Monday, November 30, 2009

I read the Batman/Doc Savage Special comic this morning, teaming two of my favorite characters. More than anything, it's pretty much a prologue to a new series, First Wave, which sets up a new fictional universe where traditional heroes like Batman and Black Canary are given more of a crime/noir/pulp feel, interacting with actual pulp characters like Doc Savage and the Avenger. The series will also be featuring Will Eisner's Spirit, and a new version of the WWII fighter pilot team, the Blackhawks. All characters I love, in a world designed to evoke the spirit of the 30s and 40s. It's written by a writer I like (Brian Azzarello) and drawn by an artist I love (Phil Noto). It's almost as if someone had decided to create a comic book series just for me.

So it's pretty impossible for me to be objective about it. I loved it. (And I'm not the only one.) The only thing I would have prefered is if it had been a bit more self-contained, instead of mostly introduction and setup for the main series. But since it was always intended to be a piece of something bigger, that's not really an issue.

Setting this series in its own fictional world, with new, slightly different, versions of familiar characters, is probably a good idea. Comics (and comics fans) have become so continuity-dependent that this is the only way to team Batman and Doc Savage (and all the other characters) without shoehorning in a contrived reason for how they can somehow coexist without ever having met before. This way, Batman, Doc Savage, the Spirit, and all the rest can have adventures together because, in this context, they've always been together.

Perhaps more importantly for the success of the story, this new pulp/noir/superhero world allows the characters to coexist with integrity. One major problem with reviving pulp heroes like Doc Savage is that they are very much of their time. Put them in the modern world, where everyone now carries a pocket-sized computer, and Doc and his companions either need to be changed radically or they seem out of date. Keep them in the period the pulps were written in, and the stories become period pieces, and consequently quaint and charming and cozy. And they become as much about the period as they do about the adventures, which isn't really in keeping with the spirit of the originals.

In this version, we get the style and panache of a period piece, but the characters can still take advantage of technology like cell phones and tape recorders. Doc Savage doesn't use a lot of gadgets here, but presumably we will get to see him using stuff like his little capsules of anesthetic gas, or his aides using their supermachine guns, and they won't look silly or old-fashioned next to a Batman using the latest high-tech computers or a super-slick Batmobile. (And, really, does anyone want to see Doc Savage driving a Corvette? Or a Prius?)

By "creating" a new version of Batman for this world, Azzarello gets to add some new twists. The obvious one that everyone seems to have seized upon is the fact that he's carrying guns, but that's just a throwback to the character's earliest appearances. More interestingly, this is a Batman at the start of his career, and it shows. Instead of a mature, experienced Batman, master of all the world's martial arts, confidently taking on Doc Savage, we see a Batman who barely escapes from that fight with his life. Because this Batman may not yet be this world's greatest detective, he won't necessarily be the dominant character in the First Wave story. (For that matter, he doesn't necessarily even have to survive.)

We may also be seeing Doc Savage at the beginning of his career. In the books, he starts his "mission" after the death of his father; in this story, his father has recently passed away. Azzarello even hints at the parallels between these two men: both orphaned, both set on their missions by their parents, either directly or indirectly. It suggest a more complex relationship than the usual (and facile) "dark/light" contrast that gets played up whenever we get a team between characters like Batman or the Shadow and Superman or Doc Savage.

No idea how long-time fans of Doc Savage will react to this new version, but I'm also not sure that matters. Purist fans can reread the original stories if that's what they're looking for. Those stories tend to be much more plot and action based, at the expense of character, and also pretty formulaic. I think today's comics audience is looking for more depth of character and variety of plots. If Doc Savage (or any of the heroes of yesteryear) are going to find favor with today's audiences, they need to be presented in a style that feels fresh and contemporary. Batman/Doc Savage accomplishes that without losing what makes the characters special.

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