Wednesday Comments 07

A comic review article by: Thom Young
Welcome to the seventh installment of Comics Bulletin's column devoted to DC's Wednesday Comics series. This week's column is a three-way discussion of the series thus far--at just past the halfway point. The bullet ratings for this week do not reflect our opinions of issue #7 of Wednesday Comics. Instead, these are our ratings for the entire run of issues up to this point.

Jason Sacks:
Charles Webb:
Thom Young:

Jason Sacks: Over the last few months, I had fallen out of the habit of going to the comic shop each week. There was no real reason for my not going to the shop other than an ever-growing stack of unread comics that threatened to collapse and severely injure my young daughter one day while she was playing. Along with that potential danger came a growing realization that there was just nothing compelling me to visit the shop each week.

Wednesday Comics has reversed that trend for me. I now go to my LCS each week (The Comic Stop in Lynnwood, WA, for the record) specifically to pick up Wednesday Comics, and then whatever else catches my eye each week.

The reason I make the weekly trek to my shop is the same reason I was excited about this comic in the first place: An obscure mix of nostalgia for the "Sunday Comics" form and excitement about the creators involved with the project. DC promised Gaiman! Busiek! Baker! Pope! Kubert! and oh so many more.

While some creators have presented work that's been frustrating (Gaiman and Allred on "Metamorpho") or maddening (Arcudi and Bermejo on "Superman"), others have presented work that's spectacular (Gibbons and Sook on "Kamandi") or mindbogglingly stunning (Paul Pope on "Strange Adventures").

Charles Webb: Yes, I think of all the recent events, specials, crossovers, and surprises that DC and Marvel have released, the gem of 2009 (so far) has been the resurrection of the Sunday strip-- on Wednesdays!

Let's be clear, though, DC's 12-week experiment has not been perfect up to this point. In fact, as you mentioned, Jason, there have been some outright failures that have a nearly impossible task of turning things around in the next five weeks. I'm looking at you "Teen Titans."

However, as a new means of exposing readers to an old form, I think Wednesday Comics has done an admirable job--particularly in an era where dwindling print news circulations raise the issue of how many more generations will be able to enjoy comics in this weekly newsprint format on Sundays. Perhaps the success of DC's project is the nostalgia it evokes, even if it's merely a simulation.

Thom Young: To some extent, though, I think DC has failed to deliver on either the nostalgia or the simulation of the Sunday Comics sections from 40 to 70 years ago. Apart from individual failures, like "Teen Titans," there has been a general failure to accurately re-create a Sunday Comics section due to the lack of humor and soap opera strips.

Jason Sacks: Well, I know a lot has been written on the 'Net about the failure of "Teen Titans" in this format. It's true that both it and "Wonder Woman" have been frustrating and difficult strips. They're the ones I skim rather than savor each week.

However, Ben Caldwell's sweet take on "Wonder Woman" has grown on me over the weeks. While he's been a victim of both his ambitions and the format, Caldwell has presented a story that's grown and evolved over the weeks--a story that has taken advantage of the format to try something different. Caldwell has failed because he over-reached, and it's nice to see a creator over-reach.

Thom Young: Yes, I agree. Caldwell's strip has sort of grown on me, too, over the past few weeks--particularly since I saw one of his pages online (on his blog) that indicates how the strip should look--how Caldwell meant for it to look. Not surprisingly, the strip was not meant to have murky colors.

The problem, as we've been saying all along, is that the coloring he chose for the strip doesn't work with the newsprint on which his work is being produced.

If the strip is reprinted on different paper stock, I'm sure the colors will be produced as Caldwell intended them to look--though they then won't re-create the feel of an old Sunday Comics section. However, the coloring on newsprint is not this strip's only problem.

Even if the strip is reprinted on better paper stock, it will still be difficult to read and enjoy unless each weekly edition is cut up into 16 "pages" that are then blown up to either regular comic book size or "Treasury Edition" size.

