It’s probably not much of a coincidence that three of the pulp era’s most iconic characters are getting affectionate reboots in a time that bears marked similarities to the age that created them in the first place. Doc Savage and the Green Hornet both made their debuts in the 1930s, with Will Eisner’s Spirit coming along shortly afterward in 1940. Americans needed them; the radio plays, dime novels, and Sunday comic strips those characters patrolled were a welcome escape from some pretty ugly realities. They kept their heads above existential angst, they always came out on top, and it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad ones.
Stories like that are in short supply these days. Screenwriters are falling over themselves to out-grim one another, and even the Big Two are filling their pages with so-called “superhero tragedy porn.” (Have you been following what Green Arrow and Roy have gone through lately? Jeez.) It’s not bad; some of it is actually quite good. It’s just depressing. So it’s a perfect time for DC’s First Wave and Dynamite Entertainment’s Green Hornet. One is very good and one is rather forgettable, but both are fun throwbacks that revel in their pulpy roots.
By leaps and bounds, First Wave is the better of the two. Brian Azzarello’s script establishes an entirely new continuity that puts Doc Savage, the Spirit, and Batman on the same playing field. From its opening jungle chase scene to its final urban fisticuffs, First Wave #1 embraces every pulp convention it can squeeze into 30 pages. You get giant robots, mad scientists, villainous Russians, dirty cops, a masked crimefighter, and a cracking good mystery. The first issue is light on story, but strong on set-up: Doc Savage has returned home to New York City to confront the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father’s death, while the Spirit is tracking a truck with strange cargo though Central City; there’s also some eye-gouging jungle action with the aforementioned giant robot.
The heroes’ paths don’t cross yet. This issue is all about laying the groundwork for a multi-plot storyline that will play out over six issues and lead into two new ongoing series. Batman is also notably absent; after all, he tends to throw his weight around a bit, so it’s best to give Doc and the Spirit a chance to play without him for a while.
Azzarello does a bang-up job making each character his own while being true to their original creators’ visions. He has a great sense of pacing, and his dialogue has a classic film noir feel that meshes beautifully with First Wave’s pulp characters. Rags Morales’ gorgeous art, complemented by Nei Ruffino’s earthy color palette, does what good comic-book art should do: It becomes an active part of the storytelling process, rather than just illustrations that accompany the script. Morales uses body language to reveal character in every panel; classic Doc Savage villain John Sunlight exudes menace as he slouches on a park bench, and the way the Spirit clutches his fedora as he’s leaping onto a moving truck tells us more about Denny Colt than two pages of exposition ever could. The shiny new continuity makes First Wave an ideal read for someone who’s never picked up a comic book in his life, but Azzarello packs the book with sly references to and cameos from a small cadre of Golden Age characters. It’s a must-read for fans of classic pulp or vintage comic-book heroes.
Kevin Smith’s Green Hornet isn’t nearly as successful, but it still fosters a fair share of good will for its nostalgic take on newspaper publisher Britt Reid and his badass sidekick, Kato. Based on Smith’s rejected movie script, the series picks up at the end of Reid’s campaign to clean up the mean streets of Century City. After a fast-paced opener finds Reid and Kato dusting off the last of the city’s crime families, Reid hangs up the green fedora and swears off crimefighting. Fast forward a bunch of years, and it’s time for Reid’s playboy son to pick up where his dad left off. Some fans might be disappointed to see Britt Sr. pass the baton, but masked crimefighting runs in the Reid family. (In case your pulp genealogy is a little rusty, Britt Reid Sr. is the great-nephew of creator George W. Trendle’s other star do-gooder, the Lone Ranger.)
Much of the first issue falls flat, thanks to Smith’s self-conscious attempt at witty one-liners. The poorly written action sequences at the beginning don’t work at all, but the book finds its legs when it turns its attention to the characters. The exchanges between Reid and his wife about the hero’s dangerous career feel honest and candid, and the final page is a great set-up for the rest of the 10-issue series. The breakdowns by veteran artist Phil Hester make for a dynamic read, while Ivan Nunes’ candy colors evoke a wonderful sense of nostalgia. The weak link is Jonathan Lau’s pencil work, which doesn’t stand up to the book’s sometimes manic layouts and vibrant colors.