Saturday, 16 January 2016

Doctor Thirteen: Architecture And Mortality (Tales of The Unexpected [2006] #1-8)

"So sue me.  It's just that other peoples troubles right now can't compare to mine" - Doctor 13

So it's time to get meta.  Really, really meta.  Like Grant Morrison times a hundred, which is an apt comparison as Morrison himself makes an appearance in this comic. Yes this comic breaks the fourth wall.  In fact it doesn't just break it, it smashes it to pieces and catapaults the fragments into the sun.  This is nothing more or less than Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang having some gentle fun with the state of the DCU post Infinite Crisis and the four "architects" of it - Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid who were collaborating on a huge weekly maxiseries called "52" as well as writing the company's top characters. Azzarello and Chiang use a gaggle of weird and wonderful characters to do their commentary with in a story that ran as a back-up to a Spectre miniseries, Tales Of The Unexpected. The star is Doctor Thirteen who is an old DCU character. Debuting in 1951 he is a living irony. A professional sceptic and debunker who lives in a world where magic is real, fantastical creatures and aliens walk amongst humans and gods most definitely exist.  He was killed off in the Zatanna mini of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers crossover event but one assumes (and it is heavily hinted to be so) it was the changes to the DCU in the wake of Infinite Crisis that bought him back to life in the DC "reality".  A nerdy point to be concerned with maybe, but because this is a story of DC characters living on the fringes of the shared universe and forced into a situation where they must justify their continued existence in it, it becomes an important one.  Who decides who makes the cut?  The architects of those grand repurposing events and the new status quos they bring about of course! So this is a gleefully tongue-in-cheek tale by Azzarello, and the art by Cliff Chiang is absolutely gorgeous.  It has an almost pop art sensibility about it and manages to easily keep pace with the frenetic inventiveness of the postmodern script. Let the silliness begin.

It starts with a prologue showing prehistoric creatures fighting.  It apologises for starting with one, "a rather sophomoric attempt at giving said story an importance it just lacks." Yeah, it's gonna be that kind of book, you have been warned.  The prologue finishes with a caveman character called "Anthro" daubing the cave walls with "Prenez Garde Aux Architectes".
Doctor 13
Doctor 13 then introduces himself listing all the things he doesn't believe in.  Especially not ghosts, but he finds himself holding onto one dressed as a Buccaneer (Captain Fear) and shouting "don't die!".

But that's not for a while now, in the present he is having a dream.  He is on a tropical beach with a young boy called Genius Jones who'll answer any question for a dime.  Before he can ask one, his daughter Traci wakes him up telling them there is a call for him.  It is an old school acquaintence who used to refer to him as "Le septic" which he reasoned was French for "The Skeptic."  His friend wants him to investigate some strange goings on in the French Alps so he and Traci travel out there.

Once there they investigate a downed plane.  Apparently the survivors took to cannibalism to survive.

Doctor 13: "According to the survivors about once a week one of them would disappear.  Afew days later, they would find the person... headless, skinned, gutted and bled dry.  Butchered."

He says it was a story to save the soul.  "Which doesn't exist by the way" while Traci rolls her eyes having heard this all before.  Traci asks if they crashed in a plane would he eat her.  Doctor 13 doesn't answer, he just notes the survivors said the monsters responsible are "architects".  But they can't be because monsters don't exist.
Doc 13 with his daughter Traci.
Suddenly a Yeti rears up in front of Traci.  Doctor 13 says there is no such thing, it's a hoax.  So it has unnatural strength, "so do junkies gooped up on gop."  He approaches it and it grabs and starts to throttle him, revealing a human underneath the costume.  It is Andrew Bennett from "I Vampire."

We get another flash forward to Captain Fear "dying" in Doctor 13's arms.  A mystery woman comes up to him and says "our fearful quest is done."  He then wakes in a cave, Traci says he fainted, Doctor 13 insists he just passed out.  Standing close by is Bennett.  Traci ignores him and points to the French cave graffiti.

Doctor 13 reasons that because French is a relatively modern language it can't have been done by cavemen. "Beware The Architects" Bennett says with a flourish, before introducing himself as a four hundred year old vampire.

Doctor 13: "You goths sometimes take your role playing games a bit too far."
Andrew Bennett.
Bennett snarls at him and shows his fangs.  Doctor 13 tells Traci to watch out, he doesn't believe in vampires but he does believe in crazy people.  After a short argument about how many times Bennett has died, in which Doctor 13 likens him to a cat sarcastically.  Traci wanders off while they bicker.  Then Doctor 13 hears her scream and rushes outside to look for her and gets punched in the head by a furry arm with a swastika armband on it.