Originally, I thought Caldwell's 12 weekly pages might fill a 60- to 72-page graphic novella (with each weekly page equaling five or six comic book pages). However, after studying Caldwell's layouts for the past few weeks, I've noticed that he's actually designing each weekly page as four "daily comic strips" (four horizontal strips for weeks one through five, but vertical strips for weeks six and seven).

Each of the four horizontal rows on the page (for weeks one through five) can be broken down further as four panels or "blocks"--which means 16 of these blocks per week. The vertical strips (weeks six and seven) seem to equal 4.5 "blocks" per column--or the equivalent of 18 blocks per page.

Caldwell then breaks down those 16 (or 18) blocks into small panels--which is what then gives us the 60-plus panels per page each week.

Anyway, it would be fairly easy to separate out the 16 blocks per page that Caldwell produces each week and then publish them as their own comic book pages--with the small panels then appearing as regular-sized comic book panels.

A few of Caldwell's "daily strip panels" are larger or smaller than one-sixteenth of the full weekly page, but most of them seem to be in the one-sixteenth ratio and could easily be converted into regular comic book pages.

Of course, what all this means is that Caldwell is actually producing a 192-page (plus) graphic novel that he is trying to cram into 12 weekly broadsheet pages. Thus, "Wonder Woman" is still a complete failure for not taking into consideration the format--both in size and paper quality.

Charles Webb: Yes, anyone who has read my previous reviews knows that I'm not at all a fan of the "Teen Titans" strip. While it's the least enjoyable of the ongoing stories in Wednesday Comics it's not the one that fails the format the most. As you indicated, that distinction would have to go to "Wonder Woman" which is beautifully illustrated, plain fun, and nearly unreadable.

I feel that Caldwell is attempting to give the readers the most bang for their buck--filling every inch of each installment with panels and text. Unfortunately, as you noted, the earlier strips were marred by murky colors made even more difficult to read thanks to the nature of newsprint.

Even in panels where the reader has been permitted to see what's going on, they're hit with text written in a sort of baroque, tiny font. Based on content, this is one of the better strips of Wednesday Comics (I must amend my earlier opinions to the contrary), but the presentation of "Wonder Woman" makes it difficult to follow.

Jason Sacks: On the other hand, "Teen Titans" has failed because it's been relentlessly dull and mediocre. I've thought the series was full of monotonous superhero clich├ęs, but Sean Galloway's art has been clever enough--and it never pains me to at least skim the page.

Thom Young: I completely agree. With "Wonder Woman," I struggle to read each weekly installment because it's too much of a strain on my poor eyes--the colors are murky and the "sub-panels" are too small. As Charles said, the strip is also text-heavy with a lot to read in a font that my eyes struggle to see.

To even read "Wonder Woman," I have to take off my glasses (because my bi-focal lenses don't help), and I then have to put the page about four or five inches from my face. It's hardly worth it since the murky colors still make the details in the illustrations difficult to discern regardless of how close I hold the page in front of my face.

While the colors have noticeably improved since the first few weeks, Caldwell is still trying for a range of subtle shades that just don't produce well on newsprint. The colors are no longer as murky, but they're still not optimal.

On the other hand, I hate to read "Teen Titans" because the plot is sophomoric (and the narrative is equally sophomoric).

We've moved from the exposition-oriented pages in the first two weeks to action-oriented pages in weeks three through six--with rather inane dialog throughout. This week, there was a break in the action. Eureka!

However, the lack of action wasn't done for the sake of character development or even restrained plot elements. No, the break in the action was simply for the sake of returning to the exposition mode of weeks one and two.

"Teen Titans" is an example of bad storytelling at its lowest--made all the more disconcerting because its being written by an editor who should have an understanding of dramatic structure as a prerequisite for his job.

