Man of Bronze

James Bama's rendition of Doc Savage
James Bama’s rendition of Doc Savage

Unless you are an initiate, it is difficult to explain the appeal of literature from the era of the pulp magazines. In fact most literary high-brows would insist on putting that word literature into quotes when referring to the pulps. The heyday of the pulps was in the 1930s and 40s. Afterwards they quickly disappeared, replaced by comic books and paperback novels. During their golden era, coinciding with the Great Depression and World War II, they were a major source of entertainment for the people who had to suffer through those bitter times. The novels and stories printed in magazines featuring larger-than-life heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage were churned out by a relatively small number of authors, who sometimes submitted works to competing publishers by hiding behind multiple pseudonyms. These writers worked under tight deadlines and produced hundreds of thousands of words each month. Under such stressful writing conditions, one does not produce masterpieces. Much of what was published back then is forgettable and forgotten. But some, despite blemishes and warts, lives on.

I wasn’t alive back then (I’m not that old), but was a teen of just the right vulnerable age back in the 1960s when Bantam Books started reprinting the Doc Savage tales, starting with The Man of Bronze in 1964. There is no doubt that the James Bama cover played a big role in my decision to purchase that paperback, and the multitude of reprints that followed. The 1960s were extraordinary years for the rediscovery of adventure and fantastic literature that otherwise might have been forgotten. Nearly all of Edgar Rice Burroughs works were reprinted by Ace and Ballantine Books. Tolkien was published in paperback in three thick volumes by Ace (violating copyright), and then republished again (with an intro by the good professor himself) legitimately by Ballantine Books. There appeared Mervyn Peake’s masterful Gormenghast trilogy. Lin Carter was reprinting fantasy by James Branch Cabell and others. You get the idea. It was a great time to be a teenager.

And so I read the adventures of Doc Savage and his 5 aids, plus his spunky and somewhat troublesome female cousin Pat Savage. Doc was not Superman (though he did have a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic before Superman copied the idea). Doc was human, but trained from birth to become an expert in all fields of knowledge. On top of that he was physically in top-notch condition. His father had, obviously without his consent, submitted him to this training in order to prepare him for a lifetime of fighting crime and evildoers. Doc had his headquarters on a top floor of the Empire State Building in New York. His 5 aides were there to help him, but also provided some comic relief, especially the homely chemist Monk Mayfair and dapper lawyer Ham Brooks. Each adventure (initially they were published monthly, then less frequently) pitted Doc against some master villain, mad scientist or monster. The names of the sagas are particularly evocative. Some examples: The Land of Terror, The Sargasso Ogre, The Thousand-Headed Man, The Annihilist, The Motion Menace.

Doc was conceived by a group of editors at Street and Smith Publications and first appeared in 1933. The author who wrote the majority of the tales and whose name is forever associated with Doc was Lester Dent. Dent used a formula to write the novels, which basically involved getting the hero in as much trouble as possible and then throwing in as many plot twists as possible. In general it works. There are some clunkers (mostly written by the “ghost” writers that Dent hired when he didn’t have time himself) but some of it is amazingly well-paced and well written, for example, the posthumously published The Red Spider in which Doc deals with the communist Soviet Union. As Philip Jose Farmer pointed out in this study of the Doc Savage books, Doc Savage, An Apocalyptic Life, it takes a reading of all of the books (181 original, plus newer ones mentioned below) to flesh out fully the character of Doc. Having read them all, I believe this is true. Doc starts out in the first books as somewhat flat, wooden, and invulnerable. He is not only a perfect physical specimen, but he is aided by various contraptions (such as anesthetic gas pellets) that he carries in a utility vest (much like Batman’s utility belt, clearly based on Doc’s vest), and, truth to tell, he has a good share of luck going for him that keeps him alive from adventure to adventure. As the years go on, and Doc enters the years of the Second World War, his resources seem to dry up somewhat, he becomes less dependent on gadgets, but also becomes more human and more vulnerable. He mentions his unusual upbringing and admits that it has affected him in a negative manner. He knows he is not normal. One wonders what his true feelings are towards his father, who arranged such an abnormal upbringing.

Around 1990 Bantam finished republishing the original Docs, and Philip Jose Farmer wrote a new one, Escape From Loki, published in 1991. Will Murray then took up the mantel. Starting with Python Isle in 1991 he wrote and published 7 more sagas. There followed a hiatus until a few years ago he resumed the series with The Desert Demons in 2011. He has written 8 of these new Wild Adventures of Doc Savage, the most recent as of May 2014 being The War Makers. This includes one cross-over novel with the King Kong universe, Skull Island.

Murray has studied Doc for years, and was acquainted with Dent’s widow, Norma. He is the authorized heir to the Kenneth Robeson name (the pseudonymous house name for Dent and the other Doc writers). His Writings in Bronze is a thick book of essays about Doc and his writers. If you love this stuff like I do, this is required reading, as well as works like the various attempts to fit Doc’s adventures into a chronology by Rick Lai and Jeff Deischer.

Murray does a great job emulating the style of Dent and the other writers from the 1930s and 40s. He makes no attempt to update Doc to the modern era. He is particularly good at coming up with quaint 1930s idioms that no one uses anymore. He emulates Dent’s habit of sometimes starting a sentence with a verb, which makes the action seem to rush a little faster. Instead of “There came a loud explosion,” he would write “Came a loud explosion.” He dutifully pushes all the buttons and rings all the bells when describing Doc and his aides, using phrases that are in all the books, but which anyone who has read every book already knows by heart. Things like Monk being so ugly that women are attracted more to him than to the sartorially splendid Ham, or Renny’s fists being like gallon buckets of flesh and bone, and so forth. All this is comforting when reading these new adventures. Clearly these are the same Doc and company that we know so well.

Murray is basing his new stories on unpublished outlines written by Dent. I am always a little curious about how much creative license is involved here. I remember the so-called “collaborations” between August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft, in which Derleth would create a 100,000 word novel based on two words Lovecraft had written at the bottom of an envelope (if that). But Dent often farmed out his work to other writers, and did so by writing outlines that the ghost writers fleshed out. So I think Murray is doing nothing more than what the other writers of Doc did. I feel these are legitimate additions to the canon.

The only criticism I have is that sometimes Murray’s writing style is “too good” compared with the original. One of the charms of the original Dent works is the sense of the haste with which these novels were written. There are the occasional grammatical and punctuation errors, or plot inconsistencies. Sometimes these spoil the stories somewhat, but sometimes they add to the feeling of very fast pace that is present, enhancing the excitement. Murray is a very good writer and he does polish his work, something the original pulp writers didn’t have the luxury to do. I am not complaining. The particular, peculiar circumstances that led to the pulps are long gone. Murray has taken Doc and his crew to new places, has introduced new and interesting opponents, and generally has done his utmost to keep the ride going. And this is something I, as a long-time fan, really appreciate.

If you want to check out some of the original Doc Savage novels, or the new ones by Will Murray, or other pulp heroes like The Spider, and a whole lot more, go to www.radioarchives.com. The All-New Wild Adventures of Doc Savage are available in various formats at adventuresinbronze.com.

Stay away from the 1975 Man of Bronze Movie, however.

About mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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