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Tue, June 9th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

QUANTUM AND WOODY

Augie's celebrating 20 years of comics reading and collecting this year. As part of that, he's digging through his long boxes and re-reading comics he enjoyed Back In The Day and hoping they still hold up. The track record so far has been pretty good: ShockRockets, Ka-Zar, Deadpool, She-Hulk, and Gatecrasher.

I should also mention that yesterday was the 12 year anniversary of Pipeline Commentary and Review #1. Haven't missed a week since. I'm just that crazy.

Acclaim Comics is likely best known for buying up Jim Shooter's Valiant Comics for its video game tie-in potential (ugh), hiring Fabian Nicieza to be the new editor-in-chief (much smarter move), and subsequently flaming out a couple of years later (sad, but not unexpected). Along the way, it published a number of series that never quite caught on featuring very talented creators -- Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Garth Ennis, Kevin Maguire, Mike McKone, et. al.

The brightest light in the bunch was "Quantum and Woody," an unlikely name for an unlikely comic that was humorous, character-driven, ultra high concept, and occasionally very, very meta. It broke the fourth wall when necessary, it never took itself too seriously, but when bad things happened to the characters, you still felt their pain. The book lasted 17 issues before the general failure of the line ripped it asunder, as well.

Remember what I said about "meta" humor? The series ended with Woody hanging up a phone and saying, "We've been cancelled." Then, Acclaim published four more issues. I don't have those in my collection, so let's skip over that chapter of the story. (Oscar Jimenez drew one of the issues, though.)

Quantum and Woody is the superhero odd couple. They barely get along, though they were best friends as kids. To make a long and twisted story short, their paths cross once again when they get caught up in a scientific accident that gives them powers that require them to meet up once a day to maintain their physical states. Woody, the more light-hearted and street-wise of the pair, convinces Eric that the two need to become super heroes, and so the adventures begin. Armed with the power to, er, wield scary metal bracelets and shoot energy from them, Eric assumes the "Quantum" mantle while Woody wears his costume and becomes, uhm, "Woody." Quantum often acts like he's coming out of a far-too-serious Batman comic, and Woody is there to poke holes in his balloon. But is Quantum right? Or is he taking things too seriously? Sometimes, it's not easy to tell.

And did I mention that this dynamic duo grew up together in the suburbs of Connecticut, where Eric is the sheltered and naïve black kid, while Woody is the tow-headed street smart tough guy with the wicked sense of humor? Even better, the series uses those contrasts to create dynamic characters, without turning out preachy or topical.

It is a book that works on different levels, and they all fire well. A book this good and this quirky is doomed from the start, isn't it?

Writer Christopher Priest became known in the late 90s as that writer guy who did non-linear storytelling. That came from his runs on both "Quantum and Woody" and "Black Panther." ("Black Panther" was partially set-up in Priest's brief run on "Ka-Zar," following Waid's run discussed earlier in Pipeline.) The stories across these 17 issues jump around like crazy. Each scene gets its own title and has a well-defined beginning and end. You, as the reader, have to learn to think a little to put the pieces together sometimes, but it's not like Priest is being obtuse or willfully confusing. In fact, half the thrill of "Quantum and Woody" is in seeing how the story pieces come together and in how Priest dances through them to tell a coherent story. A lot of the humor in this book derives from that disjointed narrative and the surprises it gives you. I know it became popular for a brief time in the shadow of "Pulp Fiction," but you don't see it in comics today. I wonder when someone will pick it back up again.

Q&W is more than that, just like "Watchmen" is more than just an ad for the nine panel grid. The centerpiece of this series is the characters. Quantum and Woody are not without their faults, and not without their merits. While Woody comes off as the fun guy you'd want to party with and Quantum as the stick in the mud know-it-all, they each have shades of gray that make you believe in them as "real" people. The more you get to know them, the more you discover their reasons for why they are who they are. Woody's upbeat personality and street smarts hide a tragic past, a broken household, a strung-out mother, and some rough years on the street. Quantum's single-minded determination comes from his failed attempt at being a military man, and his years of hurt from being abandoned by his best friend for, as it turns out, specious reasons. He's committed himself to this course now, and he's scarily good at it, which provides Woody the chance to poke holes in him for a series of laughs.

Priest also plays the racial angle very well in this book. Whereas most writers would be writing After School Specials with this book's set-up, Priest uses the pair's racial identities for both serious and comedic pay-offs. Part of that comes from the inversion of stereotypes, as mentioned before. When Priest chooses to address a serious issue involving race in the fourth issue, he diffuses it a bit by referring to a specific hot button word (you know the one) as "noogie." The characters break the fourth wall at the start to explain why this is, and hilarity ensues.

"Woody, my noogie!"

While the book starts off as a series of gags surrounding a cliched comic plot, Priest evolves the book as he goes. Issue #9 is a great spotlight issue on Woody that gives you a hard look at all the difficulties he's face. Those previously had been alluded to and hinted at, but Priest gives you a punch to the gut when he strings it all together to show it to you. A later issue gives more background on Eric and how it is he's so smart and physically fit.

And at the end of the year, a recurring character's death up-ends everything and leads to "Magnum Force," a four part story that leads the book into a new direction -- no, it leads into cancellation, really.

