Tweet Pitch: Brian Azzarello reads Flex Mentallo, decides he can do better.
I’ve wanted to review Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Doctor Thirteen: Architecture and Morality ever since I read it a few months ago, but it’s difficult to get a handle on. It’s a slippery beast, you see; is it a fourth wall-demolishing exploration of the hidden and often extremely eccentric unused corners of comics, like Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers or Warren Ellis’ Planetary? Or is it an acidic, if good-natured, condemnation of the self-indulgence of those very books?
Azzarello, apparently peeved that he wasn’t consulted as part of the then-brand new weekly DC event 52, wrote the Doctor Thirteen miniseries with Cliff Chiang as an eight-issue story that sees Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Geoff Johns as a golem with Mount Rushmore heads, seen here trying to exterminate the “wackier” elements of the DC canon:
Well, that’s not all it’s about. I should back up. The best background I can provide is a quote from (who else?) Chris Sims:
Dr. Terence Thirteen (which is, in fact, his real name) is a parapsychologist and “ghostbreaker” who has devoted his life to exposing “supernatural” hoaxes and frauds, attempting to reveal charlatans who prey on the gullible, devoting hardcore skepticism to a life of proving that the supernatural doesn’t actually exist…unfortunately Dr. Thirteen lives in the DC Universe alongside Dr. Fate, the Spectre, Gentleman Ghost, the angel Zauriel, Neron, the Demons Three, and assorted vampires and werewolves, which makes him the dumbest person in the DC Universe.
So that’s the Doc.
Before we get really deep into things (and we will be going in deep), I want to point out that the really surprising aspect of this comic (aside from the astonishingly direct attacks on Marvel, the 52 creators, and all of comics in general) is how funny it is. I didn’t really expect Azarrello–who achieved fame by writing an incredibly brutal crime comic and the graphic novel where the Joker sews razor blades to his fingers–to be able to write a story this consistently humorous. There are a lot of one-liners and wordplay jokes that really serve to distinguish this book from similar stories.
The team of Chiang, Mulvihill, and Fletcher are at the top of their game here, working together to bring the visual aspects of Azarrello’s humor to life. If any one of those men had dropped the ball, none of the jokes would have worked; as it is, they’re able to incorporate every aspect of comic storytelling, from the sound effects to the panel layout, to make sure every pun and sight gag hits perfectly.
The story itself is a little harder to pin down–remember, this is a tricky tale. It’s surreal and absurd, events occurring spontaneously and with little regard for logic or traditional storytelling. It’s id, the signified in the raw–in short, dreamlike. But that’s part of this story’s charm; Doctor Thirteen is being whisked around wondrous locales at breakneck speeds, flying on a ghostly pirate ship from the French Alps to a camp populated by Nazi apes, and he won’t accept any of it.
He’s the perfect reader identification character, because we might not know what’s going on, but he sure doesn’t either.
As with any story where the characters are aware of their fictional nature, the plot of Doctor Thirteen gets real complicated, real fast. All you need to know is that Doctor Thirteen and his daughter Traci go to the French Alps to debunk some Yetis, and they end up getting swept into a conflict with a powerful, nigh-unstoppable group called the Architechts. Along the way, they meet vampires, aliens with low self-esteem, a child who can answer any question if you pay him a dime, frozen caveman Francophones, Nazi apes, ghosts (both pirate and confederate), and Grant Morrison:
Grant Morrison, as you might have realized from my earlier mountain-centric comic, is one of the Architects. Who are the Architects, you may ask? Good question. Genius Jones?
That’s pretty cut and dry, isn’t it?
Doctor Thirteen is a SEVERELY metafictional comic. And as those panels above indicate, it isn’t exactly subtle about it. It’s perfectly willing to take creators to task for picking and choosing which elements of a 70-plus-year history get to “count” and which ones don’t. Take that line about “Who’s Who” and “Who Isn’t” for example. That line is a direct reference to the Who’s Who series DC put out in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. WW was meant to make it clear who was and who wasn’t still in continuity after the shakeup of Crisis.
More than that, Azzarello is criticizing the comics industry for forcing itself to remain current and profitable through relaunches, reboots, and rebrandings. An excellent example is Julius, the Nazi ape. He gets bitten by Andrew Bennett, and lo and behold…
He takes the time to paint Morrison, Johns, Waid, and Rucka not as creative geniuses, but as fanboys so obsessed with the characters they shaped that they literally wear their faces. They’re cynical, pragmatic, clinging stubbornly, frantically to the past while attempting to embrace the future.
What’s ironic is that, for a comic that seems so certain that these characters face their doom, they haven’t exactly gone anywhere. Andrew Bennett is headlining his own ongoing series in I, Vampire, Captain Blood is starring in Walt Simonson’s graphic novel, The Judas Coin, and The Haunted Tank is set to return in the pages of GI Combat.
That’s part of Azzarello’s point, I think. After all, the Architects (which here is the 52 team, but can feasibly be anyone) don’t want to “kill” these characters, they want to make them profitable, and, in doing so, destroy the oddball charm that makes them so magical in the first place. With the New 52 relaunch, that’s exactly what’s happened. Sort of.
Y’see, it gets complicated. Because like Doctor Thirteen says, “there’s only the past. That’s all the universe is.” I can’t think of a better way to describe comic continuity, a place where nostalgia is more powerful than good sense and a story from decades ago can become a plot point in Batman #10. But what is Azarrello trying to say here? Is he wearily pointing out that the great strength of comics (its deep, rich history) is the same weakness that will never allow it to move forward? Or is he taking a more optimistic path, trying to recover the past and preserve the intense vitality of these characters?
Doctor Thirteen, everybody. Who the hell knows? I recommend it wholeheartedly–it’s a great, smashing, funny book with zaniness and thoughtfulness to spare. There’s a lot to say about it, a lot more than I could say here–after all, I didn’t once mention the lascivious Captain Blood’s accent, Traci’s magic spells, or Superman riding the subway with Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Daredevil:
–but at it’s core, it’s a love letter to a medium where there’s always room for the wondrous and inspirational.
That’s all the time we have for today, Sleepwalkers, but remember: Prenez garde aux Architectes!