Balancing Fun and Sophistication: The Inferno Scheme, Part 1

There is an alchemy to strive for in bringing the pleasures of pulp adventure into the 21st century. Part of the pleasure for older readers (of which I am one) in revisiting pulp storytelling is nostalgia. A few are left who fondly remember where they were and what they were doing at a point they read a pulp magazine in the period of time from 1933-1949 (the original pulp run of Doc Savage). Many more of us link the fondness of nostalgia to the second run, from 1964-1990, when Bantam books re-issued the series in paperback.

But there comes a point in the cultural arc of an iconic character where more and more generations pile up between original stories and current experience. Nostalgia begins to lose steam as a driving force of interest in a character’s continuance. Here in the year 2021, the 20th century is falling away behind us. Efforts to extend the original tropes of 1930’s pulp characters have begun to feel, to me, more strained, less in touch with new readers of today.

There was evolution even in the original run of Doc Savage Magazine. As a generalization, it could be said that the early years were immensely fun, but displayed very little writing sophistication. In the later pulps the level of authorial quality (with a few stumbles along the way) went up, but the fun, wonder and excitement diminished. Had the Hero Pulp survived beyond 1949, it’s interesting to conjecture where the evolution would have gone.

One answer might be found about halfway along the journey from 1933 to 2021. Around the time of the Doc Savage movie in 1975, Marvel Comics retooled their take on the character (a few years previously it had run eight issues of adaptations from the original novels, with varying quality). Marvel’s black and white magazine line, free from the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, was pushing out the boundaries of graphic storytelling. And to me at that time, it felt like the stories in the Doc Savage magazine hit on a remarkable mix of more sophisticated writing and pulp-style adventure.

So let’s take a look at one of those stories…1976’s “The Inferno Scheme”. In this first of a four-part retrospective, we’ll look at subtle ways that writer Doug Moench, and artists John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga adjusted and advanced the techniques of pulp storytelling in general, and Doc Savage in particular.

Here is the cover and the first eleven pages. In our next installment, we’ll explore what we’ve seen, and then continue on.

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