When Words Collide

Mon, June 7th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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THE RETURN OF WEDNESDAY

Did anyone else pick up the giant hardcover collection of "Wednesday Comics"? At over 11" x 17", it's smaller than the original newsprint edition, but it makes a strong case for being one of the best comic book coffee table books ever. Then again, I haven't actually owned a coffee table in ten years, so it's more of a huge-book-that's-too-big-for-the-shelf-but-looks-amazing. I'll take something like that any day. Every day.

When "Wednesday Comics" was originally serialized, Chad Nevett and I did weekly "Splash Page" (pre-podcast) conversations at CBR about the comics, and though you might think I got all of my "Wednesday Comics" thoughts out of my system with the 15,000 words I contributed back then, well, you would be wrong. I might get sick of talking about the series some day, but looking at it in this new hardcover incarnation, and experiencing the stories as twelve-piece narrative units, I've found the experience a bit different than the newsprint serialization. Some comics work a whole lot better in this collected edition, read in a single sitting, and a few suffer from the smaller size. The entire point of "Wednesday Comics" was the weekly release schedule and the oversized newsprint, but that doesn't mean this big hardcover should be dismissed. It's a different kind of thing, and certainly no less impressive.

For the record, and if you're interested in seeing what I wrote last summer vs. what I'll write this week, here are the week-by-week "Splash Page" conversations about "Wednesday Comics":

WEEK ONE: State of the Art

WEEK TWO: Flash of Two Strips

WEEK THREE: What About the Other Stuff?

WEEK FOUR: The Perks of Being a Deadman

WEEK FIVE: Imagination Vacation

WEEK SIX: Operation: Onomatopoeia

WEEK EIGHT: Nazis and Wolves: Periodically Speaking

WEEK NINE: Flash Fact: Your Mind is Blown

WEEK TEN: Batman Loves Dogs

WEEK ELEVEN: Terminator Time

WEEK TWELVE: Completely Stripped Out

The best and worst of the strips haven't changed from the serialized version to the collected edition. Brendan Fletcher and Karl Kerschl's "The Flash" is still, by far, the best thing in "Wednesday Comics." And Eddie Berganza and Sean Galloway's "Teen Titans" is still, by far, the worst. Why, though? What makes those two strips stand out from the rest, for good or bad?

The Majesty of Grodd

"The Flash" has density of story, for one thing. And though the word balloons are a bit small in this reprint, they force the reader to really study the pages, which is an essential part of appreciating the comic. It's a strip that forces you to enter into its world, and then it takes you on an insane ride through the life of Barry Allen and Iris West, through comic strip history, and through the Silver Age of superhero comics. It does all that in twelve hyper-dense pages. And it's full of surprise as well, with a grand shift taking place halfway through the story as we go from the half-page "Flash" and half-page "Iris West" strips -- both drawn in different, but equally beautiful styles -- to a half-page "Flash" and a majestic, half-page "Gorilla Grodd" strip. As if Grodd were the hero of some epic adventure, like "Kamandi"-via-"Prince Valiant," as we see earlier in this volume. And then "The Flash" strip becomes more formally ambitious from there.

Reading it as twelve consecutive pages makes the emotional impact of the story all the greater, and the threat of Iris West's death is all the more potent. Sure, it's a comic, so you know Iris West isn't really going to die (especially if, like me, you read every installment a year ago), but the drama becomes amplified without the week wait in between. And there's a sweetness to the story that's better appreciated a second (or third, or fourth) time through, when the astonishing visuals are something you take for granted.

Contrast all of that with the "Teen Titans" strip, which slightly benefits from the collection, since the story has a bit more dramatic momentum as twelve consecutive pages, but it still feels like an unconnected series of plot events. "Teen Titans" is a more traditional kind of story, even if Sean Galloway brings a unique approach to the cartooning, but unlike "The Flash," which has mind-boggling plot twists, "Teen Titans" just has one thing happen after another. The new Trident attacks, a bunch of Titans fight him, the twists and turns seem unconnected as other Titans pop in and out, and, oh hey, it's not a new Trident at all, it's actually Deathstroke in disguise for some reason. Actually, the reason is explained: he had himself brainwashed to think he was someone else because he knew that he can never beat the Teen Titans as plan ol' Deathstroke, the Terminator. Poor, poor little Slade Wilson!

It reads like a silly back-up strip from an annual than needed some padding, and it just doesn't have the charm or the style or the heart to hold its own against the rest of the "Wednesday Comics" crew. Sean Galloway's art looks better on the glossy paper, but it's still mostly a collection of action poses against vague backgrounds. It looks and feels insubstantial, even at this size. Even with the heft of the hardcover.

