Variety's the spice of life, but it's the enemy of comics. At least until recently, with both Marvel and DC visiting a creator-driven variety magazine format with Strange Tales and Wednesday Comics. Although vastly different in content, they both share the same intent: to give readers more bang for their buck with multiple, high quality stories wrapped into one package.
The problem with both series' is in part, that with raising the quality and number of creators, up goes the cost of the comic. In addition, they take creators out of their element and provide maybe a little too much variety. Strange Tales features traditionally independent creators and challenges them to make short funny super hero comics, and the first issue--from a quality standpoint--was a success. The next two issues provided inconsistencies in quality and a difficult choice for readers who may have just wanted to read a couple of their favorite creators buried within.
Wednesday comics successes and failures have been pretty well documented. It has far too wide a variety of creators lumped together so no matter how eclectic your tastes, there was guaranteed to be some things you disliked. The format of one, full-page to work with released weekly worked for a couple contributors but the majority seemed lost. You can only get so far with a cool idea before it turns into a gimmick, and unfortunately, that’s what happened to Wednesday Comics .
Marvel Fanfare had a similar approach to giving comics’ top talent free reign over premiere characters, telling high quality stories, and at an increased cost, but it worked a whole lot better. During Fanfare's ten year run (1982-1992) it featured a wide variety of characters and creators but focused on one at a time. It gave control to the reader by presenting a solid main story, so whatever your preference on the character or creative team that month. you could choose. Whether good, bad, or in between you knew exactly what you were getting with each issue.
Fanfare knows that it’s a comic book and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything different. Creators told stories mostly within the confines of a single issue. This restricted the contributors just enough so that they could be creative within the boundaries of the comic while still playing to their strength as artists.
Part of the justification of the price ($1.25 in 1982 when most titles were $.60) was the added bonus of pinup art pages. These are full-page spreads from an artists' portfolios depicting classic Marvel characters. It’s complete eye candy but it forces the reader to slow down and observe--and that’s something that’s lost in most comics today. Usually when I’m reading through a regular comic, I breeze right through it and come back to re-read later, but when I hit the pin-ups, I always head back and check out the rest of the issue in a similar fashion.
Like anything else, some issues are better than others, but here are some of the best. The ones that work within the confines of Marvel Fanfare's editorial stance and stretch that stance to its limits:
Issues #22 and #23 “Night of the Octopus” by Robert McKenzie and Ken Steacy
Tony Stark is showing off his new impregnable super villain prison when Doctor Octopus summons his adamantium arms and breaks out. Of course, Iron Man shows up but he is completely outmatched by Octopus’ second pair of autonomous indestructible arms. His armor is scrapped and stock in his company plummets as investors lose faith in his expensive prison. The story is solid but Steacy’s art is just incredible. He shows Doctor Octopus as a completely disgusting human being without over doing it. Octopus’ adamantium arms are legitimately scary when seen ripping Iron Man’s armor to pieces, all simply communicated by the the tension in Steacy’s art: Combining bright primary colors and an odd air-brushed effect with heavy shadows that highlights hero and villain at the same time.
Issue #29 “A Terrible Thing to Waste…” by John Byrne
John Byrne tells a Hulk story in all full-page spreads. A Native American sitting in the desert stops the Hulk rampage with one word, “Friend.” Byrne subtly shows the Hulk shrinking in size as he is won over by this mysterious stranger. The Hulk is more than just a mindless brute, but not in the sappy clichéd way we're used to in "sensitive" Hulk stories. He’s just slightly more in control of his actions than normal and that’s enough to illustrate that there's a mind inside that green noggin. The man eventually betrays Hulk and there's a particularly devastating death scene of two psychically-linked super villains. The loss of friendship is the main thrust here and the idea that Hulk's anger ultimately stems from some genuine sense of loss is the kind of emotional investment that makes a superhero story a stand-out.
Issue #41 “…Perchance to Dream” by Walt Simonson and Dave Gibbons
It’s a dark and stormy night and Dr. Strange is dreaming. He ends up in the city of dreams, which are ruled by giant creatures that try to trick him into staying in their universe. Simonson’s story is essentially a dream sequence but has Dr. Strange questioning and exploring his magical abilities. The triumph is the panel work and the imagination of Gibbons, giving a palpable feeling of a creepy dream that somehow feels all too real. Gibbons gives his giant creatures a strange, sci-fi scientific texture that helps make them memorable--they seem like something that would lurk in a dream world.
Honorable Mentions: #18 featuring Captain America by Roger Stern, Frank Miller, and Joe Rubinstein, #19 featuring Cloak and Dagger by Bill Mantlo, Tony Salmons, et al., #30 featuring Moon Knight by Ann Nocenti and Brent Eric Anderson, and #34 Mike Mignola portfolio.