I often tell people that the first book I ever read was (Robert) Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It’s sort of true, and it sort of isn’t true. In one sense Space Suit is the first novel I read, yes, but that does not count Doc Savage books.
I was in love with reading long before I ever knew how to actually do so. My older brothers were readers and I would look at the covers of their books with longing and wonder. They liked a lot of things, but science fiction was high on their lists. But then so were Doc Savage books.
I wanted to read them so badly. The covers of the Bantam Doc Savage paperbacks were and are absolutely amazing, especially the ones done by the incomparable James Bama. To me they were intoxicating and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to tackle one.
I finally did so, and the first, the very first, book I read was a Doc Savage book called Hex. I liked the title, having been obsessed with horror ever since being hooked on “Sir Graves Ghastly Presents” in my early years. Ghastly was, by the way, a Detroit-based horror host whose show was broadcast on a Baltimore station in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I fell instantly in love with the exploits of Doc Savage—The Man of Bronze!—upon reading Hex. For the next few years I read every one I could get my hands on, and I would literally rather get a new Doc book than eat. I would starve myself for two days at school, and not buy lunch, so I could afford a Doc Savage paperback.
As the years passed, and I grew older, I read fewer of Doc’s books. Bantam began putting two, three, or even four of the Doc Savage adventures in one omnibus paperback, and I sometimes bought them, but many of them languished, unread, on my shelves.
I always remained fond of Doc Savage, and I would fiercely defend the books when someone criticized them for the clunky writing style. Clunky? Sure, hell yeah, but Lester Dent cranked these things out once a month. There were other writers who penned Doc Savage books under the Kenneth Robeson moniker, but Dent was the primary author of them.
Looking back, I see that the greatest strength of the Doc Savage books were the imagination involved in the plots. Also, the humor involved was always a riot, especially when Doc’s most popular aides, Monk and Ham, were mock sparring with each other with insults and pranks.
Looking back, I find it to be amazing that the Doc Savage paperback reprints were as popular as they were. They became a kind of publishing phenomenon, selling like hotcakes, and many of the early books even went into reprint. I would see boys carrying the books around, and I often wished to engage them in conversation, but I was far too shy a boy to initiate one.
Interest waned, I think, and while Bantam finished the series and reprinted every one of the novels (including one that had never previously been published), I am sure that readership was down. It ended in 1990, and it seems to me that the vast majority of those who bought them at that point were men who started their Doc Savage love when they were boys, not teenage kids who they were originally intended for.
The Bantam paperbacks became collectible, and as the years went on they started costing a few bucks on the secondary markets and at specialty stores. I would pick them up if I saw them for good prices, and I nabbed quite a few over the years at thrift shops and places of that nature.
Also, Doc lived and lives on. In comic form, and also in new adventures written by scholar Will Murray, among other writers. I like the idea of this, and I salute those who do this, but I have never bothered with any of it.
Then there was the Doc Savage movie. George Pal was responsible for some lovely motion pictures, such as Destination: Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and especially The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, but I have no idea what he was thinking in regard to his Doc Savage fiasco. It is one of the biggest disasters in motion picture history, and I can’t imagine who or what he thought would be an appreciative audience.
There have been rumors and talk of further Doc Savage movies, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Rock in the title role, but nothing has come to fruition. I suppose that might be for the best. Maybe Doc and his adventures fare best as visualized in our imaginations.
Doc Savage purists were able to get all of the adventures in nice, new trade paperback form from Sanctum Books. Multiple yarns were put into book form, with new supplementary material added to every installment. I have a number of these lovely books in my collection, but…
Although I have tried to read some Doc Savage adventures over the years, I have never successfully completed one. I found myself bogged down, and I quickly lost interest and moved on. Like that late teen boy-man I was so long ago, I saw myself as too sophisticated a reader to indulge in such reading materials.
Now I’m well into my middle age, and I ask myself how sophisticated I really wish to be. Is it even possible to go back to the innocence I once felt, to the awe and wonder that was in my very soul? The simple, uncynical joy of reading a Doc Savage book. Could I?
Maybe. I had heard about the very final Doc Savage adventure. The last one from the actual pulp days, anyway. Up From Earth’s Center dealt with Doc in battle with the minions of Hell itself. What could be cooler, or more fitting to the first and greatest superhero of all time, than a fight with the forces of ultimate evil?
Let me add that while supernatural elements were introduced in the Doc Savage stories, a scientific explanation was always provided. So it was unprecedented that Doc battle demons in one of the adventures.
So I located a copy of Up From Earth’s Center, and I ordered myself one. Mind you, it’s already getting expensive, even in the Sanctum edition.
I read it. And, yes, I liked it. Up From Earth’s Center doesn’t live up to the expectation I had of Doc Savage in combat with the diabolical, but it was a good story. As I stopped reading the books at around the one hundred mark (there were one hundred and eighty-one in the original pulp run), this adventure featured a different Doc Savage than I remembered. Doc was a bit of a douche. He acted impatient and like a smart ass. Not only that, Doc screamed in terror when a demon grabbed him. As Philip Jose Farmer remarked in his landmark study, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, “Doc screamed?” Unthinkable.
Times change, as do heroes.
I don’t think it’s possible to accurately determine how influential those Doc Savage stories have been. Obviously costumed superheroes were inspired by Doc, and the Superman writers directly ripped off the Fortress of Solitude from Doc. I think that James Bond might be a more accurate comparison, but that isn’t exactly right either. Doc was, and always will be, unique.
But his strong bronze hand can be seen in Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books. In F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack stories. The Pendergast character of Preston and Child. I don’t suppose that it is a stretch to see Doc in just about any recurring action-adventure character that has come along since his appearance in Smith and Street’s pulp magazine.
I remain very happy that I cut my reading teeth on Doc Savage books. I believe that they taught me a lot about living right and true, and I know that they had an incredible impact on my imagination and my love of storytelling.
And when I am in doubt about what to do in life, I only have to remember the Doc Savage oath:
Let me strive, every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit from it.
Let me think of the right, and lend my assistance to those who need it with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
I’ll always fall short of the shining example Doc set forth, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t use it as an inspiration.
Doc savage will always be in my heart. I’ll keep the books that I have, as I will keep my collectibles: A Doc Savage clock, a genuine Doc Savage Club pin from the 1940s. Maybe as my faculties weaken and I grow older, I will go back to my love of reading Doc Savage books in the same sense of wonder and humble awe that I once did. Will that be such a bad fate?
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.