Sunday, June 14, 2015

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #38: Doc Savage Magazine #4

by Professor Gilbert Colon, P.M.P. 

Doc Savage Vol 2 #4
February 1976
Archie Goodwin, Editor
John Warner, Associate Editor
Marv Wolfman, Consulting Editor
Barbara Altman, Design
Dan Adkins, Art Consultant
Lenny Grow, Production
Ken Barr, Cover
Annette Kawecki, Jim Novak & Denise Wohl, Letterers

“Ghost-Pirates from the Beyond!”  
Story: Doug Moench
Art: Tony DeZuniga (First eight pages penciled by Marie Severin)
1936, six years before Humphrey Bogart starred in Casablanca, French Prefect Verdoux demands that the resident commissioner, Inspector Chalot, hurry with their “five hundred year old police case” and “locate the missing--.”  Suddenly a turbaned assassin dispatches the pair and torches the office and its files.  

At Doc’s headquarters, amateur criminologist Charles Villiers calls his friend Clark Savage, and is assassinated before Doc can reach the telephone.  Outside the scene of the crime, a crowd sees “a glowing man...!” on the Chrysler Building’s ledge.  Doc’s “spectroscopic analysis” afterwards detects “a phosphorous compound.”  

Using an invite intended for Villiers, Doc and his Amazing Five attend a party at one Darryl LaVey’s household.  There the home decorator Hulot is poisoned, but not before giving up the last words “Maison Blanche.”  (Not to be confused with a particular professor’s “Maison Bradley.”)  Just then assassins crash the bash, but as the Bronze Knight and his men fight them off, LaVey takes Trina Valley, the Jean Harlow-type Ham and Monk had been vying for, hostage at gunpoint.  

Doc and his “aides-in-adventure” translate Hulot’s last words – “Maison Blanche,” “white house”...Casablanca! – and off they are to the Moroccan city in the Helldiver submarine.  At port, Casablanca’s new commissioner of police, Chenoir, greets them and promises help in finding Trina and solving the murder of Villiers.  

Since not all the files burned completely, Doc analyzes them with his spectroscope back on the Helldiver, yielding the clues “Rashid” and “Blue Parrot.”  Above deck they encounter a “ghost-ship” possessing “luminescence...attributable to the same phosphorous amalgam espied on Villiers’ windowsill.”  (“Morocco’s chief export is phosphates.”)  Doc boards the vessel and fights a “specter-like...villain” – it is the apparition from Villiers’ window ledge!  

Doc mercy-pellets and captures LaVey, who he thought was the “Ghost-Pirate,” after the real “deadly man-demon” escapes.  Investigating deeper inside the ghost-ship reveals it to be no antique – its “ultra-modern machinery” almost equals Doc’s devices.  They find Inspector Chenoir who denies his culpability and claims he was taken prisoner by LaVey.  

Monk, looking for answers at the Blue Parrot café, gets rough with its owner Rashid.  Rashid, more honorable than he has been given credit for, has no love for “the Demon Reaver and his evil followers” and chooses to believe Monk and Ham are “the good guys.”  As “the only one who knows the location of the great treasure,” he narrates a flashback to the 12th century when Casablanca was “Anfa...a base for Berber pirates.”  

In those times, the Reavers preyed on treasure-rich Spanish galleons, and one fateful day they encountered a French ship, reported to carry “the richest treasure of all,” and “stripped its cargo hold bare.”  The vengeful French returned in force and slaughtered Moroccans, afterwards building the city of Casablanca over Anfa’s ashes and making it a French Protectorate.  Rashid’s people never forgot this five-century-old atrocity, making for a political powder keg to this day.  

The “treasure beyond belief” was rumored to be hidden in the Moyen Atlas Mountains.  Legends say the spirits of Anfa’s ancestors returned in ghost-ships to help fight the French and keep the “fabulous cache” for Morocco.  The French insist that they will share the fortune with Morocco.  Rashid trusts this promise, but many of the people do not.  He also believes that outsiders are looting the treasure for themselves, not for France and Morocco, and it is they who murdered Chalot and Verdoux before they could find and share the hoard.  

Rashid gives Doc’s men the treasure map passed down from his father and father’s father and they all depart together for police headquarters.  Along the way Doc and his men fend off ambushers who see Rashid as a traitor.  At the headquarters, LaVey refuses to cooperate.  Rashid accompanies Doc and his Famous Five to find Trina and treasure on their own, along with two French-Moroccan police who volunteer.  

Traversing the “tortuous terrain” on camelback and following the map, they journey to the center of the Moyen Atlas Range to find an Islamic minaret “with the same luminescent effulgence radiated by the ersatz apparition.”  Inside it is no minaret, having been modernized with “a sophisticated array of machinery.”  Doc pinches the neck nerve of a man guarding Trina, leaving him unconscious.  She points the way where the demon fled – down the hidden shaft of the hollow pillar.  Doc and his assistants descend to “a subterranean system of caverns” and follow it to the treasure room.  

