Image Comics pays tribute to pulp heroes of the past
The first time you see Adventureman in Matt Fraction and Terry and Rachel Dodson’s new graphic novel, he says, “Don’t be afraid.”
The sky fills with zeppelins firing death-rays at the art deco towers of 1930s New York, people are fleeing in the streets, and the police commissioner has picked up a secret phone to call for help.
Adventureman tells him, “Help is on the way.” The world might be ending, but there are still heroes willing to throw themselves into the teeth of Armageddon.
This, it turns out, is just a story in an old pulp magazine, another fantastic adventure of Adventureman, an obscure hero that almost everyone has forgotten except Claire Connell and her son Tommy.
But of course, the truth is bigger than that. Because the real world needs Adventureman, now more than ever.
Fraction—whose previous work in comics ranges from The Invincible Iron Man to the mind-bending Casanova—has decided to haul the idea of the pulp hero into the 21st Century, working with the Dodsons, who have done gorgeous, richly detailed illustrations of pretty much every superhero in the universe.
Claire is a former cop who lost most of her hearing in an unexplained incident that also took her off the force. Instead of the usual grim-and-gritty trope of Claire as a broken person, seething with rage, she’s adjusted to a quieter life. She runs her late mother’s bookstore and reads old Adventureman stories with her son. She attends Shabbat dinner every week with her large, noisy family comprised of her variously talented sisters and their adoptive father, also a former cop.
But she can’t help feeling something is missing, that there’s a bigger world out there, a greater unknown nagging at her.
It turns out she’s right: Adventureman was real, and she’s been chosen to pick up his mantle and save the world from the apocalypse he never managed to defeat.
There’s a lot of history, both in the story and out of it, behind Adventureman. The character is the latest direct descendant of Doc Savage, who a pulp publisher created in the 1930s as escapism for dark times.
As the copy in Doc Savage magazine told readers every month, he was “a mental and physical giant,” a brilliant inventor, a master of all martial arts, and unbelievably wealthy. With his loyal crew of sidekicks, the Fabulous Five, Doc fought evil geniuses who were almost as smart as he was, but dedicated to ruling the world instead of saving it.
For a forgotten hero from the previous century, Doc Savage still has a lot of fans. He was one of the inspirations for both Superman and Batman. Shane Black recently tried to make a movie about him starring Dwayne Johnson (probably the only living human with the real physique to play him). Alan Moore wrote a series of comics about Tom Strong, a mash-up of Doc Savage and Tarzan. Warren Ellis had a version called Simon Spector, who fought evil and took hard drugs. And there’s a series of novellas by William Preston about Doc surviving into the present day, where he’s considered a threat to national security in the post 9/11 world.
All of these works, including Adventureman, owe a large debt to Philip Jose Farmer, who created the Wold Newton Universe, a massive metafictional project that treats Doc, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and dozens of other literary characters as if they were real people, and all part of the same family. (The name Wold Newton comes from the site of a meteorite impact in England, which exposed the passengers of a nearby carriage to radiation that made their descendants more than human.) In his biography Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer tries to place the good doctor in the context of actual historical events of the 20th Century.
The idea of Doc Savage never seems to go away, even though it should be hopelessly outdated. There’s something compelling about the notion that Doc’s offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building are still there, behind a hidden door, just waiting for the right person to enter the right code.
That’s where Fraction begins. Claire has to unravel the mystery of the last Adventureman book, which one of Adventureman’s surviving sidekicks drops in her shop.
The idea of superhumans in the real world has been around since before Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And it’s hard to reconcile the suspension of disbelief necessary for those larger-than-life adventures with reality, because reality often sucks.
Merging the two is no small trick, but Fraction pulls it off. True, Claire spends a little too long in denial, given that she’s attacked by a being composed of insects almost immediately after getting the book. But before long, she’s fighting robots like a seasoned professional.
The Dodsons bring it all to life in deeply detailed panels that spill across the pages, overstuffed with movement and action, even when the characters are sleeping or sitting still.
They also include the parts of the real world the pulps ignored or belittled with their racism, sexism, and stereotypes. Fraction adds characters who were almost never allowed to be heroes in the pulps, starting with Claire. She becomes Adventureman, without bothering to change the name. (“No, y’know what, not the time.”) Her six sisters are clearly marked to become her crew. The Dodsons have illustrated a New York that features people of every race and ethnicity, much like the actual city, only much better looking. Even Adventureman’s sidekicks from the ‘30s are more diverse than Doc’s original Fabulous Five. He has women and people of color on his team.
None of that is the main point. It’s simply a recognition that our ability to see people who aren’t white men in fiction has grown a little bit broader since those stories first appeared.
But then, heroes need to stand for ideals, even in an imperfect world or an imperfect medium. Adventureman, like Doc Savage before him, shows what’s possible, even it’s impossible.
That could be the moral underlying Adventureman: to escape the grim certainties and strive for something fantastic, no matter how unreal it might seem. Or maybe we can just tell a better story, and write a better ending, than the ones that we’ve lived before.
(Image Comics, December 9, 2020)