Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reconstruction of the Fables

Justice Inc. (2014-2015/ Collected 2015): based on characters created by Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, Paul Ernst, and others; written by Michael Uslan; illustrated by Giovanni Timpano and others: I mean, if you're going to resurrect the three most popular heroes of America's pulp era of the 1930's and 1940's, you might as well get a writer who knows the characters and is willing to have fun with them. Michael Uslan (sometime comic-book writer and listed as one of the producers of every Batman movie since 1989) knows Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Avenger.

Maybe a bit too well: a recurring meta-joke about the young Doc Savage's haircut looking like Clark Gable's hair recurs a couple of times too often, as does a bit in which various people react to Doc's 'skull-cap' haircut. Both jokes stem from things exterior to actual Doc Savage stories: the illustrators of Doc's pulp magazine novels in the 1930's were told to make Doc look like Clark Gable; the tremendous, iconic Jim Bama cover illustrations for the Doc Savage reprints from Bantam books in the 1960's gave Doc a skull cap/widow's peak hairstyle based on a misreading of the novels (Doc had a close-fitting helmet that looked like this, but it wasn't actually his hair). See what I mean about knowing too much?

But anyway, Justice Inc. is actually fun. Its revisionism makes sense within the bounds of the story. And the revisionism doesn't fundamentally alter the characters of these three heroes. Doc and the Avenger still believe in the rule of law; the Shadow still has a tendency to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Together, they're a fun, occasionally bitchy team.

And they face villains familiar to fans of Doc Savage and the Shadow, slightly revised in what's really a very Marvelesque attempt to create links among characters who were never linked in the pulps. Both the Doc Savage and Shadow villains behind the potentially world-shattering conspiracy that drives the plot now share part of an origin with the Shadow, at least when it comes to the Shadow's somewhat murky and plot-convenient mental powers. 

Originally published as a six-issue miniseries from Dynamite, purveyors of ancient copyrighted characters for ancient fans, Justice Inc. isn't a mind-blowing super-epic. It is very entertaining however, which is more than I can say for a number of recent efforts to breathe new life into Doc, the Shadow, and the Avenger (DC's depressing Firstwave, I'm looking at you!). 

Giovanni Timpano's art has just a touch of the illustrative retro feel that such a project requires. His renditions of the various iconic characters are mostly swell. Somewhere in the Uslan/Timpano collaboration is an occasional difficulty with smooth panel-to-panel and page-to-page progression. It's not jarringly off-putting, though it occasionally causes one to struggle making sense of what has just happened.

My only other real complaint isn't actually a complaint: Uslan understandably limits the roles of the various sidekicks and helpers of the three great pulp heroes. Many of them make cameos (Monk Mayfair, Margo Lane, and Pat Savage most prominently), but there clearly wasn't room for both the crossover and an encyclopedic use of all the major characters from three different pulp-hero rosters. Especially when Albert Einstein, Howard Hughes, and H.G. Wells make relatively major appearances. So it goes. 

If this is the last time we see a new Doc Savage comic-book adventure, he goes out on something of a high. And I'd imagine the Shadow and the Avenger aren't far behind him. Well, probably. All three characters have been remarkably stubborn about shuffling off the pop-culture coil to this point. Recommended.

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