He finds himself back on the tropical beach with Genius Jones.  He gives him a dime and asks him where he is.

Jones: "In a dream.  It's a safe place to be because reality isn't real.  A wrecking ball as big as the universe has destroyed it.  It's being rebuilt again.  Without you in it this time."

Doctor 13 gives him another dime and asks how he knows all this.  Genius Jones simply says he is very smart.

Back in the Alps, Doctor 13 wakes up and asks Bennett to come help him.  Bennett says he can't leave the cave because of the sun.  "You really are delusional" says Doctor 13.  Bennett asks him to explain the large footprints leading away from them, Doctor 13 crouches to examine them, then brushes the snow away to reveal he frozen body of Anthro the caveman. As he ponders that this "could really be something" a pirate ship appears floating in the air behind him.
Some serious denial here.
We jump forwards to Doctor 13 on the prow of the ghost ship.  "None of this is happening" he repeats to himself, before yelling it.  Captain Fear, who is in charge of the ship has also been joined by Bennett now it is dark and the still frozen in a slab of ice body of Anthro.  It seems Doctor 13 told Captain Fear the direction Traci had been taken in leads to gold.

They sail over the mountains to a jungle, which is an odd thing to find in the middle of the Alps.  There they also discover a Nazi compound where Traci has been tied up by talking Nazi gorillas.  One of them fires a rocket at the ship, but it passes harmlessly through.  Captain Fear jumps down to battle their leader who introduces them as "das Primate Patrol!"
Talking Nazi gorillas of course. Captain Fear goes on the offensive.
Another gorilla fires a machine gun through the ship and riddles Bennett with bullets, although that doesn't really affect him.  As the battle continues, Doctor 13 insists to himself this isn't real, he must be dreaming.

Doctor 13: "This is just my brain dredging something embarrassing up from my past.  Blood-suckers, freebooters - architects; metaphors.  That's the way the brain works when the eyes are closed."

He says to himself he needs someone to pinch him as he balances on the melting iceblock containing Anthro.  Anthro is able to give him a pinch and in surprise Doctor 13 falls off the ship and lands by Traci.  Gesticulating with a banana, he says she can relax because this isn't happening.

Then Genius Jones appears and waves at them.  Traci grumbles that she hopes it is she who is dreaming.  Then a ghost Confederate General on horseback leaps into the compound and introduces himself as "James Ewell Brown Stuart" and he will "not stand idly by whilst the virtue of a young lady is assailed."  Doctor 13 still insists none of this is happening and gets hit in the face by some ghost horsecrap. "A metaphor!" grins Traci.

The Haunted Tank also turns up to help out and a huge fight ensues.  Doctor 13 unties Traci and admits to all the strange things that are happening before he says "I have no idea what's going on!".  The ghost general advises Doctor 13 to get Traci somewhere safe.  A Nazi gorrilla tries to stop them going into one of the buildings, but Anthro - now fully thawed out - attacks him.  Traci thinks Anthro is kinda sexy.
Genius Jones.
Doctor 13 seeks out Genius Jones and offers him a whole dollar to answer his question.  Jones says he wants a dime, or ten dimes.  "I can't help you.. if you won't give me a dime" he says apologetically.  The Nazi gorrilla's leader appears and holds them at gunpoint while he tells them his story.  He was captured by the Germans and trained along with many others to be super-soldiers.

Doctor 13: "Hmm.  I suppose that's just as plausible as doping a scrawny four-f milktoast with steroids and vita rays."

The Leader goes on to say that after one skirmish they were abandoned by the Reich.  He then asks Traci if he would like to create the Master Race with him. She is understandably grossed out.  Doctor 13 stands protectively in front of her and the Nazi gorilla suddenly vomits all over him.  Then Infectious Lass from The League Of Substitute Heroes appears, she used her power to give him an upset stomach and take him down.
Infectious Lass to the rescue.
In walks a bullet hole ridden Bennett who says "thank the heavens you and your daughter are safe."  This turn of phrase irritates Doctor 13 and he snaps:

Doctor 13: "Sure, why not?  Thank the heavens, thank the hells, thank the purgatories... and lets not forget the limbos where the little babies are.  But let's not thank you!"

The Nazi Gorilla recovers enough to see their statue of Hitler part destroyed and poking out of the ground and kneeling cries, "Got damn you awl to hell!"