There the Demon Reaver whips up hysteria against the French government within his ranks, claiming, “We must take it and use it to buy the people of Morocco out of poverty!!”  “This man has...lied to you!!” counters the “Avenging Angel cast in Solid Bronze” after bursting into the room.  “He serves neither France nor Morocco!!...Only himself--.”  When the Demon Reaver bids his men, “Slay the French infidel!!,” Monk gets “down to knuckle-bustin’ business.”  (One policeman says, “There are...too many to kill...!,” to which Monk explains, “When you’re fighting with Doc Savage, you don’t kill the bad just hurt ’em a lot!”)  

The Demon Reaver “cuts and runs,” with “the Giant Superman” behind.  The “man who...tried to deprive two countries of the means to food and shelter...has made one hell of a mistake.”  The “Bronze Knight of ApocalypseSHKROKTs and unmasks him – Hulot whom they thought poisoned!  

Monk parts by saying, “You’ve got your treasure, Rashid,” who “hope[s] that the French keep their word and share [it].”  On the Helldiver back to Manhattan, Trina breaks it to Monk and Ham who have been competing for her affection that she is happily married, eliciting “almost” a smile from “the grim, austere Bronze Giant.”  FIN.  

Announced in last issue’s Mail of Bronze letters page under the title “Demon-Reavers at World’s End!,” the renamed “Ghost-Pirates from the Beyond!” was touted to be “a very special collaboration between Doug Moench, Tony de Zuniga and Marie Severin.”  Jumping ahead to issue #5’s Mail of Bronze, Marvel explained how for “Ghost-Pirates,” “Overworked [penciler] Marie Severin ran out of time after page 8 and was forced to relinquish the remainder of the job to Tony Dezuniga [sic].”  

One letter to the editor in #5 calls Ken Barr’s “cover beautiful—with the exception of the belt buckle [because] Doc would never wear it; he just isn’t that vain.”  He also complains that Doc is “still too musclebound, and the shirt is wrong” while admitting that “we Doc Savage fans are quibblers.”  

In “George Pal: The Man Who Shot Doc Savage!” (Doc Savage #1), the filmmaker who produced the 1975 film Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze told interviewer Chris Claremont that he has at least two sequels up his sleeve.  The Philip José Farmer-scripted one was supposed to be located in “the Morocco of Casablanca [with] a Peter Lorre- [and] a Claude Rains-type of character.”  Since the Pal-produced first film flopped so famously and no sequels were forthcoming, the Casablanca-set “Ghost-Pirates from the Beyond!” from this issue is as close as we are likely to get.  (The Blue Parrot referenced in the story can only be a homage to the establishment owned by Sydney Greenstreet’s character Signor Ferrari, the competitor who wanted to buy Rick’s Café Americain.)  

Pal’s other proposed sequel, “placed mainly in…old New York during the prohibition era, [with] gangsters…the Walter Winchell era,” could be seen as last issue’s “A Most Singular Writ of Habeus Corpus” – Moench presumably read the Claremont interview while penning that first issue’s story and must have been taking his cue from Pal.  One wonders if Moench or anyone else at Marvel had a glimpse of a treatment or heard specific rumors of the unmade sequel content beyond what Claremont quoted.  If so, could some of that material have worked itself into the above two tales?  

Marvel enters Architectural Digest territory with this edition of Doc Savage, and Moench shows his true colors once and for all.  Previously he has associated Art Deco with villains like the premiere issue’s Silver Ziggurat.  Now he lays all his cards on the table and puts his own feelings into the mouth of Doc Savage, unless they are in fact culled from Lester Dent and his novels.  Doc compliments Hulot on his “masterful recreation of the Art Nouveau spirit in its Gestalt approach” because “every item is a piece of both function and beauty.”  Despite Doc being “a scientist,” he “much prefer[s] the curvilinear and flowing lines of nature employed by the Nouveau artisans…as opposed to the severe and jagged lines of the machine now in vogue.”  As opposed to the Machine Age design and construction of the Ziggurat’s “strange, incongruously chromium structure” in Doc Savage #1, its “contours whisper[ing] to time-lost Mayan and Egyptian mysteriesa temple whose roof opens in seeming reverence.”  Or last issue’s “vast chamber of primitive futurism” belonging to Inferno.  Too bad for Doc that he is headquartered in one of the most famous Deco structures in all history, the Empire State Building.  Later Moench finds room to ruminate on Casablanca’s “exotic blend of European and Islamic architecture--.”  The desert minaret in the middle of the mountain range, when the adventure party comes upon it, more resembles a lighthouse considering its design and emanating light.  A nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Lighthouse”?  H. P. Lovecraft’s Elder Pharos?  

