“Architecture and Mortality,” which just concluded this week as the 8-part backup story in Tales of the Unexpected, was that other obscure-characters-save-the-day limited series. It didn’t get the press of a Nextwave or an Agents Of Atlas, let alone a 52.
Nevertheless, “A&M” (written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang, and colored by Trish Mulvihill) is a wonderfully subversive romp through DC’s back corners. It’s filled with ridiculous accents, contrived speech patterns, and bad puns. In terms of satire, it’s about as subtle as Pilgrim’s Progress … or Nextwave, for that matter. However, it balances Nextwave‘s attitude with Agents Of Atlas‘ affection for its characters, and the result is a very appealing story.
Because “A&M”’s protagonist is Dr. Terry Thirteen, the DC Universe’s foremost ghost-breaker, mythbuster, and all-around non-believer, sarcasm is front and center. The story begins with Thirteen and his teenage daughter Traci (who is more open to DC-Earth’s paranormal aspects) investigating a series of mysterious deaths among the survivors of an Alpine plane crash. They end up unmasking a guy in a snow-monster costume, but that’s only the beginning. Written (in anachronistic modern French) on the wall of the cave where the unmasking occurs is the warning “Beware The Architects.” By the time Thirteen comes face-to-faces with the Architects, he’s part of a motley band of forgotten DC characters, and “A&M” has taken a couple of wild turns into metatextualism.
You see, the Architects are barely-disguised parodies of Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid. As two of them put it,
J-ARCHITECT: … The universe is full of impossible, wonderful, inspirational –
R-ARCHITECT: — stale stories that are dangerously close to being ignored. If that happens — if no one buys it — the universe will cease to exist! We’ve been given the task to reinvent it. So it can survive … the universe must be made current, see?
Note the emphases on “buy it” and “current, see.” Like I said, subtle.
Anyway, since Thirteen’s companions include
– Anthro, the caveman who writes in modern French;
– Captain Fear and his fellow pirate-ghosts;
– Julius, leader of the Nazi-trained gorillas called the Primate Patrol;
– Genius Jones, the smartest little boy in the world; and
– Infectious Lass, from an earlier version of the Legion of Super-Heroes;
they’re all subject to the Architects’ culling. Indeed, by offering his blood to help heal a critically wounded Bennett, Julius unwittingly clinches his thumbs-up from the Architects. As a mere talking Nazi gorilla, they considered him on the bubble, but when he became a vampire (“Count Julius”), that clinched it. They do suggest he change his name to “Primaul (TM),” though.
So, where to begin the analysis? Probably with the observation that, as a non-believer, Thirteen is just as out of place in DC’s fantastic milieux as any of the other Misfit Toys featured in this story. He thinks he’s the last sane man in a world gone mad, but in the Architects’ eyes, he’s no better than Genius Jones or Andrew Bennett. (In fact, Grant Morrison killed Thirteen in the first issue of Seven Soldiers: Zatanna, prompting Rucka-Architect to ask Morrison-Architect “Is he dead? Yet?”) Since the Architects are our antagonists, and they have no use for the silly, it’s understandable to think that they’d be on Thirteen’s side. Instead, viewed in the cold-eyed light of practicality, Thirteen’s just not their kind of crazy.
Since the Architects are set up as the ultimate arbiters of Cool vs. Stupid (or What Works vs. What Doesn’t), it takes someone like Thirteen, who has no emotional attachment either way, to point out how arbitrary the whole arrangement is. The Architects want to preserve only those parts of the universe that they can tweak or “make current.” However, Thirteen comes to realize that his traveling companions are each worthy individuals who don’t need updating, regardless of how inexplicable their particular existences may be. By the end of Part 7, he’s sworn to defend them to the death.
Granted, this ending is telegraphed almost as clearly as an earlier Planet Of The Apes joke. However, it’s a realization that Thirteen, and by extension the reader, must come to in order to continue with the series, and by extension DC as a whole. The Architects’ criteria for “who’s who and who isn’t” is necessarily subjective and short-sighted. They’re worried about the survival of the whole universe, but they don’t see that they’re not the universe’s true custodians. The characters themselves are still out there, alive in fans’ memories and imaginations, ready to return. The first big action sequence, a grand battle between the ghost pirates and the Nazi gorillas, is offered unironically, as if to say, “see what is possible?” By the end, I was ready to clap my hands like a fool if it would bring these characters back.
