The first and second parts of The Inferno Scheme from Marvel’s 1976 Doc Savage magazine #3, displayed a superb blend of pulp adventure grounded in realistic touches, and unexpected character development. Sophisticated storytelling techniques blended with straightforward actions scenes seamlessly. But would the creative team of Doug Moench, John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga continue to successfully walk that tightrope of excellence? As a follower of many Marvel productions in the 1970’s, I had noted a tendency for ambitious storytelling to begin to unravel as stories progressed. The deadline pressure to produce the comic and magazine line was relentless, and it often took its toll on stories that had started with immense promise. As a reader, a part of me braced for The Inferno Scheme to begin to fray around the edges. But. to my delight…it kept the bar high indeed.
John Buscema, then at the height of his powers in sequential panel layout, puts on a master class with this page. Note that every panel makes an abrupt shift in direction and perspective, long-shot to closeup, POV panel, action starting and stopping to ramp up the dramatic impact. And the panel where Renny, his mind working rapidly to pick up clues to the direction he should take to find the villain, runs right into a huge sign pointing to Inferno’s inner sanctum, is just brilliant. In one stroke, we see the villain’s vanity and hubris on display, and no time is wasted in transitioning a hyperkinetic scene to one that promises some form of awesome vista behind the doors.
And awesome it is. Inferno’s inner chamber looks like an opulent setting from a 1930’s Hollywood epic. The man himself makes every move a dramatic gesture, right down to prefacing the saying of his name with a head turn, a smirk, and not one, but two pauses in speaking his line.
Renny gets threatened, and seems unimpressed, but then he gets an emotional jolt as Inferno unveils (in another dramatically cinematic gesture, with parting curtains), his unexpected hostage. This type of scene can be quite cliched, but I found the sight of the Contessa, chained and surrounded by mechanized guns, to be quite intense. The warmth of her brief but poignant bond with Renny is still fresh in the reader’s mind, and she looks traumatized and vulnerable.
She becomes emotional, pleads with Renny not to give in, expresses willingness to sacrifice herself. His anguish over the scene is writ large on his face, and of course he acquiesces, agreeing to assist Inferno in completing his project.
And so we see the Big Ray Gun…another potential cliche, but it is overshadowed by Renny’s emotion of hatred toward the villain, which at this point the reader certainly shares.
Perfect dramatic point for a scene shift, ushered in with style by looking up the dramatic length of the Empire State Building. The interplay between the aides has a unique feel without Monk present…they are champing at the bit for action. Doc is calm, his every move measured…and off they go in the iconic Autogyro.
More seamless panel-to-panel scene shifts, and Renny once again breaks free, showing competence and agency rather than a “wait for Doc” helplessness that so often shadowed the actions of the aides in the pulps.
The action begins to dovetail, as all the players in the story are on the verge of coming together. There is palpable anticipation here…
And the revelation of the Contessa’s duplicity hits with unexpected emotional power. Veteran reader of dozens and dozens of Doc novels, I had been conditioned to expect that women were hardly ever villains in them. Marvel comics were also somewhat addicted to “noble, tragic heroine” plots, and that was what I had anticipated here.
The intensity of her venom toward Renny is almost shocking. Renny is pushed right out of his normal stoicism, ready to explode with anger himself. And the scene outside the mountain stronghold is also ready to burst.
Hang on, reader…the climax has built like a wave, and is about to break.
To be continued…