Comic Books Take A Bold Leap Backward And Nail The Dismount : Monkey See A 12-issue comic book experiment that concludes today has set the medium back a good 40 years. No, that's a good thing.
NPR logo Comic Books Take A Bold Leap Backward And Nail The Dismount

Comic Books Take A Bold Leap Backward And Nail The Dismount

As you can see, the issues of Wednesday Comics dwarf some of their regular-sized friends. Glen Weldon/NPR hide caption

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Glen Weldon/NPR

One of the year's most interesting comic book experiments comes to an end today. Turns out? It wasn't particularly experimental.

Flatly awesome and happy-making, yes. But a brave leap forward that stared the uncertain future — with its looming spectre of digital distribution — squarely in its downloadable face-app? No.

In fact, it was downright retro, an exercise in nostalgia suffused with a specific yearning for the bygone days of Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant and Terry And The Pirates, a time when tales of two-fisted, four-color adventure smelled like newsprint and came with ink that rubbed off on your fingers.

Over the course of its brief life, each new issue of this particular title got you a seat on the express train to the Sunday mornings of your childhood, when you used to read the funnies by spreading them across the floor of the living room like a gleefully garish throw rug.

That was DC's Wednesday Comics, a 12-issue weekly anthology. Each issue featured 15 different serialized, single-page comic chapters of tales revolving around classic DC characters - some (Superman! Batman! Wonder Woman!) who've achieved international renown, and others (The Metal Men! Adam Strange! Deadman!) who, though beloved by fans, have achieved only "Yyyyeah, who, now?" status in the popular imagination.

The twist - and it's a big one - was the format.

After the jump: Extry! Extry! Read All About It! Alien Invasions, Dirty Nazis and Mutant Apes With Bazookas!

The brainchild of DC Art Director Mark Chiarello, who for 12 weeks coordinated the output of some 45 different writers and artists, Wednesday Comics was produced in a broadsheet format (14 x 20 inches). That made it just the thing to open with a resounding snap over the breakfast table or — if you were prepared to let your geek flag fly — on the train.

Its resemblance to the Sunday funnies occasioned some cognitive dissonance: every time you turned a page, your brain kept expecting the thin, flavorless gruel that is Marmaduke and Family Circus, only to be treated to a neuron-sizzling jolt of, say, Kyle Baker's Hawkman whupping a T.Rex upside the snout with a mace.

It took a few weeks for the artists and writers to get up to speed on the format. According to the discussion on this Around Comics podcast, for example, the artists didn't know what paper the series would get printed on until after they'd already handed in the first issue or two.

But they were quick to correct for it, and Issue 12, in comics shops today, exhibits none of the muddiness that marked several pages in those first few issues. Printing has changed a lot since the heyday of Dick Tracy; the colors are crisp and cling to the page, their (halftone? Ben-Day?) dots are downright microscopic. So even though you will be sorely tempted, put away the Silly Putty. It will avail you not.

The stories themselves ranged from straight-up, smash-em-up superheroing (Green Lantern) to jet-pack space opera (Paul Pope's Strange Adventures) to lantern-jawed war tales (Joe and Adam Kubert's Sgt. Rock and Easy Company), to a Batman strip so steeped in noir sensibility it read like The Big Sleep, if Bogey were partial to gray longjohns.

The succession of single-page chapters, each with a joyously pulpy cliffhanger (Deadman: "Don't see how things could get worse." Caption: "Next week: Things get worse!") made for quick reading, though it was admittedly difficult to keep the 15 different storylines straight in my head, week to week.

Which raises the question that is now on a lot of comics-geek minds: How is DC ever going to collect this thing?

A giant, 180-page broadsheet compilation seems unlikely, and shrinking it down to standard comic book dimensions would effectively rob the project of its reason for being (and render some of the text-heavy strips, like Wonder Woman, completely unreadable.)

Back when the first issues hit the stands, a friend who owns a comics shop bristled at the very thought. "They should never collect it," he said, eyes blazing with practiced antipathy toward the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles ("poachers!") of the world.

He picked the issue off his shelf, opened it and sort of flapped it at me. "This is the format these stories were meant be experienced in. If people want to read them, I've got copies right here, dammit."

So. Put him down in the absolutist column, then.

But me, I dunno. Yes, Wednesday Comics is aimed squarely at the small, ever-shrinking demo of comic geeks who visit their local shops to get their weekly fix.

But these stories were deliberately written to be enjoyed, at least potentially, by anyone. They're free-standing tales with none of the oppressive backstory people like me obsess over. And there's an epic sweep to the art - each page stands on its own as a gorgeously rendered snapshot of graphic storytelling, in a satisfyingly varied array of styles.

And, yes, there's the old-school and undeniable tactile grooviness of the thing, the thrill that comes with opening up an issue and letting it fill your entire field of vision.

Changes are coming to the comic book industry. The future is uncertain. Wednesday Comics is, perhaps, one last, glorious but ultimately futile gesture of open defiance — a raspberry blown in the general direction of the slick digital world to come; a resounding slap to the Facebook.

The Highlights:

Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth:
Kamandi, the flaxen-headed youth who wanders a post-apocalyptic wasteland armed only with a luger and some denim cut-offs, was originally created by comics legend Jack Kirby, and the strip pays homage to that man's, ah, unfettered imagination.

It's got everything you look for in an apocalypse: Tigers in capes, rat-people, scientist dogs, dirigibles, last minute rescues from certain death at the hands (paws) of mutant apes armed with bazookas amid the ruins of Washington, D.C.

Metamorpho, the Element Man:
You've never heard of him, but trust me: Of all the strips in Wednesday Comics, this was the one that took greatest, goofiest advantage of its broadsheet format. Written by Neil "Sandman/Coraline/Various Similarly Kind-of-Gothy Things" Gaiman, with art by Mike Allred, whose Madman comic is dependably weird.

Gaiman doesn't so much break the fourth wall as leach through it, positing a world beyond the page in which defiantly weird, F-list hero Metamorpho (he can transmute parts of his body into any of the known elements) is a pop-culture sensation featured in movies, television, best-selling comics. It'd be a good world, that world.

Over the course of his adventures, Gaiman has Metamorpho navigate a game of Snakes and Ladders that takes up the entire page, and, later, an enormous Periodic Table of elements. Great fun.

The Lights That Were Not-So-Much High:

This was the one DC promoted a lot (the first chapter was printed in USA Today, with subsequent chapters relegated to USAT's website). Understandable, given the character. But the strip's posey, painterly art took a while to warm up, and the story didn't find its feet until late.

That story: An alien invasion causes the Man of Steel to go uncharacteristically broody, earning him a lecture from Batman. Which, I mean, right there.

Having Batman call you out for being emo is like getting lectured by Oedipus for your mommy issues AM I RIGHT PEOPLE? IS THIS THING ON?