First Wave (Comic Review)

From Doc Savage to Superman, from The Shadow to Batman, superheroes grew fairly directly out of the pulp movement. Since DC Comics has since acquired the rights to many of these influential characters, it isn’t surprising that they would try to breathe new life into them. First Wave was an attempt to create a shared world of gritty, low-powered heroes based on reinterpretations of classic figures. Not a bad idea, but DC did an astoundingly bad job with it.

The plan was that First Wave would be a six-issue miniseries that set up a status quo, with two ongoing titles (Doc Savage and The Spirit) immediately spinning off from it. A solid plan, but it doesn’t mean anything if the comic itself isn’t very good. First Wave’s story follows a convoluted plot involving a world-spanning secret organization, a drug that turns victim’s blood into gold, and a machine that can manufacture tsunamis. Even after re-reading it for this review, I’m not quite sure how those pieces fit together. Nor am I sure how the different heroes all got involved: I count six to eight plot threads following different pulp heroes or groups (depending on whether Doc Savage and his associates are counted separately), and weaving those in and out of six comics is a tricky task. When a character suddenly appears in a new issue, it can be difficult to remember what they know and what their current motivations are.

Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales are both associated with high-profile comics events, but they weren’t necessarily the right combination for this title. Morales’ crisp combination of realism and cartoonishness is the hallmark of modern-day superhero art (especially mixed with this book’s bright colors), and it contrasts with the darker, gritty pulp story that Azzarello is trying to tell.

The Bat-Man and his gun

The one bright spot of this relaunch is the clever ideas that were applied to the characters. The once heroic Blackhawks are now mercenaries who care mainly about money, and even after they turn against the bad guy, they have little regard for the lives of less capable heroes. Doc Savage, “the perfect man”, is set against a skeptical press and a public who can’t trust the motives of an alleged hero. And I’d love to read further adventures of this rookie “Bat-Man”, who carries guns and is as interested in the adrenaline rush as the justice. Unfortunately, a series based on him would probably turn out to be a disappointment, based on the spin-offs that we did see. The Spirit had possibly the most interesting reinvention of all, being paired with a corrupt police force who sneer and trade barbs with him. The new Spirit comic, though, quickly forgets this. Instead of just getting tips from Commissioner Dolan (a “bad cop but a good guy” who cares about his own wealth and safety first, but will help The Spirit do his job on the side), within a year the vigilante is publicly walking around the police station with his “best friend” the commissioner. It’s not a bad title on its own, but contradicts First Wave enough to ruin the effect that a shared world is supposed to have.

This isn’t a review of The Spirit, or the standalone Doc Savage title (an inoffensively bland action story), but it bears noting that the problems with First Wave extended to very poor editorial control across the intended line. There was also a one-issue “First Wave Special” last week that I was waiting for before doing this review. That issue actually wasn’t bad: A creative team with a grittier style, a story that addressed plot lines in the recent Spirit and Doc Savage titles, and a confrontation between some of the major players that emphasizes each one’s different personality. The First Wave Special actually made a good case for these characters as part of a new interconnected line. Unfortunately, I think the damage has already been done. First Wave itself was a hard-to-follow mess that introduced interesting characters, but failed to do anything worthwhile with them. More than a year after the experiment started (yes, the six-issue series was plagued by a lot of delays), it is obvious that the momentum it was trying to build is not going to happen.

Grade: D-

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  1. August 28th, 2011

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