Five Questions with…
Q&A with comic greats regarding Wonder Woman

Ben Caldwell

Hi all!

Well, I am sad to say that Gail’s original 5 questions were so offensive that I decided to replace them with more appropriate material, but in the interests of posterity, I will include the ANSWERS to her 5 “questions”:

1. Yes
2. Also yes
3. Twice acquitted — so suck it, Tallahassee Parks & Recreation Dept!
4. Smaller panels
5. Sort of like “Annie” the movie. Only with a Cyclops and covers by Greg Horn. Or Greg Land. Which one uses the porn reference?

1. Let’s start with the basics, how were you approached to do the WW series for Wednesday Comics, and did you choose Diana, or was that assigned?

I actually just dropped into Mark Chiarello’s office one day last summer. We first met when WW children’s books editor Charles Kochman introduced us, so we’ve known each other for about 5 years, and occasionally he’d mention one project or another I might be good for. Most of those didn’t go anywhere (which of course is pretty normal in this business) so when he mentioned Wednesday Comics, I thought it was a really cool idea, but I wasn’t holding my breath that I’d actually be doing it.

That day, I was told to pick any character I wanted, and do anything I wanted with the story. I think the term “go crazy” came up a few times. Before the meeting was over, I knew I was going to do WW, and by the time I got home, I had my story worked out. Actually, I had three stories worked out, two of which merged to become the “seven stars stories”.

I think one of the (many) proofs of Mark Chiarello’s genius is that he had no pre-conceived, cookie-cutter approach with the creators involved. Some people were asked to work on specific characters, others weren’t. With some, he seems to have had a more concrete idea of what he was expecting; others’ creation was left more open-ended. To be honest with you, sometimes I wonder what mark was been expecting from me when he invited me onboard. In many ways my WCWW was a departure from what most people who knew my art would have expected from me. It was certainly a departure from my earlier WW kids’ books, and my award-losing Dare Detectives comics. And I know that mark likes the art for my “Secret of St. Michel” story more than anything, and it looks like this:

While most of what I’m “famous” for looks like this:

But I don’t think he was necessarily expecting a WW like that! I think he’s just entertained by my rants about art. Now that I think about it, based on my various threats about what I intended to inflict on the world (artistically speaking, that is), I suspect Mark knew exactly what to unexpect.

2. Was Diana a character that you had wanted to work on for some reason?

Oh yes! There were several reasons I chose WW…

  1. There might be something in life better than women kicking giant Japanese ogres in the face, but I can’t of it.
  2. I loved doing the WW kids’ books, but I also felt somewhat constrained, and always wanted to come back to her.
  3. I have two daughters. They love Superman and Spider-man, and I wanted them to see me drawing Wonder Woman.
  4. Diana and her world are awesome, and no offense to all of the modern creators, but the zany golden age WW still has a lot of un-mined riches I wanted to tap into. Also, Golden Age Dr. Poison is 110% super #1 creepy.

The fact is, as Mark and I were talking over the project, he was flipping through my ubiquitous folders of sketches, and about half of them were WW sketches; ideas for scenes that never made it into the kids’ books, designs for Paradise Island, one particular sketch of a rather young and small Diana stomping a giant Ares (which later became WW stomping a Japanese ogre on page 3 of the comic) — and it was obvious that I was doing a WW story in my head, whether DC was paying to publish it or not.

3. In a series filled with insanely talented artists, your work is among the most talked about–I am constantly amazed at the invention and idea work on each page. What made you take such a painstaking approach, so far from how the character is normally portrayed, and how has the response been?

Thank you! But I have to say first off that I wasn’t trying to be particularly controversial or innovative (and arguably, I wasn’t all that innovative). I just wanted to attack the assignment at hand with NO preconditioned limitations. I think that is the greatest—and usually most unacknowledged—challenge that any creator has. And the peculiarities of this format and schedule really helped. Although my “innovation” really breaks down into two issues — a) my take on the WW mythos, and b) my actual art/writing style.

3a. For the first, while I read/saw a decent number of WW stories growing up, I was never particularly attached to any one treatment of her. But when I researched the kids’ books, I was floored by how completely insane the original Marston/Peter stories were, how more than any other major comic they showed how whimsical and bizarre and fun and inventively child-like comics could be. They weren’t really superhero comics, at least not by the modern, rather narrow definition. They weren’t exactly fantasy either, at least not by the mod– ah, you get the idea. Glamazon Atlanteans and ectoplasmic doppelganger assassins and interplanetary kangaroos and “speed maniacs from Mercury” — you were either ready to go on this Technicolor face-punch of a ride, or you weren’t.

