By: Brian Azzarello (writer), Rags Morales (penciller), Rick Bryant (inker), Nei Ruffino (colors)

The Story: The Blackhawks, Doc Savage, the Spirit, Rima the Jungle Girl, the Bat Man, and the Avenger are set on a collision course with the Golden Tree just as it pushes toward its ultimate goal.  Facing destructive powers beyond those of the last world war, our heroes must act fast to prevent another from taking place—if they can survive long enough, that is.

The Review: Even though history’s taught us that the fifties weren’t quite the sunny years people believed them to be, there’s still a lot of nostalgia for that period, and for good reason.  It was a decade of unprecedented confidence in what people—Americans, in particular—were capable of.  That’s the magic Brian Azzarello attempts to capture in First Wave.  By making a world scrubbed clean of all metahuman and alien elements, he raises the stakes for his characters by challenging them to show what they’re really made of.

Having a world entirely populated by mortals instantly pumps the tension bar.  There’s no Superman to fly in, bare his bulletproof chest, and save the day.  The heroes have to take risks to get things done, and when they’re in danger, the only tools at their disposal are their skills and guts.  Azzarello does a great job setting up tight situations for his characters to force or bluff their way through, keeping the action pumping all throughout the issue.  It’s classic stuff—speeding bullets, fisticuffs, and daredevil stunts.

What prevents the issue from going totally pulp is the inclusion of a bit of retro sci-fi and exotica, which is very fitting for the period Azzarello’s trying to channel.  The technology has all the grandiose flair people envisioned back then, but has enough attention to actual engineering principles to make it believable.  The Red Right Hand is portrayed with the dress and mannerisms of stereotypical natives, but they demonstrate their intelligence through their posture and interaction.  The end result is a Golden Age that feels credible; you could be fooled into thinking this is a world that can exist in a modern era.

There’s actually an encouraging amount of character work in this issue, though some benefit more than others.  Batman—or the Bat Man, as he’s known in this world—reveals his complicated motivations, claiming to have no interest in big-picture heroics while admitting how high he gets on the thrills of being part of it.  Even the big baddie of this series, Mr. Sunlight, offers a statement about why he seeks power.  Most of these monologues tend to come off heavy-handed or corny or worse, but Mr. Sunlight’s is short, sweet, and actually pretty convincing.

The other characters don’t develop such layers, but Azzarello keeps track of their different personalities so well that just letting them bounce off each other produces a lot of fun, natural banter.  Even the bit characters show some spunk in their brief appearances. Their decisions and actions consistently make sense for their natures, making it easier to get lost in their crazy antics.  The Spirit is especially easy to love—doing the best he can, wherever he is, with a sense of humor (“You take the cat, I got the girl.”).

All of these positives would be less so if not for Rags Morales terrific designs for, well, everything—characters, settings, objects, each of these things gets details that make them unique and recognizable.  Example: each individual member of the Red Right Hand, despite being little better than extras, gets a distinct face and garb.  Morales also has a great sense of the period, especially where the tech is concerned.  Robots have never looked less slick and more mechanical, yet so cool.  When it’s action-time, Morales keeps a sharp eye on the choreography to ensure each panel raises the adrenaline, but also advances the story.  Rick Bryant’s inks are well-balanced, being heavy and light as needed to make the lines pop, and Nei Ruffino’s colors give the entire issue a Technicolor, big-picture feel.

Conclusion: Too bad this series ends with the next issue. First Wave is a good reminder of why comics ever gained popularity in the first place, and why they remain an important part of entertainment fiction.  In place of subtlety and far-reaching concepts, it takes creaky genre clichés and makes them fresh and fun for a modern audience.

Grade: A

Some Musings:

– At some point, Azzarello has to explain how the Avenger’s disguise abilities work, because they pop on as quick as Martian Manhunter.  Maybe it’s tech along the same lines as Nemesis’ from Checkmate.

– Doc Savage—secret (well, not so much) exhibitionist.  That guy loses his clothes about as quick and frequently as female characters in manga.  He’s a loincloth away from stark naked throughout this issue.  But you know what?  Power to him—down with double standards!

– Isn’t Black Canary supposed to show up at some point?  Her motorcycle will have a hard time getting on the floating city, now that it’s wandering somewhere around the Pacific.

– Doesn’t Mr. Sunlight totally look like Jesus’ evil twin—in a banging suit?

– Minhquan Nguyen