The classic pulp character of Doc Savage has had an uneasy relationship with the medium of sequential graphics — comic books. For some reason, though each time a new Doc Savage comics series appears the publisher claims they “finally did Doc Savage right”…very few readers and critics seem to agree. Some fans don’t like Doc in the comics at all, period. Personally, I love the comics, and have followed each and every effort to translate Doc Savage into that medium. There have absolutely been some splendid stories done over the decades — Millennium’s The Monarch of Armageddon by Mark Ellis and Darryl Banks and Dynamite’s The Ring of Fire by David Avallone and Dave Acosta come immediately to mind. But each of those was either followed or preceded by stories with a sometimes marked drop-off in quality. A sustained run of exciting, well-written, high-quality tales from any one publisher has been elusive.
Except perhaps, for one. In 1975, Marvel launched a second attempt at bringing Doc to the comics. Their first try, a full color comic begun in 1972, lurched through eight vastly inconsistent issues, each adapting a pulp novel into visual form with only two issues each to tell the story. This resulted in intensely compressed storytelling, with the plot intricacies from the novels frequently tangled, and each climax rushed. Marvel, of course best known for superheroes, put Doc in a frankly ridiculous costume, sporting a tiny vest to show off his muscles, very much in the superhero style. Only one story, the Steve Englehart/Ross Andru/Tom Palmer Death in Silver, had the feel of a cohesive package, and even that was rushed…though it was exciting, and hinted at how good that series might have become.
It was not a great surprise when the series folded — it simply never found a balance in style and storytelling that seemed to work.
What did come as a surprise was that within a few years, Marvel would try again. From a business standpoint, they were clearly hopeful of riding on the coattails of what many felt would be a blockbuster motion picture (and ongoing film series), starting with 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, starring Ron Ely. The film, instead of the hoped-for blockbuster, proved to be a disaster…the high camp tone of the movie contributed to it being a critical and commercial flop. The planned-for second film was never made.
Marvel’s magazine, however, did not sink with the film. Hollywood had clearly been out of touch with changes in the comics industry since the campy tales that were prevalent in the 1960’s — a shift into more serious, more sophisticated storytelling had been going on for years in the ’70’s. In addition, Marvel had recently launched its black and white line of magazines, which was squarely aimed at somewhat older readers — late teens and up, instead of the pre-teen audience which had fueled the camp era.
One characteristic of Doc Savage fans — and Doc comics fans are no exception — is many readers identify the time they discovered the character as the “best” phase of his presentation. It’s a unique quality in the Doc readership — the character inspires loyalty which often begins at a pivotal time in our lives, and can last a lifetime. But even among fans not yet born in 1975, I have seen an enthusiasm through conversations on social media for the black and white Marvel Doc.
Serendipitously, I was the exact target age for the stories produced in 1975, being 17. I was, at the time, appalled and disappointed by the film (my feelings have softened in the decades since)…but I loved the magazine. It felt to me exactly as it advertised in one of the opening pages of issue #1, “A Return to Greatness”.
The cover of that issue was simply a reproduction of the movie poster, and there were copious movie-related articles in the issue as well, but the main attraction was the story itself.
Marvel had assigned two of its top talents to the series. Author Doug Moench was one of the most prolific writers of that era, one of the “young turks” who were changing the face of comics storytelling. He was doing work across the spectrum of color and black and white comics — one of his greatest successes being the Master of Kung Fu series he was doing with artist Paul Gulacy.
The artist was John Buscema, arguably one of the most formidable talents in comics at the time. He had taken the reins from Jack Kirby after “The King” departed from Marvel, on headliners like The Fantastic Four and Thor. He was also expanding into Marvel’s growing sword and sorcery tales, and would draw Conan for a long, long run.
Equally important to the Doc Savage series — as he would come to provide a remarkable degree of continuity to the visuals as the pencil artist changed frequently, was Tony DeZuniga.
These three teamed to start the Doc Savage magazine with quite a bang, in a story called The Doom on Thunder Isle.
to be continued…