(What’s this?! A new Biggerboat post? No, your eyes do not deceive you!)
Talk about being late to the party. For the first time, at the hoary old age of 29, I finally read a Doc Savage story.
Doc Savage, along with the Shadow and the Phantom and an assortment of other pulp heroes, are the ancestors (fathers, really) of the modern superhero.? And yet, while many people might recognize the name “Doc Savage,” few people–including, until recently, me–knew anything about the character.
I’d been meaning to track down some Doc Savage novels for a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry. While I’m a fan of pulp literature, I’ve been burned by too many experiences with poor writing.
While H.P. Lovecraft (creator of the Cthulhu Mythos) and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the barbarian) were good writers as well as good storytellers, other pulp authors have disappointed me. I was never able to get into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, and I just couldn’t get through Armageddon 2419 A.D., the first Buck Rogers novel.
The problem may be the science fiction setting as much as the writing; all the pseudo-science and antiquated ideas are too much at odds with what we’ve learned about the universe since. It becomes distracting, particularly when a character goes on and on about some scientific concept that’s been completely discredited since.
But the Doc Savage stories, like those of the Shadow or the works of Lovecraft, don’t have that problem, as they are set in contemporary times. Even better, author Lester Dent (writing under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson) has a kind of epic-by-way-of-Hammett writing style that somehow works eighty years later.
Who is Doc Savage? He’s the quintessential polymath, a renaissance man who has mastered almost any discipline you can name. More than that, he’s honed his body to the extreme limits of human ability, with the strength of Hercules and the speed of an Olympic runner. And of course, he a bronze Adonis to boot.
I was pleased to come across a new issue of the original stories at my local bookstore. Published by Nostalgia Ventures, the book contained Doc’s first two tales, The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror. Billed in the original pulps as a “book-length” story, they run about 60,000 words–just a tad longer than what is generally considered a novella.
I haven’t yet looked into the Doc Savage collector’s market to find out how “pure” the Nostalgia Ventures texts are (i.e., how accurate to the original text published in the initial March 1933 issue of Doc Savage Magazine), but from what I can tell, Dent doesn’t seem to have suffered from a August Derleth-style editing as Lovecraft did.
Somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror. While there’s some pseudoscience and some antiquated ideas, they’re mostly just plot devices–Dent doesn’t waste too much time trying to describe how a gas that dissolves any form of matter works. It’s just a fiendish weapon wielded by a master criminal who must be stopped.
Doc himself is endearing, a man so righteous and pure that one minute he can be pulping malefactors with his bare fists and the next awkwardly shying away from a woman’s advances. For all his incredible intellect and physical prowess, Doc is something of an overgrown child–something Dent even touches on in the books:
Really, Doc Savage was a normal fellow who had been taken over by scientists as a child by scientists and trained until early manhood, so that he was rather unusual but still human enough. He had missed the play-life of normal children, and so he was probably more subdued, conscious that he hadn’t gotten everything out of life. —The Fortress of Solitude
A note regarding the title of the story that quote comes from–yes, Doc Savage had the original Fortress of Solitude, and yes, Superman’s writers respectfully borrowed the concept (at a time when they may have thought Doc Savage had been forgotten, before his 1960s resurgence).
I was particularly amused by Doc’s allies–five men of varying expertise who served as both expository and comic foils, allowing Doc to explain his scientific theories and ideas while adding comic relief the staid Doc is incapable of. The most interesting of these assistants are Monk, a homely gorilla-like hulk who is also a world-class chemist, and Renny, a hard-boiled pulp hero given to randomly destroying personal property–even Doc’s:
The report was loud. With a rending of wood, the thick panel of the outer door caved inward, propelled by an enormous fist. […]
The fist withdrew.
A man now opened what was left of the door and came in.
—The Land of Terror
Understand, Doc had just been sitting around in his reception room when Renny did this. There’s no indication in the text that the door was even locked, and yet, Doc’s response to this act of vandalism is just to chuckle. This happens more than once in the books–apparently Doc was constantly repairing his office due to Renny’s random violence.
I enjoyed The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror enough to get another volume (The Fortress of Solitude and The Devil Genghis). One thing I really like about these Nostalgia Adventures editions is that they’re printed about the same size as a graphic novel, which is a good way to package these stories for a new generation. I like having the Doc Savage books shelved with all my graphic novels–it’s where he belongs, alongside the superheroes he inspired.
The books also feature artwork from both the classic Bama paperbacks of the ’60s and the original pulp covers from the ’30s. Personally I prefer the ’30s art, with its depiction of Doc as having classic movie star looks and wavy blond hair, to the Bama paintings, which give Doc a craggy face and a helmet-like crop of blond hair and a widow’s peak that’s practically a unibrow.
Reading the stories today, it’s clear Doc Savage’s place in pop culture was usurped by the likes of Batman. While he may not possess an actual doctorate, Bruce Wayne shares Doc’s mastery of the sciences, martial arts, and physical endurance. By adding the Shadow’s penchant for darkness and scare tactics, Batman one-ups both pulp heroes.