On March 3rd, DC Comics kicks off a new fictional universe built on a combination of two sturdy adventure concepts: classic pulp icons including Doc Savage and the Avenger and hardboiled superheroes from Batman to the Spirit. Or as writer Brian Azzarello put it, "The number one draw is 'Let's do a superhero book with no super powers...can we do it?' It takes the concept that superheroes grew out of: normal people in fantastic situations. This was before there were rockets from Krypton or radioactive spiders or the stuff that gave characters superhuman abilities."

The idea takes off in First Wave, a six-issue series meant to establish the new pulpy milieu for DC to spin other superhero monthlies out of. Joining Azzarello (best known for his multi award-winning crime series 100 Bullets) will be artist Rags Morales (of novelist Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis comic), and the task set in front of the creators involved telling an origin tale of sorts for a modern world still taken with pulp fixtures like towering zeppelins, glitzy speakeasies and Gatling guns. "We've taken the world and changed it a lot," Azzarello explained. "There still is uncharted territory in this world. Not everything is mapped out by satellites. Not every corner of the globe has been explored. That sense of mystery and high adventure that was the stock and trade of these stories is something I'm trying to bring back with a modern sensibility along with a kind of film noir perspective to things too.

That cross of old school style and modern story sense means rethinking several characters well known to comic readers including DC's Dark Knight and Will Eisner's masked crime fighter the Spirit. "We are establishing certain parameters for this world to operate under," says Azzarello. "There's a certain take to the Spirit. There's a certain take to Doc. There's this 'new' old version of Batman. We're establishing the way these characters behave and also the way the world behaves around them. It's fun to take a character like Batman and say, 'How would this character have gone if there was no Superman and all the other super powered characters he got tangled up with?' I've never bought into the idea that Batman would be in the Justice League of America. We're creating a world where none of these super characters exist. Doc is the top of the food chain. He's the pinnacle of humanity."

The writer admitted that making Doc Savage engaging for a new audience was part of both the draw and the challenge of the series. The so-called "Man of Bronze"¾introduced in 1933 through pulp powerhouse Street & Smith¾was licensed by DC from current owner Conde Nast. And while DC introduced their version last November in a one-shot comic featuring Batman, the character still remains lesser known by readers while loved by many comic creators Azzarello explains. "The reason he's so much more important amongst the creative community than he is amongst readers is because the creative community has taken bits and pieces of that character and reinvented them into other characters that readers are much more familiar with now. He had a Fortress of Solitude. He was a rich kid. It was all those superhero tropes that we're accustomed to now."

Azzarello recalls his own connection with the character as reading some of the pulps and comics when he was younger. "You read four or five of them, and you realize 'Whoa! These are about the same thing every time.' [But] I'm not interested in retelling any of them. You've got to bring something new to the table for this stuff to work. The same goes for the Spirit or the Avenger."

The rest of the DC "pulp universe" established in First Wave will feature characters pulled from DC's own history including motorcycle riding vixen the Black Canary and airborne military men the Blackhawks. Azzarello described his own goal of putting Batman front and center saying "Batman was something I wanted. I've got to give readers somebody that they kind of know for this market. And it's exciting to do that because you think you know him, but I don't think you're going to recognize him beyond the costume. Our Bruce Wayne is young and has got a real chip on his shoulder, but he's also really cocky. It's different from the brooding Batman we're used to seeing. "

And even before First Wave wraps, DC will expand the line of pulp heroes with monthly adventures of The Spirit and Doc Savage slated for an April start. For his part, the crime writer in Azzarello is surprised he's been called up to take the lead on the entire initiative but enjoys the adventure nonetheless. "I'm not the monthly comic guy, and I never really have been. I have a vision and I know what's going to happen in the First Wave series. I know where they'll be at the end and that I'll leave them for other people to pick up."