Leading Questions: A Dying Medium Brings New Life in Wednesday Comics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 12, 2016.

Wednesday-Comics-Cover

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why is Wednesday Comics the best creative endeavor at the Big Two this century?

I won’t kid you, Mark. When I first received this question I panicked a little bit, which is probably why I’m writing this column the night before it goes live. It’s not that I dislike Wednesday Comics, to the contrary I really love it, but that I don’t have much access to or memory of the series.

There’s an enormous hardcover measuring in the full 14” x 20” broadsheet dimension back at my home (about 1,100 miles from my current location). It is a book too large for either my standard library shelves designed for typically sized comic books (about 10” tall) or the oversized top shelf on each unit made for over-sized artist’s editions and absolutes (about 16” tall). Instead it rests on its back on top of one shelf with its spine pointed outward flashing “Wednesday Comics” in big white letters against a bold, red background. It’s a piece that I really cherish in my library, which is one reason I didn’t drag it halfway across the country.

You also cannot find Wednesday Comics in a digital format. There’s nothing on Comixology. DC Comics also hasn’t made much effort to adapt older or unique entries in their publication history to the digital format. WhileWednesday Comics would certainly require some consideration in how it could be read on a computer, tablet, or phone, I think it would be worth considering simply to make sure it’s accessible to a wider range of readers. Unfortunately, the people in charge of these decisions don’t appear to share my opinions (or else we’d have more than one issue of Solo on Comixology as well).

So there was no way for me to pull down this gargantuan hardcover and flip through it to refresh my generally pleasant, but imprecise memories. Wednesday Comics was collected in this format, after originally being published on newsprint on a weekly basis, back in 2010. I read it once then in a single go and again a couple of years later between graduation and starting my current career. That leaves me with about 4 years of long hours, plenty of parties, and a whole bunch of comics to recall this anthology through.

Rather than ask for more time or have you risk shipping the original newsprint across the entire damn country (thanks for the offer btw), I chose to sit on it for a couple of days. I left Wednesday Comics sitting at the back of my head trying to recall various creators, strips, and plot lines from the series. And what I found was an answer as to why Wednesday Comics is undoubtedly the best creative endeavor from the Big Two since the year 2000.

Wednesday-Comics-Paul-Pope-Adam-Strange

For anyone unfamiliar with Wednesday Comics, it is a weekly anthology series published over the summer of 2009. There were 16 pages to each installment printed on newspaper broadsheets. Each individual page featured one of fifteen chapters featuring a popular DC Comics property conceived of by a unique creative team. It was a truly unique concept and one that has seen nothing comparable arrive in the 7 years since its debut or in multiple decades before.

It’s the uniqueness of Wednesday Comics format, along with the incredible diversity of talent selected to work within said format, that makes up the reasons why this project ought to be revered amongst everything offered by the Big Two in our lifetime. 15 issues of 15 stories each in single, ginormous page installments pushed creators, genre, and the medium to some very potent places.

Let’s start by looking at the creative lineup before digging into the format itself. Almost without exception, each creative team on Wednesday Comics brings something unique to the table. They are all writers, artists, and cartoonists who were well respected in 2009 and continue to play a significant role in American comics today. More importantly, each team fills a somewhat different role in terms of style, storytelling, and theme. It’s a true buffet of the range to be found amongst the elite of the industry.

I’m not going to be able to go through every creator who worked on Wednesday Comics, but that shouldn’t imply that any of them don’t deserve a fair slice of the credit or acclaim. While I may not be a fan of every story, I think it’s fair to say that every story in the collection is for someone. It’s the range of appeal and approaches that makes the collection excellent. No comic is for everyone and that’s a good thing, and all of these comics show a certain degree of craftsmanship no matter your taste. But for now, I’ll just focus on some of the variety on display.

Look at kinetic, European stylings of the inimitable Paul Pope and Jose Villarrubia on “Strange Adventures”. Their brand of weirdness maps out the planet of Rann and packs a punch in each battle of laser guns. Then look at “Supergirl” by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, which features some of the purest, most fun stylings in modern superhero comics. It’s an absolute delight to see them play with superpowers and puppies, crafting a story that’s really enjoyable for all ages.

Consider what Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred accomplish in “Metamorpho” as they experiment with the page. Both are comics creators devoted to pushing the medium forward in a variety of formalist methods and it shows in this story as they toy with panels and layouts. In the meanwhile Adam and Joe Kubert remind readers of what direct, EC Comics-style storytelling is capable of in “Sgt. Rock”. They lay the story out guiding readers clearly between each panel and focusing on draftsmanship above all else to deliver a very effective story.

The thing to remember about this diversity of comics storytelling is that for many readers, it might be their first exposure to many of these styles. A fan of DC Comics may be unaware of what Paul Pope is doing in comics today or the proud tradition behind Kubert’s work. Wednesday Comics cracks a door to explore any of these creators bibliographies and the wide range of comics similar to theirs that go far beyond the publishing houses of the Big Two.

