Category Archives: Doc Savage

Doc Savage, Reborn? The Perfect Assassin by James Patterson and Brian Sitts

Given what a mess James Patterson and Brian Sitts made of The Shadow, I read their Doc Savage reboot, THE PERFECT ASSASSIN, without much enthusiasm. It isn’t good, but it doesn’t mangle the Man of Bronze the way the duo (which I assume is mostly Sitts, with Patterson providing marquee value) mangled the Master of Darkness.

Our protagonist is Brandt Savage, grandson of Clark Savage Junior. He’s aware of his ancestor’s legend, though he assumes it’s exaggerated, and the apple has fallen far from the tree: Brandt is a dull, scholarly introvert who’s happiest spending his evenings reading at home (I did bristle a little at the implication this is a bad lifestyle choice). Then he’s kidnapped by a woman named Meed. She subjects him to an insanely intensive training course that also remakes his body (taller, buffer) in ways I doubt made sense but I wasn’t reading closely enough to find out.

These scenes alternate with scenes of Meed’s past, undergoing training in what looks like a rip off of the Red Room that gave birth to Black Widow at Marvel. Eventually she balked at the ugly hits she was sent to do and escaped, but the Russian establishment is still training kidnapped girls. She wants to end it. Brandt is going to help, like it or not (contrary to the cover copy he is not being made into a perfect assassin).

Why pick Brandt? Meed eventually reveals she’s John Sunlight‘s daughter Kyra. The Red Room knockoff operates on a twisted version of the training program that created Doc Savage, based on information Sunlight got from the twin brother we didn’t know Doc had. The twin was Clark Savage Sr.’s test case, given none of the training Doc did so their father could quantify it’s effectiveness. I can understand the brother having issues.

Together, Brandt and Kyra take down the organization, become lovers and Brandt becomes a true heir to his grandfather — don’t call him doctor or professor, just call him “Doc,” okay?

As the book doesn’t use Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, it doesn’t piss me off the way The Shadow did. The Perfect Assassin doesn’t rewrite Doc’s history the way they authors did the Shadow, either. One of the best moments is when Brandt winds up in Doc’s Fortress of Solitude and it finally sinks in that everything he’s ever heard about Clark Savage Junior is true. There’s a genuine sense of awe in that moment.

Despite that, and some good action scenes, I did not care for the book. The long training sequences are dull, the scenes from Kyra’s past are stock (she’s not far off from assassin-turned-Batgirl Cassandra Cain) and after the bad guys go down we spend a pointless amount of time on wrapping the story up. I skimmed more than half of the story and don’t feel I missed anything.

On top of which I have some picky fan criticisms. Back when Marvel had the Doc Savage rights they had a team-up with Spider-Man — actually a story where Doc and Spidey fight the same menace in the 1930s and the 1970s. Rereading it along with Marvel’s first Doc Savage series, it struck me that instead of Peter Parker vaguely remembering Doc as an early superhero, a science nerd like Peter would probably remember him as a groundbreaking scientist (e.g., “I read his Atomic Science Simplified when I was 10, it made the physics so clear!”).

Same problem here: long after Doc’s adventures have faded, his science work would keep his name alive. Brandt’s an anthropologist so he ought to remember Johnny Littlejohn, Doc’s aide, as a top guy in the field. I can’t believe Johnny didn’t have some landmark research that Brandt would have heard of.

And John Sunlight’s daughter really should be more distinctive than Kyra. If she were just a straight graduate of the assassin academy with no significant parents it wouldn’t have changed anything. Being Kyra Sunlight rationalizes her going to Brandt for help, but that’s it.

#SFWApro. Covers by James Bama, Bama again, and Gil Kane. All rights remain with current holders.

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The Story Behind the Story: The Savage Year

My short story “The Savage Year,” which came out a few years ago at Lorelei Signal (no longer online there though), goes live today at Metastellar. As I haven’t rewritten it in the five years since the first publication, I’ll take the liberty of simply reprinting my How I Came To Write It from back then (including the illustration by Lee Ann Barlow):

The story’s opening: “Walking past a half-naked couple making out next to a picnic basket, Artemis West wished she could turn invisible. I never thought my first assignment would involve working magic in front of a park full of hippies.

