Saturday, July 20, 2013

Doc Savage Reviews: the 1987-1990 DC Comics

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.

For instance, Doc and his gang were staunch humanitarians, but how could they reconcile that with the fact they got into fights for fun and used heaping helpings of violence to solve their problems? A character of Doc Savage's grandson was added just to ask a pretty pointed question I've sometimes wondered: do Doc and the gang go on adventures out of a desire to help mankind...or because it's fun to beat people up? To his credit, Chip Savage isn’t just a buzzkill drag all the time. The story makes you respect him as a person of principle. He acts as the group conscience, and Doc listens to him and adjusts his strategies accordingly.

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?

And then there was some of the implied attitudes of Doc and the group that would come into conflict with the modern world. For instance, the urge to protect women and keep them out of the group, and getting past national rivalries that were white-hot in Doc and the group's time. To that end, one of Doc's new allies was a Russian, and another  was a woman.

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.

In short, the book tries to be a more low-key version of Watchmen to Doc Savage. It was too "different."

The Doc Savage Family Tree

The decision to make Princess Monja from the Valley of the Vanished secretly Doc's wife was a no-brainer. Everyone seems to do that! It makes sense, though: she was one of the few women to show up more than once. She had a take charge attitude that marked her as different from the usual girl. Besides, it's interesting how PJF's speculations had more impact on the perception of the character than the actual content of the original novels did.

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."

Doc Savage's son with Monja was a neurotic who couldn't hope to live up to the standards of his legendary father, who ultimately lost his mind because he lived his life in a big shadow, and truthfully, was also a bit of a dick. Okay…does this remind anybody else of Dr. Venture from Venture Bros?

The SF Elements

Here's the first big problem: I don't think O'Neil quite understood a Doc Savage story was not quite the same thing as a Fantastic Four story.

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?).

That may work for an FF story, which was often about expeditions that find weird alien machines, and the solution is to the problem is figuring out the aliens don't understand humans or the damage they're doing. When the situation is explained, the aliens eventually leave, as they mean us no harm. But Doc Savage was about emphasizing plausibility. There are no real aliens or psychic powers, only mysteries with rational explanations.

The worldview of Doc Savage stories is fundamentally skeptical. Even the more far out things in Doc Savage usually were believable at the time of writing: in the 1930s, a dinosaur island was just at the limit of possibility, and based on sound real, current science about closed off/island ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the one place I would forgive a fantasy element – a cell treatment to keep Doc's gang in fighting trim – turned out to be a fake. This had the unfortunate side effect of leaving the original five mostly non-combatant. After fighting aliens on the moon making wars with mind waves, who dissolved when brought to earth…they pick THIS story to play the skeptic card?

Phase II – The Mike W. Barr Years

Mike W. Barr took over Doc Savage after Denny O'Neil left, which constituted a dramatic lurch in the direction of the series to something more traditional, eventually ending in exclusively "flashback" stories to the 1930s. If O'Neil's take is New Coke, then Mike W. Barr is Coke Classic.

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.

John Sunlight's return in #11-14 is easily the best part of this series. It is identical to the only Conan the Barbarian novel written by the original author: "The Hour of the Dragon." It's about a conspiracy bringing a mummy back to life to use as their puppet, but the mummy turns out to be smarter and more manipulative than the people who wanted to use him, and turns the table on them, creating an even more threatening menace than before. It's a downright chilling moment to see the Devil Genghis restored.

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.

People usually read comic adaptations to recapture the enjoyment they had experiencing the original. This was a lot more important back in the day, when there was no VCR and movies infrequently played on television. Comics were how you got a "movie experience" when one wasn't playing. For instance, Bob Hope had a comic book that did well. It made sense to do one around Bob Hope, who had a reliable comic persona (an uncharitable person would say he played the same guy in every movie). The only modern comedian with a similar "brand" would be Adam Sandler. The comics replicated the experience of the usual Bob Hope movie, from his travel to his hound dog womanizing. In short, you read the comic version because you liked what it was based on and wanted to see some more.

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 O'Neil/Kubert tales are a misfire, but it misfires in a very unique way (this is the difference between a failure and a fiasco – a fiasco is failing with style). Recommended, if you're curious, but know what you're in for.

The Mike W. Barr stories come recommended. Especially the John Sunlight arc at #11-14, and the flashback story starting at #19.

Final Thoughts

  • 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. 


David said...

You're a brave soul to have read this stuff the first time, much less go back to it again.

As someone who has no special devotion to Doc -- indeed I find him probably the least compelling of all the big-name pulp heroes -- I still thought this material was lame, not because it "broke formula" but because bad comics are bad comics, full stop

If I learned anything from it, it's that Doc will never work outside of his original time period. Or at least not in the hands of someone as faux-literary and fun-challenged as O'Neill. Interestingly, I thoroughly enjoyed Helfer and Baker's Shadow, even though that also brought a 30s hero forward in time, and threw in one heretical twist after another from there. The last issue had him as a severed head (with slouch hat still intact) attached to a rock-em, sock-em robot, for pity's sake. And I loved every minute of it.

Julian Perez said...

Well, like I said, I didn't think it was abysmal at all when I read it the second time, it just seemed like it didn't entirely commit to either being a traditional take, or a Watchmen-like subversive one emphasizing not taking at face value things like, say, the iffy, morally questionable Crime College.

What's interesting is, I just read George R.R. Martin's superhero Wild Cards novels. They had characters swear, have sex, and even die, but it never called into question any assumption about superheroes. There were costumes, when people with powers showed up the world was very superheroic, and so on.

Anonymous said...

Like David wrote, you deserve combat pay for reading these old comic books.

Ravage said...

At the time, there was a dearth of Doc Savage material. I was excited to see Doc live again in all these incarnations. I could never bring myself to believe that one of Doc's mighty five could ever betray him, though. That stuck in my craw for a LONG time.

Anonymous said...

Just reread the Silver Pyramid miniseries and yes, the Long Tom betrayal is absolutely batshit (O'Neil said it's because he saw Doc as a Judas figure). Otherwise, they're much more readable than I remember (like you I was shocked by the direction) though yes, the questions about violence are skin-deep (when you've got a maniac plotting to wipe out the human race is hardly the time to debate the use of fisticuffs).

Malcolm said...

Over the years I've developed a great fondness for this run of DC comics, though at the time it appeared I was immensely conflicted about it. O'Neil's effort to explore conflicting philosophies and the psychology of "heroism", as well as his attempt to add interesting elements to the supporting cast seemed well-intentioned. Though an uneasy mix, I find myself enjoying it more with each re-reading. The SF plots have failed to grow on me, however, and the visual depiction of Doc's aides was little short of horrifying.

As for Barr, I welcomed his take on the series when he took over -- I thought he struck an excellent balance in his first stories (Mind Molder, Golden God and Sunlight Rising) with the classic elements of Doc lore and the modern setting. Though killing Monja was deplorable! An exploration of their married life would have been fascinating. Nevertheless, I had a letter published on one of the Shadow crossover issues that lauded Barr's work. However, what he did well (the more appropriate plots and story devices) was where O'Neil failed, and Barr to my mind failed at what O'Neil did well -- the supporting cast under Barr became empty and wooden.

Ah well. Your look at these comics was very enjoyable. Thanks for taking me back.

Doc Savage said...

Nah, it's crap

Unknown said...

The misleading advertisement has a backstory.

As I understand it, originally Denny O'Neil intended to do a funky story where Doc's brain gets transplanted into a native american body or some such... The license holders were apparently appalled and vetoed the idea after the ad was already scheduled to go out.