Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wednesday Comics #7: A Comic Review!

Wednesday Comics #7
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Various
Artist: Various

Not often but every once in a while DC does something that seems aimed directly at me and my sensibilities. Usually it's a reprint book of some kind rather than any of their new material. In the case of Wednesday Comics, it's not the tabloid format but rather the contents.

When I went to Tokyo to see Melt-Banana a few weeks ago, I made a point to hit Harajuku's Blister to buy some American comics. When I first saw Wednesday Comics, I thought it was one of those free give-away papers, some kind of marketing publication with previews of upcoming books. Some of the names on the front looked interesting-- well, Mike Allred, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Pope and Joe Kubert immediately get my attention. I wanted to see what projects they had in store for the comic book market so I could add them to my comic-buying budget.

Imagine my surprise when I opened this thing expecting house ads and found it instead contained stories like an old fashioned Sunday comics section. This ended up being the one thing I bought from DC that day I actually enjoyed reading and looking at. The format hearkens back not only to the golden age of newspaper strips before almost all of them became teensy, poorly-drawn gag-a-day filler but also to the art-forward DC era when Carmine Infantino was art director and made Joe Orlando and Joe Kubert editors. I wish the regular monthlies looked as good and read as well.

The stand out is Dave Gibbons-Ryan Sook Kamandi story told in the Prince Valiant style. The story and its visuals share an epic sweep and Sook makes the most of the larger tabloid page to open up some of the panels in a kind of Cinerama boldness. A lot of artists these days use wide panels to ape cinema, but they tend to mitigate the effect by zooming in and cropping figures-- laziness. Not so here. Sook gives us a panorama of a tiger army in disarray, lost in a vast ruined landscape. I'm not exactly sure how the future barbarian girl got her finely manicured nails, though. They're so pearlescent and lovely!

Wednesday Comics also gives us Pope, Allred, Kubert, Garcia-Lopez (with Kevin Nowlan inks, no less) and Kyle Baker doing their art-thang on various under-used characters. Allred gives a few flourishes worthy of Alex Toth, Pope's work is reminiscent of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Baker works the Al Williamson angle in his Hawkman story, complete with dinosaurs and jungle mushrooms. Kubert hasn't lost a step artistically in a career stretching more than sixty years. Sixty years! To comprehend what an accomplishment that is, imagine Mickey Mantle still alive and batting clean-up once or twice a week for the Yankees. Kubert's work seems as fresh and vital now as it did back when first encountered him as the regular Sgt. Rock cover artist and in a few reprints here in there where his art would grab me with its expressionistic power. You've still got it, brother.

One thing that stuck me about the Neil Gaiman/Mike Allred Metamorpho story is how similar it is to Allred's Madman series. In both you have a family-like team of really bizarre characters led by the strangest one of all... usually in a cave. Gaiman's script is as clever as you'd expect and, of course, Mike and his wife Laura provide clean, pop-art visuals that-- much like Wednesday Comics itself-- combine the strong underpinnings of past craft with modern sensibilities. This version of Metamorpho, along with the Kamandi and Hawkman stories, really deserves to live and breathe in its own book.

But I'm an unabashed fan of most of those creators and the Kamandi concept. The real charm in Wednesday Comics is in giving readers a taste of other characters, artists and writers they might ordinarily ignore. Brian Stelfreeze also brings back the more visually experimental DC days of yore with some rare non-painted artwork that reminds me a lot of the great Filipino artists like Alex Nino and Nestor Redondo, and the Spanish artist Esteban Maroto. Other artists go the animation route, like Ben Caldwell's Disney-meets-Kricfalusi Wonder Woman. Such a plethora of styles, each page giving the eye something different to feast upon.

Visual variety.

The Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner give us a Supergirl in her old-style costume minus the trashy club kid bare mid-drift. The story's not much more than a conversation as Supergirl interacts with Aquaman. Palmiotti and Conner explore a Supergirl made up of youthful compassion and inexperience; finally, a story that acknowledges some teens are more concerned with other people's-- or animal's-- problems and not just acting out as emo-angsty borderline delinquents. Palmiotti's and Conner's characterization of Supergirl in this vignette is pleasantly similar to one I envisioned a while back when Dean Trippe did that "re-design" Supergirl meme in his blog. A smart, almost nerdy Supergirl whose biggest problem isn't how she's going to screw up or what super-boy she's going to screw but being too engaged with trying to save the world her good intentions frequently get the best of her. Not that I had anything to do with it, but I do feel slightly vindicated. And poor, poor Aquaman. Palmiotti and Conner acknowledge a lot of the humor inherent in being a guy whose power base is confined only to sea-life, but also find a poignancy, a loneliness in the concept I hadn't considered before.

It's not all four-color glory, though. The Brian Azarello-penned Batman story looks good because Eduardo Risso's art is moody and shadowy in a dark Tothian mode. But it reads as sleazily as many of the recent Bat-monthlies. One giant, icky, depressing page of Batman torturing a guy to get information. Batman torturing a guy... again. Complete with a close-up of a burning cigarette about to touch the guy's eyeball. Hooray for comics!

Dan Didio provides a serviceable script for Garcia-Lopez and Nowlan, but its blandness really doesn't serve the art team at all. When you have Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez doing sequential work again you really need to give him something worthier to illustrate. The John Arcudi-Lee Bermejo story also has strong visuals due to its painted artwork, but it could be an excerpt from any given Superman issue; I really prefer Arcudi on BPRD. Something similar can be said of the Eddie Berganza-Sean Galloway Teen Titans. It's a pleasant enough story but about what you'd expect from the monthly book; it also includes a bizarre visual gaffe where Starfire is described in the narration as being nearly "7 feet tall," but appears in the story as roughly the same height as Robin. Is he also nearly 7 feet? Is this Teen Titans also some kind of barnstorming basketball team a la the Harlem Globetrotters in other installments?

And as much as I love those old comic strip masters like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff, Noel Sickles, Al Capp and Walt Kelly, the tabloid format just seems a novelty and not particularly appealing unto itself. What excites me most is the basic idea itself-- gathering a disparate group of writers and artists and setting them loose in an anthology-- is just a hop, skip and a jump away from what I think DC really should do, which is drop most of their monthly books and consolidate the lesser titles into large manga-style phonebooks. You could still have your Bat books and your Super books and your JLA, but all the borderline titles could be contained in one big, relatively affordable and totally disposable volume. Not that they'll do this-- retailers might have a fit and hardcore collectors would soon run out of storage room.

Plus we love to archive our monthly magazines in pristine condition on the off-chance we can sell them at some indefinite future date and fund a secret headquarters on the dark side of the moon and live in sci-fi splendour for centuries. My copy of Wednesday Comics #7 is already falling apart. I paid 760 yen for it (USD$8.35) versus 570 yen (USD$6.27) for the glossy, state-of-the-art Batgirl #1 and guess which one left me feeling completely ripped off?

Still, I'd rather risk a cheaper, less-durable format and have great stories at a reasonable price and then get a trade collection of the ones I enjoyed the most later on than get some slicked up glossy magazine full of dreck any month. Or week. Or cherry-pick the good books from the dross and end up with something fragmentary, incomplete. I'm more than likely alone in this, but I'd love to get my DC fix in a more economical way via the big, cheap phonebook, which I could recycle after reading and-- once again-- grab a more archival trade collection later to preserve the better stories for my personal library.

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