Friday, 19 December 2014

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1

It's time for a special side-step to look at a Marvel series collected in a black and white on cheap paper - but it's not quite an Essential.

Over the years Marvel have seen many licences come and go, often making it hard to reprint some adventures in later years - we've already seen issues of Giant-Size Spider-Man or Marvel Team-Up amongst other series that have had to be left out of the Essentials because of the guest stars involved. But often the terms of the original licence are more favourable for reprinting the character's own series, albeit in unusual places. Usually the rights to the stories end up being held by the characters' copyright owners and so later licensees can reprint the adventures. The likes of Marvel's Conan, Transformers, G.I. Joe and others have found their way back into publication under these terms (although joint adventures with Marvel's own characters can remain problematic). Doc Savage is another such series, with the rights held in recent years by DC.

Showcase Presents Doc Savage volume 1 reprints the eight issue magazine series Doc Savage from 1975-1977. Everything is written by Doug Moench, with plotting on one story by John Warner and John Whitmore. The art is by the likes of John Buscema, John Romita, Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Marie Severin, Val Mayerik and Ernie Chan. The volume includes a number of pin-ups from the series but leaves out articles and interviews even though it only comes to 448 pages - Showcase Presents volumes have shown a much greater flexibility on page counts than Essentials.

Doc Savage first appeared in 1933 and has very much remained a man of his time. The amazing men - and they were invariably men - of the pulp magazines of the era are the direct ancestors of the superheroes who emerged at the end of the decade but often they haven't aged as well. Whereas the superheroes have been subject to a steady updating over the years, reflecting changing priorities and attitudes, the pulp action heroes and some of the contemporary comic strip characters have proved harder to adapt and update into complex and fallible characters struggling against the odds. As a result there are usually two latter day ways of presenting them - either in a self-mockery that extenuates the ridiculousness of the characters and the situation around them or else played straight in a reasonably accurate recreation of their original era give or take some the embellishments of the original stories. A lot of the movies of heroes of this era or homages to them just fall flat with only the Indiana Jones series really succeeding.

A movie version of Doc Savage was released in June 1975, but I've never seen it in full (and it's not had a conventional DVD release but rather a burn on demand one; a sign of a perceived limited market). Clips on YouTube suggest it was a rather campy take on the character and it frankly looks like it felt at least a decade old on its original release. The trailer is not the most enticing. But it's clear that there was an attempt to drum up interest in the character following the success of the republishing of the original pulp magazine stories as paperback books in the previous decade with James Bama's stylised covers forming the basis for the character's look in subsequent comics. Earlier in the 1970s Marvel had run an eight issue normal sized colour series and there was a both a Giant-Size reprint special and a team-up with Spider-Man in his own Giant-Size series in the first half of 1975. Then came this magazine series, which is a blatant tie in as the first issue came out the same month as the movie and both use the subtitle "The Man of Bronze" although the magazine's cover drops it from issue #3 onwards.

The man himself is not the most developed of characters, reflecting his pulp roots. Doc Savage has trained his body and mind to the ultimate perfection, making him super strong and super intelligent, with fast reflexes and the ability to solve any problem or situation with the utmost ease. He is highly disciplined with most stories showing him taking two hours each day to undertake a physical and mental workout to enhance himself. He is also focused - like many traditional heroes of serialised fiction he shows no interest in romance at all and is instead dedicated to the mission at hand. But here come the two problems with the character. He is too perfect with no substantial flaws that cause significant problems in his adventures. About the only flaw on display is his sexism towards both his cousin Pat and Monk's secretary Monica, declaring "Adventure is no place for a woman" (page 267) when brushing off the former. But even this flaw isn't used efficiently as Pat forces her way into going on the adventure with the regular team from the outset rather than coming in to the rescue. Beyond this Doc Savage is a know-all and do-all who can achieve just about anything and this makes it harder to get excited about such a hero. And at times he seems beyond human - indeed some of his foes explicitly shout this in frustration. On only one occasion do we hear of how he deals with captured criminals (most foes die in the climaxes) and it is to "perform certain surgical procedures upon your brains after which you will remember nothing of this -- nothing of what you did..." (page 389) In other words he will perform lobotomies on them. From a modern perspective the practice itself is horrifying but what's also concerning is the way in which Doc Savage feels he has the right to arbitrarily impose a punishment and literally change how people think. Given the characterisation and the era it is hard to avoid thinking of the concept of the übermensch, especially as that word has historically been translated as "superman".

Now Nietzsche's philosophy is generally unfamiliar to me and his own ideas have had their reputation damaged through association with the Nazis, so it's hard to judge just how far Doc Savage conforms to the übermensch model as originally conceived, though it's notable that Doc Savage's adventures often start out as the straightforward helping of others rather than proactively seeking to save the world and personally make history. But the perfect man is not a character concept that works well in this day and age. It didn't really in the 1960s & 1970s which is why so many film and TV adaptations went down the road of camp and self-mockery. But here we have a straight adaptation of the original pulps that is all too faithful to their 1930s sensibilities and outlook. And that just doesn't feel right.

