Review: Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, December 05, 2011

[A new guest review from Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

After spending several months immersed in the magic mirror of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, it's time to take a page from the book of Monty Python and declare, "And now for something completely different." In the wake of Doctor 13 and his daughter Traci's role in Flashpoint: The World of Flashpoint (an event which I followed in single issues, because the way it was to be collected hadn't been made clear then), and with Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang reuniting on Wonder Woman in the New 52, I knew all I needed to know before adding Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality to the list for my weekly visit to my LCS.

With the DCnU now upon us, the book is strikingly relevant when it explores characters left behind, but for a book that's all about meta-commentary on continuity it's surprisingly (and perhaps disappointingly) self-contained.

[Contains spoilers]

The good Doctor 13 has been having some strange dreams -- a caveman warning him about "The Architects," a boy genius in Superman pajamas charging a dime for answers, and a ghost pirate dying in the doctor's arms -- but none of these rattles Doctor 13's trademark skepticism (although a bizarre seduction dream involving his daughter Traci seems to do the trick). While investigating a plane crash in the French Alps, Doctor 13 and Traci are attacked by a yeti, who reveals himself to be I, Vampire in disguise. After calling a truce with the vamprie (although denying his claims to vampirism), Doctor 13 soon finds himself caught up in a bizarre alliance with a "Who's Who" (pun intended) of forgotten DC Universe characters, including Anthro (the caveman of the doctor's dreams), Genius Jones (the boy of his dreams), Captain Fear, and Infectious Lass.

This misfit group runs headlong into the Primate Patrol, a settlement of Nazi-experimented gorillas, before demanding answers from The Architects, godlike beings who know exactly how the universe works and who bear striking resemblances to DC's then-Big Four (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid; DC published the Doctor 13 series as a backup to the post-Infinite Crisis miniseries Tales of the Unexpected at about the same time as the popular weekly series 52).

To spoil the fact that this is a metafictional adventure Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality is to spoil a bit of the fun of reading the book, but it's also one of the only ways that this book can be marketed, it seems. Try getting someone to pick up a Doctor 13 comic, and you'll likely find blank stares (check the sales for The World of Flashpoint if you think the 13s can headline a book). But tell them it's a metafictional romp through the detritus of the DC Universe, and any continuity-hound worth his or her salt will be rushing toward this book with fond memories of Animal Man and other fourth-wall-shattering comics like Final Crisis (the red skies throughout Doctor 13 simply must be a reference to the crossover that would follow).

But the other meta-texts mentioned above have one thing in common -- they were all written by Grant Morrison. Indeed, Brian Azzarello seems like an unlikely choice for a comic about comics; granted, I'm not familiar with his entire oeuvre, but I had trouble remembering that this is the same guy who out-grittied Frank Miller with Batman: Broken City and penned the darkly hardboiled (yet marvelous) 100 Bullets. But Azzarello shows significant depth as a writer here, because at no point does Doctor 13 feel like a writer experimenting out of his comfort zone. Instead, Doctor 13 is appropriately playful, an attitude helped by artist Cliff Chiang's masterfully cartoonish yet fantastically fashionable figures.

To Chiang's credit, each of the characters in Doctor 13 has a vibrant look and a spot-on wardrobe choice that both instantly identifies and quickly defines that character. The slightly campy Captain Fear is dressed in an over-the-top Halloween pirate costume, and Count Julius (alias Pryemaul) the Nazi vampire gorilla has several "variant" outfits that reflect his allegiances to either the undead or the Third Reich.

Yet it's with the spunky yet sexy Traci 13 that Chiang really shines. Traci 13, the plucky daughter of our skeptical protagonist, is never misdrawn in a panel but rather has the perfect facial expression for the situation, as well as a dynamite selection of clothing that slinks in all the right places -- but never gratuitously. Chiang knows that Traci 13 isn't simply eye candy, and to his credit he never treats her as such. Instead, his work is reminiscent of Amanda Conner, who made a name by treating Power Girl as a character instead of as cleavage with superpowers; both Conner and Chiang are masters at faces and conveying emotion and personality without resorting to stock supermodel poses. Chiang's work was a delightful surprise for me, enough even to commit me to following his career for life. [Ditto -- loved Chiang's work on issues collected in Green Arrow/Black Canary: The Wedding Album and never looked back -- ed.]

The draw to this volume, though, was the aforementioned "continuity hound" drive. I'm a huge fan of metafiction, which explains half the reason I have the Tiny Titans trades on my pull list. (The other half? It's just too much well-done fun to turn down.) All this Morrison-love in my blood has conditioned me to appreciate continuity and insider references, and Doctor 13 doesn't disappoint there.

The major crises get a shout-out, and when the Big Four show up wearing the masks of the DC characters with whom they're associated (Morrison wearing Batman, Waid wearing The Flash, etc) it's difficult for long-time readers not to feel that little thrill. But for those selfsame continuity hounds who love the carefree collision of continuity and creativity, it's similarly difficult not to feel let down when Doctor 13 alludes to a sequel -- "Team 13 in The Quest for Fear!" -- which never (to date) came to pass.

In fact, considering the appearance of the Doctor and his daughter in Flashpoint, the stage would have been set for a Team 13 book in September 2011. But alas, the continuity-phobic atmosphere of (most of) the New 52 had no room for metafiction, and the Azzarello/Chiang team moved on to reinvent Wonder Woman (which, in single issues, has been a real treat). So what we have here is a one-off, appropriate for the genre of metafiction. And really, where else could the series have gone? It's only a matter of time before Ambush Bug arrived, and . . . well, hey, that's not such a bad idea after all.

As it stands, Doctor 13 is a fun volume which portends greater significance than it actually lives up to, but it's also a pleasant reminder of the old 52 and the joys of continuity. But beyond all that, Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality is a well-told story with vivaciously delightful visuals and an unexpected sense of humor.

[Don't miss Zach's insightful look into Grant Morrison's complete Invisibles series. New reviews coming up!]
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1 comment:

  1. I picked this up a couple of years ago at the recommendation of my friend Hix - he's never been wrong on a recommendation yet, for which I have been thankful many times - and found it to be an absolute delight. There are some fabulous lines and themes, from memory. Highly recommended.

    Great review, Zach !

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