Tuesday, 4 March 2008
Stars of page and screen
Last month saw the anniversaries of the first appearances of two major characters from twentieth-century pop culture: 100 years of Billy Bunter, and 75 years of Doc Savage.
There is sometimes a sharp intake of breath from offended comics fans when they catch the likes of Marvel describing its core business as managing trademarked characters and other intellectual properties, rather than publishing comics. But, really, appearing in different media is a mark of cultural success, and always has been. Herakles and Theseus cropped up in poems and plays, as statues and on friezes, on vases and on coins. And, sometimes, versions from other media have swamped the original. Mary Shelly lived to see her philosophical, vengeful creature replaced by an incoherent rampaging monster in stage versions of Frankenstein.
Billy Bunter and Doc Savage first appeared in prose fiction magazines; a species that is now almost extinct (though the death of the magazines did not mean the end of prose fiction, any more that the possible death of periodical comics will mean the end of comics as a form). But I first met Bunter in the comic strip which ran in Valiant from 1963 to 1976, and Doc in George Pal’s 1975 movie version . Although I did later read reprints of some of the original stories from both series, that wasn’t until after I had encountered DC’s 1980s Doc Savage comics.
As well as prose fiction, comics and movies, Doc appeared on the radio; and Bunter on both radio and television. The time for both is probably passed. Doc Savage is altogether too simplistic a hero for modern tastes – Superman without the thrill of flight or the bizarre love triangle. J K Rowling’s Hogwarts revived children’s fantasy, but does not seem to have spawned more stories about mundane boarding schools. Both remain strong images, but are probably fated to remain suitable mostly as knowing references in the likes of Planetary and The Black Dossier.
Pictures and panels
“Billy Bunter”, art by Reg Parlett, from Valiant, IPC Magazines, 3 June 1967
Doc Savage issue 1, cover by Adam and Andy Kubert, DC Comics, November 1987, image taken from the Grand Comics Database
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist), Ben Dimagmilaw (colourist), Bill Oakley and Todd Klein (letterers) and Scott Dunbier (editor), America’s Best Comics/Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2007