It’s 1968, Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated, and the country is mourning. And as Artemis soon discovers, her job as a Secret Service sorcerer is about to get much more complicated, thanks to a British black magician and a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed drifter, Diana Savage. Whose father is some kind of brilliant scientist and philanthropist, and everyone expects her to follow in his wake. So she’s run away for a summer of love before she heads to college. Only there are innocent people in danger, and in her heart she’s her father’s child …

Why yes, this is the story about Doc Savage’s daughter that I wrote about starting several years ago. As noted at the link, I’d wanted to write about her (or more precisely my version of her) since the early 1980s, but never came up with a story. Then I hit on teaming her up with Art West, great grandson of James West, the hero of Wild Wild West now following family tradition by working for the Secret Service, though as a mage.

When I reread the post at the link, it floored me: my protagonist has been Artemis West and female so long I didn’t remember ever considering a male lead (Jim West’s partner was Artemus Gordon. Descendants are stuck with the name). It’s not surprising though, as I write a lot of male/female teams. As to why I switched to make Artemis a woman … I have no idea.

The story idea beyond that shaped up early. Mages in the Secret Service actually have a dull gig. All they do is go around and touch up the bindings Native American shamans used to lock various Lovecraftian outsiders away. As long as the mages do their job, the outsiders can’t get out.Except that when Artemis goes to check the local bindings (originally San Francisco, but it eventually shifted to the Midwest) she discovers someone is letting outsiders loose. Which is, of course, bad. Even alongside a bronze teenage tornado who fights like ten men (she’s Doc Savage’s daughter. She’s been well-trained) Artemis has her work cut out for her.

Refining the concept proved a lot tougher. I had no idea what the bad guy wanted, what exactly he’d unleashed and how the creature would help him achieve his goals. Nor did I know how to stop him. Eventually I figured it out, with the help of Lester Dent’s plotting formula — appropriate as he created Doc.

I also trimmed back a lot of the in-jokes, such as a reference to Artemis’ aunt Honey. I wanted to write the story so that someone who’d never heard of Jim West or Doc Savage could enjoy it, which meant avoiding any Easter eggs that would be more distracting than amusing.

When I was done, I presented it to the beta readers in my local science-fiction writing group. They suggested I needed to introduce the villain earlier to give him more of a presence, and that I needed to make the story weirder in a few spots. It was good advice. I followed it.

I’ve also blogged about the story over at Atomic Junkshop. Feel free to check it out, but I recommend checking out “The Savage Year” first.

#SFWApro. Illustrations by Barlow and James Bama, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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James Bama died last week

Which will mean nothing to most people. But James Bama was the definitive Doc Savage paperback cover artist, and as far as I’m concerned the definitive cover artist period. So here are a few of my favorite of his covers for the Man of Bronze.If you want my take on the books, you can work through my Doc Savage reviews or use the search box to look for the specific titles. And Brian Cronin has a little more information on Bama’s career.

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Books read from various series

PEACE TALKS: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a disappointing return to the series after six years away. Part of the disappointment is that there’s no warning this and the upcoming Battle Ground are one large story in two volumes, which makes the Big Menace showing up midbook and the abrupt, unresolved ending unsatisfying (it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger as much as just chopping the book in two at the middle).

The novel starts out great as everything goes wrong for Harry (except his love life, because he and Murph are finally getting it on). Lovecraftian entities are hunting him. The White Council wants to expel Harry, leaving him vulnerable to anyone with scores to settle. Cops are investigating some of Harry’s past actions. The Fae Mab has ordered Harry, as her Winter Knight, to provide three services to a vampire queen, no matter what she asks. And all this while Harry’s working security for a conference of the supernatural world’s powers, none of whom get along well. And then Harry’s vampire brother Thomas suddenly attacks and almost kills a leader of the svartalfar.

As Thomas has no rational reason to do this, I’d expect the plot to be exposing whoever manipulated/pressured him into the attack. Instead we veer into a caper story like the previous novel Skin Game, with Harry and Thomas’ sister carrying out an elaborate plan to rescue Thomas from magical jail without collapsing the peace conference. I lost interest.

Oh, and the gimmick of Harry having “conjuritis,” where he constantly sneezes up random materializations, feels like something from a Bewitched episode.

