WEDNESDAY COMICS: Ben Caldwell and Dave Bullock & Vinton Heuck

Thu, September 10th, 2009 at 1:28pm PDT | Updated: September 10th, 2009 at 1:36pm

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Jeffrey Renaud, Staff Writer

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"Wednesday Comics" #10 on sale now

Welcome back to CBR’s weekly look at DC Comics’ hit series, “Wednesday Comics.” Presented in a broadsheet format (14 inches by 20 inches), the 12-week series features 15 strips written and illustrated by Eisner Award winners like Neil Gaiman, Kyle Baker and Brian Azzarello. And with DC icons Superman, Batman and Green Lantern standing tall beside lesser-known characters like Adam Strange, Metamorpho and Deadman, there is truly something for everybody.

Every Wednesday, CBR News presents a new interview with the creators bringing this unique title to life. And with just a few Wednesdays left, we’re double (actually triple) dipping this week. First off, we’ve got Russ Manning Award-nominated cartoonist Ben Caldwell, who is writing and illustrating the Wonder Woman strip.

We also have television animation veterans Dave Bullock (“Justice League: The New Frontier”) and Vinton Heuck (“The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”), who are pooling their resources to tell a Deadman story that channels the works of legends like Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino and Neal Adams.

Story continues below

Q&A WITH “WEDNESDAY COMICS” CREATOR BEN CALDWELL

CBR: First off, how did you come to be involved with “Wednesday Comics?” Did you have prior dealings with series editor Mark Chiarello?

BEN CALDWELL: Mark’s known me and my work since I did the Wonder Woman children’s books in 2004, and every so often he’d threaten to hire me for one thing or another. I met up with him last summer and he mentioned “Wednesday Comics” -- back then I think it was “Wednesday Funnies” -- and they were thinking about doing it as a longer series.

Now, first off, when Mark Chiarello offers you anything, you don’t ask questions. You just nod your head, “Yes,” and hope he doesn’t realize what a mistake he is making. And of course, the idea itself is a dream for any comic artist – I’d been itching to do something immense ever since I first read Paul Pope’s “THB Circus.” And the fact that it was such a violent reaction to my usual format – digest-size, 100-page graphic novels – appealed to my contrarian side.

Wonder Woman art by Ben Caldwell

What about the character of Wonder Woman? Was it your idea to do a strip on everyone’s favorite Amazon Princess?

Mark told me to tackle whichever character I wanted. Since his list of potential creators was sickeningly storied, I offered to take whoever no one else wanted. He looked at me like I was an idiot, and it just so happens that I am, and then repeated his offer. I happen to have several stories on hand for various characters, we talked a few of them over, including a sort of “Invasion from Mars” Superman story and a wacky high-school comedy for another character. But the whole time, Mark was flipping through my ubiquitous folder of sketches and I realized half of them were of Wonder Woman. I had a blast on the children’s books, but they were very straightforward and I had always had an itch to explore the weirder and more Marstonian side of her world. I was always coming back to Wonder Woman and the Amazons, so by the time lunch was over I knew I had to do Wonder Woman. And by the time I pulled into my driveway, I had three plots worked out in my head, including most of what made it into my final story.

What do you love about Wonder Woman as a character? And what about her alter ego Diana Prince? Were you a fan of the Lynda Carter TV show growing up as a kid in New York?

Of course. I was always aware of Wonder Woman as a character, from comics and TV and “Super Friends.” I had some post-“Crisis” Wonder Woman comics, although at the time I was oblivious to “Crisis” and everything related to it. I would just buy whatever books had cool covers or interesting stuff going on in that particular issue. In this case, I picked up these comics that had Greek myths, a plus, cursed islands, another plus, and angry, heavily armed women, a big plus and a bonus.

I first really researched her artistic heritage when DC hired me to redesign the DCU for an experimental project. But when I began researching the children’s books, I really fell in love with Wonder Woman and her world. Although I had to play the illustrations for that book fairly conventionally, I always felt that there were a lot of things that could be done with Wonder Woman that no one had really tried out. At least part of my Wonder Woman was an attempt to hack out some new areas for creators to explore.

And although I didn’t have the room to work it into my story, I love the Wonder Woman/Diana Prince identity – even more than Superman/Clark Kent. Diana is a fish out of water in our modern world, and “Diana” gives her a chance to explore our world in interesting, touching, and hilarious ways, especially if Etta [Candy] is “helping” her adjust.

Were you a fan of the newspaper funny pages? And if so, what was your favorite comic strip?

“Calvin and Hobbes,” definitely. Not least because they lived in nearby Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The old-school Sunday pages were long gone by then, but “Calvin and Hobbes” was not only mercilessly funny, but created an entire world of its own.

