I didn't hate First Wave, but I didn't really like it either by the end. From the outset, things didn't seem quite right. Brian Azzarello taking some of the pulp licenses DC had and randomly throwing them together in a world that's a mixture of the past and present with maybe some non-existent future tossed in for good measure? Okay, they had me. But, as the preview material began coming out and even Azzarello was tossing around cliches like (and I'm paraphrasing from some interview he did before the series started) "Rags Morales is doing the best work of his career!" when, looking at the sketches, it was the same stuff as always. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate Morales's work. It has its place. A pulp world written by Azzarello just didn't seem it.
The Batman/Doc Savage Special comic that preceded First Wave wasn't good. When read with knowledge of the events of First Wave, it reads better. But, it's still not a good comic. Batman uses guns, but doesn't kill. Hell, does he even wound? Right from the getgo, it's the same fucking character except with a different Clark to talk down to and be a smartass around. You'd be amazed at how little making him younger and more apt to making mistakes changes the character. The only genuinely interesting scene is Bruce Wayne acting the drunk so he can piss off Doc Savage enough to get him to throw a punch. The one-shot introduced the Golden Tree as a threat and the idea that maybe Doc Savage and Batman don't hate one another. Phil Noto's art was pretty, but incapable of capturing the mood of Azzarello's writing.
First Wave itself was a clusterfuck. One of those big stories where a bunch of individuals all converge serparately on the same thing and wind up working together. There were moments where it worked. It started out intriguing enough with Doc Savage's father dead, his body being transported by the Blackhawks, the Spirit stopping the shipment... The fourth issue ended with a fantastic bit of first-person narration by Batman that's fantastic:
AT A YOUNG AGE[,] I DECIDED THAT FIGHTING CRIMINALS WOULD BE MY LIFE'S WORK. / I HAD -- HAVE -- MY REASON. / BUT AS I GET OLDER -- NOT OLD -- I'M BEGINNING TO LEARN THAT CRIMINALS AREN'T THE PROBLEM. / PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS. FOR WHATEVER REASON. / PEOPLE MAKE MISTAKES. / BUT THERE'S SOMETHING... THAT COMES TO LIGHT WITH TRUTH AT NIGHT. / THERE IS EVIL. / AND EVIL IS BIGGER THAN I AM. / I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FIGHT EVIL, BECAUSE I CAN'T HIT IT, SHOOT IT... / ...OR STOP IT. / I'M BEGINNING TO WONDER, AT THE ONSET OF WHAT I BLITHELY CALL "MY MISSION," IF I'LL BE ABLE TO BEAT IT. / IF EVIL'S WILL IS SO MUCH STRONGER THAN MINE. / AND WORSE THAN THAT... / I'M AFRAID OF IT. / OF ITS TEST OF WILLS. / "TAKE ME ON, BRUCE," EVIL SAYS. "YOU'RE GONNA LOSE." / MAYBE THAT'S ENOUGH, THOUGH... / JUST THE CHALLENGE.
But, there aren't too many moments like that to be found in First Wave. (The Avenger's soliloquy at the end of the second issue is pretty great, too. The two issue-ending bits of narration show off the planned three-issue structure that Azzarello had for this series and how Batman and the Avenger differ from one another.) It's a story that runs around in circles, eventually settling on villains that do things for completely mysterious reasons. Under the guise of 'ending war,' they do evil things that will somehow accomplish their goals. I've no idea how nor is one provided in the comic. Azzarello never gets around to the how. Just that tidal waves and bags of gold will do the job. Sounds like the old 'kill off most of the world and start anew' plot, but it's never addressed. Tonally, Azzarello's writing shifts from dark and insightful to light and nonsensical. He changes Ebony White to a woman and that does little to reform the character except make the dynamic with the Spirit weirder (and you'll note that doesn't reform the character in any way). There isn't a lot of the grit and darkness we associate with pulps. The adventure aspect never really takes off because of the convoluted and opaque threat. Rags Morales's art gets sloppier and less clean as the issues progress and buried under some glowing slick colouring.
What I did find interesting was Azzarello's take on Doc Savage, which continued over to Doc Savage #6-12. That run of issues was co-plotted with Ivan Brandon who also wrote the scripts. It tackles similar subject matter to First Wave: war. In this world, there was a long, drawn out conflict in the Middle East a few years previous that left it a wasteland of burning oil and black air. No one in, no one out. On the cover of the first issue of the run, above the logo is the phrase "WAR-TORN WASTELAND" and the plot considers mutated prophet children threatening to kill America if the blockade doesn't end, while Doc Savage goes in with his assistants/associates/whatever fancy term there is for those guys because a buddy they knew during the war (and supposedly died in the war) is in the Zone.
The use of the war intrigued me in how Azzarello constructed this world. Why the war? In blending the pulp world, which came about in the period after World War I and through World War II, with the modern world, a conflict in the Middle East made sense. A world that's used to war is the home of Doc Savage. It's where he came from and, if he's going to live in our time, the gap must be bridged. Part of what makes Savage work is that he's seen the worst in humanity and, instead of becoming a cynic and someone resigned to that reality, it spurred him on to help humanity rise above it. He's been to war and, now, fights to stop it from happening again.