To some extent Doc's aides, only once here called the "Famous Five", offer a more realistic approach. Several defy stereotypes in their appearance and characterisation but they are all experts in one way or another. They consist of:
  • "Monk" aka Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett Mayfair - expert in chemistry and owner of a pig called "Habeus Corpus" (sic - occasionally the correct spelling "Habeas Corpus" is used instead) who sometimes accompanies him on his adventures.
  • "Ham" aka Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks - top attorney and stylish dresser
  • "Renny" aka Colonel John Renwick - engineer
  • "Long Tom" aka Major Thomas J. Roberts - electrical expert
  • "Johnny" aka William Harper Littlejohn - archaeologist and geologist expert
What immediately dates this group is its composition, being all male and appearing to all be from the same ethnic and social background. Had the not been created until at least the 1960s then there would have almost certainly been a woman there and if created in the 1970s the group would have been multi-racial. The military ranks are mentioned on each introduction and raises questions as to how the first four, who all appear to be around their 30s, could have risen to such high ranks. None of them appear to be career soldiers but equally they seem a little young to have achieved these ranks as recruits in the First World War, especially given that the United States was only a belligerent for less than two years before the Armistice. The problem is slightly compounded by the adventures being given dates between 1933 and 1939, yet nobody seems to age in this time. It feels like these titles have been given to the characters just to enhance their standing as expert support for Savage. Monk and Ham get the most attention, with the two constantly bickering, fighting and playing practical jokes on each other. Ham fancies himself as a ladies' man, although women he flirts with do not always want the same outcome, but most of the team are attracted to at least one woman throughout the run, leaving Doc Savage above sexuality.

Issue #3 states it is starting a series of solo adventures for the five as back-up tales; however that issue's solo story of Monk is the only one to appear and subsequent issues revert to the format of full-length adventures. The story is set at the same time as the issue's main adventure, with Monk thus absent from it, and this restriction may have proved the feature's undoing.

The other character of note from the original pulps to appear here is Pat Savage, Doc's cousin who appears in just issue #5. There isn't room to fully explore her skills and strengths but she is similar to her cousin in many regards and more than a match for any of his aides as well as resourceful enough to force her way into an adventure to Loch Ness. Clearly a forerunner of the likes of Supergirl, she is rather underused and could have appeared more to provide balance in the series and help to pull it forward.

The adventures themselves are very much in the pulp tradition with lots of over the top villainy, some science fiction and fantasy, globe trotting, fancy gadgets and the resolution of matters with fists. There are monsters, mutants, deformed men in iron masks, secret bases, global conspiracies and more. It's all traditional adventuring that sticks to its roots. None of the villains are recurring and the dates given suggest the adventures may take place out of publication order. There's some sophistication, with problems to be solved and so providing a challenge beyond getting to a place and fighting a solution. Some of the puzzles are immensely complicated such as a pair of multi-levelled cryptic clues in the first issue that take nearly four whole pages for Doc Savage to unravel and seem almost impossible for any readers bar perhaps the most advanced crossword solvers. Yet the same issue features a blatant clue to the villain's identity in the form of his name, though notably this isn't remarked upon. Perhaps Doc Savage doesn't want to admit to being so complicated that he overlooked the obvious. On another occasion Savage is able to deduce that "Maison Blanche" is a translation from not English but Spanish and so the destination is not the White House but Casa Blanca.

The reproduction on this volume is quite good considering that the source material for the magazines is often in a worse state than the regular sized comics. A small note on the front page thanks Mark Waid "for loan of source material" suggesting that this volume has been compiled from original copies of the printed magazines themselves. If so then an excellent job has been done in remastering them. Unfortunately a few errors have crept in such as the inversion of pages 166 & 167. I don't know if that error was made in 2011 or 1975.

Overall this volume is of interest as a curiosity, being one of a surprisingly high number of times when one of Marvel's licensed titles has been reprinted by the current rights holder. Unfortunately the contents aren't that great. If you're a fan of the 1930s pulp adventures then this volume is a good homage to them. But if you're expecting something more sophisticated and reflecting the sensibilities of the 1970s then it's a disappointment. Both the character and the wider cast are very clearly dated and no real attempt has been made to update them in any way. That may have been an artistic decision or a restriction of the licence but the result is a fairly lightweight series that fails to hold up by even the standards of when it was first printed.

1 comment:

  1. Tim, have a Merry Christmas and thanks for all the brilliant posts. It's almost like having all the Essentials myself!


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