I'm not entirely sure what Brian Azzarello is up to in "First Wave." The mini-series is halfway over and it's not completely clear what the plot is. There are lots of smaller plots involving the various pulp and pulpy superhero characters, but what they add up to and have in common is still a mystery for the most part. Yet, that doesn't concern me, because Azzarello is clearly weaving a web of plots that show signs of converging soon, possibly in Hidalgo. But, why and what exactly is going on haven't been explained. It's an interesting slow build as it works against expectations and how these stories are usually structured. The pacing and build feel more organic and smooth here, lacking the usual ham-fisted manner of throwing a bunch of characters together.
The pacing of the comic continues to be unique with most scenes only lasting two or three pages, with Azzarello often using an overlapping piece of dialogue to push things forward. This issue has Batman enter the story in a substantial manner, investigating the return of Clark Savage, Sr. after he, well, died. At the same time, the Spirit and Doc Savage continue their problems with the Blackhawks over cargo in their charge that the Spirit swears was the body of Savage, Sr. All of the characters seem to be dancing around the same territory, but the truth behind it all is unknown.
Since this series is meant to be a world-builder, Azzarello also devotes time and effort to making sure we get a sense of the context in which these characters are working. Before we see Batman proper, we're told of him busting up an illegal casino and learn of his methods of operation. Azzarello also plays off earlier issues well with Dolan playing the good cop at an inopportune moment that shows just how crooked he is. With such a wide range of characters and scenes, the story seems big and epic, the sort that you want from this type of book.
I've criticized colorist Nei Ruffino's work on the series before, but she isn't as overbearing in this issue, pulling back quite a bit as the issue progresses. The colors look more integrated with Rags Morales' art, especially during an action scene near the end of the issue involving Batman and Clark Savage, Sr. The colors are flatter and darker, mirroring the flattened emotional tone that the scene requires.
Morales' art is less consistent here than on previous issues, but still good. In some places, characters look abnormally cartoonish, but he absolutely nails the facial expressions of characters like Bruce Wayne, Savage, Sr., and the Blackhawks. One page where Savage, Sr. beats a man to a bloody pulp is chilling, because of the calmness that Morales communicates.
The slow build of "First Wave" is beginning to pay off despite much of the story still remaining a mystery. But, the central focus is almost apparent and the characters are all mired in interesting and intriguing stories. With half of the series over, it will be interesting to see how Azzarello pulls it all together for a satisfying payoff.