Much has been made — over many decades — out of the fact that across the original pulp run of Doc Savage magazine, only one villain came back to oppose Doc for a second time. That character, of course, was John Sunlight.
He was certainly a unique and compelling character. In many ways he was crafted by author Lester Dent as a kind of dark mirror to Clark Savage, Jr. He was physically powerful, but less due to muscular development than an ability to channel his will into extreme exertions of his body. Where Doc was handsome in a classically masculine way, Sunlight was described as having the features of a poet. He was merciless to an opposite extreme from Doc’s legendary compassion…and yet had high ideals (one of which was to unite the world and abolish war).
He appeared in the October and December 1938 issues of Doc Savage. Seemingly dead at the end of the first story, Fortress of Solitude, he in fact survived, to reappear in The Devil Genghis…only to die again, this time (apparently) for real.
He would remain dead in Doc Savage literature for fifty-one years, with a couple of teases: Philip José Farmer gave him quite a bit of space in the literary bio Doc Savage, His Apocalyptic Life…and in the mid-1970’s, a letters page in the Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage black and white magazine mentioned that author Doug Moench was developing a Sunlight story, tentatively scheduled to appear in issue #9. The magazine was cancelled after issue #8…if any part of the Marvel Sunlight tale was ever written or drawn, no trace of it has ever surfaced.
My own authorial career had begun in the 1970’s (basically an exercise in collecting rejections)…but in 1986, I undertook a project near and dear to my heart. I endeavored to extend the continuity of the massive Doc Savage literary history to the present day. I had grandiose notions of pitching the concept to Conde Nast/Bantam Books, as the series of paperback re-releases had been sputtering for some years (and the new Will Murray-authored novels of the 1990’s had yet to come).
Thrilled beyond words to be working with the Doc mythos, I composed a single novel, featuring as its villain…John Sunlight. As you will see below, his (apparent) death in 1938 seemed manageable to explain away, and so I did so, setting up a confrontation between two then-octogenarian titans: Doc and Sunlight.
When I completed it, my attempts to interest Conde Nast in the novel, The Day of Black Sunlight, came to a rather predictable zero. As a then-unknown writer, I had no cachet with which to woo such a powerful publishing entity, and they declined to even look at the book.
For the record, Sunlight really dies in the novel…blown to bits (conclusively) by Pat Savage, using a rapidfirer loaded with explosive cartridges (I thought it was high time a more empowered version of Pat kicked some major ass).
In any case, disappointed but undeterred, I began plotting more Doc novels in the present day, only to have DC Comics’ Doc Savage series appear shortly afterward…updating Doc to the present day. With the idea no longer original, I moved on (to return to author the pastiche Doc Talos series a quarter-century later…but that is a whole different subject).
Though I did include a pastiche of Sunlight in a short post-WWII story as part of the Talos Chronicle, depicted here by fine artist David Cuccia, and also Doc Talos co-creator Iason Ragnar Bellerophon.
But returning to mainstream publications, by the late 1980’s the Doc Savage DC comic was hitting its stride, tapping into many pulp-story sources for stories, and by issue #11 author Mike Barr made a momentous decision…to resurrect John Sunlight.
The comics industry is notorious for ignoring or substantively altering the histories of adventure characters, but Barr was an aficionado of the pulps, and as I had done in my own attempt at a new Doc novel, actually tried to carry forward the continuity from the two 1938 stories.
The ongoing storyline of the comics series had updated Doc to what was then the present day…1989. So Barr had the same challenges I had faced in The Day of Black Sunlight: to explain how Sunlight had survived the events of The Devil Genghis, and find some engaging means of bringing him back. At the end of the 1938 novel, Sunlight had been cut down by the swords of his own followers, and presumably hacked and torn to bits. The pulp description of the scene portrayed the initial stabbing, but provided no specific, positively identifying views of the dismembered corpse. So in the new story Sunlight Rising, it is shown that Sunlight did in fact die, but his body remained in one piece…and had been mummified by a few loyalists among his followers.
This unique corpus became an object of worship among those followers, but in an area so remote no one outside of that small circle even knew of its existence, until the mummified corpse is stumbled upon by a soldier of fortune.
(Comic artwork by Rod Whigham)
A book kept at the feet of the mummy proves to be no less than the journal of John Sunlight. Realizing what he has found, the soldier of fortune murders Sunlight’s worshipers, and carries away the body.
And so begins an odyssey that will soon bring Clark Savage and John Sunlight into conflict for a third time.
to be continued…