By contrast JENNING’S LITTLE HUT by Anthony Buckeridge actually improves on the previous book in the series. Jennings and his friends have taken up building huts on a stretch of school property dominated by a pond and a lot of mud — but it’s conditional on them not getting too messy or into too much trouble. Needless to say, Jennings and Darbishire have problems with those conditions …. Will Mr. Carter notice Jennings walking around all day with a pane of glass? Will Sir Richard Grenville stop the Spanish Armada? Will Atkinson figure out why one Old Boy thinks it’s 1895? I enjoyed this.

ADVENTUREMAN: The End and Everything After by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson (who provided the cover above) is the start of a series, and on paper sounds like something that would work for me: a Doc Savage pastiche (though with a more diverse team of aids) plunged into an adventure straight out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run. Claire Fallon and her son Tommy are fans of the old Adventureman pulp stories, which appear to end with Adventureman and his team defeated. After a woman drops off a mysterious never-before-seen volume about Adventureman (equivalent to Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life), Claire suddenly notices Adventureman’s legendary skyscraper HQ standing where an undistinguished tenement should be. And she seems to be growing bigger and stronger and smarter …

The art on this is great, but the story is lacking. It has all the right pieces for a great yarn, but the magic is just lacking, as if there’s no sincerity to the story (that’s a subjective interpretation, not an assessment of Fraction and Dodson’s state of mind). Still, I’ll check out V2 just to see if it improves.

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Is Hell in Maine or Russia? Doc Savage in Up From Earth’s Center and In Hell, Madonna

And so we come to the end of my long Doc Savage reread (and occasionally first-time read). For the final installment (unless I do a Ten Best list or something at some point) we have the last story in Doc Savage Magazine, UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER and the unpublished IN HELL, MADONNA, which came out thirty years after Street & Smith rejected it.

The omnibus volume that includes UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER also includes an essay by Will Murray about the changes in the series. It’s a useful reminder that while I tend to credit shifts in style to Dent’s creative decisions, they often weren’t. It was an editor who pushed for a more realistic tone during WW II and editor Daisy Bacon who pushed for going back to the 1930s style of adventure. She and Dent argued a lot about plots which is what led to this strange final tale. Dent submitted a list of plot idea, hoping Bacon would like one of them. She liked the idea of Doc Savage encountering the literal forces of Hell, but overruled Dent on making it a hoax a la The Sea Angel and The Squeaking Goblin. Bacon thought that was a cheat so we ended up with the series’ only supernatural adventure.

We open with a yacht picking up Gilmore Sullivan, a raving loonie, from an isolated island off the coast of Maine. They soon discover Gilmore is stark raving bonkers, claiming he’s escaped from hell, which he stumbled across while exploring the local caves. Dr. Linningen, one of the boaters, learns Doc Savage is in the area and goes to consult with him. Doc’s intrigued and along with Ham and Monk begins to investigate. Things get weirder when a Mr. Wail shows up, claiming to be a devil himself, though in no hurry to go back down below.

Wouldn’t you know, though, that’s how it turns out? Another devil shows up to recapture Gilmore. Doc, Monk and Ham force Wail to lead them back underground, through the crack in the caves that leads to Hell. It is a nightmarish world where trees wield their branches like tentacles and Doc confronts formless boulders sprouting multiple arms. At times the horrors are so Lovecraftian I suggested exactly that to an early Wold Newton fanzine; it’s a shame Dent didn’t write more in that vein. The creatures are unkillable but they’re terrified of fire — reminds them of diabolic punishments — which helps Doc get everyone to safety, after which he blows up the entrance, cutting Hell off. Wail is this side of the barrier, but when police bust him for some of his acts, he disappears from the cell.

The tale starts off slow and talky, but once it gets going it’s a wild ride and a great, if unconventional, finish for the series.

The series’ return with IN HELL, MADONNA, published as The Red Spider, was less satisfying. According to Will Murray, Bacon wasn’t keen on Cold War stories; I’ve also read that readers disliked the Cold War thriller Terror Wears No Shoes. Both could be true. In any case, even though In Hell, Madonna had been accepted by Bacon’s predecessor, Murray says she yanked it from the issue it was supposed to appear in; as the magazine had cut back publication frequency Dent didn’t notice. Bobb Cotter, however, says The Green Master replaced it. Only one of these can be true but I don’t know which. Either way, it’s the only story Dent wrote that didn’t make it into print.

