Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality Review
Modernism and self-referentiality have been rampant in superhero comics for a good twenty years now; Alan Moore was the main instigator, with his great final Superman story and the Watchmen “pirate comics” motif. Some of the best and most entertaining stories since then have been knowingly "comics," from Grant Morrison’s "The Coyote Gospel" in Animal Man to John Byrne’s pleasant run on She-Hulk. But self-referentiality can also curdle like milk, or gnaw away its own belly like the fox under the Spartan boy’s cloak. There’s a huge streak of allegory in modern superhero comics – actually, "allegory" gives it too much credit; what we actually find are naked bids for audience identification and equally naked scornings of any connection to or interest in the supposedly puerile and retrograde wishes of that audience. (Pop quiz: who does Superman-Prime represent and why?)
Mainstream superhero comics have become a high-speed whirlwind of reader-response feedback done mad, with convoluted continuity one week and shredded history the next, and, no matter what, the anvil chorus of comics bloggers complaining that something or other is “raping their childhoods.” Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is not the first series to dive into the middle of that debate – hell, most of the big crossovers now are thinly veiled attempts to seduce the audience into believing in one propaganda version of continuity or other. (“Marvel has always been at Civil War with Eastasia.”)
But Doctor 13 does have the advantage of trying to be fun – and, even better, at generally succeeding. It does feel a bit like special pleading in the end; Azzarello is yet another guy who grew up with comics and wants to celebrate the stuff he loved as a kid. (Exactly the kind of comics writer, I’m afraid, that we need less of today.) The art is also very nice: Cliff Chang has clean, confident black lines defining crisp space, and is particularly good at drawing people.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. This trade paperback collects the backup story from the eight-issue Tales of the Unexpected miniseries, one of last year’s entries in the Eternal Floating Mega-Crossover (DC Division). It was well-liked by reviewers at the time, mostly because it wasn’t dour and grim like the main uber-crossover plot lines (from both of the Big Two), and because it assembled and used well a motley group of mostly forgotten characters…and comics junkies always love that. The oddballs this time were:
- Doctor 13, the skeptic debunker of the supernatural
- Captain Fear, leader of a ghost flying pirate ship
- Genius Jones, a kid who has read every book in existence
- Anthro, a cave-boy
- I…Vampire, a very ‘80s vampire
- Infectious Lass, a minor member of the Legion of Super-Heroes
- the ghost of General J.E.B. Stuart from the “Haunted Tank” stories of the ‘60s
- and the leader of the Primate Patrol, a talking Nazi gorilla
Only Doctor 13 and Infectious Lass had appeared at all since the Crisis (y’know, the first one? The one that was going to straighten out DC continuity and make telling stories easier? That one…), Doctor 13 was technically dead, and all these characters, according to Azzarello were on a list of characters never to be seen again in the DCU. But, of course, to a true comics fan, “forbidden” is nearly the same as “required.” Somehow Azzarello convinced the Powers That Be to let him do this story, and to depict shadowy Powers That Be as his villains. (Which takes away a bit from the force of his argument; if they were as bad as he says they are, he couldn’t have told this story.)
You see, in the story, the “Architects” are cleaning up this particular reality (which our heroes discover to be fictional in the course of the story), by getting rid of the parts they don’t like. Our heroes would prefer not to be discarded, and so they try to fight back.
All of the chapter titles are puns based on ‘80s songs – which is a humorous touch, but does tend to reinforce how idiosyncratic and specific this is. It’s not Azzarello saying “don’t get rid of all of the wackiness and oddball bits of DC’s past,” it’s Azzarello saying “I love this stuff, it’s part of my identity, so don’t rape my childhood!” And the latter is awfully common these days.
Anyway, all of the above characters Meet Cute in various permutations, usually involving Doctor 13’s sexy daughter Traci (a recent, and horribly trendy character – she’s half-Asian and has great magical powers and grew up in a slum and has conflicts with her dad and is a hawt busty young woman and has unlikely ties to lots of the DCU and spells heer name Traci), whom the story itself nakedly says will be the only character allowed to continue.
It never quite turns into complete meta-fiction – Azzarello is careful not to turn this into a middle-period Grant Morrison comic – but the essential conflict is purely meta, and the plotline is a J’accuse aimed right at his corporate overlords. Why do they have to declare huge swaths of their past non-existent? Just because a character isn’t appearing in a story currently doesn’t mean that character will never appear in another story; thinking that way is very short-sighted. But it’s also very common right now; both of the two major superhero universes are obsessed with tight, almost Orwellian control of continuity. All the trains must run on time (or be declared to do so); all the heroes must have their turn dead for tax purposes for a year or three; all the events must be dark, dreary, and repetitive.
Doctor 13 points out that it doesn’t have to be that way. But, I have to ask, how do the sales of Doctor 13 stack up against Infinite Crisis and 52 and Civil War and Random Good Guy Goes on a Rampage #37? Not very well, as far as I can see; not very well at all.
Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality
Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang
DC Comics, 2007, $14.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at anticmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.