I haven’t just been reading Ambrose Bierce during the last three months.
I’ve been hanging out with the Bronze Guy, Doc Savage.
The excuse was preparing for Arcana 44 about three months back.
Anthony Tollin was a Guest of Honor. A former comic book colorist and editor, these days he’s an expert on old time radio shows, the sinister pulp hero the Shadow, and an editor at Nostalgia Ventures where he oversees the reprinting of various pulp magazine stories including Doc Savage.
I hoped he’d have samples of those Doc Savage reprints. He did. The advertising worked. I’ve since bought several including some with stories I already had from the Bantam Book reprint series.
So Who Is Doc Savage?
The Doc Savage cycle starts in March 1933 and continues today. It includes radio shows, comic books, reprints of pulp stories, and additions to the saga written yet today.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the characters of Doc Savage and his aides or their world and adventures. Why repeat the work of others? There are many websites that will supply all that background — and with way more pictures:
- Hidalgo Trading Company (that’s where Doc keeps all his need vehicles including dirigibles, autogyroes, and a sub) — the most elaborate fan site with lots of original art from the pulps and paperbacks and fan revisions as well as bios of artists and writers associated with Doc Savage)
- Pulp.Net’s Doc Savage has a list of many other sites on Doc as well as a good briefing on the character.
My First Visit to Doc
It was 1975. I was near the end of sixth grade.
My parents, in preparation for a move, had rented the house out to a young woman until they sold it. She had filled up one of the bookshelves — mostly with books she had never read and were her friend’s.
There were some slightly interesting ones by some guy named Ray Bradbury, but it would be about a year before I’d pay attention to that guy and then mostly because he was school reading.
But there was this other book. Dinosaurs. A sub-machine gun. It seemed the obvious choice.
The Land of Terror turned out to be an excellent choice for a bloodthirsty sixth-grader. It’s one of only two Doc Savages where Clark Savage, Jr deliberately kills his enemies. After that he gets all humanitarian and packs his surviving enemies (quite a few somehow managed to still get killed) off for a brain operation at his “college”. Then they become good members of society and occasional aides.
Doc, of course, does the surgery himself. He’s the world’s best doctor and surgeon. Presumably, though I don’t remember it ever being specifically said, that’s why he’s “Doc”.
But, then, he’s good at everything. Anything you can do (if you lived in the 1930s and 1940s, at least), he can do better. Except talk to women. He’s rather hopeless at that, but he’s sworn that no woman ever get close to him lest she serve as hostage for evil doers.
And how did Doc get this way? He’s no mutant (at least until Philip Jose Farmer got ahold of him, but we’ll get to that). His story is purely nurture over nature. Every day, even in the field fighting evil doers, he does a grueling two hour exercise regimen of physical and mental exercises. Stuff like one-armed pushups while smelling faint traces of chemicals while listening to sub and ultrasonic sounds while mentally solving quadratic equations. It’s like the fairy tales of Malcolm Gladwell came true.
He’s got five aides, all of weird physical appearance and foremost (after Doc, of course) in their fields, who go on adventures with him. He’s got a warehouse full of exotic transportation vehicles, including nifty thirties tech like dirigibles and autogyroes. When he needs to take a break or embark on an extended period of research, Doc retreats to his Fortress of Solitude in the arctic.
He’s got an unending supply of gold supplied by a surviving group of Mayans, so he helps out those he deems worthy at no charge. He’s got a utility vest and plenty of exotic gadgets, a surprising number prefiguring tech that would come into use decades later. He takes up the entire 86th floor of one of New York City’s tallest skyscrapers (assumed to be the Empire State Building, but it’s never, to my knowledge, named).
Doc exists in what I think is almost the ideal time of pulp adventure. Communication technology exists, but it’s not ubiquitous. Technology allows transportation almost anywhere but not always easily. The world has not been mapped by satellite or indexed into computer databases. The world was between world wars and the Cold War had not started when Doc made his debut in Doc Savage Magazine in March 1933 though he would come to see World War II before his original run wrapped up after 180 novel length stories.
Most of these were penned by Lester Dent, a pulp master who often dictated his stories, hated revising his manuscripts so much that he would turn in a whole new story instead, and always chose action over atmosphere. His motives for getting into the writing game were mercenary, but he turned out to have a real talent for it. In 1936, he published his “master plot”. Rumor has it a lot of people found it helpful. Even Michael Moorcock has advised using it. Generally, the less successful Doc stories are not Dent products.
To me, the ideal Doc Savage stories should have some weird method of dealing death used by a colorful villain, there should be lots of travel to places other than New York City, some bit of superscience should show up, a treasure hunt, and, if possible, maybe a lost race should show up too.
The menaces, in the style of the old gothic stories of Ann Radcliffe, all have rationalized, mundane explanations in the end — except in the last Doc Savage story run in the magazine
I begin to collect Doc Savage novels — used if they showed up at the combination feed store/used goods/used bookstore in my hometown or new if my very limited funds and the vagaries of paperback distribution in western South Dakota permitted.
I collected them long enough that the covers switched from James Bama ones to the less impressive Boris Vallejo ones. Everyone agrees that Bama’s covers for the Bantam Book revival of Doc Savage, about fifteen years after the original magazine run ended, were crucial in the success of the series. They were beautiful, often monochrome. Bama’s Doc, with his shirt always ripped (well, nearly always), bulging sinews, and widow’s peak, is the one I imprinted on. The Land of Terror is, incidentally, not Bama’s work but bland fill in Douglas Rosa. The beauty of the Doc Savage cover compositions can be seen in Paul Cook’s cover gallery.
The summer of 1975 was, perhaps, the height of Doc Savage’s visibility. There was a movie. (No, I cannot in any way recommend it despite the involvement of George Pal who gave us The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.) DC Comics came out with a black and white magazine of original Doc adventures that I bought when I could. It has since been reprinted and holds up well. I agree with Tollin that writer Doug Moench, despite not being a Doc Savage fan, captured the spirit well.
The cover illustration is for Moench’s “The Earth Wreckers”, one of my favorite Doc Savage stories, indeed a favorite story of any sort.
I think I read all the Bantam reprints I bought before going to college though I’m not sure. I continued buying them during college but, in my desultory and disorganized way, I didn’t actually read them. Bantam, to hurry the reprinting of the series, begin to issue omnibus editions for some of the pulp reprints. Some were Bantam’s first printing of a story, some were collections of novels they had published earlier. When I realized I was starting to buy duplicates of things I already had, I stopped.
I did read, in 1984, The Red Spider.
First published in 1979 but written in 1949, it shows the direction Dent was going to take the character. I believe the plot involved Doc Savage penetrating the Iron Curtain to see if the Sovs had the A-Bomb yet.
After that it was a long spell away from Doc.
I did read The Phantom City about eight years ago. I even reviewed it. My reactions may have been affected by the interruption of taking a friend to the emergency room, one of many engagements in his losing war with cancer.
I can’t see myself reviewing Doc in the future. Newbies are unlikely to be interested in these sort of reviews of a series character, and I don’t have the patience to dive into the minutiae that Doc fans would probably be interested in.
Mostly Doc novels are a chance to read like normal people do — read without the compulsion to review — much like I do with the occasional gaming novel or media tie-in. They’re also a chance for my reviewing hands to catch up to my reading eyes on the stuff I do want to write about.
Next posting will be a few thoughts from the Doc binge.
Oh, the mutant contribution of Philip Jose Farmer? Long before Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, there was Wold Newton. It’s Farmer’s account of how a meteor mutated the bloodline of several families and produced many of the heroes of fiction including, as detailed in Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, the Man of Bronze.
More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.