Then Captain Fear holds a sword to Doctor 13's throat saying the Doctor lied about there being gold here.  Doctor 13 admits there is no gold, "they took something even more precious.  My only daughter."  Traci rolls her eyes again.  The ghost General tells Captain Fear to leave Doctor 13 alone.  Captain Fear calls him a yankee which enrages him and the General and the Captain begin to fight.
Ghost fight!
Infectious Lass says that in the future they learned that team-ups always start with people on the same side having a fight first.  Doctor 13 goes sifting through the wreckage looking for dimes, because he saw men at the door before with a handful of them.  The mention of silver gets the Captains attention and he stops fighting.  They all find some dimes and have questions to ask.

Infectious Lass asks Genius Jones his name, which he finally gives them.  He says he was shipwrecked on a desert island with every book in the world.  He read them all and now knows everything.  Infectious Lass tells him she used to be in The Legion Of Superheroes, but got demoted to the Substitute Legion because her power was thought to be not that good.
A titanic team-up!
Captain Fear asks if there is any gold.  Jones answers in the negative.  Traci then asks "why are we here?"  Doctor 13 says that question has no answer but Jones responds:

Jones: "Because the Architects don't believe we need to exist."

The General hands over a dime and asks who the Architects are.  Jones says they are the ones who decide "who's who and who isn't."

Jones: "They are the official guides to the universe.  When it was decided that the old one fashioned by the architects that preceeded them didn't make enough cents.  They knocked the old one down and built a new one.  This is the fourth time it's happened."

He then goes on to say that there is another universe this one is at war with.  One that reinvents itself each summer and promises "'nothing will ever be the same again'".  Marvel's universe obviously.

Doctor 13 decides it's time to find and confront these Architects.  He will go with Bennett to look for them, the rest will stay on the ship.  Doctor 13 discover the Nazi gorilla leader is still alive and let him join them on their quest.  They find a hole with a ladder in it, but before they can descend, Mount Rushmore attacks the floating ship.
Love the attempt to portray Grant Morrison's accent.
Leaving the ship fighting Rushmore, Doctor 13, Bennett and the Gorilla descend into the hole and arrive on some train tracks.  Bennett gets splattered by a train.  Back at the Rushmore fight, the General and the Haunted Tank join in.  They hit it several times, but Traci wonders if a mountain can be hurt.  The mountain says it can't then starts to remould its face into those of the Architects.

Although he has been squished flat, Bennett is still alive/undead.  He just needs some blood to help repair himself.  Doctor 13 refuses, but the gorilla offers himself up, he also finally introduces himself as Julius.  The Architects meanwhile, grab the ship and says to those aboard, "nothing personal, but we never loved you. Sorry".  Then Traci uses magic to conjure up a huge sheet that covers the Architects and they crumble away.  The gang look at her in shock.

Traci: "Um.. don't tell my dad I did that OK?"

Doctor 13, the recovered Bennett and the now vampire Julius arrive at Times Square station. Doctor 13 goes up to the surface to check and see if it's still daylight on behalf of the vampires.  He comes out to a deserted and surreal landscape where all the buildings have been replaced by giant clocks.  "It's safe" he says.
Literally "Times" Square.
The pirate ship comes sailing underwater then into the sky to look for Doctor 13.  Meanwhile he is with the two vampires exploring further and they come across a man running a find-the-lady card scam.  Julius wants to play, but Doctor 13 says the game is rigged.  The man then flicks the pack of cards at them revealing images of all the major DCU characters on them.

On the ship, Infectious Lass tries to think of a way to use her power to find Doctor 13.  She then slumps and says "my power sucks", but Captain Fear comforts her and love hearts blossom between them.  Jones says Traci could use her magic powers but she says if her dad found out "he'd ground me forever!".  Infectious Lass says she shouldn't deny who she is.  So Traci casts a spell and all the buildings point in the direction they should go.

The man running the card game and the three spectators stand revealed as the four Architects, each wearing a mask of the main character they were writing at the time (Grant Morrison as Batman, Geoff Johns as Superman, Greg Rucka as Wonder Woman and Mark Waid as The Flash).  Doctor 13 wants to know how he can be talking with them if he doesn't exist.  One of the responds that Doctor 13 talks to his companions but doesn't think they are real. Doctor 13 says he merely questions who they are.
Meeting the Architects.
The Architects say they need to "reinvigorate" the stories because if nobody buys it, the universe ceases to exist.  They say they have some use for Doctor 13 and his companions.  They debated about keeping the Nazi gorilla, but when he became a vampire as well, they definitely still wanted him.  Though he needs a name change to something like "Primaul".  They tell Bennett that as a normal vampire he isn't interesting enough, "I'm.. I'm really gay!" says Bennett desperately.  The Architects say to Doctor 13 they can save his daughter.