In fact, the only black eye on this collection of 31 creators is mediocre writer and known serial harasser Eddie Berganza on “Teen Titans”. Sean Galloway’s pop art influenced teenagers still look like a lot of fun, updating the original team to a more modern visual sensibility. He helps to cover up a story that is rote in every way and bring some life to pages that otherwise might have suffered both for the quality of the writer’s skill and later for his (absolutely) earned reputation within the industry.

Wednesday-Comics-Palmiotti-Conner-Supergirl

While the quality of the creators involved cannot be understated, I think it’s the format of Wednesday Comics itself that really makes the case for it being “the best creative endeavor” from Marvel or DC Comics in the past 16 years. That’s a high bar, even with the “Big Two” modifier, that requires something truly special and it’s the construction of this series that really puts it over the top.

DC Editorial Art Director Mark Chiarello deserves a lot of credit for conceiving of the project and convincing DC Comics to actually publish it in this format. He curated the creators involved approaching them to ask what properties they would like to use to tell a story, then providing them this unique format.

While the restrictions of 15 chapter stories with each chapter confined to a 14” x 20” page may seem overly restrictive, it’s the restrictive quality of Wednesday Comics that pushed creators to provide the quality of output they delivered.

First of all, consider the old idiom that brevity is the soul of wit. I think it’s the soul of a lot more than that. Doing anything well in a succinct fashion requires a certain level of mastery. This isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of maxi-series and epic comics runs, but it’s much easier to see the flaws or successes in a short comic than a massive one. Someone like Walt Simonson who wrote “The Demon and Catwoman” in Wednesday Comics is renowned for his lengthy runs on superb comics like Thor, Manhunter, and Orion. Here he packs his skills into a similar amount of space as a typical issue of comics and along with artist Brian Stelfreeze proves why he is a living legend in comics.

Not only were creators required to fit their entire story into only 15 short installments, but each installment was required to function on its own. Each page must feature a beginning, middle, and end in addition to the overall arc of the story spread across 15 weeks. This narrative pressure reveals an understanding of not only how to plot a comic, but how to structure that plot in a clear fashion.

The next thing to consider is how this compact structure allows readers to access such a wide range of comics storytelling in both a short amount of time and effective manner. Lifting either the original newsprint or the hardcover collection of Wednesday Comics is a joy. Whatever mood you are in, there’s a story in those pages for you at that moment. Considering the low price point of the original folded sheets, readers needed to only find one or two things to catch their eye in order to make the investment worthwhile.

In addition to being an anthology that can really find a home with anyone, it also works as a wonderful survey for readers. It offers a great deal in terms of content and styles of comics and asks for a very small investment of time. Each page can be read very quickly, but includes a complete section of a story offered by excellent creative talent. While you may not be able to convince someone to investigate the art of Ryan Sook by diving into “Seven Soldier: Zatanna”, they can easily check out his work in a page of “Kamandi” in Wednesday Comics.

The last thing to look at is the space of the page itself. Artists are given much more space to explore than in almost any other comics format. What they accomplish with that space varies wildly from the weaving panels of “Metamorpho” to the long brooding silences of Eduardo Risso’s panels in “Batman”. They create effects requiring much more space than a standard comics page, and present some concepts and imagery by which even grizzled, veteran readers may be surprised.

There is something about the very dimensions of the pages themselves too. Each is so large that it demands attention and a certain degree of respect, in spite of the recyclable material it was originally printed on. It’s easy to crumple and toss away the cheap newsprint pages, yet the artwork printed on them provide a transitory value. Seeing the artwork of someone like Paul Pope writ large across paper larger than your torso draws the eye in and encourages it to explore. It is the quality of the comics being printed that provides value to the paper and the size of the paper that helps this art be seen properly. These pages simultaneously embrace the disposable nature of comics while presenting this artwork in a manner that makes it truly seem to matter, if only for a few brief moments.

Kamandi-Sook-Gibbons-Kamandi

Even after four years, with a little bit of thought, the achievements of Wednesday Comics spring back to life in my mind. I found this collection when I was just beginning to construct my comics library and it still holds a proud place in that room, as well as in my memory. Like I said earlier, not every story was a home run, but there were none without merit.

It’s the diversity of the creators, subjects, and format that lends Wednesday Comics its endurance as a creative experiment. Not only did the series capture the best goals of an anthology, but it challenged its creators to explore the comics forms in ways many had never considered. Within each giant sheet of paper there are not only talented men and women at work, but the strain of new ideas and old skills being put to work. It’s a compelling collection both on its surface as a batch of unique tales featuring DC Comics’ best characters and on a deeper artistic level with creators straining to tell stories succinctly in a form that had almost disappeared entirely.

Now I’m just looking forward to getting home and exploring Wednesday Comics again. It’s a comic that certainly deserves to be remembered and reread.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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