It's difficult to retain enthusiasm for a comic that's plagued by schedule difficulties and has that lateness also show in the final product. As this series has progressed, Rags Morales' art has progressively, inch by inch, little by little, become rougher and less what it looked like at the beginning of the series. So far, the drop in quality hasn't hurt the comic too much, but, in this issue, it's very noticeable and, coupled with the weakest script of the series thus far, "First Wave" #5 is the low point in what was meant to be the center of the launch of this pulp-oriented line for DC.
Azzarello effectively raises the stakes in this issue with many of the heroes falling to the Golden Tree. There's a genuine sense that the bad guys might win this one. It's rare that a comic give off that feeling since we're so programmed to assume that the heroes will win out in the end. By systematically having the Golden Tree neutralize the heroes, the story has a lot of tension going into the final issue. Plus, the idea of a crazed, half-dead Doc Savage on the loose, just waiting to screw up the Golden Tree's plans is a good cliffhanger.
Part of Brian Azzarello's approach to constructing this story was to have the various pulp heroes live through their own stories, all of which seem to converge in some way with the main plot. This is a smart way to sidestep the usual 'something bad happens and all of the heroes come together to fight it as a united force' structure. It's also allowed him to play off the differing levels of legality and morality that the characters adhere to. The Blackhawks, for example, are out and out mercenaries, while Doc Savage is more your traditional squeaky clean hero. The problem with this approach is that, by the second-last issue, things need to begin to cohere in a convincing manner and that hasn't happened. The writing, though ostensibly focused on the actions of the Golden Tree, comes off as scattershot, characters all running around doing their own thing without any hint that their separate actions mean anything in relation to one another.
Part of the incoherence in the issue is Morales' messy, unfinished art. Normally, his line work is more precise, but, here, it's just a mess of lines that make pages look cluttered and difficult to read. Instead of losing lines, the art here seems to have even more than usual, done in a fainter style that looks like inker Rick Bryant wasn't streamlining the art as much, leaving some pencil work for colorist Nei Ruffino. The colors don't help, offering shiny computer work for the rough style leads to a flat, muddled page instead of the added depth that that style of coloring supposedly brings to the art.
One page, where a half-naked Doc Savage takes down a couple of guards, the basic layout is strong, but the composition and execution is just awful. Savage appears half-finished and doesn't actually look like the character; the only indication that it's him is context. Less the 'Man of Bronze,' the colors make him look like the 'Man of Uneven Cheap Tanning.'
"First Wave" #5 is the worst issue of the series yet and doesn't engender much hope for the finale, especially if the art manages to deteriorate even more by then. Hopefully, Azzarello's writing can pull the various plot strands together for a satisfying conclusion.