Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang reinvent the superhero team book in Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality. They use a set of forgotten characters to not only launch an imaginative adventure in which anything is possible, but they also comment coyly on the current trend of anti-history, of the tendency to ignore or attack bits that don’t slot perfectly into all-too-serious superhero continuity.
Doctor 13, paranormal investigator and professional skeptic, finds himself thrown together with the following goofy characters:
- Captain Fear, a ghost pirate who speaks in an outrageously stereotypical accent
- Andrew Bennett, better known as the emotionally tortured I… Vampire
- Genius Jones, a boy who can answer any question if given a dime
- a Nazi ape from the Primate Patrol
- Anthro, the first boy on Earth
- the ghost of JEB Stewart from the Haunted Tank
- and Infectious Lass, from the far future’s Legion of Super-Heroes.
They’re characters that demonstrate the fun and creativity found in comics, dwelling around the edges of the straightforward universe that stuffy fanboys desire. These characters (and those like them) make unbalanced fans and insecure creators uncomfortable, because they can be laughed at. Those without enough self-possession take laughing at characters in comics as laughing at comics, and when they equate themselves with their hobby, they feel laughed at too.
The story begins with warnings against the Architects, found in a prehistoric cave and the gruesome site of a plane crash. As the doctor investigates, accompanied by his daughter Traci, he begins collecting these oddballs. It’s amusing watching him react to all of them by denying their existence. His belief, that there’s nothing mystical in the world, can be just as dangerous as unquestioning acceptance, making him the one least able to cope with the eventual confrontation.
The Architects don’t believe these characters need to exist, you see. And they’re willing to enter the story to make sure they don’t. Unfortunately, their alter egos are already out of date, since they’re drawn behind the masks of the characters they (at the time) were reinventing, coincidentally four of DC’s biggest heroes: Superman (Geoff Johns), Batman (Grant Morrison), Wonder Woman (Greg Rucka), and the Flash (Mark Waid).
Given how quickly things change, only two of the associations are still relevant. But that’s one of the themes of the story: the only constant is change, and trying to make a fictional world exactly the way you want it is a fool’s game, because there are too many other people and their creations involved. And no matter what, once printed, the comics still exist.
Aside from all that, Traci’s a breakout character. Even without her own wacky concept, she stands out for her passion and love of life. For instance, when she’s untied after being kidnapped, she rips up her gown to make a headband to keep her hair out of her eyes. She’s smart and she keeps it together, and it’s a pleasant change to see a competent female hero who’s not undercut by being treated as eye candy. Given a chance to query Genius, she asks “why are we here?” His response:
Because the architects don’t believe we need to exist. …
[They’re] the ones who decide who’s who and who isn’t. They are the official guides to the universe. When it was decided that one fashioned by the architects that preceded them didn’t make cents…
…they knocked the old one down and built a new one. This is the fourth time it’s happened— in this universe.
There’s another universe that these architects are at war with. One that reinvents itself every summer— so “things will never be the same again,” it claims.
Those familiar with certain kinds of superhero comics will recognize the phrases as indicative of big events and editorial-driven crossovers. This review talks more about that aspect.
I can’t say enough about Chiang’s art. It’s masterful in capturing action and amazement. The lines are clean and the characters distinctive. His realism in movement and expression give it all plausibility (thus undercutting Doctor 13 in another way). He’s able to capture likenesses when necessary and provide the requested artistic allusions. Overall, this is a triumph from Azzarello and Chiang, an involving story that takes the refreshingly big-picture view that “this too shall pass”.
The “architects” are just the writers of ’52,’ actually. Greg was off WONDER WOMAN by that time, and Mark wasn’t back on FLASH yet.
I enjoyed the book, and thought it made good points — though I agree that pointing at those four guys as people who want to discard the goofy and charming aspects of DC history is a missed shot in service of a surface gag.
I also have to note the mild irony of a story that makes an impassioned case for “history is what happened, not what changes you make” that ignores the history of the characters it uses to make the argument and changes them — to name just two: Anthro was a human-looking Cro-Mag, not an apelike Neanderthal, and Captain Fear never talked like that before — so it winds up making the same kind of casual alteration in service of telling the story the writer wants to tell rather than getting the history right that the story’s criticizing. The main difference being, I expect, that Brian doesn’t want to try to make everyone who follows him use his particular changes; he’s just doing it because it’s funny.
And what the hell, it was a dizzyingly fun adventure, and it makes a solid argument for something, which is unusual right there.