It's really a strip that seems to take a lot of its narrative structure from video games rather than from literature--and that fact probably explains why I hate it so much. It could be that readers who have been raised on video games--and who read nothing more challenging in their daily lives than comic books in the vein of this "Teen Titans" strip--will enjoy this effort by Berganza and Galloway, but this really isn't storytelling as much as it is an outline of a video game concept in which the Teen Titans must battle the Son of Dr. Light!

As for the art, I'm not an admirer of the style that Galloway uses in his illustrations--and I still recall that first week's strip in which Donna Troy essentially had no face. However, I can tell that Galloway is a good illustrator even though his work isn't to my taste.

He's the equivalent of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for me. Well, just below that level, actually, since I would stop by Preservation Hall to hear the band if I were to visit New Orleans--but I really wouldn't stop by to look at Galloway's work on this strip if I didn't have to.

Jason Sacks: The real failure for me, though, has been Gaiman and Allred's baffling "Metamorpho." More than any strip, this one got me excited for Wednesday Comics. This was clearly the team that would really understand the crazy world of Metamorpho, Sapphire, Element Girl, and the rest. However, the series has suffered from a stunning feeling of inconsistency and pacing.

It has almost felt like the creators have contempt for their audience as they've played lazy games with their story. The pacing has been horrific, full of bizarre and pointless side trips into kids' board games and fake ads one week, and a totally conventional 12-panel strip the next (this week).

Thom Young: I'm going to have to generally disagree with you, Jason.

Yes, the plot has been mostly non-existent--particularly in weeks two through six. After the first week's promising start, the story has been stalled for the most part. However, those static installments during weeks two through six actually achieved what I believe Gaiman and Allred were going for--a recreation of the types of Sunday comics that I remember as a kid.

In the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the back page of the comics section was taken up by games, puzzles, "cool offers," et cetera. Or at least that's what was on the back page of the Idaho Statesman's Sunday comics section at that time; other newspapers may have had those elements scattered throughout their Sunday comics sections.

Yes, you're right, the plot of "Metamorpho" went nowhere during weeks two through six, but I think the attempt was to create a sense of what Sunday comics sections in the 1960s and 1970s (and probably in the 30s, 40s, and 50s as well) contained beyond adventure and humor strips. On that level, I think "Metamorpho" has been a success--though the weekly pace of the story has definitely suffered.

Overall, though, I applaud the fact that Gaiman and Allred have attempted to bring in more of what true Sunday Comics were like decades ago. They weren't just cover-to-cover adventure strips.

Jason Sacks: I guess, but I just can't help but feel that this strip keeps lurching forward in a random pace. There's just no feeling of an overall plan. Instead, Gaiman and Allred just produce whatever strikes their fancy each week. No other strip has that feel. Even "Kamandi" with its balls-to-the-wall feel has a definite plan.

However, "Metamorpho" seems to have no momentum. It feels like work Gaiman does when he has a spare minute between other writing tasks--which is how I explain two installments that had establishing scenes with the team at the ruins, then the snakes and ladders page, followed by a fully plotted page--but maybe I just need to be more fun!

Anyway, I've also ranted at length about my frustration over Arcudi and Bermejo's emo "Superman" strip. For seven installments now, Superman has done nothing but get beaten up, whined, and seen major property damage. Maybe the Man of Steel will bounce back from adversity, but there's nothing heroic about the Superman appearing in Wednesday Comics. DC would have been better off just reprinting some old Wayne Boring Sunday Superman strips.

Thom Young: Absolutely.

However, I like Bermejo's work on "Superman"--and I didn't necessarily think I would. What I had previously seen of his work struck me as being an inappropriate style for typical superhero comics. I loved the look of his Detective Comics covers of a few years ago, but I also disliked (hated is too strong of a word) his depiction of Batman on those covers.

Based on those Detective Comics covers, he struck me as an artist whose style is more appropriate for hardware-based science fiction. I could see him illustrating a "World of Krypton" strip rather than a standard "Superman" comic. However, I've found him to be a good fit for Superman--albeit, by adjusting his style to some degree.