But then the pirate ship swoops into view, the Architects attack it with a green light which crashes the ship and turns Captain Fear into a withered corpse who crumbles to dust in Doctor 13 arms as we saw at the start of this adventure.  Genius Jones says they are all doomed now, but standing outside the Daily Planet building, Doctor 13 resolutely says "the only way we are history is over my dead body."
Travelling to the final battle.
All of them bar Julius/Primaul cram into the Daily Planet's lift and go on up.  At the top they are attacked by a horde of empty costumes.

Traci: "It's an army of costumes!  What would you call that?!"

Jones: "A 'war' drobe."

Groan.  They all get wrapped up tight, but Infectious Lass infects them with moths and the costumes disintegrate.  Primaul appears and the Architects order him to grab Traci and he does so, flying her up to the floating platform they are on.

Doctor 13 wants their reassurance that Traci has a place in their new universe.  One of them responds that "one thing this meaningless story has accomplished was giving Traci 13 a new lease on life."  Doctor 13 says she is the "only thing I believe in".  One of the Architects surrounds Doctor 13 and his companions in a circle of flame saying they are no longer a part of this universe.

Doctor 13: "Let me tell you something about the universe, as someone who's gotten used to being ignored by it for a long time.  We.. meaning vampires, cavemen, dead - now really dead - pirates, civil war spectres, precocious little boys and - unfortunately - girls who can give you diseases... we all have a place in it!"

He asks why they are doing this.  They say because the future of the universe is at stake.  Doctor 13 says to Genius Jones that there were architects before these ones, so there will be more afterwards too.

Doctor 13: "You don't believe in me? Big deal!  With better reason I don't believe in you!"
The Architects are foiled.
And he walks through the flames.  A whirlwind starts to swallow the architects up, while Primaul swoops in and rescues Traci.  As they are swallowed up one of the Architects says Doctor 13's steadfast denial destroyed them.  "But your story will end!  No matter what happens to us everyone's does!."

They leave behind a comic with Anthro on the cover.  Traci hugs her dad and says he is cool. Doctor 13 knocks a button which runs some footage of Captain Fear encased in a huge bar of chocolate being handed over to Black Manta.  They all decide to make their next quest a mission to rescue him.  As they gather in the lift, Doctor 13 frantically leafs through the comic.  "The architects were right!  Our story.. my story.. this story!"  and as the lift door closes he yells "STOP!" he turns to the reader and says "our lives are at stake! Please! Don't turn the pa-"
Seriously DC, why wasn't this team given their own comic?
And that brings this glorious romp to a close.  I have to say, if you're not massively steeped in DC lore both recent and of the past, much of this story will go over your head.  But the writing is smart and funny, Doctor 13 has many internal monologues about the nature of belief and his personal history that are funny even without the postmodern context so it's not totally unnapproachable for newbs.  And the art is so, so good.  Clean, simple linework that somehow manages to be extremely expressive at the same time.  The central premise which is how a fictional character might feel upon being written out of continuity during a linewide reboot is a compelling one and it also contrasts the gleeful daftness of the older characters with a modern comic universes desire to be more "relevant".  Perhaps my one quibble would be that Grant Morrison loves that kind of crazy shit, he's the man who put Tawky Tawny in another linewide crossover for goodness sake.  That said he also killed off Doctor 13 so maybe that balances things out.  If you're a DC fan and enjoy meta-commentary this is a truly enjoyable book, if you aren't you should probably give it a miss.  I love it!


  1. LMAO!! I wonder what Grant Morrison (and the others) thought about being made the baddies? also I agree the art is amazing and fun, what a mad comic!

  2. I'm sure Morrison and the rest were tickled by it, don't forget Morrison "existed" as a character in the DCU prior to this (he wrote himself into the climax of his run on Animal Man, then another writer killed him off in a different series!). Ah meta, such fun.

  3. What the hootin' heck is Grant Morrison's accent supposed to be?!?

    Is that how Americans think we talk?

  4. To be fair, Grant Morrison has a VERY thick accent. Still funny though :D