Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Come-And-Go Surgeon

Back in the day, when Dr. Donald Blake still showed up in hospitals unannounced, eliciting gasps and envy from his fellow healers, he pretty much enjoyed carte blanche, practically parting the waters on his way to whatever patient required his matchless services. You'd think the man had arrived in response to a special searchlight on the roof of City Hall, projecting an outline of a scalpel in the night sky:

Though when Blake moves to Chicago and is referred to a local free clinic for work, the clinic's head physician, who's clearly dedicated to maintaining high standards at his humble place of healing, is a bit more discerning and isn't the type to fall at Blake's feet like the rest:

Blake, of course, gets the nod from Jeffries--the man is no fool, after all.

But nobody's perfect--even a Norse god in the guise of a mortal, who went to medical school without realizing at the time that he was a god. It was Blake who gave Thor a new appreciation for the planet Earth and its fragile, mortal inhabitants--but it was Blake who established an identity of his own, another mortal among mortals, who only had a semblance of his life and his goals when "awakening" in his new form:

Which brings us to two interesting Thor stories, both taking place after Blake has discovered his true origins as Thor and who now seeks to strike a balance between the busy life of a medical doctor with a life as the God of Thunder. It was something he could barely get away with during his Journey Into Mystery days when he spent most of his time in his Park Avenue private practice as a G.P., having to fumble for explanations to give his nurse when he would have to duck out to save the day as Thor and leaving her to make excuses to his waiting patients--but far more difficult to manage when he began making appearances in the operating room as a skilled, "gifted" surgeon facing the professional scrutiny of his peers in regard to both his behavior and his long absences.

In the first of these stories, Thor gets word of the shooting of Pedro Lopez, a civil rights activist, whose life now hangs by a thread and who's scheduled for emergency surgery. Blake shows up unannounced to "assist" in the operation but is quickly assigned as the primary surgeon for the procedure, to the relief of everyone involved:

During the operation, however, the Wrecker begins a rampage in the city, and Blake is forced to make a crucial decision:

With the clock ticking, Thor manages to defeat the Wrecker with dispatch; but imagine the censure that awaits Blake back at the hospital for his unprofessional behavior, even when he's able to return in time to save the patient. Yet writer Stan Lee chooses to avoid consequences for Blake, and instead lets him off with a virtual slap on the wrist in a "if only they knew" moment:

Aside from the fact that this was a high profile case due to all the media focus on Lopez, Blake's conduct in the operating room would normally have sent word of his behavior rippling through professional circles and at the very least warranted a hearing on the matter. Also, what if it had been known that Blake would need to duck out from time to time to protect the city as a super-hero? Is the end of the story suggesting that we or his fellow doctors should cut him some slack? Or that we simply understand his burden?

Our second story, scripted by Doug Moench, takes place just over fifty issues later and "piggybacks" on the first with a similar plot. Here, the flash point for the crisis is a young man named Jimmy Sayers, who flees pursuit after shoplifting from a market and is critically wounded by gunfire when police misinterpret him reaching for a concealed weapon. Sayers is rushed to the neighborhood clinic where Blake is in residency, and Jeffries assigns Blake to perform the procedure. Here, too, the stakes are high in the operating room, with the neighborhood residents up in arms over what's being seen as an unprovoked shooting of an unarmed kid:

The crisis rises to a fever pitch in the streets, and the similarities between this story and Lee's continue with some variations. Here, Blake completes his surgery without having to leave at a crucial point--but, thanks to a handy window in the operating room, he becomes aware of what's happening outside and once again makes a judgment call:

But, while Thor is using a might-makes-right approach with both the angry crowds and the police outside, another crisis arises--this one in the operating room, where Sayers' heart stops and Jeffries is called in by the alarmed nurse. This time, the patient dies--and this time, Blake doesn't simply get to walk away from the consequences of his actions, but instead receives a stern dressing-down from Jeffries:

Moench pursues the matter reasonably, given Blake's past experiences in such matters in the pages of Thor. Blake is still at odds over his duties as Thor and his responsibilities as a physician, but has reached a point which, as he puts it, amounts to "for better or worse, what I truly am. Often confused...but never doubting." Writer Gerry Conway at one time took the opposite approach to Blake's doubts about his identity, making the guy quite the basket case about it. With Blake now stabilized in that regard, what we see at this point is Blake now in the position of making hard choices about his actions; and, with Blake's gifts having allowed him to practically coast through his career, Moench puts him in the position of accountability for the first time.

Interestingly enough, Blake still doesn't seem to find cause to recognize the need for that accountability, given the technicalities of his actions. And those at his hearing don't seem to be interested in letting him off on a technicality:

Blake is certainly annoyed with "ifs," which isn't surprising under the circumstances. If, for example, a doctor completed an operation, instructed the nurse to monitor his patient, and then immediately left the premises to, say, run errands in the city, we can't help but wonder how Blake would regard that doctor's behavior if he were sitting with Jeffries and the other members on the review committee. Moench, unfortunately, goes no further with Blake facing the music here--abandoning not just this part of the story, but also letting Blake off scot-free by dropping the matter entirely with this rather lame conclusion:

It almost seems appropriate that these two stories centered on gunshot victims, given that neither of them had the skill of Donald Blake in dodging a bullet.

(This post covers events from Mighty Thor #s 159, 171, 311-312.)


Anonymous said...

Y'know, I've often wondered how some of these superheroes can hold down a day job.
I mean, Bruce Wayne's got it easy, all he has to do is go on a date with a super-model once in a while, but how does Clark Kent find the time to be Superman AND an award-winning reporter?! And what was he thinking becoming a news anchor in the 70's, of all things? That nut. Apparently Lex Luthor didn't have a T.V.
As far as Don Blake goes, I've had surgery and I'd prefer the surgeon to have his head in the game when he's opening me up and not fly of to fight Ulik the troll in the middle of the operation. Maybe he could get a job as a fry-cook, say.
"What happened to the guy who was supposed to bring me my french fries?"
"Oh, sorry, sir. Apparently Ego the Living Planet is threatening Earth right now." mp

George Chambers said...

Jeez, those surgeons in the 4th panel are RIPPED. They must have gone to the Jack Kirby-Jack LaLanne School of Surgery!

Comicsfan said...

George, yeah, the guns on those guys--at first I thought they were movers just washing their hands!

mp, some very amusing points, as always--though Blake's leg affliction might not be suitable for watching his step around a busy kitchen. :)

Anonymous said...

I always thought Bruce Banner looked rather too muscular for somebody who was supposed to be a skinny weakling.

Phil said...

I've always thought the Don Blake part was integral to Thor. Just like one of the weaknesses in the Thor movie, Thor becomes a human. Just an ordinary muscle bound human able to fight six guys at once, wow what humility. If he had become Donald Blake, puny human but able to heal people, imagine the different outlook on life that would given the movie.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, buddy, I think you have your weaklings confused here! Banner is that other weakling!

Fred W. Hill said...

Kirby & other artists also seemed to routinely forget that Donald Blake was supposed to be lame in one leg and would have had some problem running very fast if at all.

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