MINI-SERIES REVIEWS...

#1 - coverDoc Savage

(1987-1988 - 4 issues, DC Comics)

Script: Dennis O'Neil. Art: Adam & Andy Kubert.

Doc Savage was one of the iconic figures of the Pulp Magazine era of the 1930s and 1940s (probably just behind The Shadow). Getting embroiled in various outlandish and bizarre adventures, Doc led a team of eccentric agents and though not technically "super" he was as close to that as possible, being super-humanly strong but, also, a brilliant scientist and noble philanthropist. And it's perhaps hard to over-estimate his influence on later adventure heroes (especially in comics) including Superman (Doc's first name was "Clark" and he had an Arctic fortress of solitude), The Fantastic Four, and he was essentially the main inspiration for the cinematic spoof, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

Yet despite the pulp magazines being such seminal inspirations for later movies, TV, and comic books themselves (even giving us a label: pulp fiction) like The Shadow, Doc Savage has had only sporadic revivals in other mediums (although paperback reprints of his pulp stories have enjoyed success over the years). Sporadic -- but they have been attempted.

This mini-series from DC Comics came at a time when DC was also reviving The Shadow for another comic book series. It's written by Denny O'Neil who was, perhaps, chomping at the bit to tackle it. At least, O'Neil has written before about his love of pulps and he was DC's point man during an earlier pulp hero revival in the 1970s, writing comics of both The Shadow and Justice, Inc. But he didn't get to do Doc Savage because it was Marvel, not DC, that had the 1970s rights to the so-called Man of Bronze.

Anyway, for this 1987 series O'Neil was also presumably under editorial edict to up-date and revamp the property. The more period faithful 1970s pulp comics hadn't proven too successful, and so DC's 1980s Shadow revival had up-dated the character, engendering controversy along the way (eventually so much so, according to some reports, the licenser eventually stepped in). But this story doesn't fully break from its roots, either, crafting a multi-generational saga.

It begins in the 1940s, with Doc and his men tracking down a Nazi war criminal engaged in mysterious experiments in a South American jungle -- a mission that results in Doc seeming disintegrated. Then the story jumps ahead decades, Doc's aging men attempting to keep his legacy alive through two generations of Savage off springs. Time jumps not fully convincing when 20 years after Doc's "death" his men are still acting as though they are at loose ends, without direction in their lives. Anyway, hearing reports the ex-Nazi has escaped custody and is back up to no good, Doc's men set out to track him down and eventually reunite with a still-young Doc who (as the reader can guess) wasn't killed.

It's a reasonably enjoyable adventure, nicely illustrated by the Kubert brothers who at this point are in full homage to their father, legendary artist Joe Kubert, for an atmospheric visual look. O'Neil clearly knows his Doc Savage lore, but as mentioned, was presumably trying not to be too shackled to it, while also bringing his own usual preoccupations to the series -- with mixed results.

For one thing, he takes it more seriously than the original material did. That's the interesting thing about Doc Savage and maybe why reprints continued to be successful when others, even The Shadow, weren't. The old stories had a kind of modernist vibe of not taking themselves too seriously, without sliding fully into camp or parody. They were light-hearted, even tongue-in-cheek, with plenty of wisecracks and banter. But O'Neil approaches it a bit more sombrely (as the plot, naturally, would warrant) and with even his attempts at humorous bickering not that successful (or just seeming insulting!) As well, the characters are a bit of an anonymous bunch. Granted, that was true of the original stories (where one character's personality was basically defined by his use of big words) and why the main character focus settled on Monk and Ham as the central sidekicks, with their combative love-hate relationship. But even here Monk and Ham don't make much impression -- well, Monk does, I suppose, but not in an endearing way. Perhaps the fact that the story never really separates the team, allowing them to function as individuals, adds to this sense of anonymity.

It's also funny the visual redesign. In the old stories Monk was supposed to be ugly, even ape-like (in contrast to his intellect -- and maybe another example of the pulp stories influencing later characters, like The X-Men's Beast). Yet here he's just drawn as a portly man.

While the plot itself can seem a bit bland. I know, I know -- ex-Nazis? South American hide-outs? Disintegration? Alien technology? How can that be bland? But it's more an indication of just what sort of yarns the old pulps churned out that they make this story seem a bit bland. Or at least, the execution. O'Neil clearly wants to bring a little more gravitas to the proceedings -- which is certainly welcome -- but he may have sacrificed some of the rollicking, movie serial-like flavour.

I mentioned O'Neil brings some of his "usual preoccupations" and so there are plenty of digressions about violence and pacifism, as Doc's modern-day grandson, who has inherited Doc's looks and aptitudes, nonetheless criticizes Savage's men as being "barbarians" in love with violence. O'Neil often seemed conflicted, not just about his chosen profession (an action-adventure writer) but about violence in general, but never really seemed to come to any satisfying conclusions. He would have characters criticize violence, or the violence used by heroes -- even as he was often one of the worst practitioners (in my mind) of writing comics that relied on violence for the sake of violence. If you're uncomfortable writing violent super hero comics, then figure out how to write non-violent super hero comics. Instead O'Neil often wrote stories with heroes beating people up -- then simply added in a secondary character criticizing the violence.

So here we have Savage's grandson criticizing the methods of Docs men even as no alternative is really being proposed. Which, admittedly, was presumably O'Neil's point. To simply acknowledge the ethical ambiguity.

Still, I'm not sure Doc Savage is necessarily the ideal forum for "serious" discussions about force and pacifism, both given the Doc Savage pulps were unusually sensitive to that anyway (Doc's men using tranquilizer darts and sleeping gas) and, as mentioned, the fact that the stories themselves were more just light-hearted escapist romps.

Of course part of this may also reflect the Alan Moore school of revisionism, wherein Old School properties are revived but given a cynical, modern spin -- though with O'Neil not willing to go as far as Moore and his kind would've. But certainly scenes where Savage's grandson accuse the old gang as being less altruistic heroes and simply thugs who used altruism as an excuse to exercise their violent tendencies can be viewed in that context.

It's ironic that one of the aspects of the old stories that should really raise eye brows today -- Doc engaging in brain surgery on criminals to erase their criminal tendencies -- is here cited as an example of one of Savage's "noble" deeds!

Ultimately this is certainly an okay page-turner, thanks in no small part to the moody, Kubert-esque art. But it does lack that sense of "fun" one associates with the old stories without fully pulling off the more serious, thoughtful direction it heads into. And without really making any of the characters (old or new) that compelling. Still, as I say, it's enjoyable enough and must have been successful enough that it spawned a monthly comic that ran a couple of years.

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