Wonder Woman art by Ben Caldwell

You’re both writing and drawing the Wonder Woman strip for “Wednesday Comics.” Would you have done it any other way, meaning would you have been open to collaborating with someone?

I’m open to anything. As Mark knew, I’ve worked with writers, I’ve been writer/artist, I’ve edited other people’s writing and art – everything. That being said, Mark didn’t ask me if I wanted to collaborate, and I’m willing to bet that he was as curious to see what sort of story I’d tell as much as what sort of art I’d create. I also have to mention that I’ve done some very atypical work that Mark likes. I wonder if he wasn’t actually expecting me to do something even crazier for Wonder Woman.

Can you tell us how you landed on the fantastical story you’re telling in “Wednesday Comics?” It’s certainly not a typical Wonder Woman smash-‘em-up tale.

I would argue that this is a “typical Wonder Woman smash-‘em-up tale.” After all, she is the heavily armed and reasonably attractive scion of an immortal race of warriors from the mythical dawn of time. Running around the world and dealing with ancient curses and fantastic monsters makes sense – having her struggle against a diabolical credit-fraud ring, not the same.

Reading the CBR forums, there seem to be two camps emerging. One that absolutely loves (and I mean loves) what you’re doing and others who feel you may be trying to jam too much into every page. Any thoughts on that, or as a creative type does it come with the turf?

Well, that is certainly a tactful way to put it. I’ll just say that there were three things I set out to do:

1) Make Mark Chiarello happy

2) Refuse to be afraid of trying anything

3) Filling everyone else with delight and/or dread every Wednesday. Preferably, both at the same time.

Why did you choose to frame your story in a dream or dream-like state? Does it allow the tale to become even more fantastical?

There were four reasons for the dream venue:

1) I was a little surprised at the complaints about dreams being a ‘formula’ as opposed to what, in comics, exactly? Or having no meaning or importance. Fantasy – and my story is certainly fantasy – is inherently dream-like. If it isn’t, the creator is aesthetically retarded, and should probably be restrained. As Campbell says, “Myths are collective dreams, and dreams are personalized myth.”

Wonder Woman art by Ben Caldwell

2) While I wasn’t specifically trying to echo “Little Nemo,” it was an obvious framing device for one-page installments. Moreover, I like to create patterns and then break them down. Dream framing is an example of that.

3) Being an essentially practical person, I wanted a simple, almost self-explanatory way for Wonder Woman to quickly travel around the world, without flying business class on Alitalia or whatever.

4) This is for me to know and you to find out.

How did you go about assembling such an eclectic supporting cast, which includes the likes of Golden Age Cheetah Priscilla Rich, Etta Candy, the Oracles and the Supreme Buddha Shakyamuni?

A lot of people think I was trying to reinvent the wheel, but in fact I was just trying to boil things down. Doctor Poison as a soulless Japanese totalitarian, for example, was a no brainer. She and cheetah are two of Wonder Woman’s most iconic foes – the other two being Ares and Doctor Psycho – and for the plot I had, the world-destroying Poison and archaeologically inclined Cheetah were an obvious fit. As for Etta, in addition to being one of my favorite comics characters, as the story developed she became indispensable. In fact, I actually expanded her role from its original conception. You’ll also notice that all of the major players are female.

The Graeae, who will return, were the greatest oracles of the ancient world, so they seemed like another obvious solution for the role of “emcees” for the adventures. I had originally considered having them involved in every page, but there wasn’t space. In the end, they only show up on pages #1, #4, and #12.

By way of segue, a lot of people also seemed surprised/dismayed that so much of the mythical material in this story isn’t Greek. Their surprise is surprising, as there are two perfectly simple reasons for this:

1) The Amazons weren’t Greek

2) More importantly, the whole point is that the “Seven Stars” were abandoned when the Amazons came to Paradise Island, and made their way into history and myth throughout the world. It would be silly for Wonder Woman to go to Japan and fight a centaur.

Wonder Woman art by Ben Caldwell

Each of the myths/sites was chosen for specific story reasons; in the case of the Shakyamuni clan of page #5, as you pointed out they were the clan of Gautmama Buddha, “The Enlightened One.” Page #5 is one of the most pivotal pages in the story for various reasons, especially as it contrasts to page #4. This is the scene where Wonder Woman takes her first major step forward by deciding to essentially fail – at least in terms of her quest – which would be incredibly difficult for a warrior bred in a warrior culture where success is achieved by defeating your enemies. This is where she stops being simply an Amazon and really starts to act like Wonder Woman. And so this is the first scene that ends with her waking up clear-headed and fully “aware” of her story. And this is why, incidentally, the Madonna is featured so heavily on page #9, when Wonder Woman is becoming a guardian of children. And why she gets the bracelets off of a statue of Kuan-yin, who was in many ways the Chinese Buddhist version of Athena, but also the guardian of children. Wow, I am so clever.

