My Misspent Youth — Wednesday Comics: Wonder Woman by Ben Caldwell

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

At a time when comic books from the major two publishers of superhero fare were close to their nadir, Mark Chiarello demonstrated that magic could still be made through sequential storytelling in colorful panels. A longtime illustrator in the field, Chiarello was given the opportunity to conceive and edit his own projects at DC Comics during the first decade of this century, and he made the most of it with idiosyncratic, astonishingly inspired series. The last of these was the periodical that caused me to venture into a comic book shop with regularity again, years after swearing off the stuff. Wednesday Comics accomplished many things in its twelve issues, all printed in a large, broadsheet format. For me, one of its feats is that it was the first series that proved to me that Wonder Woman could be exceedingly cool.

I’d read other Wonder Woman stories before Wednesday Comics, of course, and I’d even been a regular purchaser of her series on a couple of occasions, largely due the presence of creators I followed obsessively. But I always found the character to be something of a square, partially a side effect of a longstanding editorial tentativeness I sensed in DC comics. Their biggest characters were so iconic that there seemed a hesitancy to do anything that could be disruptive to perceived brand opportunities. Wonder Woman’s appearance in Wednesday Comics didn’t betray the character with some sort of edgy makeover or other abject reinvention. Instead, she was met by a creator who saw nothing but possibility there and did everything he could to exploit those possibilities across the large pages he had at his disposal.

Wednesday Comics was basically a riff on the full-color expansion of the newspaper funny pages that was included in the heavy edition that landed on the doorstep on the calendar square set aside for church and football. Across a dozen weekly issues, full pages were given over to a dazzling array of creators to tells serialized stories featuring DC characters, both major and obscure. Ben Caldwell took the assignment to write and draw an adventure featuring the amazing Amazonian.

Caldwell sets his story within a dream, or at least a dream-like environment. Because Wonder Woman deals in myth (or at least the myth-adjacent), Caldwell can infuse ambiguity, making it not entirely clear if this is actually a set of dreams or the disruptions of some nefarious manipulator with the ability to mesmerize someone into feeling reality warp and crumble around them. To a degree, the narrative foundation doesn’t matter all that much. The pleasure is in the relentlessly creative visual storytelling. While several other creators of Wednesday Comics saw their oversized pages as tableaus for vast images, Caldwell went the opposite direction. Much of the story is rendered in small, densely assembled panels.

Caldwell’s design working is striking. He takes advantage of Wonder Woman’s familiarity by not feeling all that beholden to stay firmly on-model. What he crafts comes across as a truer version of the character. The storytelling itself seems intimately aware of her power and authority. It allows her to break away from all preconceptions to fill the page as she sees fit. She doesn’t have to be sexy or approachable, neither gentle mother figure nor hip-chick warrior. She’s simply a hero, fighting for what she knows to be right. And by goddess, does it all look incredible.

Since Wednesday Comics, I’ve found my way to other Wonder Woman comics, published both before and after it, that I found enthralling. I tie every bit of my appreciation back to Caldwell’s work. The character looked different to me after his dynamic rendering of her and her fantastical world. With gratitude, I finally saw the wonder.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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