[Mild spoilers ahead.]
Mark Waid’s new reboot of the Gold Key classic Doctor Spektor: Master of the Occult brings the right level of goofy fun to a title that has languished in the margins of the comic world as a sort of cut-rate Dr. Strange or Constantine. Waid’s new book has just the right mix of over-the-top mystical nonsense and character motivation that stays just on this side of parody to make it a promising beginning to the run.
In the early 1970s, Doctor Spektor (or The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor) tried to bring some of that old fashioned EC energy back to a mainstream comics title. Gold Key, with its young target audience, was either bold or genius (or both) to develop such a potentially provocative title just as the Comics Code was evolving towards more permissiveness. Doctor Adam Spektor in this incarnation is a vigorous, well-dressed magician type in his mid-40s, who “studies the mystic arts” and is occasionally called to some far-flung location to perform some occult-flavoured act of heroism. No issue was too pulpy, and Spektor and his beautiful short-skirted Native American assistant “Lakota” are dispatched to locales such as ancient Egypt and even the lab of Dr Frankenstein to combat the forces of evil. Lakota, by the way, as well as all the other female characters in this comic, have aged badly. For a comic written in 1973, the outfits are all firmly 1968 mini-skirt and fringe territory, making the stereotypes already out of date by the time the comic hit the shelves. Other than the gratuitous references to her “Apache blood” (which “gets excited”), Lakota is interchangeable with Megan Draper from Mad Men: a dark, slightly exotic, heavily made-up sixties beauty.
But the original book was groundbreaking in the sense that it featured a multi-racial cast of characters, including Spektor’s sometimes associate Elliot Kane, and did feature female characters prominently, if slightly stereotypically. Kane, on the other hand, is never specifically singled out for his background, which is even more progressive. While Elliot is a colleague, the female characters, even the plucky girl Friday Lakota, are reduced to playing the victim, who Spektor saves at the last minute. But in his globetrotting ways, engaging with myths and legends from other cultures, including those from Africa and South America, Spektor also drew from pulp influences and set the stage for Indiana Jones, among others. It was always an entertaining, if shallow read, and never quite as dark as it seemed like it should have been.
Waid’s new book, for Dynamite comics, recasts Spektor himself as less of a Cary Grant and more of a Brad Pitt, complete with upswept hair and stubble. Now a popular media celebrity, Doctor Spektor is known for fighting demonic forces on live TV, with the ample resources of his wealthy family providing the backing for such gadgets as a satellite-based system of redirecting sunlight to vampires. He is, however, very emotionally vulnerable, as his tusslings with dark forces leave him exhausted and depressed, holed up in his posh New York apartment. “He’s just chasing down monsters until he finds one bad enough to kill the one that’s eating him,” as one character points out. (We aren’t yet privy to the source of Spekotr’s problems, but this is only issue #1, after all.)
Here’s where Waid’s version of Spektor sets the stage for what is no doubt going to be a long exploration of the character, as he is haunted by the memory of a girl who he has never seen outside of his visions. The image seems like a memory, and feels like the memory of hurt, but it never gets clear enough to recognize.
Spektor’s imagery and powers come to life at inconvenient times, like during his live television show in this issue. His producers have tossed him the relatively easy assignment of interviewing an obviously fake TV psychic. Spektor makes fun of the plump exotic woman with her earrings and Johnny Carson-level costume until some very powerful forces are indeed unleashed, right there in the studio. Deaths result, although the dead characters seem to come back to life in spectral form and converse with the living quite easily. (The glib description would be that they “pull an Obi Wan”.) Spektor takes off in search of the demons to do battle, and the premiere issue ends with a plucky red-headed assistant being pressured to take on the Laktoa role as Spektor’s right-hand woman. With that final piece of the genre puzzle in place, Doctor Spektor’s adventures are just beginning.
In terms of tone, Waid stays light on his feet throughout, giving this potentially very heavy story a nimble dexterity that is welcome. And of course in this post-Buffy, and especially post-Constantine world, we’re used to the idea of blending the fantastic with the common place. Time will tell if Waid and his collaborators are able to provide fun adventure stories with a touch of pulpy darkness and really bring Spektor into the 21st century. They’re off to a promising start.