For more unbelievable fascinating junk like this, you can check out my annotations for the pages and more general notes on the amazons on my website, along with development art and other wonderful drippings.

Any chance we’ll see you contributing some more work for DC coming out of “Wednesday Comics?” I know Mark Chiarello is a big fan of what you’re doing.

I can officially say that I will be drawing more Wonder Woman beyond page #12 of “Wednesday Comics.” Wait. Can I say that? Too late.

What else are you working on these days?

For the past few years, I’ve been adapting classics, including “Dracula,” “The Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Of course, recently a few hundred versions of “Oz” have come out, but I can guarantee that mine will have more panels per page than anyone else. Just kidding. Maybe.

I also do a lot of projects that no one ever hears of. Do you remember the “Lost Boys” cartoon? No? There you go. There is also another how-to book, this time on manga cartooning, in the works. And of course, the award-losing misadventures of “The Dare! Detectives” will be continuing in the next year. [Caldwell was nominated for the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award in 2005, but didn’t win.] For those poor benighted souls who are unfamiliar with the world’s most defective detectives, I’m looking at you, Uzbekistan, all panels are extra-large and uncrowded. And there are no dreams.

Q&A WITH “WEDNESDAY COMICS” CREATORS Dave Bullock & Vinton Heuck

CBR: Did you pitch this strip as the death of Deadman, or did Mark Chiarello suggest a status-changing Boston Brand story?

DAVE BULLOCK: Deadman has gotten so little attention in recent years, I really wanted him to be front and center of his own strip. The plan from the get-go was to show off the strengths of the character: his acrobatic skills, punchy dialog, his spirit world connection, and the fact that he is sort of an everyman thrown into a crazy situation. We didn’t want this story to be about what ever janitor or crime lord Boston happened to be possessing.

Deadman page from "Wednesday Comics"

VINTON HEUCK: I believe this is something Dave wanted to do for a while. He knew I had pitched a Deadman story awhile back and asked me to write it with him.

What was your knowledge of the character before taking on this project? Dave, you worked on a “Justice League Unlimited” episode featuring Deadman, correct?

DB: My first exposure to Deadman was the Andy Helfer, García-López four-part story arc from the mid-eighties. I was fifteen and loved how dynamic it was. I’d later go back and dig up the [Arnold] Drake, [Carmine] Infantino and [Neal] Adams material. Hopefully our story points Deadman fans in that direction as well.

As for “JLU,” yes, I was incredibly stoked to get my hands on Deadman as a story artist on that episode. It had been a long time coming too. I initially got into animation because I loved what Bruce Timm was doing with “Batman: The Animated Series” while I was in college. When I graduated, “Superman” had just started, and I had to be a part of it. Since then I’ve enjoyed working with many of the DC characters in animated form. Now that I’ve directed a few projects, I absolutely think Deadman could carry a PG-13 animated movie. He’s made for it.

VH: I was pretty familiar with it when I met Dave. Doing research is half the fun. I never outgrew comics, so I love any chance to get my grubby little paws on them.

While he’s never been considered an A-lister or even a B-lister, Deadman has remained a popular character since he was introduced in 1967. What is it about Boston Brand that makes him so cool? Is it his look? His origin? What?

VH: All of the above. He is totally unique and, visually, very iconic. Plus there is something very appealing about his blue collar attitude, and the way he deals with conflict like a ham-fisted boxer, even though he is this freaky looking dude who is essentially a ghost who possesses people.

DB: For me, initially as a kid, it was the art. No bones about it. Neal Adams and José Luis García-López were like comic gods to me. As I’ve gotten older and more interested in story and character, it’s obvious that Deadman is a tortured soul, and that’s something we can relate to. Add in the superhero aspect and the supernatural setting and it’s modern mythology.

Deadman pinup by Dave Bullock

How did you find his voice? “Blowin’ chunks.” “Cirque du soleil sissies.” These are some pretty choice phrases.

DB: Well, first off, “sissies” was initially “fruits.” It was changed to be less offensive to the fruit belt. As for Boston’s voice, he’s never been known to be terribly eloquent, so we tried our best to keep him in the “street smart” vein. I think of him as a boxer from Detroit. He says what he thinks and is blunt about it. Being from Jersey, I love him for that.

