The 1970’s Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage Magazine – best comics Doc ever? Part 3

In the first two parts of this article, I began a look at the comics adaptation of Doc Savage that many fans — even almost fifty years after they appeared — consider the finest ever done. The Doc Savage magazine of that era was published hoping to ride the coattails of what was a hoped-for hit movie series — but when the movie tanked, the magazine went on.

Marvel/Curtis had introduced a line of black and white magazines a little earlier in the 70’s, aimed at a somewhat older audience, and showcasing some of the top writer/artist talent of that time. Doc Savage headlined writer Doug Moench, and artists John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga. The concept was to present a complete-in-one-issue story with every magazine, with a long page count that allowed for a “supersaga” vibe.

Doc himself was modeled not after the movie’s Ron Ely, but more in line with James Bama’s iconic paperback cover portrayal.

When we left off, the stage had been set for a rousing adventure — a mysterious force is destroying Manhattan buildings, and an immediate clue in the form of a woman looking for help comes right to Doc’s skyscraper headquarters. She gives him a scrap of paper, which proves to hold a cipher.

Before they can begin work to crack the cipher, a distraction arrives in the form of the woman’s boyfriend, who has a very volatile personality. Doc collars him and brings him into the office…and in short order all hell breaks loose.

A blast shatters the office windows, and in swing a cadre of costumed killers. Doc’s response is immediate…he appears to be everywhere at once as the attackers unleash an attack with lightning guns.

This sequence is very much in the style of Lester Dent’s formula in his pulp novels. Dent would frequently front-load the story with numerous supporting characters (often with clever or quirky names), and would frame their introduction into the story around wild action scenes.

And a wild scene this is. Doc, in an astonishing display of his fighting prowess, all but decimates the attackers — who respond, equally astonishingly, by committing suicide.

Despite the outbreak of intense mayhem, Doc and the aides remain all business in the aftermath. The next two pages dig into the puzzle of the cipher, and they are delightfully complex. I confess, at age 17 after reading these pages, I became obsessed with secret codes and ciphers, designing several that I felt were impossible to crack (I tested these on my siblings, who thought I was nuts, but nevertheless did not crack the codes).

The anagram portion of the cipher-cracking session had my full attention — I paused and attempted the anagram myself (coming up with stuff about the caliber of Johnny and Ham’s efforts), before being appropriately impressed with Doc’s solution. The cipher-cracking continues — cheating a bit as it is revealed that Doc knows the steps to break the code in advance — but still clever, and the answers revealed foreshadow events to come in the story.

Using information gleaned from the cryptogram, Doc heads for a location on Long Island, taking Monk with him. We immediately get to see more of Doc’s sophisticated arsenal of equipment, as they fly out there in his autogyro (a precursor to the helicopter).

Off they go, and it’s fun to see the scene they discover at the swanky Long Island restaurant, which is clearly unaccustomed to pulp violence and chaos.

The comics of that time were often caption-heavy, and used the device of an omniscient narrator to ground scenes and set the mood. To 21st century readers the device may seem a bit antiquated, and some Marvel writers had difficulty balancing it with the flow of the story itself. Moench was one of the most adept at the technique, and will use it throughout the magazine’s run of eight issues. The trick of course, is to enhance the visuals and enrich the fabric of the story, without bogging down the pacing. Moench mixes his captions with fast-moving visual action and clever dialogue to keep things moving briskly.

Another cipher is uncovered, just as obscure as the earlier one. Another of Doc’s signature gadgets is brought into play…his ultraviolet lantern. More violence erupts, as another Silver Ziggurat thug shoots a lightning bolt down from a hidden vantage point, and this time a chase is on to catch the bad guy.

The chase is exciting (and ultimately explosive)…and ends with the mysterious silver zeppelin escaping, but not before Doc has tagged it with a tracking device.

Aha…”Thus slew a zeppelin”…

Did Monk and the restaurant’s innocent bystanders get out before the lightning bolt struck? Where is the zeppelin going, and what is the goal of this high-tech (for the 1930’s) gang? Have there already been red herrings passed before our eyes regarding the solution of the story’s mysteries?

More to come….

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