Time is strange. It doesn’t feel as if almost 20 years passed after Millennium Productions’ fine Doc Savage comics story The Monarch of Armageddon, before the character of John Sunlight would appear anywhere again. And yet it was 2010 that DC Comics (who had held the comic book rights to produce Doc stories in the late 1980’s) once again acquired those rights.
DC had featured John Sunlight in a memorable story arc in the ’80’s, but opted not to pick up the threads of their own series, instead essentially ignoring its existence. They had ambitious plans this second time around, building an “alternate universe” which they called First Wave, which would re-conceptualize numerous characters from their own publishing history alongside pulp and other (sometimes rather obscure, sometimes major headliners) heroes.
There was some controversy about this right out of the gate…First Wave author Brian Azzarello, in an interview, discussed the whole project in terms that were a little less than reverential toward the original Doc Savage. While I believe not intentionally dismissive of the iconic pulps, comic iterations, and of older fans, some readers did interpret it that way. So the effort to update not only the characters and settings but the whole zeitgeist of the series into a millennial-friendly form seemed to have as many detractors as supporters.
I’m also an older, long-time fan of Doc Savage, so I had mixed feelings about this as well. Nevertheless, I found the ambitious concept intriguing…by 2010 the Doc story-franchise had been in existence for almost 80 years, and I felt there was merit in attempting to reach an audience of the present day by utilizing some of the sophistication that had crept, decade by decade, into the genre of heroic adventure since the days of the Depression, or even my own formative era as a reader, the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Interestingly, one of the new series’ alternate covers (the black and white image below was utilized as a promotion) was an homage to the past, showcasing new art by Neal Adams, who had done a wonderful rendition of Doc in a pinup-style page from the 1970’s Marvel Doc Savage magazine.
Here is that 70’s image…
After that nod to the past, it was clear that the actual story was going to promptly abandon pretty much all previous continuity. Author Azzarello and artist Rags Morales presented a high-end, but very modern written and artistic style.
The following scene, which takes the form of a commentator’s view toward Doc Savage as a person and cultural icon, also transitions into our first look at the “millennial John Sunlight”. He is seen sitting on a bench at Coney Island, a strange figure in white business attire (essentially all white in color…an affectation of the original pulp Sunlight), speaking Russian (the original pulp Sunlight had Russian connections but was not himself a Russian) but with wild hair and bushy beard worthy of Rasputin. He acts alternately like a mastermind and a drunk.
This is the last we will of Sunlight in the first issue of the six-issue series. Intriguing, certainly. The dialogue is clearly geared toward more of an adult audience (rather than the often adolescent approach of the pulps and most of the comics from the 20th century). There is a feeling that the bones of Doc’s pulp world are being re-fleshed out…a feeling I found equally interesting and unsettling.
The other factor in First Wave that would strongly affect its appeal or lack thereof — depending on the reader’s personal perspective — was the mashup of disparate characters. In this series there would be quite a crowd, including altered versions of Batman, Will Eisner’s Spirit, the Blackhawks, and even Rima the Jungle Girl (who originally appeared in the early 20th century novel Green Mansions, as well as a relatively faithful-to-the-original comics series by DC in the 70’s). Mixing so many diverse characters into a single cohesive storyline would be very challenging.
Sunlight was certainly an antagonist of adequate stature to face a lineup like that, but it remained to be seen whether this whole re-imagining of classic adventure/entertainment was going to work.
to be continued…