Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, Doctor Thirteen: Architecture and Morality (DC Comics, 2007). $14.99, paperback.
By James Moore
A professional skeptic, a vampire and a talking Nazi gorilla walk into a subway. Start of a bad joke? No—just one of the gloriously ludicrous scenarios in Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s surprising and charming Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality. The book collects the Doctor 13 backup stories from DC’s Tales of the Unexpected miniseries, in which “Architecture and Morality” stole all of the thunder from its lead feature (a regrettable Spectre tale of which the less said the better). Architecture and Morality begins when professional skeptic Doctor Terry Thirteen and his daughter Traci are called to investigate a yeti sighting. During the investigation they encounter vintage DC horror character I, Vampire and Traci is kidnapped by talking Nazi gorillas. The quest to retrieve her leads Thirteen to encounter a number of unusual allies, including cave boy Anthro, a ghost pirate who speaks in Ebonics, would-be Legion of Superhero member Infectious Lass, and a small boy who will answer any question for a dime. Ultimately the motley crews faces a metatexutal crisis that calls into question their very existence. It is a unique book whose nearest contemporaries include the much-lamented Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E and Peter Milligen & Mike Allred’s run on X-Force/X-Statix.
Chiang’s art is fresh and light. He manages not only to accentuate the cast’s diversity, but also to make them believably inhabit the same world. Using a Toth-ian simplicity of line, Chiang effectively conveys the individual body language of the characters. He shows a keen comic touch but also manages some moments of true scope. Architecture and Morality would be a story that, in lesser hands, would not have managed the tricky balance of comedy and pathos. The trade paperback collection’s cover, which has a feel that could be best described as Super-Friends meets album cover, is also one of the year’s best.
The real revelation, though, is Brian Azzarello. Azzarello’s oeuvre is best described as bleak, gritty noir. He is the man who once had a drugged John Constantine get his balls licked by a dog while some rednecks taped it. Architecture and Morality,however, brings out a very different side to his work. It is a warm and very funny story with a cartoony, almost psychedelic tone. There is sympathy for characters either forgotten by many fans or deemed too lame to use in the current DC universe. Azzarello takes these castoffs and brings them to vibrant life. He makes excellent use of phonetic accents for comedy (as well as giving the whole story a Tower of Babel feel) and mixes it with a deft use of word play and puns. It is playfully postmodern in a way that is totally unexpected with his track record and very welcome to see.
The best part of Architecture and Morality, however, is that despite its light surface, it is really a work of angry criticism aimed directly at the state of DC Comics—both within their comics stories and in their real-world publishing practices. Azzarello and Chiang interviewed one another just before the release of the TPB, and over the course of their discussion, it becomes apparent just how much they fought for this story and how much it meant to them. Realizing that they were being given some potentially forgettable backup story and that they were only being given access to characters that were deemed “unsuitable” for the state of the DC Universe, the creators took offense at both of these facts and went all out in their rebuttal.
What results is a passionate defense of forgotten characters and a scathing critique of the artificial limits imposed by the architects of the current DCU. It asks important questions about the futility of setting static parameters on what should be a universe of infinite possibility. It dusts the detritus and wipes stigma off of so-called unworkable characters and shows just how much potential they really have if some creativity and imagination is applied. It’s a Molotov cocktail of a story that brings into stark relief just how tame and unadventurous the company’s entire line really is. Architecture and Morality is easily one of the best books DC has published this year—a delightful blend of entertainment, commentary, and symbolism—and should immediately be sought out by anyone looking for a refreshing take on the DC Universe.