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Medical Dramas: The Adventures of Young Dr. Masters | Romance Comic Book Medical Tales
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
Archie Comics had an "Archie Adventure" series that often featured super-heroes. Robert Bernstein, a frequent contributor to the Superman family, was a perennial scripter of these tales as well.
The Fly was a superhero who had the powers of insects. He could fly, glow like a firefly, employ the immense strength of an ant, weave silk cocoons and bind his enemies, etc. He could also command hordes of insects to do his bidding. The creators of the Fly always avoided grossness - one dreads to think what modern day horror filmmakers would do with this material - and the stories were full of G-rated, wholesome adventure. The Fly stories largely consisted of our hero doing battle with various menaces: giant robots, alien invaders, prehistoric monsters and gangs of crooks were favorite opponents. In this way, his stories resembled those of the Green Lantern, who also spent much of his time fighting monstrous menaces from outer space and other dimensions. With their emphasis on action and fights with various enemies, both the Fly and Green Lantern anticipated such later Marvel comics as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, both of which employed a similar paradigm.
The Fly never caught on big in public consciousness. I was 45 years old before I even heard of him or the Jaguar - this in 1999!
In his secret identity, the Fly was Thomas Troy, a young attorney-at-law in Capital City. Thomas' legal secretary was Donna Morse, an ex-show girl who wanted to be a detective. The Fly is a consistently nice person in both of his identities - he doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body - but he seems to be all business, and have no other personality at all. Only once in the stories I've read does he show any emotion: that is when he meets his friend The Black Hood, another Archie Comics super-hero, in "The World of Giant Gorillas" (1961). He seems genuinely overjoyed to see his friend. This emphasis on friendship reminds one that Bernstein authored the stories of Superboy's friend, Pete Ross.
The Fly's superpowers also seem different in these early issues. Here, the Fly could walk on walls and the ceiling, and could see from any angle. These powers are closer to the Spider-Man stories to come (1962 - ).
Tim O'Casey's Wrecking Crew. (#2, September 1959). Writer: Joe Simon. A leprechaun tries to get back his treasure from a crook. At the end of the story, legendary Irish king Finn MacCool puts in an appearance. The use of Celtic mythology anticipates Kirby's use of Norse mythology in his The Mighty Thor tales. So does the way MacCool strikes his mace on the ground, in a gesture reminiscent of Thor's.
Marco's Eyes (#2, September 1959). Writer: Joe Simon. Art: Simon and Kirby. When a hypnotist's show business aspirations are thwarted, he turns his hypnotic eyes to a life of crime.
Hypnotists were also favorite villains in Green Lantern. This is partly because they have interesting plot possibilities, partly because their non-violent nature made them acceptable to the strict comics censorship of the day. But most of all because hypnotism could over ride even the strongest super-powers, thus making them a worthy antagonist for a super-hero.
The best part of this story is its use of the billboard. Urban billboards used to have more psychological weight in people's minds in the 1950's: see George Cukor's film, It Should Happen To You (1954), for instance.
The art shows the action orientation that will later appear in Kirby's work for Marvel Comics.
Thomas Troy's legal business rarely took him into a courtroom. Instead, he was often sent on business trips by clients all over the world, to look after their interests. Thomas was always boarding a plane for India, or an island off the coast of Spain. This was usually the start of an exotic adventure for the Fly. He would travel there as Thomas Troy, change to the Fly to battle various menaces, then the story would conclude with Thomas' clients saved and him flying back to the US. Thomas usually wound up in wild places in these locales. When he went to India, for example, he would explore a jungle, rather than take part in a drama in Calcutta.
Bernstein typically saw people in terms of their professions. Both Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, for example, are defined by their careers as newspaper reporters and undercover detectives. Similarly, Thomas Troy is centered on his work as a lawyer.
The World of Giant Gorillas (1961). The Fly and fellow superhero the Black Hood go to India, where they look for the Black Hood's missing uncle, and find a lost world of giant apes. This is another well done Fly adventure story. Bernstein includes an explanation in evolutionary terms of the giant apes; this is a welcome sidebar to the tale. Sf stories in the comics often had this sort of scientific aside; this reader always loved these bits. They often lent themselves to interesting illustrations. He also stresses the gentle character of the apes; this is in accord with scientific knowledge today.
The Fly had an unusual layout. It tended to have a long story in the middle, flanked by short stories before and after it. The short beginning and end tales would tend to be 6 to 8 pages long, whereas the middle tale could be twelve pages. The big adventure tales like "The World of Giant Gorillas" would be the middle story. Mid way through the tales, there would be a spectacular two page spread, showing some highlight of the story. It would tend to emphasize pure visual spectacle. The two page spread would only cover the top half or two thirds of the pages; the bottom section would be smaller, regular size panels. The cover of the magazine often echoed the two page centerfold. The covers for The Fly could have captions down below, but they rarely had dialogue or other expository text. This was different from the Superman family covers.
