Monday, December 7, 2009

a solitary Shazhmm: Garrett reviews Batman / Doc Savage Special and Incognito TPB

This was written for the Boston Herald, but got lost in the holiday shuffle and swapped out for reviews of more recent comics. It's been slightly edited but it's still more formal than we usually get around here. Meanwhile HB and I will be back later this week with another review.

Batman / Doc Savage Special
by Brian Azzarello and Phil Noto
DC Comics

by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Marvel Comics

Just as comic books grew out of pulp fiction, superheroes wouldn’t exist without pulp heroes. Doc Savage was saving the world from fascists and mad scientists before Superman ever illegally crossed America’s broken borders. And unlike Batman, Savage didn’t dress like a fool to fight crime.

Doc Savage presaged both those iconic figures. Like Bruce Wayne he was impossibly talented despite not having any superpowers. Like Superman he was a paragon of virtue. Savage was successful in film, radio, and print before either of those cape-wearing guys were created. He was basically a superhero before that word existed.

Doc Savage’s popularity waned greatly after the 1940’s. DC hopes to change that with their upcoming miniseries First Wave. First Wave presents a universe in which pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the Avenger coexist alongside early comic crimefighters like Batman and the Spirit. It launches in March, but the recent Batman / Doc Savage Special introduces the concept. It doesn’t instill much hope.

For five dollars the Batman / Doc Savage Special gives you 56 pages but very little story. It starts with a murder, a misunderstanding, and Doc Savage’s arrival in Gotham to investigate the newly debuted Batman. By the end the mystery is solved off-page by the police while the heroes are busy talking out their disagreements. It’s a surprisingly muddled and inert work coming from Brian Azzarello, who showed an affinity for crime and pulp stories with 100 Bullets and his Batman serial for Wednesday Comics.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, creators of the comic noir Criminal, also know how to craft an excellent crime story. Their recent series Incognito isn’t as tense or powerful as Criminal, but it’s a better synthesis of the pulp and superhero traditions than the Batman / Doc Savage Special. Focusing on a former supervillain hiding out from a worldwide criminal organization in a witness protection plan, Incognito combines the superpowered action of comic books with the more realistic, hard-boiled edge of the pulps. Brubaker’s dialogue remains as taut as his plotting, and Phillips is still one of the best visual storytellers in the medium. The trade paperback lacks Jess Nevins’ excellent essays on pulp heroes that appeared in the individual issues, and the new introduction from Saturday Night Live castmember Bill Hader doesn't quite make up for that loss. That doesn't make the actual story any less worthwhile, though.

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