Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wednesday comics: "Metamorpho"

"Metamorpho" was a one page feature that ran in all 12 issues of DC's "Wednesday comics" anthology. Scripted by Neil ("the Sandman") Gaiman, and pencilled by Mike ("the X-Statix", "Madman") Allred, it told a single continuing story, using the project as an excuse to give the character a rare high profile performance.

Obviously, when contacting Neil Gaiman to contribute to the anthology, editor Mark ("Batman: black and white", "Solo") Chiarello was well aware of the good will his fans will feel towards a story that even tangentially refers to his most successful project for the publisher. Elaborating on the back story of the obscure superheroine Element Woman, previously seen in "the Sandman", Gaiman still shied away from the series' adult fantasy storytelling, to go with the tone of DC's latest weekly series.

It's fortunate then that he was paired with Mike Allred, another contributor to his epic. And while their previous effort resulted in revisiting the company's long forgotten teenage president Prez, the tone of the new story called for still a different mood. The artist's trademark retro modern pencils and inks are still present, colored by his wife Laura, but the effect is much more nostalgic this time around.

Both creators seem to be trying their best to tell a classical Silver Age superhero story, concentrating their efforts by exploiting the unique structural opportunities of the newspaper format of the anthology. Thus, not only are all the characters on model, but their whole adventure could almost seamlessly fit in during the early days of the decades old character. That is, discounting the absurdly irreverent tone that is the creator's chief innovation. The knowing winks to the silliness of the characters and their basic set up are constant, but mostly kept in the background, except for the introduction of the reader's formal helpers, the bizarrely overenthusiastic 1960s children readers.

Yet, the exposition they deliver is actually vital to the story, once one gets past the constant jokes about the supposedly enormous popularity of the Metamorpho line of comic book titles. Even then, Gaiman leaves that idea on a sour note, admitting point blank that Metamorpho has nothing of the popularity he constantly alluded up to that point, that seems somewhat anti-climatic and unnecessary. As for the general tone of the script, the writer's imitation of the famously overwritten superhero comic books of the past is by and large enjoyable, except when it comes to constantly recapping the plot. This was necessary due to the anthology format, but still comes across just as tedious, as the strip's logo that "the Spirit"-like keeps getting integrating into surroundings of every new page.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle with reading Gaiman and Allred's pastiche comes in overcoming two whole pages of Gaiman trying to dramatize the periodic table of elements. Still, that kind of narrative challenge is exactly what a short story like "Metamorpho" was constructed for. The Allred family team follows every step of the way, taking on each page as a separate unit, and bringing forth the sense of adventure and irony that the script calls for. Reading it as a complete comic only accentuates the effort that went into coordinating the double page spreads, that were made to work even in their original form.

Of course, using "Wednesday comics" as a chance for playing with the form could never have worked as well in a DC Universe comic, if not for the solid character work throughout. In order to achieve the irony inherent in the outdated superhero concepts, the creators purposefully keep the characters on the model so much, that they start breaking from their two-dimensional confines to better reveal their comedic potential.

As such, the moment Gaiman and the Allreds figure out that the neanderthal bodyguard Java plays next to no role in the story, the creators turn him into a focal point for the deadpan delivery of some of their most inspired bits of comedy. The rest of the characters are so deeply enveloped in searching the ancient temple, all for their own reasons, that they mostly concentrate on getting to the bottom of a science fiction story that ties in with Element Man and Element Woman's origins. In order to achieve that kind of effect, the Allreds never stray too much from the characters' original Ramona Fradon designed forms, while retaining the "Madman" creators' signature physicality.

The story works even on that level, with Gaiman patiently imitating the rapid stream of child like display of super powers, romantic interest and a never ending stream of 1960s slang. The creators are still aware of how generic an adventure story they have put together, so they once again conscientiously overuse these Silver age plot devices in order to get their point across. And that is, no more and no less, an attempt to have a bit of fun with layouts of a superhero adventure short story, while still treating the Element Man with a nostalgic reverence the character hasn't seen in a very long time.

In the end, Gaiman and the Allreds' "Metamorpho" story is certainly not an attempt to update the character for a new audience, but exactly what it's supposed to be - an offbeat superhero short story, published in a weekly series celebrating the vitality of DC's decades old characters, by using the oversized newspaper format that most of their genre predecessors debuted in.

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