The Fearsome Doctor Fang was published by TKO Studios in December 2018. The title only recently came to my attention on the recommendation of a fellow member of The Sax Rohmer Society. As soon as I saw the hero was named Nayland Kelly, I was sold.
Writing new Yellow Peril titles in the 21st Century is understandably a tricky business. James Bond is a rare pulp-influenced franchise to have escaped unscathed despite Dr. No becoming the first of the series to reach the silver screen. The relatively understated yellow-face performance from Joseph Wiseman in the 1962 Sean Connery film never offends audiences the same way Mickey Rooney’s broad Japanese caricature does in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Political correctness damns Rooney’s over-the-top and insensitive Mr. Yunioshi while ignoring Jerry Lewis or Vito Scotti doing virtually the same offensive vaudeville routines elsewhere in film and television in the same era. What triggers viewers or readers is often the perception of just how offensive a portrayal is; though some of course would prefer to banish all trace of Yellow Peril and yellowface as a matter of principle.
So I was immediately curious how TKO Studios approached The Fearsome Doctor Fang. I was surprised to see a white hero and heroine on the cover as mixing it up a bit racially seemed the easiest path to navigating through rocky waters. While waiting for the book to arrive, I read up on the publisher. TKO Studios is a relatively new comics publisher on the scene whose approach to distribution is akin to television binge-watching. Multi-part titles are published digitally and in print in their entirety at once. Trade paperback and deluxe collected editions are also immediately available.
The co-creator of The Fearsome Doctor Fang is TKO Studios co-founder Tze Chun. A professional television writer/producer for series such as Gotham and Once Upon a Time and an award-winning independent filmmaker in his own right; it is likely that TKO Studios have an eye on developing their properties for other media.
HP Lovecraft is a bit like Bill Haley; he arguably created his own genre, but few people now consume his work for simple pleasure.
Just as modern people typically discover Rock and Roll through [your favourite band here], they come to the Cthulhu Mythos through Charles Stross’s Laundry Files(*), through the madness of the Cthulhu Fluxx cardgame, or through the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu.
Kids…? Well my daughter (8) has a plush Cthulhu who spends most of his time in the naughty corner for trying to eat the faces of the other toys.
Nobody, typically, just happens to pick up an HP Lovecraft book. If they do, they probably bounce. Let’s just say that speculative fiction has produced better stylists and that “of his time” is proving to be less and less able to explain away his racism.
However, unlike Bill Haley, Lovecraft still owns his genre. He pretty much nailed Cosmic Horror, and though we have chipped off racist carbuncles, all the tropes still bear his mason’s mark.
This means that Lovecraft’s Mythos serves the the same function in the Geek community as the Classical world served amongst educated Victorians. They would remark on somebody being “Hector-like”, we joke that our pasta bake “turned into a Shoggoth”.
This creates the interesting problem that the our shared subculture leans heavily on a set of texts that are increasingly unreadable for both literary and ethical reasons!
The answer, of course, is to retell the stories in other media, which is where books like Charles Cutting’s graphic novel Kadath come in.
Noir comics have bubbled under the surface for decades. Even the mainstream success of the Dick Tracy newspaper strip failed to bring hardboiled detectives to the forefront of the medium. Batman started off as a noir title before quickly eschewing dark corners for brightly-colored superhero theatrics for decades. TV and movie tie-in’s, usually one-off’s from publishers like Dell popped up here and there but failed to be anything more than curios.
A quick look at Dell’s Peter Gunn one-shot from 1959 is a perfect example. The television series was strictly adult fare in its day with a 9:30 PM time slot so it’s strange to see a kid-friendly comic with Pete tracking down a maker of counterfeit postage stamps as the lead story.
Dell fared much better with the simultaneous publication of a TV tie-in novel by the author of the Peter Chambers series, Henry Kane. That book managed to aim for a more sophisticated audience than late fifties network television standards would allow making Dell’s dime comic all the more strange in comparison.
The advent of the graphic novel was really the medium that allowed noir titles to flourish. Darker, more adult and frequently self-contained, the graphic novel was the perfect vehicle to bring hardboiled detectives into the graphic medium. Jim Steranko may have been the first to exploit the combination with Red Tide (1976) featuring the adventures of a gumshoe named Chandler in an appreciative nod to the creator of Philip Marlowe. That seminal work was the first graphic noir in the United States, Europe having got the drop on us first.
While Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire count has been prevalent in comic books whenever the prevailing bluenoses of each generation have deigned to allow horror books to be printed, there have been surprisingly few attempts to faithfully adapt the classic novel in comic book form.
Classics Illustrated tackled the book shortly before Dr. Frederick Wertham got his dirty little hands on the comic business and did his best to keep the children of the world safe from twisted people just like himself. The Classics Illustrated adaptation was professionally produced, if somewhat anemic.
Marvel Comics would later reprint it in the 1970s with new cover art to make it appear consistent with Gene Colan’s magnificent portrayal of the character for Marvel’s long-running Tomb of Dracula title. Happily, a superior adaptation was brewing in Marvel’s companion magazine, Dracula Lives.
Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano teamed up to provide a faithful, elegant, and leisurely-paced adaptation of the Stoker novel as an ongoing feature in the black & white comic magazine.
Unfortunately, sales were not on their side and the title was cancelled. The one unpublished chapter they had completed turned up in the pages of another magazine title, Legion of Monsters, before it too was cancelled. Their masterful adaptation was left incomplete for nearly thirty years.