I don’t think I would be going too far out on a limb to claim that I am the the only electrophysiologist in the world who has read all of the Doc Savage novels. This is actually quite a feat, as there are 182 original novels by “Kenneth Robeson” (mostly written by Lester Dent between 1933 and 1949), as well as 7 modern novels by Will Murray and one by Philip Jose Farmer. Amongst the pulp heroes of the 1930s that I have read, including The Spider, G-8, Operator 7, The Shadow, and a few others, Doc and his 5 assistants have always been my near and dear to my heart. I own some copies of the original pulp Doc Savage magazines, but my entry into the world of Doc Savage occurred like many of my generation in the 1960s, while in Junior High School, when the first of the many Bantam edition reprints of the novels appeared. The James Bama covers, even if they depicted a different Doc from the Doc of the pulp magazines, were striking to say the least, and hard to resist to a teenage boy. Buying and reading the books became somewhat of an obsession with me, and in 1990 when the last adventure Up From Earth’s Center was published, I completed with satisfaction a series that took 26 years to publish and read. It’s amazing that a book publisher would not only take this on, but finish the job.
Lester Dent, the author of most of the novels (he farmed out a few of them to other authors) was an amazingly prolific writer who could churn out thousands of words per month, providing text for not only the monthly Doc Savage magazine, but also numerous other pulps. At a penny per word, Dent became rich off the pulps. Given the speed that he and other pulp writers produced text, you would expect that the literary quality of the end result might be, shall we say, uneven, and you would be correct. Grammatical mistakes, impossible situations, and plot contradictions abound. Reading any one or two of the sagas leaves one with the impression of cardboard characters that lack personality. After reading 182 stories, the characters evolve and come to possess real flesh and blood, especially Doc and the two main aides, Monk and Ham, but also the lesser aides, Johnny, Renny, Long Tom, and Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage. One grows fond of these characters after so many encounters, and I remember a small sense of loss when I read the last words of the last novel in 1990 (though I was pleased to re-encounter Doc and his men in the continuation novels of Murray and Farmer).
Doc and the other pulp heroes were ancestors to the comic book superheroes (Superman, Batman, et al.) that came later. Doc Savage had no super powers, however. He accomplished his feats by skill, strength, scientific devices, and intellect, helped quite a bit by a supply of limitless wealth garnered from a Mayan treasure horde in the central American country of Hidalgo. Later comic book heroes paid the ultimate compliment of imitation: compare Doc, “the Man of Bronze” with Superman, “the Man of Steel.” Doc had the original Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. Doc’s real name was Clark Savage, Jr. Superman was Clark Kent. Instead of a utility belt like Batman, Doc had a utility vest, full of secret compartments holding equipment and anaesthetic gas. Some of Doc’s methods were questionable, or at least politically incorrect. Captured criminals were sent to Doc’s “Crime College” in upstate New York, where they underwent corrective brain surgery to rid them of their criminal tendencies. Having been written in the 30s and 40s, there is some racial and sexual stereotyping, but this comes with the era and seems relatively mild compared to other output from that time. On the other hand, conspicuously absent is the lurid violence of a lot of pulp literature. Doc and his men, with the exception of the first few adventures, use mercy bullets and rarely kill anyone outright — though in time-honored fashion many villains fall prey to their own death traps, and Monk, the most amoral of the bunch, sometimes accidentally-on-purpose dispatches a deserving enemy.
Besides the book covers, it was Philip Jose Farmer’s “biography” of Doc from 1973 that really got me interested in the series. Following in the footsteps of his previous similar “biography,” Tarzan Alive, Farmer lays out the stories chronologically, attempting to resolve internal conflicts, as if Doc had been a real, living person. He had done the same thing with Tarzan in the earlier book. Most cleverly, Farmer outlines Doc’s genealogy, linking him to other fictional persons like Sherlock Holmes, Solomon Kane, Phileas Fogg, Harry Flashman, Fu Manchu, and a host of others (including Tarzan himself). Since then, others have expanded this geneology; to see the current state of the art, look at The Wold Newton Universe.
Rick Lai’s book pictured at the top of the post is a revision of the Doc Savage chronology, utilizing new information on the dates of submission of the Doc Savage manuscripts as opposed to the publication dates. Lai is clearly an expert on the pulps and has written numerous articles on Doc Savage and a similar chronology for the Shadow. He goes through each saga, using clues including mentions of weather and seasons, references to previous adventures and to historical events, and finally publication and submission dates to come up with a generally coherent, consistent chronology. This is not a trivial task. After all, these tales are fiction. But the fun of this type of exercise is to pretend that the Doc Savage tales reflect actual events, and try to piece them together into real time. Lai is very knowledgeable on history and reveals that numerous apparently fictional events in the stories actually reflect real history. Lai also credibly identifies the real country of Hildalgo and the real historical figures behind the thinly disguised historical villains of the novels. After the chronology, Lai explores some apochryphal or non-canonical Doc Savage adventures (such as Doc’s role during the King Kong incident in New York City) and then has a very interesting and detailed chapter about the inevitable interactions that must have occurred between the two contemporaneous superheroes: Doc Savage and The Shadow. The two worked in the same city at the same time; they must have known each other. The two though had diametrically opposed philosophies: Doc was as nonviolent as possible, tormented by the deaths that arose in the course of his work. The Shadow was the opposite: cruelly killing his enemies and laughing at their destruction. Lai shows how and when the two likely interacted, in what is probably the most fascinating chapter of the book. Lai does not even try though to bring Doc Savage into the world of Richard Wentworth, The Spider. If you have read any of tales of The Spider you would understand why. The Spider’s adventures are even more apocalyptic than Doc’s, fraught with plagues, skyscrapers toppled, millions of innocent people wiped out. If Doc and The Spider lived in the same world, Lester Dent and the other writers of Doc’s adventures are notably silent about the frequent world-shaking disasters that occurred during the time of his sagas.
The world of the great pulp heroes of the 1930s seems incredibly remote nowadays. The cheaply produced pulp magazine with their eye-catching covers were a perfect complement to the dreary black and white world of the Great Depression. Teenage boys reading these stories in the 30s did not know they were to face the horrors of World War II in the next decade. Paper shortages in the war helped kill the pulps. Comic books and paperbacks in the 1950s dealt the final blow. Not great literature perhaps, but literature nevertheless, and part of our American literary heritage.