The Black Hood was a Golden Age superhero for Archie Comics; he flourished during 1940 - 1947. This story seems to be his first revival during the Silver Age, where he would appear sporadically in The Fly and The Jaguar. His secret identity was young policeman Kip Burland, and he lived in the town of Northville. He and Thomas Troy are friends; Troy describes him as "my favorite policeman".
The Statue of Gold (1961). The Fly gets inducted into the Adventurers Club, an explorer's fraternity, and takes a trip to Egypt, where he meets a cat woman. Cats were a subject of continuing interest in The Fly, where they often serve as menaces or villains. This is a short but very satisfying tale. Jimmy Olsen, whose adventures Bernstein frequently scripted, was initiated into a similar club in "The Perils of Jimmy Olsen" (1961).
This story, with Donna Morse working as an undercover detective, is the closest analogue in The Fly to the adventures of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen as undercover reporter detectives, adventures that Bernstein often scripted. It also involves such favorite Bernstein themes as doubles. The story attempts the same sort of plot ingenuity that Bernstein brought to his Superman family tales. It might not reach quite the same heights, but it is a creditable attempt.
The Fly Versus the Moon Men (1960). Thomas Troy (and The Fly) visit an island off the Spanish coast, where he battles moon men at a old Spanish castle and at an observatory. This tale is half way between the adventure stories in The Fly, and the tales of mystery. The spooky island castle setting recalls a Lois Lane tale Bernstein wrote, "The Mystery of Skull Island" (1960). This long story gets the "middle of the issue" treatment, like the other adventure stories. By contrast, most of the other mystery tales are short, "beginning or end of issue" stories.
The Puppet Fly (1960). Donna Morse works as a detective again, protecting the Fly from a criminal. It is good to see Donna have a smash success with her detective ambitions. The story has much intriguing art, emphasizing geometric patterns. It makes effective use of strange mirrors.
An interesting background element in the story: a TV show of "The Adventures of the Fly", done as puppet theater. Puppet TV shows were a big deal in children's television in 1960 and in the 1950's; they are much less common today. The Superman family often included the media as plot elements in their stories; this is one of a very few similar uses of the media in The Fly.
The Monster Gang (1960). The Fly and fellow superhero the Shield battle a group of crooks dressed as monsters, such as Frankenstein and the Mummy. Like the Green Lantern, the Fly battled both alien menaces, and gangs of crooks. There was always a bit of an imbalance in these crook tales: both the Fly and Green Lantern had awesome powers, and they were perhaps a bit more evenly matched against the science fictional menaces rather than the gangs. However, the Fly tales about crooks often show plot ingenuity. Here, the crooks' tactics involve doubling, one of Bernstein's favorite themes in his Pete Ross tales in Superboy.
The Menace of the Metal Man; The Secret of the Fly-Girl (#14, September 1961). This two part story introduces the Fly-Girl, a woman who gets a magic ring and super-powers identical to the Fly's. Despite the dated use of the term "girl", she is the Fly's complete equal in every way, and the story treats her with great respect.
Her secret identity is Kim Brand, a glamorous movie actress. Such glamorous Marilyn Monroe types frequently appeared in the Superman family as well, where they usually turned out to be kind-hearted, hard working professionals, just as Kim Brand is here.
I like the Fly-Girl, but otherwise this story is rather repetitive, with the Fly and Fly-Girl battling endless menaces.
We see something of the origin of both characters, being given magic rings by Turan, an emissary of the Fly People, who live in another dimension. Such other dimensions are familiar elements in Green Lantern. Bernstein includes more of his evolutionary ideas here, in his treatment of the Fly People.
Riverdale is a TV series based on the Archie comic books. Dr. Masters shows up in three episodes of Season Two (2017-2018). This TV version of the character is black, an interesting update.
There is a paperback novel The Romances of Young Dr. Masters (1965) by Alice Brennan (bibliography). The dreamboat doctor on the cover has features in common with the comic book character. Both are blond. He wears a white medical uniform, like the comic book hero, with an erect collar and buttons up the side. Both also wear stethoscopes.
Dr. Masters' Desperate Decision (1964). This is both the premiere and the origin story for Dr. David Masters, setting up both the protagonist and the other central characters. Our hero is caught between his own desire to do medical research, which doesn't pay very much, and the demand of everyone around him that he become a GP, and make lots of money. This is an old conflict in medical stories: it was popular in the 1930's, in authors like Fanny Hurst, A.J. Cronin, Sinclair Lewis, Lloyd C. Douglas and other medical novelists of the era. It still packs plenty of punch, however, and this story makes for absorbing reading. I got completely caught up in it, and regret that there are no sequels to carry the tale forward, or help resolve its issues. Dr. Masters' conflicts over his choice of work is typical of Bernstein, who emphasized work as the central defining element of his characters' lives.
The emphasis on science, and admiration for science, is similar to the treatment of science in the super-hero and science fiction comic books of the Silver Age.
STORY STRUCTURE. This is one of Bernstein's longest, most sustained scripts, taking up the entire issue (30 pages). Most of Bernstein's work was shorter; his Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen scripts typically coming three to a magazine, roughly 8 or 9 pages. The script does have some episodes, which are like separate short stories within the tale as a whole.
