John Sunlight’s appearance in DC Comics’ First Wave event of 2010 was iconoclastic indeed. The whole series had lofty goals of redefining pulp and comic book heroes into a format that could stimulate interest among readers in the millennial world — in retrospect, it didn’t fully succeed in creating a revolution in heroic literature, but it gave it a hell of a try.
Sunlight himself bore enough resemblance to the classic pulp character to remain recognizable, but his portrayal in this series was also enigmatic in the extreme.
As portrayed by author Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales, he was a menacing, eccentric intellectual, par excellence. But he appeared in the story so infrequently he seemed like a ghostly presence. Nevertheless, when he took center stage it was weirdly riveting. He did not appear in the second issue of the 6-issue limited series at all, and only on one page in the third issue. But what an appearance…
Sunlight was introduced hanging out on a park bench at Coney Island in the opening chapter of the story, seemingly inhabiting a psychological world of his own. In his single appearance in First Wave #3, he takes even that characterization up a notch, as without explanation, he strips off his clothes and leaps into the Coney Island surf, philosophizing about the nature of grand ambition.
This was both bizarre and brilliant…and had First Wave fully embraced this kind of quirky sophistication in its storytelling in anything like a consistent manner, it might really have shaken up the world of pulp storytelling.
However, it does pull back, mixing periodic innovation with relapses into pulp/comic book tropes. While Sunlight lurks somewhere in the background, the crowd of heroes in the story (including Doc Savage, Batman, The Avenger, the Blackhawks, The Spirit, and Rima the Jungle Girl) hurtle through a chaotic plot. The parade of story elements and landslide of characters chewed up a lot of space…though there would be a few notable pauses and digressions that elevated those characters at least briefly before succumbing to runaway-train styles of action.
Sunlight would not return until later in the series, still apparently the man in charge of every villainous twist and turn of the story. He appears on a video screen (like the portrait image above) giving orders to a much less interesting sub-villain, while conducting some distinctly horrible experiments of his own.
A number of the heroes — among them Richard Benson (The Avenger) and some of Doc’s aides — have meanwhile successfully tracked Sunlight to his clandestine medical facility, and crash his horrifying party, only to find they were expected.
With matters under control, Sunlight returns to his role as a video presence, shadowing Doc Savage by voice as Doc struggles against various pulpish menaces inside of a technological mini-city created by the story’s sub-villain.
The action (literally) swamps the story while Sunlight continues his shadowy background presence, culminating in a scene where the techno-city floods, with voice-over by Sunlight as he — pretty calmly — accepts the collapse of his plans, muses a little on lost opportunities, and proposes a toast to his now-dead underlings.
The action winding down, Sunlight — much to the shock of his prisoners — simply lets them go. Before departing, he muses a bit more on the nature of good and evil, right and wrong. But no more conflict is forthcoming. A rather remarkable conclusion to an often bombastic pulp/comic book narrative.
Sunlight’s powerful mystique had been captured in a truly unique manner. But he would not appear again in the individual First Wave stories that would follow this introductory tale. Given that those stories were wildly inconsistent as to quality, perhaps that’s just as well.
It was a tantalizing glimpse of what pulp villainy had the potential to evolve into. Mysterious, nuanced, sophisticated…and alas, ever so brief.
Next…an intriguing pastiche of John Sunlight in a series that also had a sneaky appearance of Doc, Monk and Ham in an earlier adventure…and a complete about-face as years pass, the Doc Savage story license shifts to another publishing company, and John Sunlight devolves to the closest he will ever come to a stereotypical comic book super-villain.