So the top and bottom remain unchanged, but what about the strips in between? What benefits from this new format, and what suffers?

Deathstroke Revealed!

The biggest beneficiary is "Deadman" by Dave Bullock and Vinton Heuck. "Deadman" didn't even crack the Top 10 Best in my final "Wednesday Comics" list back in the "Splash Page" days, but it's in my Top 5 after reading it now. The art was always impressive, but shrinking it down a bit makes the page compositions even more impressive -- probably because your eye can take in the whole page all at once, barely -- and the story gains tremendously from the accelerated pace of the page-by-page instead of the week-to-week. "Deadman" was surprisingly good as part of this collection, and I was able to better appreciate the idea of Boston Brand as an action hero this time around. And because the story flows so well from one page to the next, the white-knuckle pacing is so much more effective than it was with a one-week and fourteen-other-distracting-stories delay. The undead love affair and ultimate betrayal is actually quite powerful. I didn't feel it at all in the original serialization. And, man, it's just such a good-looking strip from start to finish.

"Wonder Woman" suffers the most in this volume. Written and drawn by Ben Caldwell, the strip was a point of contention during its original run because it was so constantly frustrating. While "The Flash" was dense, "Wonder Woman" was overwhelming, with dozens of tiny panels and constant "hey, it was all a dream, or was it?" endings on every early page. By the end of the serialization, I had fallen a bit in love with Caldwell's ambition, and there was no doubting his artistic talent. I was sure that it would be the type of story that would make a whole lot more sense, and have more narrative impact, when read in a single sitting. Maybe it does, but not in this hardcover, when the artwork is even more difficult to follow at the smaller size, and the density of the visuals just look impenetrable, rather than ambitious. I don't think Caldwell pulled it off, in the end, because the writing doesn't provide access to the images. For me, it was like staring at traffic at rush hour, and my concentration waned. All the potential movement in the story seems frozen, clogged, and inert.

I won't go through every single strip and compare my original thoughts to my revised-i-hardcover responses, but other than "The Flash" at the top and "Teen Titans" at the bottom, everything else shifted position this time around, at least in my personal "Wednesday Comics" Top 15. "Batman," for example, didn't work as well as twelve consecutive pages, even if the Eduardo Risso art remains as glorious as ever. But with the ellipsis between pages -- and it's one of the few stories within the collection to have such sudden bursts forward in the opening few pages -- the story reads more like disconnected scenes than a coherent story. It is a single story, of course, but it has the feeling of a movie trailer at first, fading in and out to give us fragments of the narrative, a tease. The end works better than the beginning, and while that was true in the original serialization, it's more true now. And that panel where Bruce Wayne jumps on top of Luna Glass to save her from the shooter? It's still colored in a way that makes it seem like it's not Bruce Wayne at all, even though it must be.

Deadman kicks

"Hawkman" doesn't work quite as well in the collected edition either, mostly because one of its original charms -- that it escalated from an aviation rescue story into a space alien and dinosaur epic -- seems less coherent in a twelve-page chunk. With a week between installments, it worked. It was loud enough to be remembered each week. With a page flip between installments, it just seems too loud, too much happening too quickly, and the roughly computerized Kyle Baker artwork looked better on newsprint.

And the two "bonus" strips -- "Plastic Man" by Evan Dorkin and Stephen DeStephano and "Beware the Creeper" by Keith Giffen and Eric Canete? Well, Eric Canete draws a great Creeper, and that's about all they're worth. You didn't miss much if you only read the original serialization or skipped these two pages in the collection.

I enjoyed "Kamandi" more than I thought I would -- and I liked it the first time -- mostly because the art looks as perfect as ever, and the story of love and loss feels more affecting in this compressed reading. "Strange Adventures" is still as Paul Pope-y as always, which makes it worth your time, no matter the format, and Kurt Busiek and Joe Quinones's "Green Lantern" felt better paced in the collection. I also liked "The Demon and Catwoman," and I completely dismissed it in the weekly edition. It still doesn't have much of a story, but page after page of Brian Stelfreeze art is difficult to ignore. He's an artist who looks ten times better on the glossy paper, an appropriate match for his glossy rendering.

When I originally talked about "Wednesday Comics," I referred to it not so much as an experiment in a new format, but as a last hurrah for print comics. As a way to celebrate their physicality on the face of the onrushing digital age. The hardcover collection of "Wednesday Comics" makes the same kind of statement with its imposing size and potentially unwieldy heft. In the end, it's a glorious art book, celebrating superhero splendor in print. Mark Chiarello-style, always a sign of quality.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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