The Man of Bronze in the Bronze Age: Marvel’s Doc Savage

(Another rewritten post from my own blog, from 2014).

If not for Doc Savage, I might never have started reading Marvel in the Bronze Age.

I’d read Marvel occasionally in the 1960s, but I was (and remain) more a DC fan. After moving from England to America and resuming comics buying I focused entirely on DC. But then came Doc Savage #1.

From the first moment I read a Doc Savage paperback I’d been hooked on his adventures, even though it was the underwhelming Devil on the MoonI picked up every paperback I could find, used or new. When I saw John Buscema’s cover to the first Doc Savage issue I couldn’t resist, even though it was Marvel. With the Rubicon crossed, I figured I’d check out my favorite Silver Age book, Avengers. Steve Englehart had just started writing and I was instantly hooked on them too. Other Marvels followed.docsavage1That makes it ironic the Doc Savage comic doesn’t hold up well (certainly not as well as Englehart’s Avengers tales). I enjoyed actually seeing Doc and his friends in action rather than reading about them, but it didn’t give me the buzz the books did. Rereading a few years ago as part of a general Doc Savage reread I could see why.

The first issue covers little more than the opening couple of chapters of the original book, Man of Bronze. Doc meets with his friends and learns of his father’s mysterious death, then a Mayan assassin shoots at him from a nearby skyscraper. Doc catches up and the killer dies trying to escape. It’s a good, fast-moving story by Roy Thomas, Englehart and artist Ross Andru. The cover shows the influence of the James Bama cover art from Bantam’s pulp reprints, with the distinctive widow’s peak and a version of the ripped shirt look Bama always gave him. The stories inside gives Doc a blue vest to wear instead, as seen the Steranko cover of the second issue.docsavage2The first issue made the mistake of coloring Monk’s hair black, which they corrected in #2. It also set Doc’s adventures in the present of 1972, which I’d have been fine with but the creators promptly decided against. From #2 on, we’re back in the 1930s. Unfortunately they didn’t change Monk’s shaggy, shoulder-length mop of hair which looks way too modern to my eyes.

Of Doc’s several comics series this was the only one that stuck to adaptations of the pulps instead of coming up with new stories. Adapting The Man of Bronze into two issues worked fine because it’s a relatively slight story. But then came Death In Silver, one of the best yarns, with a much livelier and more complicated plot. Chopped into two issues (Marvel said stretching adaptations out longer wouldn’t work because of the bi-monthly schedule) it felt rushed and cramped.

So did The Monsters, which missed one of the best elements of the original story about a criminal army of giants (the mastermind plans to whip up mass hysteria to the point everyone thinks there are hundreds of giants, bigger and scarier than the reality). Brand of the Werewolf is a weaker story so it suffered less. The title also made more sense here than in the pulp novel (where it replaced author Lester Dent’s proposed title, Crew of Skeletons); there’s no werewolf in the book but here the bad guy does run around in a werewolf suit, Of course there’s no reason for him to do so, so I guess it didn’t make that much more sense.

The series died after eight issues, plus forgettable crossovers in Marvel Two-in-One and Giant-Size Spider-Man. The two-part adaptations didn’t help, but I don’t know writing original stories would have changed anything; Marvel’s black and white Doc Savage magazine used new stories and it didn’t last any longer. Doc’s never been a huge success in comics, possibly because he comes off more like a B-list superhero than an A-list pulpster. Certainly if he’d been a new superhero I wouldn’t have picked up Doc Savage #1.

But in hindsight, I’m glad I did.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Buscema, Steranko, Andru and Rich Buckler.

7 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    I first read these, hmm, I want to say about 7-8 years ago, when I scored discounted copies of the tpb and Showcase edition collecting this Marvel 4-color series and the b&w magazine – both of those books, ironically enough, were published by DC.
    Anyway, yeah, the color series was pretty lackluster. The magazine stories are much better, though. The format is much more suited to pulp hero stories, as the creative team had about 40 or more pages per issue to play with. The art, by John Buscema, Tony DeZuniga and others, is fantastic.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Never a success? Well, long term, no; but, Millennium did quite well with Doc Savage, briefly. After DC’s mixed foray with Doc (or his grandson), it was a breath of fresh air and quite well written. However, it was a small publisher, which had a change of ownership. Still, those are good comics, which did a fine job of capturing the flavor of the original, in new stories.

    I think, like Superman to Batman, Doc Savage is a bit harder to do in comics than the Shadow. In both cases, you have a hero with very few flaws; so, you have to work on interesting situations and characters. The Shadow, like Batman, is loaded with atmosphere that really pushes the imagination.

    1. Oh, quality wise there’s been some successes, but no staying power. I agree Millennium was very good; they’re the only ones where the art really reflects how freakish some of the team look.
      I enjoyed Mike Barr’s run on DC’s version, both working with the O’Neil set-up and then going back to the pulp days. Particularly the Shadow crossover.

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