Wednesday Comments 10

A comic review article by: Thom Young
Welcome to the tenth installment of Comics Bulletin's reviews column devoted to DC's Wednesday Comics. In this week's column, Jason Sacks will be making a few comments about the series in general and about issue #10 in particular.

It's difficult to comment on weekly one-page comic strips without "spoiling" the action. However, efforts have been made to minimize the problem of giving out too much of the story. Be aware, though, that some spoilers may be embedded in the following commentary.

Jason Sacks: Okay, this column is going to be a little oblique this week, and parts of it are going to be a little obvious. Hopefully, though, if we stick together, we'll have some fun and get some more insight into Wednesday Comics.

So you know those commercials that premiered during the Super Bowl that use Bob Dylan's song "Forever Young"? The ones where the commercial transitions between Dylan's version and's cover of the song? Oh heck, here's the youtube of it, though ComicsBulletin in no way endorses Pepsi as our drink of choice (I'm a coffee drinker not a soda drinker--of course, I live in the Seattle area).

Dylan's version of "Forever Young" first appeared in his 1974 album Planet Waves--an album that was hastily recorded with his longtime friends and collaborators The Band before they all went out on Dylan's famous '74 tour, immortalized on the classic double album Before the Flood. (Of course, by "double album," I mean two LPs--those round, usually black, disks that you used to play on a record player at 33.3 RPMs). Planet Waves shares an interesting distinction with several other Dylan albums in that it received muted reviews at the time but has grown in the eyes of critics over the years.

Yeah, all of us reviewers make mistakes like that sometimes. An album may not hit us in the right way at the time, or sometimes we may just need to grow into appreciating a particular work.

Planet Waves isn't Dylan's greatest album. I find I still love Highway 61 Revisited with a white-hot passion even though I've been listening to it for almost my entire life (or maybe it's because I've listened to it my entire life). Anyway, Planet Waves has some amazing tracks. "On a Night Like This" is charming, and "You Angel You" might be the most nakedly loving Dylan song ever.

However, the really interesting aspect of the album is that Dylan performs two versions of "Forever Young" on it--one version is jaunty and the other slower. It's not too uncommon these days to have artists release multiple versions of songs. However, it was quite uncommon in those days.

It was downright weird, in fact.

The two versions implied a few things. First, it implied that Dylan is weird (but we all knew that already). Second, and more interestingly, this song really meant a lot to him. It's a song that is sung from a father to his young son--asking his son to keep his youthful spirit alive inside.

(As if this whole "Wednesday Comments" piece isn't too much of a tangent already, I have yet another quick tangent here: One of the most moving and beautiful songs about the subject of staying young is "Cut Off Your Head" by Boston folksinger Jim Infantino. You may recognize that last name. Yes, Jim Infantino is the nephew of comics legend Carmine Infantino, artist in the 1960s on The Flash and "Adam Strange," and the co-creator of Deadman. The song is really well worth seeking out.)

Interestingly, Wikipedia reports that Howard Cosell recited the words to "Forever Young" to Muhammad Ali when Ali won the heavyweight crown for the third time. Ali, Cosell, Dylan . . . is anyone under the age of 35 still reading this?

The point I'm getting to here is that this odd and unique jam between and Dylan is beautifully clever and elegant. It represents a clear transition from the older generation to the younger, but also represents a measure of deep respect and trust between the artists. Some may perceive this mash-up as a way to make both boomers and gen-y'ers happy; to me, though, the Pepsi commercial succeeds because it represents exactly the sort of thoughts and emotions that Dylan sings about in his song. It all flows full circle in an endless feedback loop that really satisfies.

We're getting closer to my point here, but I still beg your patience.

Now we come to a genius cartoonist by the name of Alex Toth. I don't use the word genius often, but Toth was a genius.

Alex Toth was a master cartoonist--famously called "the cartoonist's cartoonist" during his career because of his amazing minimalist style. Toth always strove to tell his stories with a minimum of line work. He was the anti-Rob Liefeld (and I have to admit, one of the reasons I hate Liefeld so much is that he and Toth are such opposites).

Toth's comics were meticulously designed. He never used a line in his art that he didn't need. Every aspect of the art, from the panel arrangement to the linework to Toth's rather eccentric lettering, was designed specifically to emphasize the story.

He was also a notoriously difficult friend, but that's a story for another time.

Alex Toth worked in comics for many years and then he left to work at Hanna-Barbera designing their cartoon characters. Toth had a hand in designing such legendary characters as Herculoids, and his most beloved creation, Space Ghost.

In 2007, a DVD set of Space Ghost episodes came out. On the second disk was a documentary on Toth, and one of the most charismatic and interesting men paying tribute to Toth was a young cartoonist by the name of Paul Pope.

Pope raved about Toth--discussing the admiration and respect he has for Toth's work in several very interesting and articulate ways. While watching the DVD I was deeply struck by how much Pope got it; how much love and respect he has for the heritage of the comics history. Pope truly loves comics, and he has internalized Toth's approach to comics in the way a truly great student learns--by learning his lessons and then following his own path.

Which brings us (finally) to Wednesday Comics--because this series is all about paying tribute to the spirit of the old Sunday funnies while bringing the pleasure of them to a new generation.

Like covering Dylan, Pope's "Strange Adventures" really, truly takes the lessons of old comics, internalizes them, and transforms them into something modern, amazing, and exhilarating. It's not just that Pope understands the history of comics and is doing a tribute to a wonderful moment in that history. It's that Pope has thought deeply about the true objectives of the project, and he has enough of the auteur in him to take the project in thrilling new directions.