The problem with "Superman" is with Arcudi's story, which seems like something that a writer who has never read a Superman comic nor watched a Superman film (or TV show) might come up with if he had been handed a one-page synopsis of the character's back story.

Such a writer might well think, "Oh, this Superman character is ripe for exploring the psychological issue of him feeling like a stranger in a strange land."

In that vein, Arcudi has delivered a story of Superman suddenly feeling like a stranger in a strange land--but with a plot that some middle school kid might have thought up.

An extraterrestrial tells Superman that he doesn't "belong"; the extraterrestrial is then hauled away by the government and Superman mopes around thinking about how he doesn't fit in on this planet where he has been at home for 30+ years after being raised from infancy by Ma and Pa Kent in the Kansas heartland.

I agree that there's a "stranger in a strange land" concept that can be explored in the Superman mythos--but that's a story that would be more appropriate for Superboy (the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy!), not for the grown man.

The manner in which Arcudi has executed the story concept here is essentially ridiculous. It's analogous to a story in which a 35-year-old man--who has known since childhood that he was born in Europe, but adopted as an infant by a family in the US--suddenly feels as if he doesn't belong in the US because he was actually born in Germany . . . or France . . . or England. Arcudi's "Superman" is just a really bad execution of a concept that could be handled much better.

Even if a writer didn't take the "Superboy" route that I mentioned earlier, this "Superman" story could work better if we were shown some of the ways in which Superman feels "alien." However, we don't get those deeper examinations of the character's possible atavistic Kryptonian nature in conflict with his Earth upbringing. Instead, we're simply told that Superman suddenly feels out of place after all these years.

The only possible salvation of this apparent problem is for it to be revealed that the extraterrestrial planted doubts in Superman's mind through some sort of psychic attack that we weren't aware of in that first week's installment.

With the revelation at the end of this week's installment of the newest extraterrestrials apparently having mental powers (they seem to read Superman's mind regarding the whereabouts of Ma and Pa Kent), I guess Arcudi is planning to reveal that Superman's moments of doubt and pain were planted in his subconscious, but the build-up to that eventual revelation hasn't worked because Superman's sense of feeling like an outsider has never been believable up to this point.

Anyway, I love your idea (even if you were being facetious) of DC reprinting a "Superman" adventure from 1943-49 when Wayne Boring was working on the newspaper comic. Back then, the Sunday "Superman" strip had a different story from the daily strip, so DC might easily be able to find an approximately 24-week story that they could publish in 12 weeks of Wednesday Comics--with two old "Superman" half-page strips on each page.

I think a Jerry Siegel and Wayne Boring newspaper strip from 60 years ago would definitely be preferable over what Arcudi is writing here. An alternative, though, would be to have Bermejo simply re-draw a Siegel-scripted "Superman" newspaper adventure from 50 or 60 years ago.

Jason Sacks: Well, enough of what's wrong. Let's discuss what's working.

Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" makes everything just fine. His work here is some of the most stunning that I can remember seeing in comics in a long time. Pope is a genius at using all the elements of the page to present something truly unique and transcendent.

He can make a grown man cry at the brilliant way he resurrects the corpse of every long-dead adventure comic, combines it with his own unique take, and presents something that completely refreshes my passion for adventure heroes. Pope's work is so fresh, so utterly unpredictable on every level that it alone makes me run to the newsstand every week.

Charles Webb: Yes, Pope's "Strange Adventures" has the distinction of being the best strip from week to week--as well as the most evocative of a bygone era of comics reading. It's essentially a "Buck Rogers" comic that Pope and DC decided to make without calling it "Buck Rogers"--giving readers Pope's hyper-detailed alien vistas and extraterrestrial menaces that are at once remarkably Terran while keeping a sort of "otherness."