Except it did. Researching Lester Dent’s ghost writers, Will Murray stumbled across a reference to the story and eventually tracked down the one surviving manuscript, a carbon copy Dent had made. He worked out a deal on rights that led to Bantam finally publishing it in the late 1970s under the title Red Spider. The new title refers to Frunzoff, a trusted agent of Stalin’s who sits at the center of everything the USSR is doing, monitoring every thread like a — well, you know.

The opening has a U.S. anti-radar rocket (with Long Tom and Rennie working on it) shoot into Russian air space by “accident.” Actually it’s to knock out their radar long enough for the military to fly Doc Savage across the border. He meets up with Monk and Ham, who have cover identities, and have established both the existence and the whereabouts of the mysterious Frunzoff. He’s the man who can tell Doc what he’s in the Sovietn Union to find out: does Stalin have the A-bomb? Are the Russians working on building a bomb? How close are they?

Getting the information turns out to be fairly easy, but now they have to get it to the West. Complicating things are siblings Seryi and Mahli, two Russians who offer assistance, not out of any anti-Communist principles but because if Frunzoff goes down over this, there will be openings in the upper echelons. Seryi and Mahli are outside the corridors of power; they hope this adventure will change that. To that end, they’re willing to help Doc, Monk and Ham escape to the West, but they’re in the heart of Moscow and it’s not going to be easy….

Murray, who loves the later, more realistic era of Doc adventures, considers this one of Dent’s finest works. I can’t say I feel the same. The mission would have had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality at the time, but even in the 1970s when I first read it the Cold War was looking decidedly old-fashioned. It’s certainly a competent, taut spy novel, but it’s more Doc as a B-list Bond than Doc as Doc.

Murray also thought Seryi worth bringing back for The Frightened Fish as a serious love interest. That I just don’t get. She’s not a bad character but not one of Dent’s more memorable women, and there’s no chemistry between her and Doc. I can think of several women from the WW II novels that Doc got much more flirtatious with.

Either way, my reread reaches the end. It’s been a lot of fun, but I’m not sorry to wrap up.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin, all rights remain with current holder.

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Penultimate Doc Savage: The Swooning Lady, The Green Master, The Return From Cormoral

Given my general dissatisfaction with the post-war Doc Savage series, it’s a pleasant surprise that the three I’m reviewing here — three of the last four in the series —were mostly fun, and none were awful.

THE SWOONING LADY kicks off with a beautiful Latina putting on a swooning act when men dressed a certain way come near. Monk fits the description but when he tells her he’s not “Roxborough” and still tries to make time, she throttles him with his own tie. Realizing she’s clearly Up To Something, Monk calls in Doc and Ham: what’s her game, and who is Roxborough? Doc’s on board, of course, though he’s still PO’d at Monk’s lechery getting them into trouble in The Angry Canary.

A well-placed bug reveals the woman is one Dannie Morgan, an unemployed actor working for tough South America crooks Juan and Jolla, trying to lure Roxborough into a trap. They’re putting her up at an expensive hotel and paying $40 a day for the gig, so Doc realizes this is something big. Juan and Jolla proves themselves smart and tough and evade capture. Monk tracks down Roxborough, though, who turns out to be a wealthy businessman in town checking up on business associates he claims are cheating him. The swooning Dannie, he claims, is a pawn of his partners to entangle him in a scandal; then when notoriously prudish Latin American millionaire Señorita Oristezza shows up to do business and learns he’s a sleazeball, she’ll ruin him.

It turns out that the señorita and Dannie are one and the same. She suspects Roxborough of making off with a $2 million diamond shipment of hers, came up here to investigate and much like the disguised Doc in The Freckled Shark, let the role unleash her wilder side. Dannie is easily the most interesting thing in the story, a self-made millionaire in a male-dominated culture; the rest of the story is competent but minor (Juan and Jolla are tough, but they’re not strong enough to be the lead villains). It turns out Roxborough did make off with the diamonds and the elaborate scheme is designed to cover that up and make him look like an innocent. Several details were left out of the Bantam version which chopped off the last few paragraphs of exposition in the finish. I can’t say I’m on tenterhooks about it.

