The Doc Savage DC comics could have been a series like the Marvel comics adaptation before it in the 70s, which started off adapting famous Doc novels into comic form, and then told original stories in the same vein.They used this formula just fine with Conan the Barbarian, which started with adaptations and then told original stories.
But instead, under Dennis O'Neil and the Kuberts, DC decided to do something more bizarre and unique: they decided to have Doc and his allies age in real time, and advance the timeline to modern day. It was the exact same idea as John Byrne's Superman/Batman: Generations Elseworlds story, where the two famous heroes started in 1939, aged in real time, found wives, and had children and grandchildren who continued their legacies.
The end result is that Doc Savage acquired a dynamism that was really lacking in the novels, which had a status quo like a sitcom. In the O'Neil/Kubert mini, one of his Five was a traitor. Doc got married (Monk and Ham didn't, but I guess they didn't change that dumb law yet). Doc's grandson fought evil, as did Pat's granddaughter. And most importantly, new characters were added as allies…including a woman.
Not only did Denny decide to advance the timeline, he also decided to make another very surprising creative decision: he wanted to actively question and deal with some of the contradictions in Doc Savage, which the books themselves conspicuously overlooked.
And then there was Doc's Crime College. Everyone who reads Doc today universally agrees the idea of a place where bad guys are either operated on to lose their memories, or retrained psychologically to hate crime (exactly what the Crime College did was vague and the hints varied depending on the novel) is pretty creepy and sinister. To modern readers, the Crime College sounds like either brainwashing, or a lobotomy, or both. So, why not do a story that deals with that head on?
In fact, that's a big problem with Doc's new allies, with the exception of Doc's grandson: they can be entirely encapsulated by single word. Hillbilly. Woman. Russian.
Finally, the book makes mention of the fact that it's kind of creepy how the aides do whatever Doc says and don't think for themselves. This is obviously due to their trust, but it is off-putting, and when confronted with that, Monk has a "blue-screen" moment.
The Doc Savage Family Tree
Besides, she kinda reminds people of Dejah Thoris from Barsoom, doesn't she?
This reminds me of nothing quite so much as how, in the 1960s, Superman had a lot of "Imaginary Stories" where he did things like get married, die, or reform Lex Luthor. Eventually, the same scenarios came up over and over to the point Imaginary Stories had a kind of weird counter-canon even the actual stories considered the default trajectory of events. Every Imaginary Story made practically the same assumptions, like Clark Kent would replace Perry White as editor of the Planet after Perry White retires. Rokyn was first mentioned in an Imaginary Story as the place the bottled city of Kandor was enlarged on, before Kandor was enlarged there in "reality."
The SF Elements
His plots all seemed like they were originally meant for Fantastic Four: Doc Savage finds a crashed UFO (interesting, as Doc debunked UFOs in 1946, when they were called Foo Fighters), with a transporter that sends him away for years. In one story, new character Shoshonna Gold is revealed to be a psychic getting mental emanations from the Moon, where aliens are creating war waves. Doc has to head to the Moon in a rocketship to stop them. Along the way, a robot sentry left by the aliens tries to capture Doc's grandson (could that be more FF?).
Phase II – The Mike W. Barr Years
I feel sorry for poor Mike W. Barr. You can tell the guy wanted to write Doc but was saddled with a vision he didn't quite understand. He's an old hero and SF pulp aficionado usually given the job of working on licensed properties. During his work on Green Lantern, he slipped in Lensman references, introducing characters named Arisia and Eddore.
I don't think Barr ever warmed up to O'Neil's unique take, and I can't help but feel he was baffled by the whole thing. First chance he got, Mike W. Barr brought back classic Doc Savage elements. He set a story around the Valley of the Vanished, and in what might be the high point of the comic, had John Sunlight return to life thanks to the formula in Resurrection Day.
Let me go out on a limb here: Mike W. Barr's "flashback" issues set in the 30s might just be the most faithful take on Doc Savage, including the PJF stuff.
Why did nobody like it?
Well, it didn't help it was introduced to the world by what might be the most misleading house ad ever:
In no sense is this ad true. Doc isn't a detective, he doesn't look different.
Personally, I didn't like these comics when I first read them. It was too different from what I was expecting, which was a more traditional Doc adaptation – something it only became near the end.
That said, I liked it more on rereading it once I got over the experience of it being something totally different. It's like somebody handing you a coke and telling you it's a milkshake.
That said, I don't know if I'd really want to see any more in this timeline. None of the new characters are all that memorable, not Woman, Russian, or Hillbilly. The SF elements were so out of place I expected to see Kirby machines.
Worse, the O'Neil run didn't commit to its ideas, so it wasn't even a good Watchmen-like subversive take. If you're going to explore the morality of the Crime College, make a statement on it, instead of just using it as the backdrop to a thriller plot. That's the trouble with this incarnation of Doc Savage: it was too traditional to be subversive, and too subversive to be traditional. It had an identity crisis. The series toyed with some serious ideas but didn't commit to them. It figured just mentioning them is enough, and you've done your job. Monk is disturbed by the idea he might just be Doc's puppet? Have him change or make a decision about that, don't just have a scene where that's brought up!
The only interesting dynamic was Doc's pacifist son, but that's because he was the one subversive idea O'Neil gave some payoff.
The Mike W. Barr stories come recommended. Especially the John Sunlight arc at #11-14, and the flashback story starting at #19.
- I understand coloring in four color "dot" printing is often imprecise…but why does Doc have the same skin color as Adam Warlock?
- I take it back, the Russian member of Doc's crew was pretty cool. He was a hairy weirdo, but he was a Doc Savage fanboy that wanted to be just like him. I find it hilarious that, like Rasputin, he's irresistible to women despite not getting a haircut or shaving.
- The later drawings, incidentally, come the closest to how I've always visualized the character in my head.
- The Air Lord arc starting in #18 is one of the few times Doc fights a true supervillain. Somehow, it feels right.