Saturday, July 12, 2014

Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Afterlife (and Somewhat Problematic Comic Book)

This continuous traveling through a Savage land enabled me to see what I might otherwise have missed. The Savage supersagas are apocalyptic.
Philip José Farmer, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life

I have already commented on the first two issues of Dynamite’s Doc Savage adaptation by Chris Roberson and Bilquis Evely, in which I questioned whether the property could be adapted to any other medium; now I have seven of the eight issues in hand, and I will comment on this particular effort as constructively as I can. I will start with the covers by Alex Ross, which emulate those of James Bama, one of the great paperback illustrators of all time, whose covers graced most of the Doc Savage covers through the late 70s, as well as countless westerns, and at least the first memorable James Blish Star Trek adaptation. I will then proceed to the story and interior art.

For the most part, Ross’s Bamaesque painted covers hew to the James Bama formula for the Bantam paperbacks of the 60s and 70s. Stylistically, they are all recognizably rendered in Ross’s Ross’s trademark watercolor technique, which comes as close as humanly possible to mimicking Bama’s oils (perhaps a 9 out of 10); had they been reduced to paperback size the effect might have been greater still. As it is, however, at comic book size there is a certain roughness and sharpness to the technique that cannot be overcome (watercolor demands a certain spontaneity that cannot be overworked), and so they look like watercolors trying to be oil paintings. Compositionally, the better covers (that is to say, those that most effectively emulate Bama) show the single figure of Doc facing some seemingly insurmountable menace.

Among the weaker covers, from the standpoint of evoking Bama, are covers #1 and #8, which compress time in a mosaic of images, or depart from the Bama formula in some other way. The second cover, one of the stronger ones, completely fetishizes Doc’s trademark torn shirt, transforming it into a swirling, flame-like maelstrom. Here Ross is at his most insightful, as he makes explicit in almost parodically the underlying metaphorical function it served in so many Bama covers, not as a literal shredded garment, utterly superfluous in its failure to protect or to conceal, but as a motif of lightning-like energy clinging to a superbly well-developed physique. The third cover shows a nuclear explosion, an apocalyptic situation about which Doc can do little, and therefore a bit more fatalistic than the Bama formula would ever allow. The fourth shows Doc carrying a young Brit punk to safety from a burning field of oil wells while splashing through puddles of spilt crude, the generational juxtaposition presumably providing the interest, but coming off more like a typical Don Pendleton Executioner cover. The fifth cover features Doc in a Sterankoesque pose as a Skylab-like orbiting satellite destroys the earth as if it were Krypton (again, like the nuke cover, a theme that would have been a little too fatalistic for a Bama cover). The seventh cover successfully evokes the cool color schemes often done to such success by Bama, but features a rather a weak crowd composition that is reminiscent of some of the weaker covers that graced the Bantam paperbacks by either Bama or other artists.

The sixth cover, however, is clearly the most iconic of the Dynamite series, and perhaps one of the most arresting Doc Savage images ever created by any artist. It certainly ranks as the most memorable of any outside the Bama canon, and outdoes a number of Bama Savage covers as well. It is a metaphoric contemplation of Doc Savage facing a situation clearly distilled from 9/11, showing one horrific aspect of that event as nine airliners nosedive out of the skies at once, Doc powerless to save them. Fatalistic, yes, but not completely apocalyptic, and perhaps summing up the theme of the entire series.
Alex Ross, cover to Doc Savage #6, perhaps the most iconic image of the adventurer ever created.

[The alternate covers, most of which presumably are intended to evoke the various comic book iterations of the property, are not as successful, in my humble estimation. I haven’t purchased any of them and I won’t comment on them any further. Sorry to be so dismissive, but them’s the breaks.]

As for the story itself, in contradistinction to the covers, ironically Doc is almost never alone to face or solve a problem by himself. From the beginning, the emphasis is on the team. Just as The West Wing served as a narrative antidote to all those presidential histories in which one lone figure is the main protagonist, this Doc Savage seems bent on showing how reliant Clark Savage, Jr. is on his teams of experts, from the original Fabulous Five to the progressively younger and more racially, ethnically, culturally, and genderally diverse and numerous aides that replace them as they age, wear out, and (off stage, as it were) quietly pass away. As things progress, even these nominally-individualized characters (each is given a suitably corny nickname in the tradition of Monk, Ham, Long Tom, et al, but only perhaps the young Brit punk is more that one-dimensional) give way to impersonal cubicled call centers with 1-800 numbers and armies of anonymous analysts and coders, and finally to an automated smart-phone network susceptible to meddling. In fact, the general theme of the story would seem to be little more than a demonstration of how the world has become a more complicated place since the Street and Smith pulps came to an end, and more explicitly about how the scientific and technological systems put in place by Doc, as well as his moral philosophy, can by hi-jacked when put on auto-pilot.

This conception seems to owe something to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which featured a Doc-like Ozymandias depicted as a bureaucratic capitalist presiding over an international corporation, who loses his moral perspective as the business structures he has built ostensibly to solve the world’s problems become more complex and unmanageable. In fact, Chris Roberson’s Doc only seems to appear in scenes in which he can moralize and defend his questionable practices, such as the secret Crime College, where criminals are medically “cured” of criminality through a deft brain incision, and Doc’s general practice of working on his scientific breakthroughs in secret and keeping them to himself. In other words, even as Doc’s security network becomes more corporate and bureaucratic, his intellectual property becomes increasingly proprietary, with disastrous results. A major plot element concerns the secret serum that Doc perfects that essentially makes him immortal, but is lost before it can benefit the world.

