Balancing fun and sophistication – The Inferno Scheme, Part 2

The opening scenes from Marvel’s Doc Savage magazine #3 (1976) not only were loaded with action, they displayed some writing virtuosity. The act of the author breaking the fourth wall (speaking directly to the audience) had been a technique used by Marvel since the Sixties — Stan Lee often used it just as Doug Moench did on the title page of The Inferno Scheme: to preview the action and essentially invite the audience in to enjoy the story.

Moench however used a compositional technique called the “narrative hook” (and goes so far as to describe what that is). It’s a statement or picture that reveals the end of the story without actually spoiling it for the reader. What you reveal there at the beginning should tantalize, and vault the reader forward, but carry enough mystery or artistry to make the conclusion feel emotionally satisfying or moving when you finally arrive there.

That’s actually not easy to do well. You are banking on your skill as an author to keep the reader’s attention to the very last words of the story, even though they know, in some form, what is coming.

The narrative hook from The Inferno Scheme is “Today, when a Man of Bronze faced death, it tore the top off a mountain, and made Renny weep.”

Interesting…a promise of apocalyptic action, along with some form of emotional consequence. And a consequence to of all people, Renny…who for all intents and purposes spent the entire run of Doc Savage pulps breaking doors with his huge fists, saying “Holy Cow”, and looking gloomy when he was happy over and over again.

The aides at the beginning of the pulp run were very competent men. But as time went on they became, in many ways, marginalized by their idiosyncratic behaviors (aside from Renny, two perpetually squabbling, one using big words, one a physical weakling who could like five times his weight in wildcats — entertaining, signature characters, but constrained to repeat their same behaviors ad infinitum).

Moench’s narrative hook signaled a change, and one toward more sophisticated character development.

The opening of the story does indeed focus on the setup of the plot (using several other sophisticated techniques: the omniscient narrator who has no specific character but a distinctive voice…and POV shots that insert the reader into the action from unusual angles), and Renny. There is distinct and skillful effort to set the milieu of 1930’s New York both visually and through naturalistic dialogue from many background characters. The diamond thefts, made by animalistic metal automatons, have the quirky oddness that was a Lester Dent signature, but they also behave believably (the bear automaton falling through the skylight to get down into the museum showroom).

The character of the Contessa, through mannered speech and the intelligence she projects, is immediately interesting and sympathetic. Renny’s fight with the automaton ends up with him being trounced, but he takes that with competent stoicism. These may seem like little things, but it’s a competency in storytelling technique and character development often missing from comic book/adventure pulp stories. Only then does Doc appear in the story, and that only through his voice as Renny contacts him to report.

The presence of these storytelling techniques feels seamless, effectively producing reader immersion into the story, without weighing down the action narrative. Skilled story-artisans are at work here.

The next section of The Inferno Scheme continues to both deepen the characterizations, and build toward the promise of that opening narrative hook.

The technique of having a character describe the details of the “case” was one mastered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories. But it too has potential pitfalls. There can be too much exposition and not enough characterization…you can reveal too much and spoil or telegraph surprises to come…but all of that is handled deftly here. Doc and his men are portrayed as strong, capable and confident — Renny even gives a naturalistic description of Doc’s trilling to the Contessa. And Monk is not there! (the perennial scene-stealer had his own solo adventure later in the magazine).

The conversation between Renny and the Contessa here is really something remarkable. She recognizes Renny’s signature traits, and displays warmth and connection to the way he thinks and perceives his place in the world. He is endearingly awkward in return, replying in simple lines that imply he tries not to think too much about his own emotional connections to his lifestyle. She is dignified, doesn’t vamp him (the earlier kiss felt like impulsive and endearing warmth, rather than seduction) , but clearly is getting to him.

The parting scenes with the Contessa are beguilingly touching. Renny continues to be awkward (in ways that young-adult readers of the story can unquestionably identify with). He shows his bravery and resolve, but with a subtle emotional depth.

A repeating motif of the pulp stories was the aides, when in action on their own, invariably get captured and require rescuing by Doc. Renny promptly gets captured himself, but also gets out of the situation himself. At last, one of Doc’s aides acting with real agency! (Moench also had a good touch with portraying bit-players in the story, like bystanders and thugs. They behave, by and large, realistically, continuing to ground the story).

The action continues to heat up, with dynamic visual pacing by Buscema and DeZuniga. Another very difficult thing to do in adventure fiction is generate a tense environment of peril (since the reader knows the character is not going to die, action can sometimes feel pointless and hollow). But in these scenes, there is taut dynamism propelling the reader forward.

To be continued…

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