Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 16

In the last installment, I began with a look at the first issue of Dynamite Entertainment’s 2017 Doc Savage limited series, The Ring of Fire. The author was David Avallone, the artist Dave Acosta.

Since then, David Avallone himself has graciously offered to let me share his thoughts on the series here. What follows is the first part of an Afterword he created for the collected graphic novel version of the story. This will be new to those who have only read the comics — and in addition, sheds some light on his thoughts concerning the topic of these articles: the presence (and continuing mystique) of John Sunlight as an adversary to the Man of Bronze.

Here is David Avallone:

I thought you might be interested in a little background on the making of the book you hold in your hands (or are reading on your iPad.) When Dynamite Executive Editor Joseph Rybandt kindly asked if I would be interested in doing a Doc Savage miniseries, I jumped at the chance. I love Doc, and had only done a “what-if” style Doc one-shot. I was excited to do a classic 1930s “Supersaga” in the Lester Dent tradition. Joe didn’t even have to ask if I wanted my Twilight Zone: The Shadow artist back for this one… Dave Acosta and I were both looking to work together again, after having such a terrific time on that series.

To come up with a pitch (or three) I thumbed through some 1930s history and looked for things that might have caught the attention of Doc Savage and his crew. A few events jumped out at me, one of which was the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Doc’s Cousin Patricia, a character I’ve always adored, was an aviatrix herself, and surely would have crossed paths with Amelia. I decided they became inseparably close, and that Pat was still haunted, a year later, by her girlfriend’s disappearance, and maybe something else… something more mysterious. I submitted this pitch with two others, and when Joe let me pick which one I wanted to do the most, chose the one with Amelia Earhart. She was irresistible.

To prepare for the series, Dave Acosta and I spent some time on the designs of the characters. As usual, we started a Pinterest board for visual reference. We decided on the incredibly important and controversial question of Doc’s hair: a Bama-like skullcap but one that was clearly made of real hair, which could be disturbed, and not the bizarre helmet-thing from the otherwise excellent 1970s paperback covers. We also came up with a “cast list” for the whole book, with the actors (mostly from the period) serving not as caricatures but as templates for “type”. Perhaps eagle-eyed fans can figure out who was inspired by who. Or you can cheat and look up our Pinterest board for the series… Doc Savage: Ring of Photo References.

All of Anthony Marques’ covers bursts with power and energy. Brent Schoonover’s interconnecting covers show the path of Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated round-the-world flight… a lovely touch which I didn’t notice until I read something Brent wrote about it. I also didn’t notice (until putting them side-by-side) that beyond the obvious use of the Bantam books font, even the formatting (the rectangle with our names and the number) mimics the great paperbacks from the 1960s/70s.

Chapter One: maybe it’s a pretentious tic left over from too much Fellini, but I like opening a story with a mysterious dream sequence. We discussed a bit whether or not the audience would “get it.” I felt we should give the reader the benefit of the doubt. I thought the “silence” of the scene… and Doc’s horrible “death” would be enough to make the nightmare plain enough. From the very first page I loved how the book looked: the talents of Dave Acosta and colorist Morgan Hickman are very much apparent here, and on every page that followed.

I love doing the research for these period-set comics, and for what it’s worth… there really was a U.S.S. Augusta, it really did carry Admiral Harry Yarnell, and there was a naval base on the Palmyra Atoll. Calling it Palmyra Island was my very weak geology “joke”. It was an island before the Ring of Fire blew it in half and turned it into an atoll. I chose the Augusta because it shares a name with my beloved wife, but reading up on it I discovered it was a very significant ship in history. My favorite history teacher is honored here with the non-historical-figure Captain Calimano. Thanks, Mr. C.

Speaking of historical figures, Chapter One also has a cameo appearance by comic book hero President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delighted to be using an early Doc Savage version of Facetime. I loved writing FDR: it’s fun stuff when you have a character who – famously – really knew how to speak and express himself in interesting and charming ways. His buddy is the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Bill Leahy. I figured Bill would be in on a call like this. This is a good place to draw your attention to the lettering of Taylor Esposito, who handled a lot of challenging stuff in the series with great imagination and talent.

Chapter One then introduces the Fabulous Five. To be honest, I feel that the Five can be a challenge, and it’s a challenge Dave and I were very much interested in taking on. How to make them all clearly defined, visually and as characters? We worked on this a lot, and I hope it shows.

Chapter One ends with a curious thing about research, and the subconscious. When I started writing, I wasn’t sure what “clue” would lead Pat to know where to look for her friend. In the real world, Amelia vanished not terribly far from an island group called (in 1938) the Phoenix Islands. At the time I wrote Amelia’s transformation to the Firebird I was not consciously aware of that fact, or thinking about it. When I got to this scene I suddenly realized I had already planted the clue in the first sequence. My mind played a trick on me identical to the one it played on Pat Savage: I assume “Phoenix Island” was lodged somewhere in my brain from doing the research, and the dream sequence – just like in the story – was trying to give me the answer.

Chapter Two gets its title from a Bogart movie from the period. Ironically, in the Bogart movie he never quite makes it to the Pacific.

As the US Navy guys watch Doc Savage fall from the sky, I couldn’t help myself from gently tweaking the famous superhero who owes a lot of his foundations to Doc. Doc’s diving suit here can be found on the cover of the October 1937 issue of Doc Savage magazine. Old film nerds might also recognize the design of Doc Savage’s gas grenades. In 1933, Doc supplied them to a filmmaker named Carl Denham, who was concerned that he might need to knock something enormous unconscious.

The issue ends with the reveal of our villain, foretold in story and song and Previews solicits: John Sunlight. I know that some fans are like “c’mon, man, John Sunlight? Again?” In prepping this series I went back and reread the Sunlight pulps and really wanted to write the character. I also felt like Kenneth Robeson/Lester Dent still left something there unfinished. Dave and I both picked the same “photo model” independently, and I love the way his design came out.

To be continued…

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