It is worth pointing out that both the immortality serum and the moral implications of the Crime College are ideas borrowed from Philip José Farmer, who suggests them in his pseudo-biography of Doc, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Thus Roberson to a great extent is elaborating on a universe outlined by Farmer as much or more than Kenneth Robeson, the original architect of Doc’s adventures.

It is perhaps less useful to point out that such ambitious themes as Roberson seems to have in mind might have been better explored in prose than in comic book form, and perhaps more freely in a satire such as Farmer did on several occasions with his more obsessively sexualized Doc Caliban (particularly in A Feast Unknown), or as Moore does rather succinctly with Ozymandias. In fact, given the “quick-read” mode of the day compared to more densely-packed comics of past eras, the entire series so far reads rather like a series of truncated scenes from one of the supersagas (Farmer’s term) than one of the supersagas themselves, and not even particularly pulse-pounding highlights from an average one. The pulp form, after all, is nothing if not one break-neck cliff-hangar after another that in retrospect bears little logical scrutiny, while the informational and action through-put of comics these days is little more than a smoke signal. While the series maintains readerly interest, little of the visceral, no-holds-barred pulp spirit of the original stories is in evidence. If one can imagine Doc’s hypothetical career since 1949 as being even half as rich as his monthly exploits of the 30s and 40s, one could certainly imagine distilling a richer and more exciting comic book therefrom. Instead, the Dynamite Doc Savage is a rather plodding, often slowly-paced, and above all a hyper-conscious cerebral exercise that reads more like a rather dry storyboard for what could be a more interesting feature film, than a comic book. One might wish at least for a text page per issue musing at length on some of these themes, and at least some historical background on the property to serve as introduction for new readers and reminder to some of us old-timers who may not have read an actual Savage in quite awhile.

What Roberson seems to have in mind instead is a meta-narrative of sorts that not so much adds onto or adapts the Doc Savage supersagas as takes a step back from it to contemplate the more philosophical aspects of the superman-in-the-modern-metropolis theme, whose own hallowed belief in inexorable progress becomes the ultimate evil and whose adversaries are less and less freelance madmen bent on taking over the world and increasingly former aides who lose faith in Doc and his principles and turn traitor. Doc’s righteous crusade instead of bringing the world to salvation instead promulgates a self-fulfilling prophecy and induces a self-inflicted apocalypse (although we’ll have to wait for the final issue for the outcome). Again, these are great themes that could be better explored in prose, but given the problematics of licensing the Doc Savage property and the marketing prospects of publishing further text novels in that series, it is likely that such a philosophically-tinged prose project would be unfeasible, and a comic book adaptation that wants to suggest a movie treatment is the best we can hope for.

Finally, the art of Bilquis Evely, which I commented on previously and which seems more progressively likeable. I have sympathy for the task she faces, evoking several periods of style and architecture, from 1933 to the present. Her Doc paradoxically never rips his shirt, although he looks as though he’s about to burst out of his suit on several occasions, particularly when he addresses JFK’s cabinet. One gets the impression that she would rather draw strapping, mostly-naked superheroes (as would we all) rather than pedestrian fashions, quotidian props, and faithful portraits of famous buildings. Many of her panel and page compositions seem static, owing to the eye-level camera angles and vertical postures of most of her figures, and she would do well to revisit John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (the visual codification of the break-neck pulp prose style). Her Doc is hardly dynamic let alone apocalyptic, but as a first professional effort as this reportedly is, the Dynamite Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is a respectable accomplishment.


  1. Well-put. It seemed that Roberson was up to something given that in issue #1, Doc was normal-sized, maybe even under six foot, with flowing locks looking like a Baumhofer '30s cover of his mag. Then as the years and issues progressed, he got physically larger and took on the Bama look. Too the narrator, an aide or son of an aide I think, kept hinting at the big thing but that didn't come -- unless it was the "immortality" flowers getting destroyed. Bu the narrator was still with us after that and there were hints of other "big things." With the Spider and Shadow, who at least had their books get into double digits, Dynamite had the stories go at least two issues if not more. Why truncate the Doc tales to single issues? He's never in real jeopardy, there was no sense of the kind of roller-coaster pulpiness Dent - or even Will Murray -- di and does in their Doc work, and for sure the villains were not larger-than-life as they should have been...vanilla - can't remember a one. Strange bit of business all around.

  2. Trying to bring all of the visual iterations of Doc into harmony is an ambitious idea, but one that is problematic, and ultimately of dubious narrative value. Better to stick to one interpretation of the character for coherence, it seems to me (otherwise you get that weird Bob Dylan movie with half a dozen actors). As for the pulpishness and bigger than life villains, all of this argues for a long text treatment rather than the rather constrained through-put of the comics medium. You just can't get enough conceptual content into a handful of comic book issues. I have a writer friend authoring a series of graphic novels who is attempting a fantasy-sci-fi thing who complains of the same thing. It's like trying to get across something of the textual richness of a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings in quick sound bites. Comics is a very laconic medium requiring simplicity and speed. I personally have found it good for a kind of surreal or absurd satire, but some ideas want to be fleshed out and elaborated in text. A meta-Savage as Roberson has in mind should be a prose book, not only because the character really lives in prose, but because the ideas in this case demand it. This is not intended as a slight of Evely's art. I just hope this is a preview of coming attractions.