It was Joe McCulloch who really sold me on the idea of DC’s First Wave series. In his regular preview of the week’s releases, he wrote of Batman/Doc Savage Special #1:
[W]riter/mastermind Brian Azzarello seems to have a pretty great concept brewing: a matured, shared universe of pulp magazine fixtures, upset by the arrival of the gun-toting early Batman cast as the young hotshot in town, thus neatly linking the early notion of the superhero to the costumed magazine characters that certainly provided some of the concept’s lineage.
That does sound like a pretty great idea for a series, huh? Something in the tradition of past DC epics hinging on the change of publishing eras. Think The Golden Age, The New Frontier or Kingdom Come, applied to the dawning of superhero comics as the adventure pulps began to fade. And if someone could do a kick-ass version of such a series, it would almost have to be Brian Azzarello, who has more great crime comics on his resume than just about anyone, and showed a great aptitude for metafictional fun in his Dr. 13 story.
Unfortunately, McCulloch wasn’t speaking for Azzarello or DC Comics, and this first book of the First Wave series/event isn’t anywhere near as clever. Instead it’s a 38-page, $4.99 comic book in which the two leads have a misunderstanding, get in a fight, realize their conflict is premised on a mistake, and decide to team up (Or as Graeme McMillian succintly put it in his Savage Critics review, it’s “a standard Marvel Team-Up plot without much flair”). It even lacks what little punch that old superhero team-up formula has left, as it’s stretched out past the 22-page mark, but never actually gets around to the teaming-up. That’s something that will presumably happen at a later date, most likely sometime next spring, based on the back matter.
That back matter consists of eight pages of sketch art and character designs by Rags Morales, with a few paragraphs about a variety of characters playing a part in the First Wave to come by Azzarello. The characters are a pretty eclectic mix, so eclectic that it’s hard to find a pattern. There are a few standard DCU characters—new versions of Batman, Black Canary and the Blackhawks. There’s Will Eisner’s Spirit character, who also seems to be a distinctly new take (His Ebony White, for example, is a “brash girl.” Not even Frank Miller thought of doing that!). There’s Justice Inc, an old pulp franchise which became a DC comic briefly in the ’70s. Also from the pulps is Doc Savage, who also did time as a DC Comics-published character. And then there’s Rima, the mysterious jungle girl character from William Henry Hudson’s 1904 romance Green Mansions, who also did time in the ’70s as a DC character, albeit in a jungle adventure mode.
Is there a logic to the character’s chosen? It’s difficult to say. It seems like they are among the less fantastic characters DC own or has the right to publish comics featuring—none are as hard to imagine existing in the real world as, say, Superman or Space Ghost—but there’s still a sense of the random about them, like they were chosen out of a hat and handed as an assignement to Azzarello, along with the instructions to “Try and make something out of all these guys, huh? We’ll let you know if we can get The Shadow or decide to throw in The Sandman or Crimson Avenger.”
Despite the aura of fan fiction radiating from the mixing and matching of the disparate franchises, I was extremely interested in the project—Azzarello’s a very talented writer, and his least interesting stuff still tends to be smart, sharp and well-executed genre business. Even when all he’s engaged in is pot-boiling, those pots sure boil perfectly.
But Batman/Doc Savage, a sort of “pilot episode” for the series to follow, left me a little worried about First Wave in general. After thirty-some pages, I’m not at all sure what the point of the endeavor is, and am, in fact, less sure than I was before I read it.
The time period is indeterminate. “The War” is mentioned, but whether it’s World War I or the Gulf War isn’t clarified. The cars look like classics, but there are modern television sets and tiny cellphones. The exact time period is probably left vague on purpose, similar to the way Batman: The Animated Series was coy in its setting, but it lacks the old cartoon show’s binding aesthetic or devotion to world-building.
This Batman carries a gun, but he’s not the Batman of 1939—and that’s a shame, as there’s a thrilling creepiness about that Batman design, a sense of the bizarre that only gets stronger the farther and farther away we’re removed from him. This Batman looks exactly like our Batman, except for the fact that he packs a pair of pistols, pistols he seems to shoot at people, despite the fact that he doesn’t kill people with them (The conflict of this particular comic book is that Batman is the suspect in a murder which he didn’t commit, and only Savage is able to determine this where no one else in Gotham is, despite the pretty easy to parse evidence).
It’s a competent story, but that’ sall it is, and it seems a waste to put these two characters together, to launch a new DC continuiti-verse and/or a new line of comics, just for something that’s merely competent.
The art work is provided for this initial outing not by Morales, but by Phil Noto, one more strange choice about the project. His style evokes neither the Golden Age of superhero comics that gave rise to gun-wielding Batman, nor the pulp magazines that gave rise to Savage. His style doesn’t evoke a particular time period, nor does he calibrate it to derive a particular or special time, place or even mood.
His art is slick and clean, but that’s not exactly a positive attribute for a pulpy crime story. Azzarello wriest a little tone poem describing the world of First Wave, and it goes like this: “Cities are jungles…It’s a world where you’re guilty until being proven innocent…life is cheap, and everyone has their price. Where part of the thrill of being rich is watching the poor suffer.”
That’s not the world Noto draws. His world is bright, clean, soft and looks rather reliant on computers. Like the writing, it’s not at all bad work, but it’s just nothing special, and seems ill-suited to the project.
I’m still very interested and even excited in Azzarello and Morales’ eventual project, but I’m much less so after reading Batman/Doc Savage, which can’t possibly have been the reaction DC was looking for.