So really, my story was just a slightly modernized version of that golden-age WW, that’s where my head was before I even started the project. Pretty much everything else was just a logical progression from that simple starting point. And as a “cartoonist” (one of the most abused words in existence), my natural inclination is to strip things down to their functional basics, then rebuild a streamlined version of them. For example, my Dr. Poison was just a more consistent, boiled-down extreme of the original that hopefully resonates in a 21st century context the way that both the original treatment and more modern incarnations really haven’t. Her mask is emblematic of that. There are many faces to war, and in fact even the Greek pantheon has several patrons of war (including Athena). But the war that Ares patronizes — war as dehumanized violence — has no more potent symbol than the gas mask. (And in light of the fact that Diana herself is a warrior born of warriors, that sort of distinction was important to me.)

Most people would certainly disagree with me, but the same is true of my Cheetah. Once you accept that she’s Priscilla Rich (with Barbara Minerva’s education), my treatment is simply a more nuanced version of the original. More blah blah comments about my take on Cheetah are here:…/wwannot5.html

And so on with the other characters and plots. In the original “extended version”, there was even a tie-in to WW2 and the original WW quest, as conceived by Marston. And in general, the cartoonist in me tried to strip out inessential material and keep things “open”; hence “paradise island” instead of Themyscira (which is of course a Greek name), “the queen” instead of Hippolyta, etc. again, I think that’s standard with Marston and most older comics, but not nowadays.

I also think that the discrepancy between my WW and how she is normally portrayed owes a lot to the fact that, following history, I did not make the Amazons or Diana Greek. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, the Amazons were related to the Scythians, and in any case even going by DC continuity, they would have relocated to Paradise Island roughly 1,500 BC (although Homer has the Amazons fight at Troy, circa 1,200 BC). Classical “Greece” didn’t even exist for another 600 years! While that’s obviously not detailed in my story, it shapes the aesthetic background.

I have to confess that for me all of the background development isn’t painstaking—it’s half the fun! I do this sort of thing for animation all the time, and I have bins full of this sort of junk for various stories and worlds. Chiarello’s seen that too, so again I think he had some idea of how I might tackle things.

And again, a lot of that is boiling things down to first causes. If you start by asking what sort of food, clothing, and building materials are available in the Caribbean or what sort of fighting style might appeal to steppes nomads—well then the rest follows from that.

(As a side note, I know a lot of people have compared it to Kanigher’s quest stories, but I hadn’t even thought of that. I’m just really interested in people, and I wondered how Diana’s view of humans in the abstract might evolve once she actually started meeting them. Which is why Etta ended up playing such a large role in the story—frankly, a much larger role than I originally scripted. also, since her gear is such a central part of her mythology, having Diana hunt it down all over the world seemed like an obvious framework for her to meet—and occasionally punch—various mortals.)

3b. As for the writing and art, I don’t know what to say. So many people were offended by things that I thought were perfectly reasonable…like the dream framing, things that have been done by millions of creators over the years. I didn’t think I was breaking any ground, but I didn’t think I was crossing some sort of fan Rubicon, either. The only people I spoon-feed are my baby daughters.

And again, both the writing and art were logical extensions of the basic format demands. For 12 large installments, I decided on 12 chapters that were, if not entirely self-contained, at least significant enough to feel like they could satisfy the reader for a week, pages that the reader could reread and find new details every time. Regular comics have their own pacing, because you go from page to page very quickly. (At SDCC, Dave Gibbons mentioned that readers average about 20 seconds or so per page!) This was obviously a very different reading experience, and the various creators for WC tried various solutions for this different pacing. Some took the conventional serial route of “next week!” My personal favorite was “Batman”, where Azzarisso did each installment as a discreet chapter that was almost hermetically sealed away from its fellows.

The art IS small, I didn’t plan ahead of time to make it that small, and as the first pages developed I went back and forth with Mark Chiarello about them. I think he had reservations when I told him the first page had 50 panels, but when he saw it he was very happy. Once people started complaining about the pages, I offered to change them and he refused. So there was only one page that was simplified for clarity—page 9—which is funny, because most people consider that my best and “easiest” page, but I think it is the most boring page in the story. The one where I least took advantage of all the story opportunities.

Anyway, I really liked the density, precisely because you had to lean in and sort of re-calibrate your eyes to read it. I wasn’t going for nostalgia or a literal take on the idea of Sunday funnies, but I DID want to recreate that sense of wonder, of getting lost in another world, and I felt (and feel) that the layouts help. Frankly, I was surprised (and consternated!) when I started seeing other pages, and realized that no one else had gone even remotely in the direction I did. Not that there’s a right way or wrong way, it was just such an obvious structure/layout option that I thought more people would try it. But I even like that it turned out this way. Whatever pace people are reading the rest of the stories, they are forced to stop and read WW as its own thing, at its own pace. For a lot of people, that alone was a big turn-off. But like the Marston comics, people who are willing to take that aesthetic face-punch have a sprawling adventure each week.

