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Alcatraz, Comic Books and Diego Soto

on Mon, 03/12/2012 - 00:00

On the FOX drama Alcatraz, Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto is the resident expert on the legendary federal penitentiary, although one might not reach that conclusion after first meeting the unconventional academic. “I’m way smarter than I look,” he tells San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen after losing at a video game in a local comic book store. “PhDs in criminal justice and Civil War history,” she replies back. “Four books on Alcatraz. I’d say you’re way smarter than we all look.” Despite his husky build and geek credentials, Soto indeed brings an encyclopedic knowledge to the proceedings in his role as a civilian consultant to the FBI. In the world of Alcatraz, the inhabitants of the island prison mysteriously vanished in 1963 only to reappear close to fifty years later with a hidden murderous agenda, and Diego Soto has been tasked with assisting in the investigation.

According to the biography from one of his books, Soto “first visited Alcatraz when he was five years old and hasn’t stopped thinking about it since.” While that infatuation led to his authoring Inmates of Alcatraz, Alcatraz by the Numbers, Guards of Alcatraz and Alcatraz: Families and Friends, Soto has also constructed a series of comic books centering on the infamous penal institution. During the initial meeting between Diego Soto and Rebecca Madsen, the walls of Doc’s Comics are seen containing numerous issues of illustrated tomes that are simply entitled Alcatraz. Later in the episode, Soto meets Madsen’s uncle who was once a guard at the prison. “Know you?” he says to Ray Archer upon shaking hands. “I studied you. I even named a character after you in my comic.” Diego Soto is obviously a man capable of melding his passion for criminal justice, history and graphic novels into a singular creative outlet.

Alcatraz has been the subject of many major motion pictures, ranging from the reality-based The Birdman of Alcatraz starring Burt Lancaster and Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood, to the fictional action thriller The Rock that featured Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. The setting of Alcatraz has also appeared in many comic books, with the likes of Captain America, Hulk and The X-Men all visiting the former penitentiary throughout the years. While the film adaptations are entertaining and considered classics in their own right, Diego Soto no doubt devoured the graphically illustrated stories of Alcatraz as a youth and found inspiration in their adventures just as much as any other medium.

“You built the Batcave underneath Alcatraz,” Soto tells FBI agent Emerson Hauser when he and Rebecca Madsen are taken to a secret facility hidden beneath the legendary prison. Hauser is not the first to construct such a structure, however, as two key members of the Avengers were also taken into the depths of Alcatraz during an Incredible Hulk/Captain America crossover storyline from Marvel Comics in 1979. In the three-part narrative, Steve Rogers arrives on the island as a tourist in search of his kidnapped partner the Falcon, only to find a steel door leading to the clandestine lair of the evil Corporation. A drugged Bruce Banner is also held captive, leaving the alter egos of both men to devise their own escape from Alcatraz in the aftermath. Twenty years later, the same feat is accomplished by The X-Men when their mentor Professor Xavier is taken prisoner by the Brotherhood of Mutants and likewise locked away beneath the cells of Alcatraz.

Very few details of Diego Soto’s own Alcatraz comic book were revealed on the FOX drama of the same name. Given the success that Soto had obtained as the preeminent authority on Alcatraz, along with the revelation that at least one character has been named after an actual inhabitant of the former federal penitentiary, it is not a stretch to believe that some portion of the narrative is based on actual events. In 2008, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy commissioned a series of graphic interpretations of the fourteen escape attempts from the prison and made them available for purchase at the Alcatraz gift shop as well as online. The first edition, Escape from Alcatraz, is subtitled “The Dummy Head Breakout” and chronicles one of the last efforts but arguably the most famous—that of Frank Morris, portrayed by Clint Eastwood on screen. Issue two, meanwhile, is set in the 1930s and features “The Doc Barker Gang” as they construct an elaborate plot from within the confinement of D Block.

“I don’t think I can hack this,” Diego Soto tells Rebecca Madsen in the “Ernest Cobb” episode of Alcatraz. “Stone cold killers and dead bodies and someone I actually know getting (shot) right in front of me. This isn’t a comic book world, is it? You know, real people are going to die if we don’t catch these guys.” Despite such reservations, Soto still continues as a consultant to the FBI task force investigating the mystery at the heart of the FOX drama and even finds a way to incorporate the experience into his comic book narratives. In the following installment, for instance, Soto is seen at a drawing board while illustrating the latest pages of his graphic story—pages that depict the actual events of “Ernest Cobb.” Apparently art imitates life in the fictional world as much as it does in the real one.

In the end, Alcatraz combines the contemporary “mystery of the week” format of Twenty First Century crime dramas—with Emerson Hauser, Rebecca Madsen and Diego Soto investigating the reappearance of a specific former Alcatraz inmate in each episode—with the serialized trappings of a much larger mythology. What happened in 1963 that caused all of the inhabitants on Alcatraz to suddenly disappear, and why are they reappearing close to fifty years later without any signs of aging? The series further shakes up the genres that serve as its core by including a comic book aficionado to go along with the more conventional FBI agent and police detective that are represented by Hauser and Madsen.

Diego Soto may not live in a comic book world per say, but he brings a different perspective to the world of Alcatraz nonetheless—a fresh outlook that has been derived from the graphic medium and is steeped in its tradition and history.

Anthony Letizia (March 12, 2012)

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