We’ve arrived at the climax of Issue #1 of the 1975 Doc Savage black and white Marvel magazine, a story titled “The Doom on Thunder Isle”, written by Doug Moench, and drawn by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga. Having arrived at the titular isle, Doc had upped-periscope from the submarine Helldiver, and was looking over the hideout of the bad guys.
The story — an original tale, as opposed to the novel adaptations of the first Marvel four-color Doc Savage series — had shown poise and confidence in its new style, coming out of the gate strong with many skillfully-used elements of pulp storytelling. As the story had progressed, some cracks in this adept touch had begun to show, including some pacing issues and faults in the story’s internal logic. Those are certainly forgivable sins in a fast-paced pulp adventure yarn, but still mildly troubling. That type of problem would appear less and less as the series progressed, as I presume its creators came to feel more and more on solid ground in its balance of pulp and comic book styles. But as “Thunder Isle” ramped up for its conclusion, another problem began to manifest: the comic book penchant for throwing in the kitchen sink.
Down periscope…and the scene shifts to inside the fortress of the Silver Ziggurat, villain of the piece.
We’ve got some uneasy elements here…the villain’s very comic-book cliche costume and speech/rant are a bit over the top, and Moench himself does not seem completely comfortable with the tone of his writing, slipping dangerously toward camp or self-parody with his omniscient narrator noting that the villain actually laughs off-key.
Things quickly shift to an action/fight scene, depicted with great verve by Buscema and DeZuniga.
Then comes the fore-mentioned kitchen sink. Though the tone and weaponry of the bad guys had been set by their lightning motif and was certainly engaging enough on its own, a new wrinkle is added by the appearance of dangerously altered animals and humans (or “manimals”). This type of thing, I would learn through further reading of his work, I came to regard as a “Moench-ism”. Clearly a movie buff and fantasy-adventure novel aficionado, he inserted elements from numerous films and books into his stories (later on in this run of Doc stories, we would see nods to Casablanca, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds are Forever...and the final story he would actually set in Hollywood with a plethora of film references). In this case, the Island of Dr. Moreau provenance is pretty obvious.
Doc goes into action, and again these are artistically dynamic scenes. (Clever use of the fortress’ lightning decor to emphasize Doc’s speed at the bottom of page 51). But the arch-villain reveal is a bit anti-climactic (the guy’s name was “Bolt” after all), and somewhat marred by his continued shrieky demeanor. Nevertheless, he gets Doc and the boys in his power with a basic “threaten the helpless girl” tactic.
The ensuing fight with the manimals has a raw energy to it, though the story was suffering from fight-overuse by this point, so it felt a bit less harrowing than might have been hoped for. It does have a unique emotional edge to it from Doc’s insistence on fighting alone to protect his aides, and their equal insistence on ignoring his orders in order to help him.
The story then races to its climax. The reveal of the red herring for the villain actually being a noble victim is interesting but rushed, and the plethora of elements to the plot prevents his fate from being as poignant as was no doubt intended. On the flip side, the Silver Ziggurat’s histrionics have become positively annoying, and I found it very satisfying to see Doc cut him down to size in a single panel (pre-dating by some years the classic Indiana Jones scene where he casually shoots the flashy swordsman).
The villain, in a distinctly ill-advised fit of pique after he comes to, wrecks his own installation and brings about his own death at the same time. This hearkened at least somewhat to the conclusion of many pulp stories, where villains regularly fell victim to their own machinations and bad judgment.
And so the first story in this new arc of Doc Savage tales came to an end. Though it suffered, particularly as it reached its climax, from overplotting, pacing issues and some collapse into imitative ideas and cliche, nevertheless I found it overall to be exciting and promising. Many of its problems were common to comics of all kinds in that era, and in some ways it was at least tentatively aiming toward the more sophisticated comics creations that would come in later decades. And there were still seven more issues to come, some of which would reach unique heights in Doc Savage storytelling.
to be continued…