Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Wednesday Comics newspaper-comic DC is putting out is not really a value in terms of quality, but it's valuable as a sort of equivalent to buying mainstream comics, in miniature. If you read mainstream comics like you read any other, as an aesthetic experience, for four bucks a week, you have a diverse sampling of approaches, sort of like if you were combing through a fifty-cent box and getting a bunch of different things that came out eight months ago. Maybe three of the strips are actually good, about that many are aggressively terrible, and the rest are sort of dumb, but charming if you're in a charitable mood. If you like superhero comics as an idea, that allows for a certain amount of leeway, if you're fascinated by crap.

Criticism is made easy by how much you see, right next to each other. It's interesting formally, as a collection of giant one-page serialized strips: It's like an early twentieth-century comics section, but filled with superhero comics. There's a different sort of rhythm at work than there is in 22-page comics, but it turns out that the people that know how to work one form know how to work the other. Others fail spectacularly.

Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" strip pretty much rules. While Pope's done comics to feature extended action sequences when he's had groups of pages to work with, here he does what the other people successfully using the format do: Strips where each page is the length of a single scene, avoiding summary at the outset, and letting whole pages revolve around visual motifs.

I don't want to be so formal as to assign "rules" to follow, since the exciting thing about those early comics was that there were no rules established for what a comic was supposed to be, freeing them up to be both Krazy Kat and Little Nemo In Slumberland. But here, there's certain things that work and certain things that don't: A Kamandi strip uses the Prince Valiant technique of barely being a comic so much as a series of illustrations of lackluster prose. You would think that would be discredited by this point.

For some reason, no one in Wednesday Comics does the thing Jaime Hernandez did in Kramers Ergot 7, or Brian Chippendale does in Ninja and Paper Rodeo: Picking a panel large enough to allow for clear and solid compositions and then using that as the basis of a grid to fill up the page. This seems the best way to cover a lot of territory, in terms of plot forward motion, but maybe because of the nature of serializing a thing in twelve installments, no one wants to go that far. No one's really thinking in terms of "one-pagers."

The worst comics here are those that go from page to page, with each strip containing a single plot beat, functioning as a cliffhanger at the end of one strip and needing to be summarized at the beginning of the next. These strips tend to have other weaknesses: I stared dumbfounded at a Metal Men strip where it's revealed a bomb detonator was replaced by a shape-shifting superhero, because in the immediately preceding panel, the detonator is still clearly drawn, being pressed down: it's a terrible panel to panel transition, because there's no sense of time elapsing where the action could've taken place, no single panel where the detonator is not shown that would allow for unseen events to occur. I'm not mad at the plot mechanics, this is the sort of dumb thing that goes down in comics all the time, but formally it's completely fucked.

That's the odd thing about Wednesday Comics, is that the format doesn't really allow for fuck-ups to go unnoticed, and whenever some poor creative decision is made, a reader just wonders why. "Shouldn't they know better?" When cranking out serialized comics, it's easy to imagine people making bad decisions in the rush to do something else instead. But here, when a comic happens where the narration is peppered with deeply half-assed spanish (chicas, dinero, estupido), that narration is the point of the comic, it's completely in focus, it's all that's there, and it's egregiously terrible. Because it's weekly, the editorial focus just becomes getting it out, with no eye for oversight.

But Paul Pope's comic is good. The strips that are good, that work, seem like they should just be shown to the perpetrators of the failures: "Here is how you do something right." But that's assuming the people who aren't doing well have never seen Kramers Ergot 7, or Paper Rodeo, or a Little Nemo collection, or a newspaper comics section. Which seems like it would be impossible, or hyperbole. But the strips that fail the hardest are those made by people deeply entrenched in corporate comics culture, editors who've worked with the monthly format and aren't necessarily that engaged in history. I keep on harping on the Paul Pope comic as being good, but there are other winners that seem equally engaged in how comics work. The Batman strip by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is pretty good, by which I mean it's executed well. It tells a story visually, panel to panel, clearly, and the plot keeps moving week to week, scene to scene. A lot of the characters based on already existing designs look kind of shitty, but it doesn't really matter when you look at the three panels of a dude falling over a table and realize that no one else in the comic is handling action that well. No one else is thinking about visuals in terms of comics, that sort of animation-style-emphasis on movement, so much as a display of style. The Flash comic, split into Daniel Clowes-strips and then telling a science-fiction story, also has humans drawn with these radically unappealing faces, but it's the strip with the best formal conceit, that allows for plot movement while also feeling like it's digressing enough to be a full experience.

The Mike Allred and Kyle Baker strips occupy the middle-ground in terms of quality: They're not very good because they're not trying to be, they're just dispensing their styles sort of perfunctorily, but that's still not aggressively terrible because the drawing does have its charm. They're professional enough and engaged in comics enough to not make the glaring mistakes some are making.

But on the whole, the comic has it's heart in the right place, in that it's letting the creators do whatever. It's letting superhero comics be comics, and work on their own as examples of the medium, rather than be put into a position where they're furthering this corporate-universe grand-narrative which is deeply depressing. The four bucks per week that go to the superhero reading experience in miniature is closer to a model of how comics probably should work, a better way of getting readers to buy things they don't care about than some event comic sold to them via hype. The fraction of comics I find appealing in this miniature model is larger than the fraction glimpsed in solicitation hype. Still, I've only bought issues three, five, and six of the series thus far, because buying crappy comics isn't really worth the investment, not when there's so much more to be found in actual bargain bins.

1 comment:

Frank Santoro said...

Interesting how dull the colors are. After 20 years of coloring with a muted palette because of the slick paper - now that same palette looks dull on newsprint. This is exactly the inverse of what happened when Baxter paper was introduced. Colorists had grown accustomed to the newsprint soaking up the ink and "color" so they used bright colors. Knuckleheads.