Comics Review: “Wednesday Comics”

I hate to say it, but I think the Sunday comics have been dead for as long as I’ve been reading the funny pages. By the time I was paying attention to such things back in the 1970s, the full-color Sunday comics already seemed old and outdated. They certainly weren’t the Batman or Spider-Man comic books that I knew and loved at the time. How much story can you really tell in eight or 12 panels?

Part of the problem, I think, is that in Chicago, we had two big Sunday newspapers growing up; the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. My father was a Chicago Tribune man; that meant I got Peanuts, Dick Tracy, Shoe and Doonesbury, but I don’t think I saw many of the grand adventure strips. The Tribune’s focus always seemed to be on the comedy strips. The only thing I can remember that comes close to an adventure strip is Dick Tracy and its colorful criminals. And thanks to the Tribune’s comic pages, I think I spent too many years of my life thinking adulthood was best depicted in Blondie and Andy Capp.

My grandparents, on the other hand, got the Sun-Times each Sunday, and I remember looking at Prince Valiant on my grandmother’s back porch. But since it was my grandparents’ paper, the Sun-Times was always the paper of old people to me. Prince Valiant looked nice but it also looked classical and, to an eight-year-old’s perspective, boring.  Steve Canyon was also in the Sun-Times, but I hardly even remember seeing it. So, due to the newspaper choices of my parents, it would be almost 40 years before I even began to discover the breathtaking storytelling of Alex Raymond or Milt Caniff. The best stories in DC’s big Wednesday Comics hardcover makes me long for something I never really experienced: those grand adventures doled out in small, weekly increments. But, at the same time, it also makes me realize that my favorite way of reading these type of stories now are in the large, prestige hardcovers that gives me years of strips packaged together.

There’s no denying that Wednesday Comics is first and foremost an art book. Editor Mark Chiarello brought together 15 great and stylistically different artists to work on this book. The art ranges from the very traditional superhero work (Amanda Connor and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez) to the moody (Eduardo Risso and Dave Bullock) to experimental (Sean Galloway, Karl Kerschl and Ben Caldwell) and to the phenomenal (Ryan Sook, Mike Allred and Paul Pope).

Visually, this book features something for everyone. The oversized hardcover, while a bit smaller than the original Wednesday Comics issues, is a much better showcase for the artists and most of the colorists involved. Patricia Mulvihill’s colors on Brian Azzarello and Risso’s Batman story are vibrant and energetic in the collection, more than they were on the original newsprint. Mulvihill’s colors look nice in the original edition but they almost sing in the collection, creating warmth and cold just through her choice of colors and hues on each page. Other colorists, like Ben Caldwell in his Wonder Woman story, also benefit from the coloring. Caldwell’s dark and moody purplish coloring reproduced too dark in the original strips, making the story a bit of a mess. In the collection, while his story is still a bit of a hodgepodge, his artwork stands out as some of the most original and exciting to look at.

Unfortunately, the upgraded printing and paper doesn’t work for every story. In Paul Pope’s Adam Strange story, colorists Jose Villarrubia and Lovern Kindzierski worked with a limited color palette, using only the colors available to the old Sunday strip cartoonists. On the original newsprint, their colors combined with Pope’s crazy art, created a muted, deep and dreamy pulp look. The colors in the hardcover simply pop off the page too much. The original coloring is muted, but also deep and rich. The color in the book doesn’t sink into the glossy page as well as it did on the newsprint. Dave McCaig’s colors in Karl Kerschl’s Flash story face almost the same problem. McCaig almost perfectly emulated the coloring of comic strips, right down to the overly pronounced benday dots used in old four-color printing to produce a variety of colors using only a limited ink selection. The Flash strip looks like a relic of the old printing processes thanks to McCaig’s colors. The “better” printing of the collection practically wipes out the aged effects that McCaig pulled off so perfectly in the original format. Like in the Adam Strange story, McCaig’s work gets lost in the final product of the hardcover.

Too many of the stories in Wednesday Comics are too slight, as the writers and artists cannot successfully recreate the pacing that’s needed to move a story along a single page at a time. Azzarello’s Batman story feels like a 100 Bullets short story, just inserting Batman in the place of any of Azzarello’s Minutemen. The bigger problem is that Azzarello’s story just ends, like it ran out of room. And it’s not just Azzarello who had this problem. John Arcudi’s Superman story, Kerschl’s Flash story and Busiek’s Green Lantern story all have the same issues; they start off strong but quickly run out of room with only 12 pages. Arcudi and artist Lee Berjemo have a story about Superman’s alien-ness and build it up only to have everythign suddenly hunky dory again on the final page of their story. The story ended on page 12 because it needed to end, not because they reached the end of their story.

The biggest stumbling block in Wednesday Comics seems to be its traditional approach to comic book story. The weakest stories are the ones that look and read like they could have simply been a 12-page backup in a character’s book. Batman, Superman, the Metal Men and the Demon all feel like conventional stories — generally good, but conventional. But where the storytellers can really use the page, where they successfully adapt their storytelling and pacing to the page format, that’s when the story and art of Wednesday Comics is spectacular. Pope’s pulply Adam Strange, Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook’s Prince Valiant-like Kamandi, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor’s Supergirl, Dave Bullock and Vinton Heuck’s Deadman or the wonderfully sublime Metamorpho by Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred all successfuly embrace the format and create fantastic stories with the pages they’re given. These are the stories that make this more than just an oversized art book.

Even as Wednesday Comics was coming out last summer, the general murmuring question was, “will there be a Wednesday Comics 2?” Honestly, they can just pass on doing the weekly comic on newsprint and just go to the to the nice, big hardcover. Well, they can do that just as long as the talent and the stories at least match the quality of the original Wednesday Comics. Even when the story lacks any real plot, the artwork is simply stunning to look at. I never need to read Dan Didio’s directionless Metal Men story again but I’ll turn to the pages often just to gawk at the lovely Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Kevin Nowlan artwork. Caldwell’s ambitious but confusing Wonder Woman story is visually exciting. And you can never have too much Paul Pope, Eduardo Risso or Kyle Baker. Wednesday Comics is a lot like the best comic strip pages: it’s a stunning artist showcase.

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