Along the way, the laughs are plentiful. Woody adopts a goat, who becomes Vincent Von Goat, and who eventually got his own one shot. Memorably, Quantum and Woody switched bodies for a few issues, though Priest is smart enough to end the storyline before it became irritating. To do so, he employs a level of pseudo-scientific babble that stuff word balloons to their breaking point. And along the way, he gives us the scene we always wondered about in those situations, but that never got explored in all the Body Switching movies: what about going to the bathroom? I don't think I'm stretching Fair Use to present to you that three page sequence. I laughed out loud, more than once:

M.D. Bright is a great artist, and one of the most overlooked or underappreciated artists of our time, I think. His characters are expressive and interesting to look at, and his storytelling is equally qualified for action set pieces and talking heads scenes. His characters emote and act, and when Priest's script calls for a generic stereotypical superhero splash page shot, he delivers on that, as well. It's a lot of fun to watch. And I can easily see his style fitting in with the times. It has a slightly scratchier line that some might confuse with the worst of mid-90s excesses, but is actually just his looseness and energy splashed across the page. So many artists worry about placing every line just so, but Bright's linework retains all the initial gestural underpinnings that most artists work so hard to "refine" and "polish." The heck with polish! Give me the energy, instead.

Bright's storytelling is also sound. He's able to mimic specific styles, such as the opening to an issue that's done in the classic 60s "Batman" series style. He can draw a talking heads scene without it getting boring, and he can also do pacing and teasing to draw a laugh out of the most mundane things. Take, for example, this two page excerpt that not only plays off classic superhero stereotypes for laughs, but also helps define the two lead characters.

You see Quantum jumping down the side of the building, swooping around a flag pole, and landing feet first in his waiting getaway car. And that's where he sits, for panel after panel after panel, before Woody casually walks out the front door, pulls the car key out of his pocket, and gets in. When you read the book, you also realize this is done to rankle Quantum as much as it is to avoid jumping out of buildings for thrills.

Credit also has to go to Comicraft, who provided the lettering for, as I recall, the entire line of Acclaim Comics at the time. Their work on this series had an appealing and often bouncy appearance. The credits font was appropriately goody, the scene titles worked as typewritten things, and everything read easily in the end. It has shades of Tom Orzechowski's lettering style, for sure, but stands well on its own.

Atomic Paintbrush is credited with colors, which are, well, very colorful. They're not color-keying scenes or playing with color schemes. They're coloring in a comic book in the most appropriate way for each scene, never dodging a colorful scene by painting it with various shades of the same color.

Q&W didn't last nearly long enough, but I'm very happy with what we got. A series this creative and humorous never stood a chance in comics, so we should all be thrilled to have as many issues as we do to look back on. If you find them in a back issue bin, jump in. I wish someone would scoop up the series and do a couple of collections to introduce a new generation to it. I suppose it might happen, but I get the feeling there are legal entanglements that would bring lawyers in and suck out the profit motive.

Believe it or not, the first 17 issues of the series prior to Acclaim's initial collapse are collected in four trade paperbacks. Chris Marshall has the rundown on their titles at his Collected Comics Library blog, if you're interested in tracking them down by title. The second trade had a great ad on the inside front cover that's worth reproducing here, as well.

Note that "Speedball" was on the "Not Funny" list. They had no idea what would happen eight years later or so. Even better, the book is advertised as being "way under 90 bucks and not one painting of Alex Ross' Dad." I guess "Kingdom Come" was a big topic of discussion back in the day.

As I recall, the "Quantum and Woody" trade generated some controversy at the time, also, for containing material not originally in the monthly comics. Those arguments seem quaint today.

Acclaim, itself, failed gracefully and quickly. Near the end, Fabian Nicieza's editorials came straight out and told the story. Books were late and needed to be published. Books weren't selling well and needed to go. The offices moved. Back issues sold through at cover price from the publisher. And then only the video game tie-ins survived. The company came full circle, and died on the spot.

Still, you have to give them points for trying. Even as they were dying, full page ads in their comics pictured a graveyard with "We're Not What You Think " running across the bottom of the page.

As it turns out, it was exactly what we thought.

Editorial content was a big part of Acclaim's run in the late 90s. They embraced the internet relatively early on, running e-mails in their letters column and fashioning their editorial page as if it were on the "information superhighway." At a time when AOL CDs ran like water and USENET was king -- Priest enlisted USENETters for research and scientific technobabble -- Acclaim was one of the first to see the potential. That's likely how I scored a black and white preview of "Concrete Jungle" at the time, barely two years into Pipeline.

"Concrete Jungle" would have spun off from Q&W, I believe. A black and white review copy made the rounds, and I think the first issue may even have had a quiet release at one point, but the spin-off was a victim of the publisher's collapse. Priest discusses it in more detail on his website.)

While we mourn "Quantum and Woody," dead for 10 years and running, we'll take a look at some more recent comics next week. That's right, the comics industry keeps churning them out, and I'm determined to pick through some recent ones.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com rounds up pictures from the zoo and, later this week, will feature plastic animals spitting.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive. I'm stockpiling some stuff for it now to get a little momentum going again.

And there might still be a new blog on the horizon yet. . .

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Really, are you still reading this? I'm cutting-and-pasting now.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, quantum and woody, acclaim comics, christopher priest, mark bright

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