Beneath the Great Wave: Azzarello and Morales Return to the Roots of Comics

Gerard Jones tells the story best in his book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. There was a moment when comicbooks themselves did not seem a foregone conclusion. There was a point when DC, now the oldest surviving comicbook publisher, was mired in a very different world. Comicbook superheroes reach back into the yesteryear-heroes of pulp fiction. Batman can trace his roots back to Walter Gibson’s the Shadow, or even further back to the Spider. It is a common enough story, but Jones is its best biographer.

With First Wave writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales attempt a fictional integration between the two worlds of DC. The former, with DC as a relatively minor company, competing with other minor comicbook publishers and established Pulp Fiction companies. The latter world, one where DC is already an industry giant, the comicbook format has become a staple and Pulp companies have all but vanished.

As fiction itself, First Wave tells the tale of an evolving mystery, one that touches every echelon of society and that triggers the involvement of every kind of hero, both pulp- and super-. Clark Savage Jr., ‘Doc’, the legendary Man Of Brass, finds himself emotionally compromised in having to unearth the remains of his father, passed from an unexplained illness. Denny Colt, the Spirit (and creation of acclaimed comics legend Will Eisner), find himself thrust into an investigation corrupt police officials would rather turn a blind eye to. And in the Amazon Basin, Rima the Jungle Girl smuggles scientist William Littlejohn to safety. And all the while the villains build their story also. The placate Mr. Sunshine brims frighteningly with natural confidence. Anton Colossi, a merchant shipping magnate goes rogue and begins building a Jungle Kingdom. And Ferrios, a new breed of metal man, enacts a merciless revenge.

But the heart of Azzarello’s project with First Wave is not evidenced in the fact that he had a wholly original idea, rather it lies in that idea’s execution. Azzarello advances the story in episodes, each one five or six pages long. For the most part each page contains four or five panels. Each panel runs the full width of the page. The regularity of the storytelling is the first clue to Azzarello’s vision; one that mimics the regular pacing of the newspaper daily strips (the place where superheroes and pulp-heroes first met). This is a far more rigorous, far more disciplined kind of storytelling than Azzarello’s other projects.

While 100 Bullets and Batman: Broken City or Superman: For Tomorrow? benefit from a certain fluidity to the storytelling structure (not unlike a good Elmore Leonard tale, the edges often become the center), First Wave is an entirely different animal. Here, readers are presented with a strictly logical, and almost mechanized kind of pacing. William Littlejohn escapes (6 pages), Doc Savage mourns (5 pages), Commissioner Dolan tarnishes his own image as a cop on the take by alerting The Spirit to an impending crime (3 pages), in his daily column a reporter with a mean streak roughs up Doc Savage (2 pages), Doc discovers the secret around his father’s death (3 pages), etcetera. Azzarello confronts readers with the same regularity that swept up thousands of newspaper strip readers on a daily basis. This linear pacing is how Azzarello is able to convey more than the mood of the times, but the thematic quality of the era as well.

But Azzarello is not alone in his mastery of the story. There is an ineffable quality to Morales’ visualizations. He seems to capture directly both the tradition of the images he deals with (by way of a kind of ‘cartoon archaeology’) and to present the characters as visually believable of existing in a real world. Azzarello presents his characters with the dramatic certainty of a Beethoven. Morales presents characters with a Mozart-like kind of visual logic; playful but also incredibly complex.

The characterization of Dolan is a clear example. The large-jawed, pipe-smoking cartoon originally traced by Will Eisner can still be glimpsed at through Morales’ vision. Yet Morales presents a character that readers could believably have met on the streets of any postwar American city. And while the cartooned foppishness has its place in the visual tradition of Will Eisner, Morales is able to pull back on his drawing of Doc Savage, allowing colorist Nei Ruffino’s shading to tell the dour tale of mourning. There is a perfect balance to Morales’ work. One that demonstrates absolute mastery of the principles of modern storytelling even as it blasts apart the masking effect (a technique that promotes emotional investment by removing detail).

Azzarello and Morales are locked in a magnificent two-step. Each in their individual arenas capture the essential moods and themes of early comicbooks or the medium itself, and not simply the stories they told. But the true genius lies in how easily writer and artist working together are able to tap the roots of modern popular culture itself.

More than simply the profound idea of marrying together pulp-heroes with superheroes, it is hard to read First Wave as other than an homage to Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”. Painted as a part of the “36 Views of Mount Fuji”, Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” has entered the popular imagination, introduced to Europe by French Impressionists as early as the 1870s. By 1832 (the year of the color woodcut’s production), Hokusai was already well into his 80s, working to support himself after his son’s gambling had squandered the fortune Hokusai had already made during his Floating World period. Read in the traditional right-to-left of Japanese culture, “The Great Wave” tells a profound tale of courage, as fishermen on a return voyage home lie placate in the face of impending disaster. Mount Fuji, usually monolithic and imposing in the other 35 Views, can be seen ignominiously in the backdrop. The most divine, most serene place on earth, reduced to almost nothing.

Masterfully however, Hokusai plays a visual game with his audience. slightly beneath the Great Wave itself is a small, inexplicable outcropping of water. Nearly meaningless at first glance, this smaller, more compact wave quickly becomes the centerpiece of the entire woodcut on deeper inspection. It is this smaller wave that is shaped exactly in the reverse-angle view of Mount Fuji; the view that can be seen by disembarking travelers at Tokyo Station. Even the crest of this smaller wave begins to resemble the snows that permanently adorn Mount Fuji.

Beyond the secret visuals encoded in the image, beyond the tale of courage that is told by its imagery, “The Great Wave” is really the birth of popular culture. As a woodcut, the image was highly mobile. Printed no more than 1,000 times during Hokusai’s remaining days, the image circulated throughout the world. Not at all unlike the comicbooks that presented their ideas and stories as more important than their material format. In just the smallest and most elegant of ways, First Wave taps exactly that indescribable quality of a story that simply needs to be told. There is an unflinching heroism to First Wave sure, as well as deceptively eloquent visual themes. But the true genius of First Wave lies in its intellectual mobility. No one need tell readers about it, First Wave is already a classic.