Friday, December 5, 2008

Marvel Comics magazine: 'Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze' (June 1975)

4/5 Stars
June 1975. Summer and its rising heat and humidity is arriving in the upstate New York town where I live. The radio at the house next door is playing Pilot’s ‘It’s Magic’. Also in heavy rotation is a song called ‘The Hustle’ by Van McCoy; it’s supposed to be getting a lot of attention in places called discotheques, where wealthy people go to dance and consume frou-frou drinks.

On the shelves at the drug store on Harry L. Drive in Johnson City is a Marvel magazine designed to cash in on the upcoming movie ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’. Since I’m a big fan of Doc, and the Bantam books are still coming out on a regular basis, well, I shell out my hard-earned dollar and grab it.

The first half of the magazine is taken up with a black and white comic titled ‘The Doom on Thunder Island’, illustrated by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga and written by Doug Moench. 
It’s a well-written story (although there are a bit too many speech balloons for comfort) and, freed from the constraints of the Comics Code, more gritty and violent than a color comic book counterpart would be. The story starts in suitably ‘apocalyptic’ fashion as a NYC skyscraper is reduced to rubble by a mysterious lightning bolt. Doc and the Fabulous Five are recruited to investigate, and wind up dealing with a psychotic genius on his island redoubt.

The larger page size allowed by the magazine format also gives Buscema – one of Marvel’s more talented artists in that era- more freedom to compose the panels in a fashion designed to highlight some great action sequences. The Fabulous Five are integrated in the story and serve as more than simple window-dressing, and there’s even a few panels devoted to yet another squabble between Monk and Ham. There’s also a bit of pathos invested in a sub-plot that borrows a theme from ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’. 

All in all, ‘Thunder Island’ is a very competent adventure and it’s too bad the magazine was a one-shot (Stan Lee was constantly tinkering with releasing various incarnations of b & w comic magazines throughout the 70s in a single-minded effort to encroach on James Warren’s territory – the one area of comic publishing Marvel never really succeeded in dominating).

The rest of the magazine is devoted to a text article (‘The Man Who Shot Doc Savage !’) in which George Pal is interviewed about the upcoming movie; it features some stills of Ron Ely as Doc; stills of the supporting cast; and some stills of various sets and production locales. In the interviews Pal comes across as articulate and well-versed in ‘Doc ‘ lore.

Unfortunately, when I actually did see the feature film ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’ later that summer, it was a real disappointment. The special effects were cheap and unconvincing, there was a surfeit of static, dialogue-heavy sequences in order to cover up the deficiencies of a too-low budget, and the entire production was steeped in a winking, ‘this-is-corny-as hell- but –we love –it’ attitude. 

In his book ‘James Bama: American Realist’ (2006; page 111) author Brian Kane cites a fanzine interview conducted with Ron Ely by Tahir Bhatti, in which Ely stated his belief that a new team of executives installed at Warner Bros. deliberately under-budgeted the production, in order to ensure the film would be a flop. This was presumably a strategy to discredit their predecessors at the studio, and to demonstrate how badly things were being handled at Warner. 

I must confess some skepticism at this theory; the fact of the matter was that Pal, and director Michael Anderson, show every evidence of having sought to create a jokey, ‘campy’ picture that tried and failed to leverage the Nostalgia craze then gripping popular culture. Whether a massive increase in the film's budget could have resulted in a memorable film is doubtful. Indeed, it was not until ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was released some six years later that Spielberg and Lucas demonstrated how to make a film that referenced the thirties in a clever way, without sliding into parody.

Note: post updated on February 2, 2009 to include corrections, provided by B. M. Kane, regarding the 'Doc Savage' movie and Ely's thoughts on its production difficulties


Anonymous said...

If you check the footnote that goes with the Doc movie "claim" you will see that I was referencing Tahir I. Bhatti’s interview with Ron Ely. In the interview, Ely went into greater detail on the politics surrounding the film, but the gist of it is in the Bama book. BTW Michael Anderson directed Doc Savage, not Pal, and Anderson went on to direct Logan’s Run right after Doc. After the management shift, Pal had no control over anything—not even the editing. Thanks for reading the book! Brian Kane

Anonymous said...

The title was not a one-shot. In total, 8 magazines were published.