Here's where I admit my critical bias: As you probably gathered from the above comments, I love auteurs. I admire them, I appreciate them, and, quite frankly, I tend to enjoy their comics more than I enjoy comics created by teams. So I love the works of Darwyn Cooke, the Bros Hernandez, David Lapham, David Mazzucchelli, and, yes, Paul Pope.

It's the auteur approach that makes me enjoy Pope's "Strange Adventures" more than I do other strips in the book.

For instance, Busiek and Quinones's "Green Lantern" is a series I enjoy well enough. I never really disliked it, but it has never really excited me from week to week either. This week's "Green Lantern" page is a great example. It's really well drawn and colored, with a nice and traditional page design, but the series has just felt a bit too tightly tied to its era while not transcending that era.

Busiek, like Pope, has a wonderful love for comics tradition, but his work tends to be embedded a bit much in the tradition. He loves old hero comics; heck, he's the guy who wrote JLA/Avengers--fulfilling many a comic fan's wet dream--and I love Busiek for that! However, it's telling that his most personal work is Astro City--which is a deeper and more fulfilling superhero series, but one that he does with Brent Anderson. We can't expect an auteur approach from Busiek.

The most traditional series in Wednesday Comics has to be "Sgt. Rock" with its conservative storytelling grid and conventional approach to the story. The work of papa Joe Kubert and son Adam is clearly meant to feel very stolid and traditional, and it's satisfying on those terms. However, at the same time, it's quite frustrating.

Joe Kubert has produced some auteur work of his own over the years, but he's clearly holding himself back here--allowing himself to literally stay inside the box when some of his most classic Sgt. Rock stories played beautifully with the forms of page design. There's a sense that papa Kubert could do so much more than he delivers here.

On the other hand, look at "Metal Men." Dan Didio has surprised many of us by producing a solidly professional comic strip with great respect for tradition--but he never transcends it. Part of that sense of tradition is the sturdy pencil work by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez--the illustrator who once did most of DC's advertising art. Garcia Lopez is the epitome, the very Platonic Ideal, of a slick comics artist--and it's crazy to expect him to be anything but that.

It's interesting to note that the three strips listed above seem to be the ones that fans find to be the most middling in Wednesday Comics. All are quite nice on their own terms, but they don't quite light people on fire with excitement. They're too much Dylan, not enough Too much Toth, not enough Pope.

The blogosphere (or reviewosphere if you prefer) has been buzzing a lot lately about Ben Caldwell's work on "Wonder Woman." In fact, my fellow reviewer Charles Webb did a very nice discussion of that strip last week (follow the link to the left of this page to read Charles's comments, which I agree with).

Caldwell has taken the concepts, motifs, and ideas around Wonder Woman and given them his own unique, auteur spin. Caldwell is producing idiosyncratic and interesting work that is full of joy, energy, and passion. He's producing a strip that has somehow become quite deeply satisfying.

"The Flash" under Karl Keschl and Jared Fletcher has done a wonderful job of creating charming and thoughtful stories while engaging the reader with deep excitement. This week's "Flash" strip just might be the most interesting of all of them so far as Fletcher plays with the page layout in ways that cleverly emphasize both the characters he depicts and gives us a sense of the speed of the Flash.

As the Flash races around a tower in Gorilla City, the panel arrangements are thrilling in their sense of energy. We get a deep sense of joy from the creators, an exciting attempt to create something truly unique that readers will understand viscerally. Yet, at its core, this installment of "The Flash" is a deeply traditional Flash/Gorilla Grodd story as Fletcher delivers work that's vaguely reminiscent of Carmine Infantino's work on the strip--which old-time readers have to find deeply satisfying. Finally, we've found Dylan and sharing a song that's true to both their approaches to the world.

However, then there's Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" . . . sigh. If you play Rock Band, you've probably played the song "Alex Chilton." It's a great song, and has a great line in its chorus:
I'm in love
What's that song?
I'm in love
With that song.
I'm in love. With this strip. I'm not exaggerating. I stare at the pages of this strip like a lovesick 14-year-old staring at his girlfriend's picture--taking in every gorgeous detail because it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen.

I still smile at the awesomely mysterious way that Pope depicted Doctor Fate--all crazy and mysterious, just like Fate looked in those amazingly dark and atmospheric stories that appeared in the ironically named More Fun Comics (how fun was all that atmospheric shit in the 40s? Not too much fun, given the way that they treated the character later in his run).

I stare at the topmost panel in this week's installment of "Strange Adventures," and I feel that same joy. Adam has climbed atop his tormentor Korgo just as Korgo bellows in his own crazy font "Unhand me you pink furless thing!!"

I ask you, how many creators can deliver a scene like that with a straight face?

Beyond the great Pope, not too many.

It takes an auteur with a vision like Pope's to deliver such a corny and goofy scene and make it work--work not just as pastiche (like in "Green Lantern") or as humor (like in Palmiotti and Conner's hysterical "Supergirl," which I've unfairly neglected here, but I'm up around 2000 words already, folks, gimme a break).

No, Pope makes the scene succeed because his work has an energy, a vitality, a deep respect for the past, and a very unique viewpoint.

Paul Pope is an auteur. He has done the impossible. Pope has managed to be both Dylan and

He has made Adam Strange his own. Unlike Fletcher on "The Flash," Pope is paying tribute to Carmine Infantino by giving him the greatest respect; Pope has internalized the lessons of the great cartoonist and produced work as uniquely quirky, complex, and oddly traditional as any ever seen in comics.

I'm loving most of the strips in Wednesday Comics on their own terms; this series has been a successful experiment. However, only one strip really transcends the format.

Okay, I've said a whole lot here. Do me a favor and post some feedback on this. I really would love to read your take.

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