Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Review: Dr 13 – Architecture & Mortality


Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 1 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 1, DC Comics, December 2006, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 2 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 2, DC Comics, January 2007, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 3 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 3, DC Comics, February 2007, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 4 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 4, DC Comics, March 2007, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 5 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 5, DC Comics, April 2007, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 6 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 6, DC Comics, May 2007

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 7 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 7, DC Comics, June 2007, US$3.99

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 8 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), 16 pages of strip, in Tales of the Unexpected issue 8, DC Comics, July 2007, US$3.99


Dr 13: Architecture & Mortality is a hymn to the unfettered imagination, with a crabbed rationalist as soloist.



Dr Terrence Thirteen, “the Ghost Breaker” was created back in 1951. He investigated supposedly supernatural occurrences and exposed them as frauds with the relentlessness of Scooby-Doo and his gang of meddling kids. But, as with Scooby, the stories began in time to allow the supernatural to become real.

Starting in 1969, Dr Thirteen became a guest character in the adventures of The Phantom Stranger. In his solo stories, he was the hero, debunking superstition and deception. In The Phantom Stranger, he was a blind fool, providing specious rationalisations for events that we, the readers, were clearly shown to be paranormal. This set the pattern for his later appearances in the DC Universe. What respect could be accorded to a man who believed only in science, in physics and mechanics, in a world occupied by Dr Fate, and Zatanna, and the Spectre – and Superman, for that matter?



At first, Architecture & Mortality seems to be heading in the same direction. Dr Thirteen is made to seem more and more ridiculous as he encounters some obscure and outré characters from the corners of the DC Universe – Andrew Bennett from I, Vampire, Anthro the cave boy, the pirate Captain Fear (now a ghost), the Primate Patrol (Nazi gorillas), omniscient boy Genius Jones, the Haunted Tank, and Infectious Lass from the Legion of Substitute Heroes. His every pompous pronouncement is immediately undermined. He faints, runs out of money, is splattered with ape vomit and phantom horse-dung.



But gradually, it becomes clear that these are not random encounters. The characters are being brought together by the four Architects – thinly-veiled versions of Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid, the writers of DC’s year-long weekly series 52 - who have been charged with rebuilding the universe, leaving no place for this group of oddballs.



The ending denies the Architects power to define the continuity definitively: the DC Universe has been revised before, and will be again. So long as there are stories to be told about them, even the daftest characters will survive. And even when there are no new stories, the old ones exist to be re-read and rediscovered.

In the very way he tells the story, Azzarello takes as far as he can this argument for following imagination wherever it will go, regardless of the rules laid down by editorial directive or even narrative logic. Architecture and Mortality throws in all sorts of unconnected ideas on the grounds, we must assume, that they seemed like fun at the time. Funky Flashman as a car dealer, selling used Batmobiles? In it goes. A group of characters spontaneously quoting “The Theme from The Thomas Crown Affair”? Fine. Want to show Dr Thirteen’s daughter Traci emulating Lucy van Pelt? Why not?



It doesn’t all work. Some of the jokes fall flat (particularly the attempts to fit the phrase “I, Vampire” into the conversation). I have already posted about why I think the heavy use of quasi-phonetic spelling for accents is a bad idea. I think it is deliberate that the anecdotes with which Dr Thirteen introduces each chapter are leadenly told – he is a man with no imaginative flair – but it does become a little wearing. But this is to carp. There are so many shafts of whimsy and humour shining on every page, that these shadows can easily be overlooked.

This exuberantly erratic story is grounded by Cliff Chiang’s art. Pitching his style somewhere between Curt Swan and Edgar Jacobs, Chiang is particularly impressive in his figure work and expressive faces. Unlike so many comics artists, this is someone who knows how bodies fit together, how clothes hang, and how expressions form.



His weakness comes when forced to deal with larger scenes. Sometimes, as here, the various elements of his composition don’t hang together, but float separately in space.


But it’s still a striking image and, throughout, we never lose our understanding of what is going on.

Overall, Dr 13: Architecture & Mortality is a whimsical delight with a serious - and sensible - point to make about comics. I’m not sure how often this trick could be repeated before growing stale, but I’m glad to have seen it at least this once.

For its initial publication, Dr 13 was hidden in the back of the double-feature comic book Tales of the Unexpected, behind the muddled, nasty and unreadably ugly version of The Spectre which hogged the covers. Fortunately, DC has announced plans to release Dr 13 as a trade paperback in September, at which point there will be no remaining excuse to ignore it.


Covers and Panels

Cropped version of the cover for the paperback collection of Dr 13: Architecture & Mortality, art by Cliff Chiang, DC Comics (taken from Comic Book Resources)

Star Spangled Comics issue 122, art by Leonard Starr, DC Comics, November 1951 (scan taken from The Grand Comics Database)

Other panels from the comics under review.

1 comment:

RAB said...

The whole concept of empiricism or skepticism as an intellectual position has been thoroughly misrepresented in popular culture, with the tacit encouragement of anyone who has a vested interest in seeing people remain confused about science and logic and reason. I can't count the number of scenes in movies and television shows I've seen where the "skeptic" says something like "I don't want to believe this can possibly be true" in spite of all evidence...when denying actual evidence is pretty much the opposite of skepticism. "Skeptic" is not the same as "Holocaust denier," you know?

"Architecture and Morality" still shows that basic confusion, but at the same time it kind of sort of finds a way that a skeptic might operate in a universe where aliens and the paranormal are demonstrably real. Dr. Thirteen's defining trait, ultimately, is that he doesn't accept something simply because someone else tells him it's true. If a writer who really understood skepticism -- perhaps a CSICOP member, or at least a reader of The Skeptical Inquirer -- could take that and run with it, we might be getting somewhere:

"You say you're an angel from Heaven, Mr. Zauriel...but we've seen Thanagarian policemen fly around with wings like yours, and there are plenty of telepaths around. How do we know you're not a Thanagarian con man preying on the gullible by claiming to be an angel, or a telepath projecting an illusion?" Or "This merchant claims to offer homeopathic doses of Kryptonite ore at one million dollars an ounce that will cure all Earthly diseases, but watch as Superman ingests a whole spoonful of this so-called Kryptonite to no ill effect. Any lab can tell you there isn't a trace of Kryptonite in this stuff, and even if there were it doesn't cure diseases anyway." Or "Just because Doctor Polaris can bend spoons with his magnetic powers doesn't mean Uri Geller can do the same thing."