Yes, the purple apes that have enslaved the planet Rann over the last seven weeks are surely familiar to us (Adam Strange even comments on it during the story), but there's that feeling that Pope does the trick of mimicking the kinds of creatures pulp writers would create way back when.

Purple apes? Sure, they make sense on a planet where painted, bikini-clad warrior women stood side-by-side with their space explorer husbands in battle. It's a reminder of how this type of story has been told before with a limit on knowing winks towards the audience.

Thom Young: Yes, I've commented in both of the previous "Wednesday Comments" columns that I've been a part of (the first and the fourth) that Pope has essentially taken the Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky (and then Carmine Infantino) characters and recast them as Edgar Rice Burroughs characters.

Rather than Buck Rogers (which started out as a pulp novel and is about a man who awakens in the future), Pope has delivered an inspired way to re-imagine Adam Strange's original "Flash Gordon"-styled adventures into an even earlier pulp mold. This is Adam Strange (as Flash Gordon) being transported to Burroughs's Warlord of Mars pulp stories.

I wouldn't necessarily want all the creators in Wednesday Comics to re-imagine their characters in this manner, but Pope does a great job of essentially making this strip more of a Vertigo Comics version of Adam Strange.

Jason Sacks: Yes, and as for the other obvious success, I don't need to tell any Wednesday Comics reader about Ryan Sook's majestic art on "Kamandi." Sook is clearly the breakout star of the comic, and his work is just plain gorgeous here.

Thom Young: Yeah, it's great work.

The only other Ryan Sook work I've seen was the Seven Soldiers: Zatanna miniseries that he did with Grant Morrison. His work there was outstanding, but his work on "Kamandi" is even better.

Whereas Pope has taken Adam Strange and completely re-imagined the character in a way that differs from his 81 solo appearances in earlier DC titles, Dave Gibbons and Sook have taken Kamandi and essentially kept him consistent with the 59 issues of the character's 1970s series (the first 40 of which were by Jack Kirby, of course).

As much as I enjoy Pope's re-working of Adam Strange, I'm equally enjoying Gibbons and Sook's homage in which Sook doesn't imitate Kirby's lines but achieves the same level of dynamism.

Jason Sacks: Indeed. I've had fun seeing all these super-hero and adventure characters depicted in this format. It's understandable that DC would suffer criticism for not presenting a more diverse group of characters in this comic, but the roster makes sense to me. If DC was looking to present an anthology of adventure comics--the equivalent of seeing 15 classic adventure strips back-to-back--how could they choose a better roster of characters?

Certainly any casual reader would have to expect Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to be involved--and so DC delivered them (along with heroes from the next tier of fame like the Flash, Green Lantern, the Teen Titans, and Hawkman).

Thom Young: Well, I'm one of the people who has criticized the all-adventure strip approach of Wednesday Comics--though Palmiotti and Conner do a nice job on "Supergirl" of deviating slightly from the Boys' Adventures approach that the rest of the strips take.

Rather than just adventure strips, DC would have come closer to re-creating the old Sunday Comics sections of newspapers from 40 to 70 years ago if they would have included humor and soap opera strips in the mix. The "Iris West" half of the "Flash" page has sort of given us the soap opera strip, but not exactly.

Jason Sacks: Yes, it would be fun next year to see DC really play with the medium by presenting a more diverse set of strips. I think it would be fun to get a page each week from a classic DC character strip--like a classic Superman or Batman comic strip adventure from back in the day.

Maybe they could invite Pope back and juxtapose his work with the classic strip. Darwyn Cooke on "Slam Bradley" a la Dick Tracy is a natural for the format, and so is Steve Rude presenting a classic take on "Doom Patrol." Throw in some great international creators (Daniel Torres on "Space Cabbie") and some humor (Chris Giarusso on "JSA"), and you would have an intriguing assemblage of amazing artists.

