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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Panel Vision - Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality

Edited by Robert Beach 

Well, May is almost over. The thermometer is headed skyward, and blockbuster movies are hitting the multiplex. It all adds up to one thing: Summer is officially here. For comic nerds, the arrival of Summer is more or less synonymous with the arrival of event comics, the massive cross-universe stories smashing heroes together and reshaping  continuity as we know it for about 9 months till the next one.  

Obnoxious and overused as they are, event comics are basically just a force of nature in comics, which makes our relationship with them a little complicated. While endless retcons and shock deaths are certainly tedious staples of the event comic, fans have become so inundated with them we’ve come to appreciate the subtle differences between garbage event books like Fear Itself and the at least interesting ones like Secret Wars (2015). 

For DC, their event comic this year is called DC Rebirth, a universe-reshaping retcon comic that’s already been spoiled. However, I’m not here to discuss those spoilers, but rather a sister comic to DC Rebirth. The actual plot of DC Rebirth is all about what happens to heroes who’ve been rendered non-canon by the events of a reality-reshaping crisis, a concept that was also explored by one of the greatest comics of all time Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality, by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. 

A little background is needed before diving into the amazingness of this comic. I’m betting most readers have never heard of Dr. Thirteen, and there’s a very good reason for that; he’s an extremely obscure DC character. That’s part of the point of the comic, but we’ll get back to that in a book.  Doctor Terry Thirteen was originally part of the supporting cast on another one of my all-time favorite comics Phantom Stranger.  
Phantom Stranger was one of DC’s experimental ‘70s comics, a weird blend of wandering street mage, Twilight Zone-style ironic horror comic, and cosmic weirdness. The titular Dr. Thirteen was  Phantom Stranger's best frenemy, a professional skeptic who specialized in debunking the supernatural stuffing that served as the Phantom Stranger’s stock and trade. It’s a weird idea for a DC comics character to be a professional skeptic. It makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that in a world where ghosts, magic, aliens, and time travel are all parts of daily life, hoaxes would be infinitely easier to pull off. 

The obvious problem with a character like Dr. Thirteen is he didn’t just disbelieve some things. He didn’t believe in any of DC’s crazy concepts. As far as Terry Thirteen was concerned, everything from Superman to Zatanna was some form of hoax. This has always made him a difficult character to slot into the DC universe, though he’d at least been present in previous pages. In the wake of DC’s 2005 event comic Infinite Crisis, it was decided Dr. Thirteen wasn’t going to be canon anymore. He was gone from the DC universe. Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is the story of what happened after that decision was made. 

That’s the central, brilliant conceit of the comic: what happens to characters once they’ve been retconned out of existence?  The answer is they go on an incredibly surreal spirit journey to square off against the architects of all reality. The surrealist and meta aesthetics of Doctor 13 mean the story doesn’t really have a chartable path in the standard sense so much as it’s a series of tableaus that flow from one to another. 

That’s also partially due to the story being originally published as a short back-up feature in the pages of Tales of the Unexpected. The cramped space and soft narrative structure all make Architecture & Mortality a thoroughly dream-like experience, emphasizing emotion and a bizarre philosophical cosmology more than plot points and action beats. And yet, what the book lacks in strict story it more than makes up for in character, both figuratively and literally. 

Even though Doctor 13’s name is on the cover, the book is brimming with incredible and obscure DC characters; some characters have even gotten lucky enough to return to prominence in recent years. Folks like Anthro, the first boy on Earth, who was prominently featured in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis and I...Vampire (Editor's Note: an actual character name). 
I...Vampire had his own comic in the new 52, and he was the stand-out obscure character in DC's New 52 as much more well-known figures like Captain Fear, the Primate Platoon, Genius Jones, or Infectious Las got forgotten. All of these characters already existed in some previous DC comic, but they are revived here as part of the story’s focus on characters rendered non-canon, struggling to maintain their own sense of validity and existence in a universe that insists they don’t have a place in thing anymore. 

Incidentally, the obscurity of the characters is a big reason why I love this comic so much. This is one of those things about being really big into any given mythos or medium; you end up a lot more invested in the references and minutia of it, so anything that acts as a shout out to stuff you know tends to inspire a lot more love. In that regard, Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality was tailor made for me to love it. Thankfully, obscure references aren’t the only thing it’s bringing to the table.

As I mentioned, Architecture & Mortality has its mind on the question of what happens to fictional characters removed from existence and its feet firmly planted in the zone of surrealist meditation. This means the story isn’t driven by point-to-point logic so much as a weird emotional freefall. Scenes and stories bleed into one another rather than resolving, and the story always spirals downward towards the big meta-concepts. If you’re looking for clean logic and basic mechanics, you’ve come to the wrong comic. 

Characters just appear out of the ether to interact with our leads with stuff like ghost pirates, Nazi gorillas, and living mountains just sauntering into panel without much fanfare or explanation. It’s all part of the attitude that, well, this is all fictional anyway, so why worry about the hows and whys of what’s happening? It’s a very bizarre approach. An approach that fits the incredibly meta-tone of the comics, especially once the book finds its true direction with the introduction of the architects. 

The Architects are the latest in a long line of great characters in the tradition of authors sticking themselves and their editors into a comic. This goes all the way back to the Silver Age where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were shut out of the Fantastic Four’s wedding and the Flash once met his own editor Julius Schwartz. In the case of The Architects, they’re a curious 4-some representative of the 4 major DC writers of the moment: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid. 

This is basically the comics way of letting the character interact directly with the writers who are trying to remove them from continuity as well as acknowledging the fluidic nature of the DC universe and continuity overall. It’s a big, tricky, meta-concept that works like gangbusters here. An externalization of one of the most fundamental struggles of humanity: relevance without compromise. 

That’s the essential battle at the heart of Architecture & Mortality and the sneaky reason Doctor Thirteen was the perfect main character for this story. The entire comic is about what happens when the universe decides you don’t belong anywhere. If it just ignores you hard enough, you’ll just go away. That’s exactly the place Dr. Thirteen has always had in the DC universe. He's the lone voice of dissent in a universe that could not be more uninvolved with his skepticism and denials. 

The only way he could understand and enter the in-continuity universe or have the meta, real-world universe to care about him and his story is to change his most fundamental identity. That’s the dichotomy of Dr. Thirteen and his entire band of forgotten curiosities and leftover oddities: to exchange their identity for relevance or persist in their true colors and be banished from the future.  That whole concept of not fitting into the universe’s structure and ending up banished from the future is the core of the comic as well as the explanation for its title: Architecture & Mortality. 

What I love so much about Architecture & Mortality is how much it vindicates and revels in aspects of the comic book medium that are so often the subject of distaste and derision. Retcons, goofy Silver Age concepts, and decade-long, cross-genre continuity are the crux of what makes Architecture & Mortality work as a story. You simply couldn’t tell this story about purpose, identity, death, immortality, and God in a medium that didn’t utilize these aspects.  Even more than all of that, I love that Architecture & Mortality is an excellent surrealist comedy. 

This entire meta set-up has been explored plenty of times before such as in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Ultra Comics or Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader. But the idea of approaching death and continuity with comedy touch, actively mocking the ridiculousness of their own existence and the continuity obsession of fans and creators. 

Far too often, comedy is overlooked as an avenue to say something genuine and meaningful. Here’s Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality willing to stand up and say that the only true form of immortality and meaning comes from defining your own purpose and existing in the memories of everyone else because all things must eventually end. And Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality does it all with a wink and smile, unafraid to put the COMIC back into comic books.  

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