The 1970’s Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage Magazine – best comics Doc ever? Part 9

As this detailed look at the 1970’s Marvel/Curtis black and white Doc Savage magazine continues, we have reached the climax of the second issue, and its tale “Hell-Reapers at the Heart of Paradise”, by author Doug Moench and artist Tony DeZuniga.

The story centers around a favorite theme of the original pulp canon: the “lost world”. In this instance it is a hidden cavern in the frozen north, which has attracted greedy interest from the villains of the story first through what ultimately proved to be a red herring — gold from a sunken treasure ship — which becomes a more modern treasure trove, as the cavern contains a hugely rich deposit of uranium.

Doc, his aides, and a woman named Sandy Taine have come to the cavern for a more humanitarian reason…to find Sandy’s father, who was lost in a previous expedition. The early part of the story included kidnappings of other old expedition members, and a somewhat over-the-top villain called “The Mad Viking”. When we left off, Doc’s expedition has found most of the kidnap victims, and is being threatened by “reptilians” that live in the cavern.

As the reptilians close in, Doc & Co. prepare to repel an attack.

As the situation deteriorates, the kidnap victims show their true colors.

Doc shows an unusual degree of emotion here…incensed at the killing. This was a trait that author Moench displayed more than once in this series, portraying Doc in more of a middle ground between the highly self-controlled persona of the classic run of 1930’s pulps, and the more emotional Doc of later pulp years. To me as a reader I found Doc’s occasional outbursts in the series to be a bit jarring, but it’s not really a wildly uncharacteristic portrayal (in the first few pulps Doc was much more violent), and in the 1970’s storytelling milieu there was often an effort to imbue heroes with more nuanced character traits than the old pulps were wont to do.

In any case, the good guys and bad guys in this tale are finally delineated.

We now see Sandy’s missing father, who has in fact joined the reptilian denizens of the cavern. And remember the glimpse of the window broken in the wrong direction earlier in the story? Here it is revealed as the clue which informed Doc of the real state of things. A trope of the pulps is invoked here in interesting fashion…Doc’s habit of withholding information from his aides during the course of an adventure. In this case the habit goes wrong, leading to his companions being in the dark at a critical moment…another shading of 1930’s storytelling into more gray areas prevalent in tales penned in the ’70’s.

The exposition here to present the reptilian society is a bit labored…everything from the costumes to the setup of the village to the transformation of the humans into reptile forms really doesn’t hold up logically, which is one of the weak points of the story. But in terms of comics storytelling even just the effort to make it plausible is more sophisticated than much of the comics landscape of the ’70’s, which was littered with cardboard characters in completely implausible situations. In that context I was quite prepared as a teenage reader to let most of the absurdities slide, and the story was compelling enough to keep me rolling along with it.

Now the pieces begin to move toward the peak of action, with Doc setting out to rescue Long Tom (a somewhat unfortunate holdover from pulp cliche is the constant capturing of one or more of the aides, requiring the save from Doc). Monk in these scenes is shown in a thankfully competent light, making the harrowing descent by plane into the cavern with style…while Long Tom is close to making his own escape by the time Doc arrives.

The fight scene and the plane’s descent are spliced together through dual points of view, which was deftly done. Fight scenes in the comics (or in pulp narratives) are challenging to frame with a feeling of real tension (the good guys generally prevail), but the two tense situations layered in this way upped the reader sensations of conflict and peril in the tale.

After apparent victory and success, things take an abrupt turn for the worst. One repeating theme of the Marvel/Curtis Doc stories is the “unhinged villain” (there was also a similar round-the-bend take on the bad guy in the first issue)…and Rutter, recovering from Doc’s haymaker, promptly loses it completely.

The blasts destabilize the whole cavern, which begins to flood with alarming speed. Doc tries to get as many as possible into the plane, though his offer to take the reptilians out is implausible…the plane hardly seemed large enough for a full exodus. In any event, Sandy’s father refuses, and she is stricken with grief and sadness to realize he is also insane.

The story wraps quickly, with escape barely achieved. It ends on a poignant note, as the mask worn by Sandy’s father is washed up from the flooded cavern into the light of day, before freezing.

It was, of course, unusual for the old pulps to incorporate elements of pathos into their storytelling. But that was very much a part of the tone of 1970’s comics, and I found it fit well with the Doc Savage style of adventure, adding some emotional weight to the tales. Moench certainly incorporated it into much of his writing in that era, and we will see it numerous times as this series continues.

After the first two issues of the new Doc Savage magazine, I was thrilled. The stories had their flaws, but they were exciting, and it felt to me that Doc’s literary legacy was being honored and enhanced.

To be continued…

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