Visually conceptualizing Doc in canon and pastiche

In working to portray or extrapolate on an iconic character, one of the most powerful tools is visual presentation. Written descriptions have great power, but a superb visual can have profound impact.

If one considers core Doc Savage canon to be the run of pulp magazines from 1933-1949, the visual presentation of Doc is that of the Walter Baumhofer pulp covers. That visual was essentially replaced during the course of the Bantam paperback re-issue of the same stories which began in 1964, featuring the cover art of James Bama. The depictions are vastly different, and each became emblematic to readers of the stories from different generations.

The Bama Doc Savage is the visual that still embodies the character today. But many notable fans of Doc disliked it…among them author Harlan Ellison (who grew up with the Baumhofer pulps), and even Philip José Farmer, who by his own account did not want a version of the Bama Doc on the first edition of his book Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life…instead choosing a Baumhofer.

Farmer clearly had less influence with the publishers of his Doc Savage pastiche, Doc Caliban. More often than not, artists have portrayed Caliban using the Bama model.

Over a generation later, Iason Bellerophon and I undertook the vast labor of love to create another Doc pastiche…Doc Talos. Both of us grew up with the Bama Doc, so there was little hesitation in choosing that portrayal as the starting point. But the hope was to do more than just recycle an iconic character design. The goal of the series was to bring fresh literary depth to Doc, and from the artistic side, to embody the man using techniques of modern fine art to capture the “soul” of the character in any given scene.

Bama’s Doc (whose poses were done by model Steve Holland) was photorealistic, but did not feel emotionally real — it would be difficult, for instance, to picture Bama’s Doc doing something as prosaic as drinking a cup of coffee. But we wanted images that could portray both the quiet and intense moments that constitute “real life”…to somehow pull off the alchemy of a character being both a superman and an everyman (which, I believe, is the core in his characterization that has made Doc such a beloved character for almost a century).

So Iason prepared hundreds of sketches…like this one — drawn right into one of the preliminary manuscripts he used to guide him along through the saga — which does indeed show Doc Talos drinking a cup of coffee.

Doc Talos drinking coffee, by Iason Ragnar Bellerophon

For the final book, the image evolved into this painting.

Doc Talos drinking coffee 2, by Iason Ragnar Bellerophon

The dynamic technique of force lines in motion around the figure of Doc present a rich impression of his physical power, even in so quietly contemplative a pose.

The same technique informs and enhances the character in scenes of life and death violence, as shown in this painting:

Doc Talos – Violent Power by Iason Ragnar Bellerophon

The figure is still immediately recognizable as Doc, but color, dynamism and abstraction create an intense transformation of the man quietly drinking coffee in the first image. He becomes terrifying…as violence always is. Multiply this visual experience by hundreds of paintings, and we have a phenomenon as powerful as that of the Bama Doc, but with an almost visceral panorama of emotion that brings the character deeper under the skin.

Everyman and superman…and all of the nuances in between.

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