The Comic Book Club: Wednesday Comics and Bruce Wayne #2

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up talking about what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan, Mike Williams and Evan Narcisse discuss the Wednesday Comics hardcover collection and the second issue of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.

DOUGLAS: I was excited about Wednesday Comics when it was running as a weekly, although probably more in theory than in practice–I wish comics publishers would stretch out beyond the standard format more often, because form can determine content more than even the people making the content generally realize. The flip side of that is that a lot of people who’ve been doing comics for a while are so acclimated to the standard format that they just did the same kind of thing they usually do here.

Seeing all the stories collected in one place really makes it clear which ones worked in the gigantic size and which didn’t. Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures is huge in scope and uses its pages beautifully–the kind of thing I’d happily read every week forever. I love Ben Caldwell’s ridiculously micro-detailed, zillion-panels-per-page Wonder Woman, too, even though it has to be read at a very different pace from the rest of the book and feels a little like a speed-bump. And I was really impressed by the way Karl Kerschl and Brenden Fletcher’s Flash played with the format of a Sunday comic strip, even though it’s a little less effective if you’re not reading it in an actual newspaper tabloid and watching it mess with the assumptions associated with its format. (I also think it’s kind of weird that Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred’s Metamorpho was clearly done for the book collection–there are two double-page spreads in the course of twelve pages!)

The collection also made me wonder why something like Wednesday Comics couldn’t be done in an actual newspaper. Did any of you see the San Francisco Panorama, the one-off newspaper that McSweeney’s published late last year? One of the great things about it was its comics section, which was more or less like this but with alt-comics people rather than mainstream comics people (for the most part–Erik Larsen did a Savage Dragon story for it). And the newspaper comics reprints from the last few years–those Sunday Press Little Nemo and Gasoline Alley reprints, most obviously, but also all the stuff Fantagraphics and the Library of American Comics have been doing–demonstrate just how great newspaper strips can be if they’ve got a big enough field to play on. If there were something like Wednesday Comics in Sunday papers, I’d be a lot more likely to buy a physical paper on Sundays.

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By “something like Wednesday Comics,” I mean big, full-page strips that let cartoonists show off what they can do with an extended canvas; I don’t mean just superhero stories. I was a little surprised that this was so heavy on the superhero stuff; I wasn’t expecting Kramers Ergot 7 (another project that did fantastic things with a big format), but it’d have been nice to see some humor strips, or romance, or something that wasn’t straight-up action-adventure. (The Supergirl strip was probably the closest thing to a humor strip, although Kyle Baker’s Hawkman was probably the funniest thing here; I was glad to see the Sgt. Rock and Kamandi stories, just for the sake of variety.) God knows DC’s got enough Sunday-funnies-friendly comedy properties in its archives. If only Sheldon Mayer had done Sugar and Spike Sunday comics…

GRAEME: I loved Wednesday Comics as a ‘paper as well, and found the book version to be a very different experience. You’re right that the more formalist play of the Metamorpho strip comes over more clearly in the collection (Making it vaguely worthwhile, for me – I think, when taken as individual episodes, it’s impossibly light and throwaway), and the Wonder Woman story from Caldwell really benefits from the glossy paper, which lets the colors that were pretty much killed in the original version come through and sing. What doesn’t work for me, though, are the strips that played more on the (traditional?) format, the things like Superman, Batman, Sgt. Rock – when taken all at once, they all seem much flimsier than they appeared at first. Even Supergirl, which is worth it if only for Amanda Conner’s wonderful art, feels less substantial in one sitting.

Favorite story in the book: Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures, which feels as much as anything like his tribute to Heavy Metal and John Carter of Mars… Just beautiful, beautiful looking art and a suitably nonsensical story. Runner-up is probably the Flash story by Karl Kerschl and Brenden Fletcher, even if again, it suffers from not having weekly interludes between cliffhangers.

What the series – and this book, even moreso – made me feel, though, wasn’t “why can’t they do this in newspapers?” but “why can’t they do this in the comics?” With the possible exception of the pretty-but-poorly-written Teen Titans strip, almost all of the stories here show off their stars in a much better way than their regular comic books do. Is it the lack of continuity, or the choice of creators? I have no idea, but I wish that the regular Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, et al. comics were as funny and imaginative and easy to understand without signing up for DCU 101 as the strips in here.

