Courage and Tragedy: Princess Monja in the Doc Savage comics – Part 2 of 4

After the briefest of appearances in the Marvel comics adaptation of The Man of Bronze in 1972, Monja would not appear in the comics again until 1987. And that appearance was very odd indeed.

DC Comics had acquired the rights to do Doc Savage, and based on the success of Howard Chaykin’s revisionist modern The Shadow: Blood and Judgment, they clearly wanted to try something unusual. The creative team had solid credentials: Dennis O’Neil (one of DC’s more celebrated authors) doing the story, and Adam and Andy Kubert (sons of comics legend Joe Kubert) on the art.

Things, however, got very weird, very fast. Doc looked pretty good (a kind of hybrid Baumhofer/Bama look, with a physically imposing Doc in normal clothing — which gets ripped, naturally) but the five aides were bizarre. Monk was runty with black hair, glasses, a droopy mustache and a sour disposition. Ham wore full tails-and/or-tophat evening attire at all times and had a handlebar mustache, making him look more like a court jester than a fashion plate. Johnny had a beard and was not particular skinny, Renny was nondescript instead of immense with huge fists, and Long Tom, instead of being puny, looked like a linebacker.

There there was Monja. In the story, set in the 1940’s, she and Doc are married — an intriguing concept — but for some inexplicable reason O’Neil does not use her proper name. He calls her F’Teena. If there is a reason for this other than an odd whim, it is never explained. Attempting to uncover an etymology for the name turned up zero (it has no Mayan derivation that I could find), other than the fact that Teena is a girl’s name derived from the latin Christina, meaning “anointed, Christian; strong, healthy”. I suspect O’Neil just liked the sound of it, and intended the character to actually be a different Mayan woman, since she would be so rapidly discarded in the narrative.

She has no part to play beyond serving to illustrate Doc’s shyness around intimacy, and to provide a bridge to the next generation. At the end of the first issue, in which Doc presumably dies, she is pictured — barely visible in the background — in the last panel after giving birth to his son. And then she vanishes from the series.

Later in the DC run of comics, O’Neil departed (after another bizarre storyline, involving aliens on the moon — not classic Dent scientific fakes, but real aliens), there came a change in direction for the series. Mike W. Barr, the new writer, seemed intent to restore all of the characters to something far closer to their pulp personas and appearances. Though still set in the present day, the Amazing Five began to look and act a bit more like themselves (though their action was reduced as DC continued to develop a new modern set of aides), Pat Savage was re-introduced, and so was Princess Monja. The series artist at this time was Rod Whigham.

In issue #9, Doc travels to Hidalgo, which is in a crisis. And when he further goes on to the Valley of the Vanished, one of the first things Doc’s new assistants view is a golden statue of Doc and Monja. Barr simply corrected the misnaming of her character by combining the two names into Monja F’Teena, then drops the second name, calling her Monja from that point forward.

Things are still a bit odd cast-wise…there is new leadership in Hidalgo of course (this is forty years after Chaac was king there)…and among the story antagonists is a woman wearing a golden mask, calling herself the Daughter of Quetzalcoatl. Doc confronts her, and discovers it is Monja.

Monja has aged normally, but Doc (through the science fiction machinations of Denny O’Neil) has not. But they are still husband and wife. And rather touchingly, Doc doesn’t appear to care in the least that Monja is now greatly his senior in physical age. She tells her story (she had thought him dead, and was attacking him due to believing he was an imposter)…and they are deeply affectionate to one another.

Doc is called away to the fight, but he soon returns to Monja with his team…they are shocked and amazed to learn he is married, but pleased as well — and Doc is actually briefly playful about belatedly introducing her.

The fight in Hidalgo heats up, and everyone gets involved, including Monja. And then all of the intriguing character dynamics of the reunion with Doc are apruptly jettisoned, as Monja is killed in the waning moments of the battle.

Though I found the abrupt end for Monja a shame (it would have been fascinating, I think, to finally watch them in a mature relationship together), Barr does take things through a powerful final emotional arc. Doc is devastated by Monja’s death, and actually determines to use the process he developed (in the pulp novel Resurrection Day, and the opening page of the following issue is an homage to the Bama cover of that book) for rejuvenating the dead. He intends to restore her to life.

His anguish over the loss of Monja and obsessive determination to bring her back actually provides some emotionally wrenching moments…unique for a Doc Savage tale.

Ultimately, over the course of the next four issues, everything falls apart…the resurrection formula is used, on of all people, John Sunlight…and Monja’s body is captured and used as a means to coerce Doc.

In the final scene, Doc comes ever-so-close to recovering Monja’s body, but is denied by Sunlight. Blown out into space, he barely saves himself, and Monja is gone.

The farewell to Monja is highlighted by a quote from Ecclesiastes.

And that was the end for Monja in DC’s Doc Savage comics. A strange interlude in many ways…one with intriguing concepts introduced but never really developed, and yet, more emotional impact than I had expected.

Next…Dynamite Entertainment’s brief take on a modern Monja, then Millennium’s much more involved characterization of the Mayan princess, with new commentary by series author Mark Ellis!

to be continued…

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