It is the Batman we had come to believe we should never want to see. Young and brash and cocky, ominously self-assured and unjustified in the confidence he shows in his own, still-unseasoned abilities. A Batman at his most raw. This is in every sense of it, the wrong Batman. A Batman who is unable to plan, unable to predict the moves and mentalities of his enemies. This is a Batman wholly unconnected to the defining moment that allowed him to elevate himself to true psychological and physical grit. This is a Batman who carries a gun. Twin .45’s in shoulder holsters are weapons he clearly has no qualms in firing.
Given the character’s long history (70 uninterrupted years in print now), and the well-established generic codes (Batman doesn’t use a gun, Batman severe and intimidating), it is a hard ask to follow along with the Batman character-arc. Even the quirky, wordplay in the highly inventive captioned monolog offered up by writer Brian Azzarello just seems off-kilter. Or is that simply because longtime readers and fans have become conditioned by the Batman that has always sprung into existence fully formed? Azzarello’s genius for crafting a character-arc to the Batman is clearly apparent. His seeing a rambunctious, rookie Batman as the necessary starting point of the near-ghoulish strategist that Bruce Wayne will eventually become is nothing short of astounding. Long before the creator credits roll out on the splash page, readers intuit that this will be the story of Batman just about to become the hero he is destined to be.
One advantage of scripting a Batman at odds with accumulated reader expectation, is the almost knee-jerk reaction of seeking to emotionally engage the second protagonist, pulp hero Doc Savage. But again, Doc stands at one remove to the reader. His dialog proves to be just slightly too dense for skimming. Azzarello clearly achieves this cooling-off distance for his protagonists by skillful design. And supplanting interest in his characters Azzarello promotes an interest in the world in which his characters play. This is a glistening world, where the powerful are the rich and the rich are endlessly corrupt.
But Azzarello also offers readers a world that is just about to take its first steps into a radical new reimagining of itself. At the core of this shake-up is the inter-generational conflict between Bruce Wayne’s novice Batman and Clark ‘Doc’ Savage Jr. Doc Savage is the pinnacle of human achievement. “Mixed race (making him ‘bronze’)”, Azzarello writes in sketchbook section of the One-Shot, “Clark Savage Jr. is… the smartest and physically most impressive man on earth”. He is the frontman of his own multimillion dollar company, a tireless scientist and a peerless crusader for justice. He sees it as his role to elevate humanity. He is a celebrity, curious mix of Sherlock Holmes and Thomas Edison. And he usually operates with the full cooperation of law enforcement agencies.
Batman on the other hand, is a complete outsider. Assumed to be no more than an urban legend, he finds himself (when he is eventually proven to exist) locked out of any cooperative system. His existence ostensibly has no meaning, his actions no effect, and even his intentions are misunderstood, as evidenced by the assumption that he committed the murder he is investigating. Yet it is Batman who will ultimately prove a more credible disruption of the vast and faceless social conspiracy that holds Gotham in its thrall. Doc Savage’s convivial relations with law enforcement (ultimately exposed as the executive faction of the global conspiracy of the wealthy) is already a model that is fast receding. It cannot endure much longer, if the residents of Main Street are to be free in any meaningful way. Beneath its glittering sheen, Azzarello presents a drama of men already broken, fighting to redeem their world.
The Batman/Doc Savage One Shot is the opening salvo for new ongoing monthly series, First Wave. Set to debut in January 2010, First Wave is the story about a world rapidly evolving beyond the pulp characters of yesteryear and growing into the costumed crimefighters modern readers would be more familiar with. In its pages Batman and Doc will explore a brave new world where Black Canary (now and Indian immigrant) and other DC characters find themselves confronted with legendary pulp icons like The Spirit or Justice, Inc. Phil Noto, who captured perfectly the glamour and fear of comics’ golden age, will cede artistic duties to Rags Morales.
At Five Bucks for 48 pages, the One Shot almost escapes its own strictures of pulp press. Five Bucks is a Starbucks, or a sandwich, hardly a point of attachment, and definitely not a treasured heirloom. But Noto’s art is so eloquent in capturing the era and Azzarello’s world is so finely crafted, this One Shot hardly stands a piece of discardable pulp fiction. Instead it screams softly to be read and reread and ultimately to be owned.