Thom Young: Well, those are still just a different variety of adventure strips. I'd like to see a mix that included things like "Sugar and Spike," "Casey the Cop," and even a soap opera strip that could be spun out of DC's old Girls' Romances or Young Romance titles of 50 years ago.

Charles Webb: "Strange Adventures" and "Wonder Woman" represent the eclecticism of the project, but they also raise the question: "For whom was this written, exactly?"

Indeed, DC seems to think that this is a project that can bring in the mainstream through the presentation of the "Superman" strip in USA Today. At the same time, they present a continuity-heavy version of "Teen Titans" that requires that the readers have some knowledge of recent events in the DCU. I suspect, in spite of the mainstream push, that this is still a project intended for the core comics audience.

This is the project that says, "hey, here are some of your favorite (and neglected) DCU characters getting remixed by some of your favorite creators." While it doesn't have the taint of fan wankery, it's still very much a product for the fans.

Who else but the fans would be excited about such an out-there premise as "The Metal Men" or "Dead Man"? What's more, there's no crossover between the creators attached to Wednesday Comics and other media.

With the exception of Neil Gaiman, most of the creators attached to this project have no real cache outside the comics world (or at least nothing as blurb-worthy as "from the writer/producer/showrunner of the first season of Grace Under Fire!"). It has no "hook" to grab non-comics readers (outside of its subjective quality).

Thom Young: Yeah, I don't believe this project was ever intended to be sold to the mainstream non-comics-buying audience. I think the deal with USA Today is more of a hopeful possibility rather than part of a pre-conceived marketing strategy in which Wednesday Comics was supposed to be editorially controlled for a mainstream audience.

To a large extent, I don't know that anyone at DC would even know how to produce a project for a mainstream audience. From top to bottom, the company now seems to be staffed by former comic book fans who have managed to get employed at a comic book company. President and publisher Paul Levitz was a comic book reader as a kid who got his start writing and publishing the fanzine The Comic Reader, and I'm sure the mailroom workers and interns are all fanboys (or fangirls) who came to DC out of fandom.

Nowadays, mainstream comics are produced by former fanboys for current fanboys--and I think the overall product at DC, Marvel, and Image has declined greatly due to that fact. It's probably better at other companies that have more diversity in their lines than just 99% superhero titles.

Of course, that fanboy mentality is undoubtedly a major factor in the line-up of Wednesday Comics being all adventure strips--and 12 of the 15 being superhero strips (with "Kamandi," "Strange Adventures," and "Sgt. Rock" being the three exceptions).

Charles Webb: Yes, I also suspect that the choice to make the project primarily focused on capes and tights was a means of appealing to the core fans. Comics fandom is normally reticent to anthologies (the canceled comics graveyard is littered with the remains of Astonishing Tales and Dark Horse Presents re-launches), I think comic fans are more comfortable with rapid turnaround stories of costumed adventurers.

This point isn't necessarily an indictment of the target audience--I just think the majority of them would rather see a familiar type of story in this format.

I think the trick for the next incarnation of the book isn't so much to do more or less heroes, but to take full advantage of the format in interesting ways--perhaps single-page horror stories titled "House of Mystery."

Better still, what about a "Plastic Man/Elastic Man" activity page with puzzles and mini mysteries?

Going forward, DC has the opportunity to make the experience more interactive, taking advantage of the disposable nature of the format (I can't imagine the originals going for all that much on eBay) while still making it a commercial project. So let's see a "Robin" strip that involves cutting the character out of a panel and inserting him into a "Warlord" story on the next page as the two narratives intersect.

So far this has been a project that I've enjoyed a great deal, but I hope that DC puts some spin on it should they decide to try this again in the future.

Jason Sacks: In any event, Wednesday Comics has made me return to the shop week after week so that I can keep up with my favorite strips. I'm so glad that DC took on this experiment because I've loved the project.

Despite some frustration, I think the format has allowed some creators to do really interesting work that we would never had a chance to see otherwise.

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