihill, I found myself going over that single page a number of times, trying to drink in what is not at all a complex story. What a fantastic start.

The second page, a Kamandi story of all things, is another fine achievement, but this one is a paean to the old Sunday comics days, filled with extraordinarily clean lines and vibrant color. Dave Gibbons' script is a quick retelling of the origin of Kamandi, because a lot of contemporary comics readers probably have no idea who he is (and if this pulls in new readers as it should, they will never recognize the name). The story is workmanlike, but Ryan Sook's art just leaps off the page. For me, that art is the very best in the whole book, showing strong craftsmanship while rejoicing in the tradition that the story takes part in.

The Deadman story by Dave Bullock and Vinton Heuck mixes in the origin story with the beginning of an adventure that calls for Deadman's unique talents. While the individual panels owe a great to Darwyn Cooke, their layout is delightful, with the head and shoulders of Deadman leaping out of the center of the page. Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" also is a masterful use of layout. While the art is rough in some stretches and someone else should have done the lettering, the layout looks like a reproduction of a Williamson Flash Gordon page, dripping with a sort of art deco retro-futurity that hearkens back to the golden age of comic strips. The work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Kevin Nowlan, and Trish Mulvihill on the Metal Men is also fine, especially clean and crisp and recalling the pop art of the 60s, the era from which the Metal Men arose. Also compelling is Joe Kubert's return to Sgt. Rock.

However, there are a few clunkers in here as well. Sean Galloway's art on the Teen Titans is a sort of Westernized anime, one I would not say is carried off very well. In addition the colors are washed out and the panels cluttered, making for a difficult and not very enjoyable read. The writing in Kyle Baker's Hawkman really thuds; while the art is somewhat compelling, the narration is overblown and hyperbolic, making me grateful that the strip is only five panels long. But by worst, by far, is Ben Caldwell's Wonder Woman. Not only are the panels cluttered, there are far too many of them, cluttering the page itself. The art is difficult to follow, making the action in each panel, let alone throughout the panels, a puzzle. And the layout is a nightmare: there are panels the size of my thumb with art and three word balloons as well as a caption…it's just impossible to figure out what's happening. And the drawings themselves verge on childish, adding to the difficulty of sorting out what is going on.

And yet, despite these failures, I applaud every co-creator for taking the risk. Wednesday Comics #1 is a breath of fresh air, shining light both on the history of the medium and potential for its future. What these storytellers are doing is exciting, and I look forward to the next issue very much. Based on this first issue alone, I'd push DC to consider making this an ongoing rather than a mini-series…so long as they can keep up the high standards they have set for themselves with #1.

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