VH: Based on my initial meetings with Dave, I did an initial pass on the story and then we fine tuned the thing page by page as he drew them. I did the best I could on my end, but it wasn’t hard for Dave to weigh in with added color. He’s from the East Coast, which means he’s more direct and subject to flowery expletives than us latte-sipping West Coast types – kind of like Boston.

Is Kalak an original creation? I looked around and I couldn’t find any previous appearances.

DB: Kalak is a new character. I think Deadman’s rogues’ gallery could use some beefing up, especially in the demon department.

VH: I believe I looked up a bunch of actual demon names, and just tweaked them a little.

How did you land on Kalak’s look?

DB: Knowing that Boston Brand was lean and ‘springy,’ I thought it made sense to go the opposite way, big and bulky with Kalak. I wanted him to seem unstoppable from a physical stand point, forcing Boston to have to use his noodle to figure out how to stop this monster.

Is it easier or more difficult working with a lead character that isn’t a household name like Superman or Batman?

DB: I think it’s easier to make a good impression with a character that isn’t over exposed. You don’t have to mimic the dialogue or character behaviors of fifty other creators. Here we had a small but solid foundation to build on.

VH: In my mind it was easier. We had a lot more freedom to do what we wanted with the character. Our choice to make him sound like he walked right out his original 1967 comic by way of Raymond Chandler, for instance.

"Wednesday Comics" designs by Dave Bullock

Have you enjoyed working within this format – a one page, 12-week, serialized story?

VH: Thrilled. I was blown away by how well Dave made use of those giant pages with his page layouts. Each one was a beautiful work of art suitable for framing. Every page had such weight to it in terms of story as well. It forced us to stay lean and mean.

DB: Chi [Mark Chiarello] is the man for reinventing this format. A few years ago, Hollywood was throwing around the term “high concept” a lot. Our high concept of Deadman was to pull together crime noir, superhero, romance, trippy existentialism, “Hammer Horror” and acrobatic dynamics. To have the opportunity to plug all of that into 12 giant pages of art was some of the most rewarding work I’ve done. I’ve always dug on serials like “Spy Smasher” and “The Lone Ranger,” so having the chance to work in weekly cliff hangers was fun too for nostalgic reasons.

Are you a fan of the old Sunday strips too? If so, what are some favorites? Did you look back at any archives for inspiration?

DB: I’m a fan of strips like “Johnny Hazard,” “Steve Canyon,” Romero’s U.K. released “AXA,” “Flash Gordon,” the inky news strips. As far as inspiration there are a couple of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” strips that Chi sent over that I would use as reminders to break conventional format.

VH: Some of my earliest comic reads were from collected editions I checked out from the library of “Prince Valiant” and ”Flash Gordon,” so yeah. What was great about them is that you could really see the amount of care and effort that went into each page. It was beyond awesome to get a chance to be part of something like that.

How much credit are you taking for the recently announced Deadman movie from Guillermo del Toro?

DB: All of it. No, seriously, when I first started designing the demons for the story I thought, boy they should look like they flew out of a del Toro film. I’ve been a fan of his films since “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone.”

Unlettered "Wednesday Comics" page

Around the time the first issue of “Wednesday Comics” released, I did a Deadman search to check out the reviews, and came across a news item from 2006 announcing that del Toro was developing the film. I figured, well, that was a few years ago, no mention of if since, so it’s probably dead. Then this past week it was in “Variety” as on again. If we had anything to do with WB’s renewed interest in Boston Brand, I’m stoked because as a fan of the character, I want to see it made.

VH: I wish. I had heard the Guillermo del Toro was interested in making it before we started. I just hope he reads our comic.

Who would play a good Deadman? And you can’t say Ryan Reynolds.

VH: That’s because he wouldn’t be the right choice. I’d say a Steve McQueen back in the day. I can’t really imagine who they would use nowadays.

DB: Heath Ledger.

What else are you working on these days?

DB: Well, Deadman has been wrapped for a few weeks, and I’m back to storyboarding on a couple of projects, namely “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” for Film Roman. I’ve worked on some sucky Marvel ‘toons in the past and I can assure fans that this is going to be way better than any other Marvel series out there. I’m also pitching a couple of comic book stories, so hopefully I’ll be published again soon.

VH: I’m finishing up directing a 13-episode run on Marvel’s “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” series, which will hopefully come out in the next year or so.

“Wednesday Comics” #10 is on sale now from DC Comics. Be sure to check back next week when we discuss Superman with John Arcudi and Lee Bermejo.

TAGS:  wednesday comics, ben caldwell, dave bullock, vinton heuck, dc comics

 
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