Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 3

In Part 1, I examined the pulp origins of the most ubiquitous villain in the Doc Savage canon, and in Part 2 explored how DC Comics resurrected John Sunlight in the 1980’s. The story of that return, called “Sunlight Rising”, was written by Mike Barr, and illustrated by Rod Whigham. It was a long story, running across four issues of the comic.

Issues #13 and #14 continue this epic conflict. (Cover art is by Adam and Andy Kubert.) An interesting quirk of the DC Comics series was the fact that the covers often showed Doc, not in the pose of strength so often portrayed by James Bama on the iconic paperback covers, but in a position where he is either being humbled or beaten. An odd choice of design, but perhaps emblematic of the times…in the late 1980’s comics were attempting to “humanize” their characters, with the concept of making them more approachable to the more mature audience of readers that was evolving at that time. Certainly, as seen below, the covers of the Doc Savage comic reflected that trend.

DC Comics Doc Savage #13
DC Comics Doc Savage #14

When we left off, Sunlight and Doc had faced off at the site of his now-abandoned pulp-era Fortress of Solitude. In the original pulp story that introduced Sunlight, he had stolen horrific weapons that Doc had cached there (ironically, to keep them away from malevolent characters like Sunlight). Having recovered the weapons, Sunlight was using them against Doc and his aides.

A pitched battle ensues. and it is a pretty rousing fight — well choreographed by Barr and Whigham. Doc’s new team of younger aides also has a strong presence (they include Pat Savage’s granddaughter Pam, an Israeli ex-Mossad soldier named Shoshanna, a former Soviet Army officer named Anton, and a young man from the US South named Beau). The use of a blinding light against Sunlight and his mercenaries is one of many twists on Sunlight’s own name that appear throughout this story…a plot device perhaps used a bit too much by Barr, who apparently could not resist the ironic wordplay.

Sunlight and his minions escape with the weapons using a skyhook to airlift them away. In the midst of the escape, the chief mercenary attempts to persuade Sunlight to abandon the woman scientist who had accompanied them, but he refuses — an interesting development, as he will show a growing attachment to the woman as the story progresses.

Sunlight is considerably more ruthless concerning his male partners…he leaves the tech company exec who had been financing the whole operation behind, quite dead.

The story moves on, with Sunlight being introduced to modern terrorism…an experience he seems to enjoy greatly.

Very soon Sunlight enlists the aid of a rogue terrorist nation (which somewhat mimics Iraq) to get him launched via rocket to a space station where once again a play on his name provides a plot device…he plans to use one of Doc’s “doomsday inventions” to block all sunlight from reaching the Earth. With this as his leverage, he unveils his wish to unite the entire planet in a kind of managed utopia.

In addition to this fascistic idealism, he also wants Doc Savage delivered to him. He cuts quite a figure, wearing his trademark single color in the form of kingly robes…and Doc is in quite a difficult situation.

These comics show an interesting shift in the storytelling styles of the time. The motivations and behaviors of the characters are a little more complex and nuanced than the black-and-white good vs. evil tropes that had been pervasive in the comic book industry for decades, but stories like this appeared to attempt a middle ground between completely adult storytelling and more shallow action and bombast. Some highly sophisticated works had come out of the 80’s (works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen), but comics were still hedging their bets with traditional properties like Doc Savage. It made for a bumpy ride at times, which was amply displayed in the presentation of John Sunlight, who is given a mix of new subtleties to his character as created in the pulps…but not quite a completely mature psychology. It was in some ways a fascinating repeat of a pattern that appeared in the post-WWII pulp magazine, which also tried to walk a line between adolescent and adult story content and characterization.

As the story reaches its climax, this form of mild story-schizophrenia will only grow more pronounced.

To be continued — the conclusion of DC’s “Sunlight Rising”.

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