In the first three parts of this article, I explored DC Comics’ 2010 effort to update the iconic pulp character Doc Savage into the 21st Century. Over the course of DC’s “First Wave” project, Doc appeared in a team-up alongside a new take on Batman, a mashup with an array of revived and re-imagined 20th century characters, and a very weak launch to a series of his own that was openly cartoonish and juvenile.
Then with issue #6 of the Doc Savage comic, the series did another abrupt about-face. It was much more in line with the concept originally proposed for Doc in the First Wave, in a bold attempt at more mature storytelling. It was strange, had some remarkable moments, and encompassed just one six-issue story arc.
It was, depending on your perspective, either one of the best or one of the worst attempts to meld the foundational concepts of the character to the tone of the modern world.
The earliest First Wave issues had given intriguing flashes of a harder-edged, more emotionally nuanced Doc Savage, but those glimpses had been swamped by a tidal wave of revived characters all jostling for space in the same storyline. The first five issues of Doc’s solo comic, with their childish tone, seemed to abandon a mature Doc Savage completely. But original First Wave author Brian Azzarello returned, and the artistic side of the series took a dramatic upward leap, with the arrival of Nic Klein (Klein would ultimately go on to draw some big comics headliners, including Captain America, Thor, and Deadpool).
Klein brought a grim dynamism to the character, with unique and powerful visuals. But it was the character of Doc Savage himself that underwent the biggest transformation.
The original pulp Doc Savage, during World War II, was kept out of direct battlefield conflict by the government, who wanted him to be utilized in the war effort as a kind of troubleshooter extraordinaire. But in Doc Savage #6, Clark Savage is suddenly shown to be a veteran of the Gulf War.
He makes reference to having “done my tour” (presumably his tour of military duty) but is not referred to by any rank, so his exact status is a bit vague. In any case the military wants him back, to handle a bizarre threat involving Weapons of Mass Destruction. He is recruited in a very blunt manner indeed:
This gritty storytelling approach was quite unlike any Doc Savage seen before. Good thing or bad thing? That is debatable. But at least DC finally committed to presenting the harder-edged characterization they had visualized from the beginning.
The story that followed had spectacular ups and downs. It was marred by inconsistency, as for some inexplicable reason, the six issue story arc bounced between the distinctive style shown above, and a much more traditional comic-book presentation of flashbacks and backstory. Azzarello teamed with a second writer, Ivan Brandon, with the two men co-plotting and Brandon providing the finished script. The backstory scenes, though serving the purpose of giving more detail to characters and motivations, were nevertheless a discordant departure from the main story. One entire issue, #10, was a flashback, done entirely by Brandon and artist Phil Winslade, whose more simplistic art was completely at odds with Klein’s visual pyrotechnics.
The main story was set in a Middle East location known as “The Zone”, which is cut off from the rest of the world by burning rivers of oil, constant darkness, and thick smoke. To portray this, Klein (who also colored his own artwork) used a palette of heavy black shot through with red and orange.
The story at times takes on compelling force (unfortunately blunted by the jarring backstory art/writing shift), but at other times seems to lose its direction entirely, veering into interludes that while striking, can be hard to follow or even to understand.
Fascinating, violent interactions with the people living in The Zone are interspersed with bizarre digressions, and ultimately a scene where Doc fights the villain, loses, and dies.
This development had a unique (if odd) intensity to it, as it was again presented with a harsh semi-realistic tone. But the writers wriggled out of it with an outrageous use of deus ex machina, with Doc resuscitated by a gadget implanted inside of his body long, long before…activated just in time for him to manually disable a missile in flight (also an abandonment of any shred of realism). Something of a mess…though when it was all said and done, the story concluded on an upbeat, and fairly promising note.
For all of its inconsistencies (the two-writer, two-artist approach…the lack of a coherent vision), it was a pretty wild and interesting ride. In fan circles during the presentation of the story, it was decisively hated by old-school Doc fans, with younger fans divided. But this style would never even be attempted again. The next issue, Azzarello and Klein both departed, and the whole direction of the series reversed itself again. It collapsed back into an uncoordinated and amateurish effort to recapture the old pulp style, loaded with cliches like mummies, dinosaurs, a Russian mad scientist, a super-soldier, a primitive tribe, and an attempt to resurrect a figure from history (in this case, Genghis Khan). Readers of the final issues of DC’s Doc Savage comic would have been far better served to read novels from the original Doc pulp canon, as nothing even faintly original would appear in the comic. The series died an ignominious death, with the final issue, #18, not even released in print, but only electronically.
And that was the end for Doc Savage in the DC Comics First Wave.
But it would not be long before the adaptation rights for the character would shift to a new publisher, and once again, an attempt would be made to update Doc Savage into the present day.
Next: Dynamite Entertainment’s “The Man of Bronze”.