Saturday, March 6, 2010

Review: First Wave #1

First Wave #1 (of 6)

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Rags Morales
Colorist: Nei Ruffino
Released: March 3, 2010

The first question you may feel like asking yourself upon gazing at this comic is, "do you feel man enough to read this? Well, do ya, punk?" The bronze glow radiating off the broad chests and square-jaws of the mighty specimens of masculinity that grace the cover tell part of the story here, that inside be a man's world, so see here, you better come ready. This is First Wave and it's a world without superpowers, a DCU born not in an exploding planet far off in the universe, but born of bootstraps and guile, sweat and determination. Now, lest ye think that this translates into misogyny or brutishness, step back, fella. There's more to a man than muscle, and more to this comic than man.

This is the world of Doc Savage, The Spirit, and The Bat-Man; a post-war America that looks a lot like ours, except it's warped slightly, like a sheet of plastic-wrap that's been overstretched in spots. The fedoras and trench-coats, all scream big-city 1940's, but then a quick shot of a subway station shows us a punk in a red mohawk strutting past a poster of Joe Nameth in his New York Jets uniform, waving his finger in famous post-Super Bowl III victory pose (that's 1969 for you kids out there). The police cars and the checker-cabs are also of the 40's, but the limousine Doc pulls up in when visiting his father's grave appears to be a mid-1960's Lincoln Town Car. Doc's sparsely decorated and clean-lined modern Manhattan hi-rise apartment is either the epitome of mid-century futurism or mid-1980's New York minimalism. A delivery truck that The Spirit clings to after giving chase near issue's end proclaims "Rafi's Finest, Since 1945." Not that impressive a claim if this is truly just a few years after the end of WWII.

That's the true beauty of this comic; it takes the idea of a de-powered superhero universe and turns it on it's head. Instead of making the world gritty and dirty, setting the story in a mire of artificially extreme "reality", Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales have created a universe all on it's own, a place where time has seemingly been folded in on itself, meeting at the corners in an askew fashion. It's a New York that is all bright and shiny, where the skyscrapers gleam in golden hues of honey. This is a world that we somehow think existed at one time, a romantic vision of the big-city that never really existed, not in this way, at least. It's a big-shouldered, wide brim, firm hand-shake world, and for 40 pages, it's brought to beautiful life by two men who so obviously care deeply for it.

First Wave is a romantic throw-back comic told in a modern wide-screen way. With the exception of only two (TWO!) panels on page 6, every single panel stretches the entire length of the page. If this were a film it would have been shot in 75-millimeter Cinemascope and projected on the biggest screen in a movie-house where they still have the pit upfront for the organist. The colors by Nei Ruffino are bold and vivid, a harken to both the bright and gaudy 4-color days of early comic books and the technicolor marvels of the golden-age films of MGM and Warners. Those colors grace the magnificent artwork of Mr. Morales, who brings this meticulously detailed world to life with remarkable clarity, crispness, and style, but without sacrificing characterization and emotional weight. His characters each have their own unique look. In panels that feature Doc surrounded by his motley crew of assistants and friends, one sees how each man has been given his own distinct face, not just superficially, but right down to the bone structure, to the cheekbones and jawlines. In the run-up to the launch of this series, the DC blogs rang out with the usual hyperbole, stating this to be Morales's best work of his career. For once, that hyperbole may be accurate. His highest-profile project before this would, undoubtably, have to be the event mini-series Identity Crisis, written by Brad Meltzer. I found his work there to be decent but not distinguished, and in service of what was an overheated atrocity of a story. I now blame that horrid mess all on Mr. Meltzer. Mr. Morales is distinguishing himself here in First Wave and separating himself grandly.

Truly, though, this world belongs to writer Brian Azzerello, who is very much at home in this pulpy-noir universe he has created. Mr. Azzarello demonstrates he possesses a deep understanding for these classic characters, giving each scene its proper tone. The scenes with Doc Savage and his crew almost reek of sincerity and earnestness, as we feel the sense of brotherhood these men share with each other. Their dialogue would be hammy and syrupy if it wasn't for the fact we know they mean every word. These are honest and true men of great dignity and respect. There's no irony here, folks. Contrast this with the interactions of The Spirit and his old cop buddy Dolan, where their dialogue drips with sarcasm and a crackling energy, both men letting on slyly that they are not saying all they know. Add to this the classic image of The Spirit leaping across buildings in the moonlight and getting into yet another slapstick-worthy fistfight, and it would seem all the ingredients are here for a great ride.

In fact, after all of this, my only disappointment is that First Wave is a mini-series. Six issues? That's it? Whatta ya' goin' outta business here? The appetizer has made me hungry for a meal, see, and I got a man-sized hunger, see. Now scram, kid, you're botherin' me.

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