With the fourth chapter of DC Comics’ 1990 story The Conflagration Man, the unique storytelling conjunction of the two great pulp crimefighters came to its conclusion. As it had done with each preceding chapter, it shifted from one ongoing series to the other, this time moving from Chapter 3 in The Shadow Strikes, to Chapter 4 in Doc Savage.
The writers also shifted their roles again, with Doc Savage author Mike Barr once again taking over the scripting, and The Shadow Strikes author Gerard Jones acting as co-plotter. The regular artists for both comics, Rod Whigham and Eduardo Barreto, continued to share the pencils and finishes.
As you can see from the above opening page of Chapter 4, the previous issue finished with an explosive cliffhanger. The overall story involves an industrialist who has taken control of and weaponized an invention that causes gunpowder to detonate, and he lured Doc and The Shadow to an armory (loaded, naturally, with gunpowder) and blew the whole building to kingdom come.
This ploy, however, was unsuccessful in its attempt to wipe out the two crimefighters. Alerted by some red flags around the ploy to get them inside the armory, Doc and The Shadow dropped down into the sewers below the building before the explosion.
The industrialist villain figures out they have dodged the trap, and he sends members of his private army down into the sewers after them, which results in several pages of fighting. Doc and The Shadow are triumphant, and they take a prisoner to interrogate in The Shadow’s famous “blue room” (after being joyfully reunited with their agents and aides, who had thought them dead).
Not easily put off, the villain goes forward with the next part of his plan, which is to incite the world superpowers into World War (years ahead of the actual arrival of WWII). As a munitions maker, a “conflagration man”, he will naturally make untold amounts of money selling weapons to both sides.
He dresses up some of his private militia as Nazis, and launches a terrorist strike against the USA. This is foiled by Doc and The Shadow, who are on the scene (Doc is disguised as a Nazi, which is why he is wearing their uniform). The climax of the story arrives as the combatants have at it on the industrialist’s yacht.
To make his getaway, the villain threatens the daughter of the scientist who had created the gunpowder-detonator gun. She was never a hostage, as her sympathies were with the villain — she liked the idea of the money and luxury the whole scheme could bring her. The unscrupulous industrialist, however, promptly uses her and then leaves her behind, much to her dismay.
Doc tries to disable the fleeing speedboat using the gunpowder-detonator, not aware that the small craft was packed with explosives…causing the craft to be blown to bits. Doc is characteristically unhappy about the death, though The Shadow, equally characteristically, is quite satisfied.
In a last twist, the greedy daughter turns on her father, and they too are killed in an explosion during their confrontation.
And so we come to the end, with Doc and The Shadow doing a little speechmaking to wrap things up.
Though the story suffered from some flaws in logic (and an overuse of some plot devices, particularly characters in disguise), it really was a lot of fun…and the little banner at the end of the story, dedicating it to Lester Dent and Walter Gibson “in the hope they would have approved”, was a nice touch.
It seems unlikely this story will ever be reprinted in graphic novel form, but the comics themselves are not too hard to acquire, and they will bring much pleasure to any Doc or Shadow enthusiast.
A few little extras…here is the house ad for the story, which appeared throughout the line of DC Comics just prior to the four-issue crossover:
And a little personal history as well! This is the letters page from Doc Savage 18, and among the missives printed there is one from me. Yes, back in 1990 at the know-it-all age of 32, I wrote to the Doc Savage comic (using my real name, Malcolm Deeley) praising its return to the core concepts of the character, and talking a little bit about Doc’s unique place in American literature. I was, at the time, trying to organize a fan organization and newsletter/fanzine about Doc, called “The Hidalgan Circle”, which is why that unique little title is there with my signature. The fan club did not get far, alas…that was well before the internet made connection with fellow fans much easier…but that is a tale for another time.