EVAN: Like Douglas and Graeme, I also felt like the change in paper and sequencing brought out different things in the hardcover edition. I noticed stuff like the “lede” images next to the titles of certain strips a lot more. The visual puns of the Supergirl chapters and the shape-shifting Metamorpho logos stand out a lot more when viewed sequentially. As for favorites, I still liked the same strips I enjoyed in the broadsheet form. Kyle Baker’s Hawkman still got most of my love, because I feel like he does what’s so tough to pull off in modern superhero comics and that’s delivering a text that can be read either humorously or seriously. I remember reading comments that took the bird narration in the first chapter as a satire of 300; my reaction was the opposite, that it was an earnest bird’s-eye-view of the scene. Of course, you can read it both ways and it’s still satisfying. The Kamandi strip was a close second; I liked how it riffed on a formalistic Prince Valiant template but still felt like its own Kirby-rooted thing. I also felt like its chapters knitted together especially well in collected form. Seeing the omitted Plastic Man story by Evan Dorkin and Stephen DeStefano really made me regret we wound up with under-realized entries like the Teen Titans and the Metal Men. (I like Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez as much as the next guy, but the script was just flat in those strips.)

GRAEME: Oh, and about Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2? Great, great stuff, and holy moly, Frazer Irving’s colors are beeeyooootiful.

DOUGLAS: Agreed. Good God that was fantastic. Densely packed, visually imaginative, gorgeous, crazily intertextual–exactly my kind of superhero comic.

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MIKE:  Judging by the cover art, I was sure we were going to get a witch-hunting Penguin. Look at the edge of that cover and tell me that’s not Cobblepot? I agree with Graeme: the artwork of Frazer Irving is very good, even if he draws a strangely boyish Superman. I wasn’t expecting Bats to solve a domestic violence case while traipsing around in the past, but I guess you have to go with what you know. This is feeling increasingly like Kane walking the Earth and solving problems with his fists. Or something. Granted, this is a DC Universe story, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but booby-trapping Bruce Wayne as a literal time bomb is a very, very convoluted scheme. Whatever–it’s been a good ride so far.

GRAEME: Also, am I the only one who thinks that Bruce’s booby-trap from Darkseid is Annie? She did say she worshipped other gods, after all. What if they’re the New Gods?

DOUGLAS: O R’LYEH? I’d agree that “my bright gods” are probably the Shining Ones, as the Bat Tribe understood them. Annie’s devils are the “old lords” (cf. “there came a time when the old gods died!”). So… she asked the devils to send a dragon (the Cthluhu tentacle-beast) and the gods to send a man (Bruce) and they arrived at the same time?

A few other things I noticed:

*The bat tribe from last issue evolved into the Miagani from Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson’s Batman: The Cult; they seem to have kept the images Old Man drew on the cave wall as their sacred icons. (Morrison theme #1: you make the world by inscribing sigils in it and charging them.)

*Vanishing Point is the headquarters of the Linear Men. The 64th century from which the archivist comes is also where Abra Kadabra comes from: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. “Universe Zero” is the main DC universe; “Space B” has also turned up in 52 #43 (when Animal Man enters it) and Batman #674 (Bat-Mite says that’s where he comes from). “Cube time, from where we look flat” is Morrison theme #2: three-dimensional projections of four-dimensional space-time are an extension of two-dimensional projections of three-dimensional space. (“We look flat”: well, they are, viewed from our perspective! See also Superman Beyond 3-D and all the cube stuff that was going on in Seven Soldiers.) “I think I had a glimpse of those regions during a recent adventure”… it’s never clear what Rip Hunter means when he says “recent.”

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*”The old dragon,” besides being the Beast of Revelation, is specifically a callback to Batman #666–Damian says he made a deal with “the old dragon,” Gotham’s survival for his soul.

*”Goodwife Tyler”: in the DCU, people named “Tyler” tend to be associated with Hourman one way or another, which resonates with the time-travel bit, but I’m not sure how it would fit together.

*The portrait of “Mordecai” with his book ended up in Wayne Manor, as we’ve seen in recent issues of Batman and Batman & Robin. What’s in that book that’s so important? Is it related to the Black Casebook?

*”Tempted by this Jezebel”: as in Jezebel Jet?

*The Black Pirate is a DC character who had his own feature in Action Comics (1940-1941), Sensation Comics (1942-1946) and All-American Comics (1946-1948, where his first story was weirdly enough called “The Witch’s Dipping Chair”). (He appeared in James Robinson’s Starman, too.) Batman fought a pirate called Blackbeard–a different one–in Batman #4. …And JSA Classified #11 claimed that Blackbeard was actually Vandal Savage; we’ll see if Morrison counts that one in continuity…

*Morrison theme #3: pets are nice.

EVAN: It really feels like Morrison’s trying to tell the most un-Batman Batman story that he possibly can, and it’s turning out to be incredibly fun. I just kept flashing back to having to read The Scarlet Letter in high school while reading this issue.

GRAEME: Evan’s right about this ROBW being the most un-Batman story possible – Not only is it as far away from “gritty superhero realism crime” as possible, but Bruce falls in love! These things never work out well for the fans. Which, of course, makes it all the more wonderful to read.

DOUGLAS: Come on, he’s a hairy-chested love god!

GRAEME: The real Batman in the eyes of many fans would, if in love and realizing that his love was in trouble, say “Hnh,” not “ANNNNIIIIEEEEEE!”

Readers: tell us what you thought!

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