Savage Savateur!  This is the first time we see Doc kickboxing in the fittingly French martial art of “savate.”  (Page 38 tells us that, “During a visit to France as a youth, Doc Savage acquired the skills of savate.”)  At initial glance, it would seem that this fast and furious foot action was featured primarily to capitalize on the many Bruce Lee movies and David Carradine episodes of Kung Fu on 1970s screens big and small.  Yet there may well be precedent for this in the Man of Bronze’s published prose exploits, if not in the Lester Dent novels, then certainly in Farmer who, in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, writes that of the many fighting styles Doc learned, one was “a peculiar form of savate from a Berber tribe in North Africa.”  It is also in keeping with the tone of the era’s material as Professor Calculus, in Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin comic Flight 714, fights using this French style.  Dick Grayson and the Phantom Lady are also “savateurs,” though it is hard to pinpoint the year the martial art became a standard of their fight repertoires.  This is also the first time Marvel shows us Doc’s “Vulcan nerve pinch” in action.  

Doc’s archnemesis from Dent’s pulps, John Sunlight, gets a mention on page 41, and issue #5’s Mail of Bronze seizes on this and suggests future stories “feature old villains from the original pulps (like Sunlight).”  The editorial staff responds that “Doug is contemplating the possibilities of a new John Sunlight epic right now...,” and issue #6’s Mail of Bronze renews the request for “a new John Sunlight story,” with the qualifier that he doubts the evil genius “could have survived after The Devil Genghis.”  Marvel again promises we “will see how the two-timing villain John Sunlight managed to survive...and thus becomes a three-timer when Doug’s new Sunlight story is presented in issue #8.”  (Sunlight never materialized; Octo-Brain is villain in issue #8, the last.)  

The Sunlight reference backfires on Marvel in another way.  A reader in issue #5 calls the Sunlight allusion “another small anachronism,” cataloging several others in his letter.  He ends by saying how he has “been trying to fit your novellas into the chronology proposed by Philip Farmer in DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.”  The rest of his missive is dedicated to pointing out other chronological discrepancies that clash with the established Doc Savage timeline, and offering a few possible solutions.  Probably before anyone else could catch it, Marvel fesses up in their response that their “impossible reference to Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS ‘panic broadcast’ more than a year before the Mercury Theater [is] deliberate,” along with others, because adjusting the date “would have interfered with the more important status of Moroccan political crucial to the basic plot.”  They stand their ground and boldly state that while they “admire...Phil Farmer [and] his proposed chronology,” they refused to be “bound to his conclusions or constricted by his findings [lest they] forfeit too many plot possibilities.”  

Quibblers indeed!  

Mail of Bronze
Besides “this issue’s novel-length epic,” the “decided absence of text features [and] missing editorial” is because Marvel “had to cut back our full size black and whites from 74 to 64 pages.”  This “eliminated all space for anything, save this letters page.”  But what a letters page it is – “the volume of mail received on the third issue...exceeds even the record-breaking response to our phenomenal first issue.”  

One query about the “rehabilitation center where Doc employs corrective surgery to convert criminals into accepted members of society” is met with the answer that “there are not plans at the moment to actually feature...Doc’s upstate New York ‘crime college.’”  As consolation, it is pointed out, “the ‘college’ mentioned in this very issue” (on page 61).  The letters editor is quick to point out that “we’re not sure we agree with the Clockwork Orange premise behind the ‘college.’”  The controversy continues over into issue #5’s Mail of Bronze.  One reader, while admitting that “the Crime College...does smack of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (or perhaps [Harlan] Ellison’s Coventry),” also defends it.  He asserts that “‘graduates’ possess full control of their destinies from the moment they left.”  Not only that, the letter-writer “certainly prefer[s] this method of handling criminals to, say, the methods employed by Dick Benson or the Shadow or the Spider”!  In his estimation, Doc’s Crime College “did a better job than our present-day ‘correctional facilities.’”  

Any “results of our poll regarding original stories versus adaptations are thus far inconclusive.”  It is here maintained that “Doc Savage can be portrayed most effectively in comics through...original stories...deliberately designed to be amenable to the idiosyncrasies of the comics format,” though that never stopped Marvel from adapting other pulp stories (the first batch of color Docs, Conan and Solomon Kane, etc.).  One thing is for sure – they “think continued stories would be simply disastrous—and an adaptation of a Doc Savage novel, unless major deletions were made, would necessarily span two or even three issues.”  Regardless of this, Marvel’s official policy remains what it has always been: “the-reader-is-always-the-boss.”  

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Professor Gilbert will return on Sunday, July 26th to educate and elucidate us all on the glory that is Doc Savage Magazine #5! 

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