[13 December 2010]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Among comic publishers, pulp and noir stories are all the rage. From Marvel’s “Noir” line and its imprint Icon’s Incognito to DC’s revival of “Doc Savage” and “The Spirit,” gritty adventure yarns have never been so much in vogue since their boom years. It’s as much a testament to the evolution of comics since the 1980s as it is a reflection on the dominate elements of pop culture. What’s old is new again.
DC further jumps into this trend with its First Wave series. Like Marvel’s “Noir” line, First Wave takes existing characters and thrusts them into a re-imagined pulp world. DC sets itself apart in this area by using actual pulp characters from its library as a foundation. It’s as much a tribute as it is a renaissance. The capes and cowls of the last 60 years owe much of their existence to the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The old magazines presented men without special abilities fighting street crime, gangsters, mad scientists and men seeking world domination. While Superman was a complete divergence from the genre, Batman was an evolution of that type of protagonist. His early adventures utilized a similar tone and many of the common plot devices found in noir and pulp stories. Including him in First Wave is a bridging element that provides a link from the old world to the current.
First Wave is an interesting concept that was first presented in a “Doc Savage/Batman” special one-shot in November 2009. Developed by notorious noir writer Brian Azzarello (“100 Bullets”) as a reimagining of part of the DC Universe as a pulp inspired world, the concept seemed like a dream come true. All of the characters – mainly Doc Savage, Batman and The Spirit – are firmly rooted in the noir and pulp traditions, lending themselves easily to a gritty serial.
The “Doc Savage/Batman” special, while light on plot, demonstrated how intriguing a pulp inspired world could be under the direction of a modern creative team. The back of the book material, presenting Azzarello’s treatment for the series, further cemented the potential. It laid out a traditional pulp world that was also refreshing and energized. But between that one-shot and the five First Wave issues released (not including the other spinoffs) the translation from treatment to published books has hampered the concept.
The plot of First Wave is fairly straight forward. Anton Colossi and his other compatriots of the “Golden Tree” are trying to control the future of the world by becoming the dominate players in it. They’ve amassed a floating city and a secret cabal to accomplish their dream. The Batman, Doc Savage and The Spirit have all come together under their own motivations to put a stop to it.
Fans of Azzarello’s “100 Bullets” series will recognize the narrative devices and subtlety that have made him a fan favorite. He’s definitely an expert on what makes a noir story. His pulp credentials may be a little light, but his strengths in long-form storytelling should more than make up for it. With First Wave he’s playing with the whole of pulp history, which includes jungle adventure stories, mad scientists and robots. Some of the common pulp elements that are tied into the narrative flow of this series.
To say that First Wave is a series of wasted potential is a fair assessment. The plot is an unyielding and confusing mess that is barely contained within the pages of the issues. Pulp and noir stories lend themselves to serialized storytelling, but a plot that overreaches exposes a soft underbelly of too much in too little. “First Wave’s” plot certainly does overreach and lacks focus, but in fairness it’s not the most disappointing element. The most disappointing, as stated prior, is that the treatment for the series was so strong, encompassing a depth and breadth from a creator honed into to its tone and spirit (pardon the pun), but the resulting product is a shadow (apologies for the pun again) of that potential.
Further troubling are the artists rounding out the creative team. Penciller Rags Morales has done some fine work, particularly with DC’s “Identity Crisis” limited series, but here his style disconnects from the narrative. You would think that the kinetic movement of an adventure yarn would play to his strengths with movement? That sadly is not the result.
The color and ink work from Rick Bryant and Nei Ruffino does little to help Morales cause. The colors try too hard to be nuanced in their effects that they wind up simplifying Morales’s line work. The inking is so heavy handed that pages and panels have a thick quality that is far from complimentary to “First Wave’s” narrative structure. This is not to say that the artwork is that bad. It’s a level below workable mainly because it lacks connection to the genre. With another script, inspired by another style, it would be far more successful.
The resurgence of pulp and noir stories has been a mixed bag: Marvel’s “Noir” line was hit or miss; “Incognito” through one volume and the beginning of the second has been excellent; First Wave has not been a failure, but it has not by any means been a success. Thinking back to November 2009, it’s hard to believe that a series with such potential and scope would be so underwhelming. This is not a reflection of the genre itself. The viability of noir and pulp stories in the modern era is quite strong. The cultural elements that made them popular 60 years ago are present today. War, economic turbulence, political polarization and the subtle destruction of our naiveté through searing cultural events have all played a part in our collective decent into a darker time. However post-modern and ironic it may be, pulp and noir adventures are a part of our contemporary comics. They were there from the beginning, and like the saying goes: what’s old is new again.