Firstwave: Doc Savage: The Fourth Day, written by Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Nic Klein, Phil Winslade and J.G. Jones (2010-2011): 1930’s and 1940’s pulp-magazine hero Doc Savage has never had a lengthy comic-book run. The Firstwave line from DC was meant to rectify this problem by taking Doc more fully into the realm of alternate history and away from the unsuccessful replication of the format and content of his pulp adventures. Doc’s amazing gadgets and amazing heroism have altered history since the end of the First World War, leading to a 1930’s landscape in which cellphones and atomic weapons are common.

Alas, the first story arc in the Firstwave Doc Savage stunk to high heaven thanks to a writer who’d never written comics before and an artist unsuited to the project. Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello came on board for this, the second Firstwave story arc, and while they quickly got the quality of the book up, it was apparently too late — cancellation is, so far as I know, now a sure thing.

Oh, well. The alternate history Doc and his amazing cohorts move through in this 7-issue arc really is pretty interesting. A war has left the Middle East all but destroyed and cut off from the world outside. But when a threat to the outside world is broadcast from within the wasteland, Doc and his men are sent by the U.S. government to discern the seriousness of that threat and to snuff it out.

Brandon and Azzarello do pretty well balancing Doc’s superlative competence in every area of human endeavour with the mistakes an idealist can make when stuck in shades-of-gray situations. Nic Klein’s art is solid throughout, though like a lot of contemporary comic-book art it could really use less full-process, painterly colour — murkiness is not always a virtue.

The major flaw in the series is that things are deadly serious — there’s none of the loopy, sophormoric jauntiness of the pulp novels. This is serious business, and the grimness wears on one after awhile. Pulp novels were actually fun. Comic books, more and more, really aren’t. Klein, like every comic-book artist other than Dave Stevens and Tony DeZuniga, has absolutely no idea how to draw “Monk” Mayfair. Is it so hard to look at the descriptions in the novels? Argh. Nonetheless, recommended.

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