Plot: Batman blows a guy's brains out. Doc Savage, celebrity scientist adventurer, visits town and the two take a mutual interest in one another. We get our first look at DC's First Wave universe.
Comments: Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales' First Wave officially debuts in March 2010, making November 2009's Batman/Doc Savage Special the single-only release to tease the album. We can expect it to end up on the "Best of" collection--er, trade paperback. As a single, it introduces us to the sound of the universe -- a retro-modern take on some appropriately chosen DC characters all slathered with pulp and a dash of Doc Savage thrown in to taste. I guess that makes Doc Savage the beat.
Batman/Doc Savage Special is, at heart, a Batman/Superman team-up, except Superman is blond and bronze. Batman's perceived as a menace to Gotham City, Clark (Kent or Savage) is the beloved hero who hears about the Caped Crusader, they fight a bit, realize the other's not so bad, and a friendship for the ages ensues. An appropriate structure, since superhero comics are pulp and pulp stories are all about plugging in different variables into the same formula.
Azzarello's scripting and characterization make the book a proper good read. Unlike other Batman writers, Azz loves it when Batman is wrong. His reviled "Broken City" story arc (which I dug) from a few years ago hinges on the premise that Batman is fallible and capable of making bad assumptions and fatal errors. Here, those flaws are part of his youthful cockiness forcing him to assume that Savage is a naive glory hog who loves the limelight and doesn't have a bodyguard waiting in his hotel room to punch burglars. Conversely, Doc Savage's apparent perfection is his burden--a reveal that links our two heroes via their parental issues.
Phil Noto's pseudo-painterly art is mostly solid with some impressive lighting and fantastic facial expressions, particularly on drunken Bruce Wayne during the party scene, but too often he draws mouths uniform (open mouth, bearing teeth). The quality isn't always consistent, either; Noto renders a battle between Batman and Doc Savage in the dark with flat tones and sparse details, making the art feel unfinished when he was more likely trying to create the effect of darkness.
The backmatter sketches and character profiles show just what Azz and Ragss plan for the characters, which not only makes the purpose of the special transparent, but also reveals what sets First Wave apart from those 64-page Elseworlds prestige specials from the '90s. The cast includes Blackhawks, Black Canary, The Spirit (!), and Rima the Jungle Girl. Too often were the stories of those old Elseworlds books muddled in the compulsive urge to cram every major DC character because it would be cool to see what an Edwardian Martian Manhunter would look like. No, it appears that First Wave might actually contain some thoughtfulness and restraint.
The whole First Wave project is an alternate universe story, and alternate universes always bring me to the same question: do I prefer this universe because it's actually better or just because it's different from the established "official" universe? What if this was the DC's main universe? Would I still like it? Or do we need the original universe to qualify the alternate versions? Then again, to crib from Alan Moore, isn't every story an alternate universe story?
Regardless, Batman/Doc Savage Special is a fine introduction to a world full of promise that hopefully won't be squandered when the main event unfolds in four months. Fingers crossed.
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