Bernstein stories frequently have prologues, with different story elements than the rest of the tale. The opening crime episode of "Dr. Masters' Desperate Decision" can be seen as such a prologue.
More unusually for Bernstein, there is an episode in the middle of the story, that is not closely connected with the tale around it (the construction site episode).
BACKGROUND. The Adventures of Young Dr. Masters appeared at a time when medical dramas were achieving great popularity on television. Dr. Masters has the cool, serene good looks typical of Richard Chamberlain, who played Dr. Kildare on TV (1961 - 1966). Especially when dressed in his medical whites, Dr. Masters looks as if he has just shown up from a planet of dream like, meditative people. Dr. Masters is blond, like Richard Chamberlain.
The mid 1960's were also a period when Marvel Comics had great influence on the comics industry. Stories like Spider-Man had mixed soap opera and teen age angst into the superhero genre. Teen age and college readers proved fascinated with stories that dealt realistically with problems of growing up, getting a job, making life decisions, and career choices. The Adventures of Young Dr. Masters fits into this approach. However, the characters in Dr. Masters are more completely grown up than most characters in comic books.
IMAGERY. The cover emphasizes that Dr. Masters works in "a great city hospital". The cover also shows urban skyscrapers in the background. Like many 1960's comic book super-heroes, Dr. Masters is linked to a big city. Both the skyscrapers and construction cranes serve as phallic symbols.
My article on white medical uniforms in the comics examines similarities between the treatment of rock stars and Dr. Masters. These include the wearing of uniforms, working in elevated areas and phallic symbols. See also my detailed look at rock singers in comic books.
The opening episode with the police is discussed in other articles on this site:
The old-fashioned big city atmosphere is helped by the candy store at the start. Such candy stores were already becoming out-of-date by 1964, I think. Isaac Asimov's family operated one during the Depression. Like many drug stores, candy stores sold magazines - the one here sells Time, Life and others. This candy store also has a soda fountain.
A Case of Bad Blood (#2, November 1964) Dr. Masters helps resolve a dispute between a businessman and a labor leader. The stories in issue #2 do not deal with Dr. Masters' own problems; instead both tales in #2 introduce whole new groups of characters, each of which has their own dilemmas to confront. Dr. Masters plays a Mary Worth type role, solving each group's personal problems. This story shows some mild social consciousness in its plea for harmony between capital and labor. It is more interesting on a personal level, when at the end of the story, it deals with the personal relationships of the two men. Bernstein once more deals with one of his key themes, friendship between men.
Construction workers also appear in an episode of "Dr. Masters' Desperate Decision".
Operation Plane Crash (#2, November 1964) Dr. Masters parachutes to the location of an air disaster.
The cover shows him elaborately strapped into his parachute. He also wears what might be a simple brown uniform. In "Dr. Masters' Desperate Decision" he binds up a crook's wrists with bandages, to capture him. Later the doctor appears in an elaborately buttoned-up white medical uniform.
Both this story and the first episode of "Dr. Masters' Desperate Decision" have the hero going up against armed, murderous crooks. This recalls some of Bernstein's Jimmy Olsen tales, in which Jimmy gets in dangerous situations with criminals.
DOCTOR'S BAG. The covers of both issues show Dr. Masters carrying his black doctor's bag. This was universal equipment for doctors when outside of their office, in that era. Today, most Americans are likely unfamiliar with such bags.
The original comic books showed the doctor's bag as black - which they almost always were in real life. A recent reprint has the bag be a light color. This works fine as art, but is not authentic.
The surgeon is a truly admirable figure. He is very serious and committed to his work. The story becomes quite absorbing, as the nurse gets caught up in the drama of hospital life. The tale is genuinely grown-up, in dealing with serious concerns of life and death.
It anticipates a little bit Robert Bernstein's short-lived comic book The Adventures of Young Dr. Masters (1964). Both tales develop realistic, emotionally involving tales of young medical men. Both heroes wear somewhat similar white button-up medical uniforms with erect collars. Dr. Ames' tunic buttons up along the shoulder, however, while Dr. Masters' buttons vertically along the far edge of the front panel. (Previously police scientist Barry Allen, secret identity of The Flash, wore a similar white lab coat in "Return of the Super-Gorilla" (The Flash #107, June-July 1959).)
The surgeon is the sort of macho figure that one does not see much in romance comics. He is tall, muscular and with a brush-cut haircut that is very macho looking. He wears either a doctor's white uniform, with buttons up the shoulder and on the erect collar, or a dark blue suit that is equally serious in style. He appears on the cover in his doctor's uniform, his huge muscles bulging out of this uniform style garment. The effect is a bit 1950's looking. He holds a thermometer at an angle, which serves as a phallic symbol. One scene also shows him in a long coat. These are all examples of full tilt high style dressing for their era, as well as symbols of traditional masculinity.
The doctor always looks immensely determined. His name, Will Ames, reflects this. He has strength of Will, and he is always going after aims (Ames).