A character created in the 1930’s, and adeptly designed to tap into the dreams, hopes, and fantasies of the Depression-era world, Doc Savage was one of the most popular figures in adventure fiction, and arguably fiction as a whole at that time. Over and over, more modern authors, artists and publishers have tried to carry the unique quality of his character and adventures forward into the present day. It’s been attempted in decade after decade…most often in comic book adaptations of Doc Savage. In Part 1 of this article I began a look at one of the more ambitious attempts to update Doc: DC Comics’ “First Wave”.
The concept of the First Wave was to take various classic 20th century characters, bypass any effort of story-structure that would directly link them to their original chronologies, and simply reboot them into the 21st century. The “reboot” itself is a recurring 21st century phenomenon; it is common in books, comics and films now to restart an iconic franchise. With equal frequency as producers, creators, or public taste changes, that reboot is abandoned and re-rebooted. It’s an approach with distinct pros and cons. Effectively, it disconnects readers or viewers from any sense of long continuity with a favorite character, which allows each new creative team a broad, fresh canvas for their own vision. But it is very different from the entertainment zeitgeist of the 20th century, where long continuities actually linked iconic characters to fans across generations. Something potentially powerful is gained, but something very rich is also lost.
After the joint story with DC’s Batman in the opening story of the First Wave comics, a six-issue storyline with Doc and Batman followed, this time adding another character with immense popularity from the 20th century, The Spirit. The signature creation of comics innovator Will Eisner, The Spirit was a series that also ran for decades, cultivating a devoted readership.
The writer continuing this project was Brian Azzarello, this time teamed with artist Rags Morales. The production values of the series were high, signaling (at least at the beginning) a commitment to a quality product.
About midway through the first issue, I was struck by a single panel…a newspaper photo of Doc Savage at his father’s grave.
In a way it summed up my initial impressions of this Doc Savage of the new Millennium. The powerful, chiseled features are there…he is instantly recognizable, but with a quality of introspection unusual for the character.
Many Doc Savage fans, strongly connected to the pleasure they experienced reading the exuberant adventures of the 1930’s pulps, have no interest in this kind of depiction of Doc. And that is understandable — those reading experiences were exciting and inspirational. I myself return to them over and over to re-live those qualities that so defined them: wonder, agency in a world that often felt oppressive, adventure and freedom. Those stories will always carry a glow of immense personal joy for me.
But there are qualities of the Doc Savage character that make him — potentially — equally alluring to readers in our present world. Qualities of rich intelligence and insight, humility, idealism and practicality…a sense of vision tempered by reason and thought. If Doc is to be rebooted into the 21st century, there is great appeal for me in seeing qualities like that explored.
Here is the actual scene at the gravesite of Doc’s father. It is somber, but there is hope in it as well, and at his heart, the character of Doc Savage can come to embody hope. He’s accompanied by Monk, Ham, Long Tom and Renny (Johnny is elsewhere in the story at this point).
After this scene, there is an unusual interlude, where a reporter muses about Doc Savage, his influence on society, and his legacy.
The scene segues into the introduction within the story of its antagonist, John Sunlight. Sunlight, in the years to follow, would become immensely overused by comics authors. Prior to this appearance, in comics from the 80’s and 90’s, he had also been utilized as Doc’s antithesis. But this was one of his most intriguing appearances…dangerous in a way that was hard to quantify…philosophical, with a control belied by his wild physicality.
These glimpses of a sophisticated storytelling style for Millennial readers were just that however…glimpses. The story would rather quickly become swamped by its character-mashup premise. An almost bewildering array of other 20th century icons would be mixed in, not only the two other headliners, Batman and The Spirit. My assumption is the editorial goal for the six issues of “First Wave” was to showcase as many of these characters as possible, and so they were crammed in: the Avenger, the Blackhawks, even Rima the Jungle Girl (DC had done a comics adaptation of W.H. Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Jungle in the 1970’s).
So the opportunity to see a full story in the style of the pages presented above did not materialize. The story that did follow was in its way entertaining, with more standard comics fare of fights, rescues, robots, a techno-city, and a hodgepodge of scenes designed to spotlight the cornucopia of characters intended to populate the First Wave world.
A mature and cohesive new approach to Doc Savage (as well as all the other characters) was lost in the riot. Though at the time I first read these issues, I hoped it might just be deferred to the future — an individual First Wave Doc Savage comic was planned, and did in fact appear.
Many Doc Savage purists (and in some respects I am one of them, as I love the original pulp stories) respond to stories that do not simply revisit the spirit of those glorious early tales with either ennui or outrage. And there is no doubt those stories and characters possess a special magic that is a joy to experience. But in addition to that pleasure, I was fascinated by the idea of a Doc Savage boldly aimed at a sophisticated readership, which could offer scenes like this one, where Doc (having returned to Hidalgo only to encounter violence and imprisonment), still shows his deep idealism in silent musings…
Or this scene in which John Sunlight does some musing of his own on the nature of greatness (while of all things, indulging in an impromptu nude swim at a public nighttime beach…)
He considers the kind of will it takes to do something truly different…to in fact embrace the ambition to strive for the impossible.
This story didn’t quite get there, but it offered a tantalizing taste of what that grand impossibility might look like.
to be continued…