Saturday, February 8, 2014

Can Doc Savage be Adapted to Comics? Or to Anything?

I've been looking forward to Dynamite Entertainment's new comic book adaptation of Doc Savage ever since I heard about it through Comic Shop News last fall. Not because I was particularly impressed with any of the preview art, or even the Alex Ross faux-James Bama covers, but because of this very question: Can Doc Savage be adapted to comics? Or to anything?

I was first exposed to Doc Savage with Marvel Comics' Doc Savage #1 with the cover date of October, 1972. This was the second month for me as a Marvel reader (the September 1972 cover date, probably June or July in reality, still holding a nigh-cosmic significance in my life experience), and the first #1 issue of a comic book series I ever bought, thus an unforgettable milestone. It was a weird experience: a crimefighter who was not a super-powered costumed character, set in the Depression era, and adapted from another medium, books. I immediately latched onto several of the Bantam Books paperbacks, themselves reprints of something from the past called pulps, and within months had also sent away for Steranko's History of Comics volume I, which included a chapter called "The Bloody Pulps," positing the even stranger thesis that the comic book artform had evolved out of pulp fiction (still problematic in my mind), with a lengthy passage on Lester Dent's (the real name of the pseduonymous author Kenneth Robeson) Doc Savage adventures. Later, I bought Bantam's 1976 edition of Philip José Farmer's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, an even weirder experience. (This mind-blowing tome suggested, among other things, that Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes, among others, were all real and in fact related to one another through something called the Wold-Newton family tree.) Lastly, I recall Marvel's Doc Savage magazine by Doug Moench, John Buscema, and Tony DeZuniga, perhaps the best adaptation of Doc Savage ever done (peremptorily answering my own question on one level, that yes, Doc Savage can be adapted to comics, at least in longer-format chunks), in any case more satisfying than the Steve Englehart and Ross Andru version of 1972.

To make a long story short, I was nearly as much a Doc Savage fan, for a certain portion of my teenage years, as I was a Marvel fan, and at least as much as I was a fan of Jeff Rice's Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, and Martin Caidin's The Six-Million Dollar Man. While I can't say that I've read more than twenty of the 181 "supersagas," I've read Farmer's Gnostic history of The Man of Bronze at least a dozen times, and pondered the impracticalities (to say nothing of the social implications) of the Wold-Newton Universe.

To make a short story even shorter, I don't think the new Dynamite version is very good. Let me be clear that my purpose is not to pick on writer Chris Roberson (who after all boasts three editions of Farmer's Apocalyptic Life in his library) or newcomer artist Bilquis Evely, for whom this is clearly a labor of love. Let me further state that I could never imagine performing the research on all the Art Deco necessary to pull off an even passable period adaptation of Doc Savage.

In any case, the first two issues are far from satisfying. I can't imagine anyone other than a diehard Savage fan being at all interested in this project. In each, a complete, original "supersaga" is presented, telescoped into something barely as long as your average movie trailer. The Savage supersagas were known for there outlandishly improbably and inexhaustible twists and turns, if not intellectual complexity; here they are simplified into brief glimpses of icon Savage locales: the Empire State Building, the Fortress of Solitude, the Crime College. In these two installments, the nemeses turns out to a be lone nut jobs with ham radios who are easily dispensed with a few punches, hardly the Johnny Sunlight-caliber evil-doers who could keep Doc and his fabulous five at bay for at least a hundred prose pages. Further, it is often difficult to tell Doc apart from his fabulous five aides, since this adaptation has forgone the dark bronze complexion, has chosen to integrate both the Clark Gable loose hair and James Bama widow's peak, and not even shown him in a torn shirt (except for the Ross covers), or even the 1972 Marvel blue vest.

On the other hand, I will say that there does come across, even in these absurdly truncated exploits, a certain egalitarian camaraderie among Doc and his five aides that is quite enjoyable, reminiscent perhaps more of Buckaroo Banzai than the Doc stories proper, or of any of Doc's artistic progeny (James Bond, Indiana Jones, Jor El -- all of whom I at least tend to think of as loners). And Ms. Evely's art, although indecisive when it comes to depicting the male characters (they all wear suits and are about the same stature, with even Monk blending into the crowd), her art really comes alive when she is drawing that butch-femme dynamo Pat Savage. Pat, Doc's proto-feminist metrosexual sister, is seen in jodhurs and unbuttoned safari shirt that, while not torn to shreds, recalls the iconography of the Bama covers associated with Doc more vividly and convincingly than even the Ross covers (the first of which fetishize the shreds into a kind of swirling whirlwind of flames--a kind of divine transfiguration). One is tempted to say just to forget the traced skyscrapers and cardboard male characters altogether, and let Evely draw Pat kicking ass for 17 pages an issue. And let the shirt get torn to shreds. I would buy it.*

"Do these jodhpurs make my thighs look fat?" More problematic is the shirt, clearly made of more durable fabric than those of her clothing-optional cousin. Bilquis Evely's art comes (Tarzan!) alive when she draws Pat Savage, from the Dynamite adaptation.

It is too soon to tell where Roberson (not to say Robeson) is going with his multi-decade story arc (if you can call these fleeting episodes stories at all). It seems clear that Doc and Pat are the only ones who will not age (although whether this is the result of Doc's pharmacological ingenuity or of immortal chromosomes mutated by the Wold-Newton meteor remain to be seen), while Monk, Ham, and the other three (who were never very discernible anyway) are slated to die off, to be replaced by next-gen whiz kids. Frankly, I would prefer to see the comics adapters attempt a "rattling good story" faithful to the original time period rather than a meta-discursus on the post-Street and Smith narrative (with its obsession of integrating the various hair-eras of Doc with Farmer's Gnostic history of pulplit). Needless to say, the only creative idea that Marvel and DC have been able to come up with these past few decades have been these kinds of Talmudic exegesis on continuity rather than creative storylines, and this is hardly in the spirit of the American comic book. Neither is it in the spirit of Doc or the pulps.

On the other hand, it just may be that Doc is too plainclothes, too cerebral (after a fashion), too literary a property to be properly adapted to such a visual medium as comics (the George Pal and Ron Ely film version not offering much a rebuttal on behalf of film). I have always felt, since the time I was enjoying various entertainment in media in my teen years, that certain ideas lent themselves to certain artforms better than other, and that adaptation for the sake of spin-off licensing always involved either radical alteration or sheer loss of the charm and magic of the idea in its native form. Doc Savage was best in prose; Planet of the Apes (as it was transformed by Rod Serling and others) best in film; superheroes (prior to big-budget special effects in the late 1970s and cgi since) in comics, and so on. Since Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, however, we've all gotten used to the idea that properties that can be more than just merchandising bonanzas but actually artistically successful on multiple platforms while at the same time faithful to their original conceptions. But I'm still not convinced this is now a universal law, hence my continued interest in the Dynamite Doc Savage as it unfolds. Can Doc Savage be adapted to comics? Or to anything? To my mind, the jury is still out.

More art from the Dynamite adaptation and an interview with Chris Roberson @ Between the Covers.

* Let's be honest, I would draw it. Jenny Woodlore, the female protagonist from my series Border Worlds, had her origins in an eroticized drawing I made in high school of a brunette in a Bamaesque torn shirt and jodhpurs--not exactly Pat Savage, but close enough. Such is the power of that curious motif over one young (now middle-aged) male imagination.

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