guttergeek formerly discontinuous review of graphic narrative; now just discontinuous

First Wave and Pulp Fiction (Part II)

By Alex Boney


Last year, Brian Azzarello pitched a project to DC that would hopefully change many of the reservations that today’s comics readers have about these characters. Azzarello and artist Rags Morales created a world outside the main DC Universe (Earth-1 or whatever it’s called these days) where many of the pulp characters to which DC still had legal rights could interact—work together, fight each other, or just talk—in a contemporary narrative way. I hesitate to call the First Wave world modern, because it’s not. It’s very pulp and very noir-ish. Actually, it’s hard to get a concrete fix on the specific time setting of Azzarello’s world. While the technology seems to be very modern, the style and design of the world is pulled from the 1920s and 30s. But the temporal confusion isn’t a problem. On the contrary, it adds to the atmosphere. The visual and narrative tones are consistent within this world, and this modish consistency is the most impressive aspect of the project so far.


First Wave actually began early this year with the one-shot 
Batman/Doc Savage Special (written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Phil Noto), but the extended world has unfolded in three subsequent books: First Wave,The Spirit, and Doc Savage. Thus far, First Wave and The Spirit have been excellent. A six-issue miniseries written by Azzarello and illustrated by Rags Morales, First Wave is the focus book that introduces all the main characters and pulls them together in a well-constructed mystery/adventure story. Everyone’s here: Doc Savage, the Blackhawks, the Avenger, the Spirit, Batman, Rima the Jungle Girl, and several others (including Black Canary) who haven’t been introduced yet. Some pulp purists will hate it because it crosses the characters’ worlds, and some comics purists will hate it because Batman shoots guns. (He did in the early Detective days too, and that’s the world Azzarello is aiming to establish.) But overall, First Wave features an interesting, eclectic mix of pulp and comics characters that has a good chance of pulling in a wide and varied audience.

Most of the reviews and interviews I’ve read about First Wave have focused on Batman. While to me this is the least interesting part of what Azzarello’s doing, I do understand the importance and interest. The inclusion of familiar characters like Batman (the early
Detective pulp version) and Black Canary not only creates a point of accessibility for modern readers, but also adds a layer of relevance to the project. The pulp characters are no less relevant than the JSA superheroes that have experienced renewed popularity since Geoff Johns’ successful JSA run in the early 2000s. In fact, they may be more relevant because they get us closer to understanding the true roots of superheroes.


Morales’ art here is solid, stout, and classic—the only way one can visually tell this story—and Azzarello’s storytelling is as it has always been. The mystery is intriguing, the action is convincing, the pace is well-balanced, and the dialogue is sharp and crisp. Azzarello’s narrative captions are a bit dense and heavy-handed, but this is entirely appropriate given the pulp environment. After all, his best work has always been crime fiction.

I was far more skeptical of
The Spirit. After Darwyn Cooke’s phenomenal run on the character’s last ongoing title (2007-2008), I was convinced that no one besides Cooke could touch this character without damaging what Will Eisner had built.

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After three issues, writer Mark Schultz and artist Moritat have shown that their vision of the character works well in the world Azzarello has created. I imagine the Spirit was substituted for the Shadow (either for the sake of copyright or for familiarity), but he fits nicely in the First Wave world. The Spirit’s wry gallows humor plays well against the dark, violent background of Hub City that Schultz and Moritat are narrating. Moritat’s art is not clean. It’s unbalanced, grimy, and untidy—a direct contrast to Cooke’s and Eisner’s interpretations of the Spirit’s world.

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But the visual chaos matches the bumbling, off-balance chaos that is Denny Colt’s life. This is a well-told mystery story that’s violent, sexy, and funny. It’s hard to ask for much more from this book, but even the backup feature stories are rewarding. The story from the first issue, written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz, reads like one of O’Neil’s Question stories from the late 80s. Since
The Question remains the best serialized comic book series I’ve ever read, this is a good thing.


Doc Savage, however, is a rough read. (Not rough in the way a Doc Savage book should be; rough as in difficult to read.) For a character who is generally seen as the godfather of strongman superhero types, this version of Doc Savage is dreadfully dull. It has taken three issues of a four-dollar book to tell a heroes-on-the-run story that should have been wrapped in one issue. Doc Savage, probably the most brilliant scientific mind on Earth, is just about as dumb as his rock-hard biceps in this book. Writer Paul Malmont and artist Howard Porter take just about everything that works in Azzarello’s First Wave and turn it on its head in Doc Savage.

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The pacing is clunky, the dialogue is bland, and the art is unimpressive. I’ve enjoyed Porter’s art before–especially on his run of Grant Morrison’s 
JLA, in which his characters looked the same but were easily distinguished by coloring. His art is bulky and blocky, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Blocky can be done with style and dynamism (see Jack Kirby and, at times, Ed McGuinness). But Porter’s work is ill-suited to a book that requires distinctive body types and facial features. If you’re looking for a good Doc Savage story—one in which the title character lives up to what he’s supposed to be—then the story Azzarello is telling in the First Wave mini is enough. That Doc Savage is emotionally frigid, detached, brilliant, quick, and terrifyingly strong. Or if you’re just looking for great adventure stories featuring the genius strongman type, track down Alan Moore’s Tom Strongbooks or the Tom Strong series that just began this month (Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom, by Peter Hogan and Chris Sprouse).

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Aside from the
Justice Inc. murder-mystery backup stories by Jason Starr and Scott Hampton (which are smart and visually engaging), the currentDoc Savage series is an unfortunate disappointment.

Doc Savage were the only negative mark on First Wave, I’d say that it’s an overall success. But it’s not. The same sorts of delays that have plagued monthly books for the last decade have hit the main First Wave series, and they’re killing any buzz and momentum this project had hoped to establish. Only two issues have shipped so far—the first in March and the second in May. The next two issues have been rescheduled at least twice so far, and it looks like the earliest we’ll see #3 is at the end of July. I can’t say this clearly or often enough: With the price and variety of today’s comic books, this is no way to tell a serialized story. Even beyond the market considerations, this is just an ineffective way to publish a periodical narrative. The Spirit and Doc Savage have shipped regularly, but The Spiritis the only one I’ll continue to follow. And even that book is changing creative teams after just three issues. After writing a good (but brief) next chapter in the Spirit’s chronicles, Mark Schultz is leaving as the writer of the book. As of #4, David Hine will be taking his place. Moritat will remain as the artist, but there’s no telling if his visual tone will match Hine’s narrative as well as it did Schultz’s. And so it goes (again) with the pulp heroes.

I shouldn’t lament yet another demise of the pulp characters. It’s not as if they never had their time in the spotlight. They were popular for decades, and their success paved the way for the next generation of heroic adventurers, crusaders, and men of mystery. Ultimately, it’s just not fair to see a great new concept (and world) created—one that allows these characters to connect with modern readers in ways they’re familiar with—only to slide back into obscurity because of delays and a general lack of focus. I hope I’m proven wrong about this. I hope
First Wave gets back on track and garners the kind of critical attention that will draw new readers to it and allow the project to continue. But anymore, it’s difficult to recommend a $4 serialized book that’s plagued by delays (First Wave), creative shifts (The Spirit), or a general lack of quality (Doc Savage). These may not be my generation’s characters. They aren’t superhero stories and shouldn’t be read with or judged by the same expectations. But they certainly deserved better than this.

From Planetary #5 (Warren Ellis and John Cassaday)