In the previous article, the exploration of efforts to update the iconic 1930’s/1940’s pulp character Doc Savage into the 21st century focused on the penultimate chapter of Dynamite Entertainment’s 2013 story Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. Written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Bilquis Evely, the first seven issues were an ambitious effort to move the entire structure of the Doc Savage continuity forward past the conclusion of Doc’s pulp run in 1949.
A positive aspect of this effort was the sincerity Roberson brought to the storytelling. Clearly he loved the character, and not a hint of parody ever entered the narrative. Doc was portrayed as a man deeply dedicated to improving society, and this was explored by the placement of Doc into subsequent decades after the mid-20th century, theorizing on how his mission to “right wrongs” might have manifested and evolved as the world itself evolved beyond the Depression and World War II eras of his original adventures.
On the downside, this approach gave the series a somewhat documentary-style feel, draining some of the tension and excitement from scenes designed to be emotionally intense. The artwork, while consistent from issue to issue and filled with sometimes clever detail, also had a static feel, giving the visuals a staged, overly-posed look.
Each of the eight issues had a stunning cover by artist Alex Ross, and the final issue, #8, was no exception. It strongly captured the sensibility of famed Bantam paperback cover artist James Bama, and summed up the Dynamite series’ approach of a journey forward in time, by a clock showing years instead of minutes.
The story had left off in 2014, with a terrible global threat emerging through the hack of cell phones by a virus that unleashes uncontrollable violent impulses in people. All around the globe people start slaughtering one another. The technology for this actually circled back to the beginning of the series, when a similar weapon had been utilized by a villain in the 1930’s. So Doc travels to his Fortress of Solitude to acquire the artifacts of that earlier adventure, hoping to adapt his solution from the Thirties into the technological infrastructure of the millennial world.
Some of the visual presentation at this point in the plot seemed off-kilter to me. Doc, for instance, wears short sleeves, his equipment vest, and jodhpurs to the arctic. And the appearance of the Fortress is clearly meant to evoke the “strange blue dome” of 1930’s adventures, though the design of the arctic retreat had been modified even in later pulp adventures. To me it felt (and not for the first time in this series) that Roberson and Evely were hedging their bets, trying to straddle the fence of attempting to please readers who had a fixed concept of Doc Savage in their minds that was based on extremely successful older imagery, while still trying to advance things to a modern time. The result was an uneasy marriage.
Continuing with the documentary-style of storytelling, a few pages are expended looking back at Doc’s long career. Once again, though interesting, this digression from the crisis unfolding in the main storyline contributed to a degree of disconnection from the immediacy of the present.
The story does eventually return to the crisis at hand, with Doc using orbital tech to try and counter the waves of violent behavior washing over the globe.
At this point, the story taps more strongly into its foundational theme, which is that Doc Savage is less a figure of crimefighting adventure, and more an embodiment of human aspiration and hope. His counter-weapon is a simple appeal to reason and caring…qualities that have always made Doc a deeply appealing character beyond the ongoing pulp mayhem. As he speaks, the rampant violence begins to diminish.
The crisis eases, not just from Doc’s appeal, but from the simple expedient of the battery charge for the infected cell phones eventually running out, rendering them inert. It was an odd resolution to the climax, mixing philosophy with practicality, and producing, at least in me, a sense of quiet, rather than the usual burst of elation that generally accompanies the denouement of an adventure narrative. Not necessarily a bad thing, aside from a sense of the climactic moment never really quite arriving.
A short epilogue closes out the series, with Doc addressing some of the other societal issues explored in the series, followed by a somewhat artificial-feeling new crisis, which Doc and his team rush off to avert.
Overall, this story of Millennial Doc had a feeling of noble goals not quite matched by the storytelling, which at times felt pedestrian. It had bold ideas, but pulled back from delivering them with visceral power. Perhaps in a way this is actually emblematic of the 21st century as we have experienced it thus far: a time of great contention, but one in which the role of heroes is not quite so clear-cut as it was in the time of the pulps.