I did the pencil look because I wanted an ephemeral, dreamlike feel. It also gave many scenes, especially the ones with faeries and monsters, an almost children’s book feel. I didn’t ink it, or use black lines around the panels or balloons, because that would have overwhelmed to art. (I know this from unpleasant personal experience.) I’ve talked about the colors before… obviously they didn’t always print as well as I’d have liked, but a lot of what appeared was intentional. Acidic, bizarre colors and off-registration, monochromatic color schemes reflected a dreamy experience. In any case, most of Diana’s adventures were at night, and “realistically” colors are very different and not vibrant at night.

The response has been largely negative. That part didn’t surprise me, although some of the reasons for the hostility did; some of it was very funny, and some of it was very revealing and for me, very educational. On the other hand, I know I’ve said it a million times, but I’ll say it again because it bears repeating—this story wasn’t intended for everyone. The major publishers go out of their way to produce literally hundreds of titles each year, the VAST majority of them catering specifically to the existing direct market. For all of the rumbling, this industry really goes out of its way to give people exactly what they want which is largely variations on what they’ve already read, and hey — it works! Having said that, there actually are people in this world who like superhero comics, but might want something just a teeny bit different. This story was for them. And enough people did like it, and liked it for the reasons that I hoped, that I’m more than happy.

I had to laugh when some people complained that I “didn’t get it”, then wished a famous, mainstream creator(s) had done a more conventional WCWW story instead. It was like someone trying to define irony, but using the wrong definition. Having said that, even outside of personal taste, there were plenty of perfectly reasonable people who disliked my story on perfectly reasonable grounds. I’m just grateful that there were people who did enjoy it!

4. Some people have groused a bit about the story’s accessibility…and you’ve taken the remarkable step of doing annotations and sketch pages and other extra material on your blog. This is clearly a labor of great love. Do you feel the story has accomplished what you set out to do, and would you do more Wonder Woman stories in the future?

Well, first off, I will finish the annotations, and I’m updating that site and the WW material constantly. I just had to take care of some other projects that languished over the summer. So thanks to everyone for their patience! The fact is, I always want to do annotations for all of my stories, because regardless of whether or not I am actually a good artist/writer, I’m a very self-aware one, and my development process is very thorough. This is the first time I sat down to do it, but I’ll probably go back and annotate my “Dracula” and “Odyssey” work too.

Do I feel that I told a good story? The jury is still out on that. My jury, at least. I was trying to tell a rather ordinary tale in a very specific way—the pacing, the dialog, all of it was very stylized and almost lyrical. It made for an interesting read, but I’m not sure if it was as fun a read as I would have liked. But that’s also something I probably won’t be able to answer until there are a few years between me and this story.

But “seven stars” was also a sort of flare—I think there are lots of things that can be done with WW, and comics and general, that haven’t been done yet. As I mentioned once to Gail, I think these “collective” properties are like a pot-luck party, every creator has the opportunity to bring something fun that other creators might want to play with. I just happened to bring a lot of stuff in a very small bag.

As for more WW stories, I have a drawer full of them. I would LOVE to do more! And the chance of that happening is almost zero. Let’s be honest, I thought (and think) going into this project that I’d probably never have a chance to do anything like this ever again. So I decided to punch the universe in its collective face, and let the fallout be whatever it was going to be. I love WW and I had a blast doing this story. I loved people eating it up and people bursting into flame at the very thought of it. And at the end of the day, I can always go back to doing “how-to-draw” books.

5. Do you have any thoughts of how you would like to see your beautiful tale collected?

For better or worse, the WW pages are uncollectible at any smaller size or broken into partial pages as some people have suggested. From the initial conception of the plot, to the way each page was laid out, to the lettering, I wanted to do something that was really tailored to the specific format/schedule of the book. A lot of people commented that my story would have worked better as a smaller-sized graphic novel or manga. That is probably a reflection on my pacing and character interaction, but if I was just told to do a WW story, with no format prerequisite, I would have either done a completely different story or at least structured it very differently.

Edit: They are releasing the stories as an 11″x17″ book. Of course, they have to do what works for the project overall, but I don’t think anyone is going to find the WW story MORE readable or enjoyable in that format. It’s a shame, but I was hired to do one specific thing, and I deliberately refused to consider how the stories might be collected or reformatted, for the same reason I refuse to think about the resale quality of my original art—the only thing that matters is the problem at hand. On the other hand, they’re having me re-letter it, which is cool.

Finally, Ben, I know I’m going over, but I know the readers, and I, would love to hear what else you’re working on.

Actually, everything I’m working on right now is completely non-superhero-related. I’m finishing up an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”—sadly, I started it years ago, but I’m only able to finish it up now, when a million other “Oz” comics have come out. I’m also finishing up a how-to-draw manga book, which should be about as popular with most manga fans as my WCWW was with superhero fans. Fortunately, I was already paid! Everything else is either too tentative or too secret to talk about.

%d bloggers like this: