Solo (#1 – 12, DC Comics, 2004) – Various

5 out of 5

Anthology series need a strong, cohesive editorial vision. This is what I almost universally say regarding anthologies, and it can be what divides the greats from the not-so-greats. “Strong” and “cohesive” aren’t absolute terms, of course – it means different things depending on the anthology.

Take Solo, for instance, the artist-spotlighting series that DC put out for 12 issues in the mid-00s, as one of the best anthologies ever made: there are, seemingly, no mandates put on it from issue to issue, or even intra-issue! Each chosen artist gets a double-sized book to strut their stuff, and that can be in color or black and white; it can be on DC properties or creator-owned; it can be autobiographical or fictional; it can be dramatic or comedic or anything inbetween… That sense of free-for-all kills a lot of compilation books, so why does it work so well here? Why is it that artists for whom I have no particular love – Michael Allred, whose style / tone I often find pretty repetitive; Teddy Kristiansen, whose over-stylization has often rendered interesting scripts into uninsteresting visual aesthetics for me – delivered cover-to-cover issues which I read and reread and adore, alongside the 10 other artists who were able to do the same?

I can only suppose, of course, but I think removing the rails on this experience – while also making it a standalone read – was simply the perfect outlet. “Simply” is underselling it, which I’ll get to shortly, but you’re basically telling some creative types to do whatever they want… for fun. These aren’t graphic novels made for life-changing reads, and these aren’t artists who’re appearing amidst 20 other writers / artists in a single issue, hoping to stand out: they’re established, they’ve done their time, and now they’re being given a DC quality book to do as they please. They can bring in their friends to write, or they can script on their own; they can go in for what they’re “known” for or not; with the only visible stipulations being to stay within a PG-13ish tone, and to hit 48 pages of material. I can only imagine the breath of relief this might’ve been, removing the burden of an empty page that demands something genius be applied to it and bringing it back to the enjoyment of sketching; the fun of creating new ideas that don’t necessarily have to go anywhere. At the same time, knowing that you need to bring these concepts to a publishable form of completion gives enough motivation to polish it…

The book design aligns with this “simplicity,” sticking with an all-white aesthetic for its covers, but this is all a lot of magic pulled off by editor Mark Chiarello. The choice of which creators could carry an issue can’t have been as simple as pulling names out of a hate, and surely there’s plenty of picking and choosing that went on behind the scenes to suggest (when needed) which stories might be better fits for the format, and also how to arrange those stories within each issue for maximum reading enjoyment. This is the invisible craft of those who work on the edges of comic book production – which can included the letterer, for better or worse – in which not noticing their involvement can speak to their success. I don’t sniff out an editorial hand in Solo, and yet the entire series feels so cohesive, and again, I cannot stress how insane it is that artists I might avoid offered up issues which I gobbled up.

While I wish Solo had been able to continue on, one can wonder if an ongoing in this format might not eventually get to diminishing returns. We’re lucky we got 12 issues, I guess; 12 issues not only showcasing the undeniable skills of their featured artists, as intended, but also making for a masterclass in design and presentation.