Jokey and broad though it may sometimes be, “Architecture and Mortality” treats its heroes with dignity in their original forms, and not as figures of irony or pathos, or fodder for Vertigo-style revamps. Throughout the story, each character obeys his or her particular rules, in one way or another: Captain Fear and Count Julius have their accents, Andrew Bennett is constantly referred to as “[pronoun] … vampire,” Genius Jones only accepts dimes and does not make change, and of course Thirteen’s denials remain unwavering. The story accommodates each character without explaining or rationalizing, simply expecting the reader to accept each new impossibility.
And with each new acceptance, both Thirteen’s obstinance and the reader’s are worn down, because naturally the reader is trying to make sense of it all along with him. In fact, both Thirteen and the Architects are trying to make sense of the universe in their own ways, and in so doing they’re tring to bring it under control. The reader tries to do this too, of course, and “A&M” tweaks him for it.
The Architects’ rejections of Thirteen and his companions speak to their distinctions between “good” oddball characters and “bad” oddballs, with the bad ones collectively capable of bringing down the rest of the universe. Since these characters illustrate the lunatic fringe of DC’s publishing history, their continued existences mock the whole thing. An Infectious Lass or Genius Jones cannot be allowed in the same universe as more “plausible” characters like Batman or Green Lantern, because the mental gymnastics involved in reconciling the two would undo the quasi-realism underpinning any superhero story. Put another way, these characters provide more ammunition for the cynics to dismiss the superheroes, and so contribute to the supers’ decline. While there may be room for sweetness and humor now that the crisis-dust has cleared, there is no room for mockery — which Thirteen personifies and which his companions facilitate.
“Architecture and Mortality” explodes that assertion, arguing that its heroes each have their places in the universe, because with the future uncertain, all that remains is the past. This is a tricky thesis which comes very close to the kind of nostalgia the Architects seek to preserve. While “A&M” does a lot to make its characters feisty, even cute, it stops just short of making them buffoons. “A&M” doesn’t want the reader to root for its characters out of pity, but out of respect. It contends that a certain amount of distance is necessary to properly appreciate its heroes, because the real danger may well be in thinking that such characters even need to be “protected.” It’s clearly not on the Architects’ side, but it’s not exactly on Thirteen’s side either.
Again, this balancing act is mirrored in the duelling cynicisms of Thirteen and the Architects, each of which competes for the (cynically nostalgic) reader’s sympathies. Through Thirteen, “A&M” speaks directly to the readers who may not remember these characters specifically, but who no doubt recognize their absurdity. At the same time, by making villains out of the writers currently guiding DC’s superheroes, “A&M” forces the reader to re-examine his own attitudes towards DC’s history of silliness.
There is a lot of silliness in “A&M,” not just with the main characters but in the details. Traci Thirteen’s spells cause buildings to point and rock-monsters to fall. Captain Fear moves like Rico Suave. The Architects wear Ben Cooper masks of their favorite DC characters. A climactic battle is fought against familiar DC costumes, perhaps representing the empty suits which connect the various iterations of DC heroes. These are all portrayed skillfully through some of Cliff Chiang’s best work. His characters are marvels of economy, showing a wide range of expressions without a wasted line. (The sedate, relatively inactive Genius Jones is a particularly good example of this.) His storytelling isn’t flashy, but his panels are spacious, with even a few splash pages. Chiang makes the most out of every 16-page chapter, and his work is a huge part of “A&M”‘s appeal.
Ultimately, the Architects are right about one thing: every story ends. “Architecture and Mortality” even plays with this notion, though, pulling off the comics equivalent of a “smash-to-black” cut that simply must be preserved in the trade paperback. Of all the post-Infinite Crisis titles I read, this was one of the clear highlights, month in and month out. It deserves to continue. A trade paperback has been promised, and if you have any love for DC’s publishing history, it deserves your attention.
I’ll be waiting for that trade paperback — or better yet, a hardcover with each character’s origins, like Agents of Atlas got! — and if you listen closely, you can hear me clapping….