This was, by the way, the end of Doc Savage, Science Detective as a title and the end of the digest-sized magazine (Will Murray’s Writings in Bronze has details on the editorial decisions of the era).

THE GREEN MASTER is a much stronger story. It opens with Monk discovering multiple blonds, mostly men but one beautiful woman, pursuing him despite their bafflement at life in the city (they don’t know how to avoid traffic, how to hail a cab, etc.). When Monk confronts one of the guys, he suddenly finds himself agreeing with everything the man says and answering all his questions about Doc’s current work (though Monk doesn’t know much, which he feels ashamed about). Ham has the same reaction later. The man implants a story in their heads he figures will send Doc off on a wild goose chase, but at Doc’s offices they touch a green stone that arrived in the mail — something the man asked about — and immediately regain clarity.

Tracking the blonde clique and bugging their hotel room reveals they’re here on a mission; Auca, the woman, warns the others that one of them is betraying the others by reaching out to Doc. The investigation gets  complicated when a Westerner named Swingles (I don’t think the name, which is never explained, would have had the sex connotations then that it does now) shows up and tries to keep Doc detained while his confederates go after the blondes. Swingles tells Doc that Auca is the one who sent him the green stone, while setting her cohorts against each other.

Eventually “Jones,” the leader of the blondes, puts the whammy on Doc, Monk and Ham (Monk’s faking it — he has the stone hidden on him). Doc is terrified to realized he’s completely powerless to resist whatever power this guy has. Auca later explains the power lies in the green stones, which somehow energize the leaders of her people to mesmerize others, though the stone held in other hands provides a counter-spell. Doc is forced to fly to the lost city in the Andes, besieged by Swingles’ gang, who it’s implied are working for Sinister Foreign Powers (this was a bigger part of Dent’s story proposal but the editor said Terror Wears No Shoes proved political intrigue didn’t sell). Not that the lost race are the good guys: they’ve enslaved dozens of local tribesmen who wander into their city and used them as slaves. Doc manages to obtain enough of the green stones to free the slaves, and with their help takes down Swingles’ gang. The story ends with a U.N. commission moving in to sort things out, study the power and see that the blondes don’t take more slaves.

The series’ last Lost Race story is a good one all around. It also has a nailbiting scene where Doc has to land a plane under difficult conditions: Dent had acquired his pilot’s license at some point and he puts his knowledge to good use here.

Macbeth Williams (again, no explanation of the name) and three other scientists RETURN FROM CORMORAL a rocky Atlantic island they’ve been stuck on since the research foundation funding their expedition went belly up. Fortunately a tramp steamer found them and took them back to Miami. Macbeth’s girlfriend, Carlie, meets them and we learn she’s a little frustrated because her beau is tentative and doesn’t have confidence in his judgment — not the sort of man she wants for a husband.

But things have changed. On Cormoral, Williams somehow acquired the ability to make uncannily accurate predictions. He can’t do it if he concentrates but if he just does it without thinking, he’s almost always right. Has he become precog? Is his judgment better than he thought? Is it finally time he assume control of his half-billion inheritance instead of leaving it to financial managers?

Williams is unsettled enough to contact Doc by telegraph; as someone kills the telegraph clerk right afterwards (but not in time to stop the message) this was obviously a wise call. Doc discovers that Williams ability — psychic or just intelligent as it may be — is real, but why would that drive people to kill him? And why is it the foundation that stuck the scientists on Cormoral doesn’t seem to exist?

It turns out that the entire thing is a scam and the other three scientists are part of it. They’ve discovered rich deposits of uranium on some of the land Williams has inherited but haven’t been able to get the managers to sell. If they can convince Williams to assume control, he’ll probably be more cooperative as the land’s apparently worthless. The trip to Cormoral and the aftermath are part of a Big Con to convince Williams he has the gift or the judgment to manage all that money and property.It’s a fluffy but fun tale.

Next month, we wrap my long, long reread up with the final novel, Up From Earth’s Center, and In Hell, Madonna, which didn’t come out until the late 1970s (it was slated for the issue that became The Green Master).

#SFWApro. Top cover by Walter Swenson, next two by George Rozen, all rights remain with current holders.

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From Rome to Skull Island: books

THE EDGE OF THE EMPIRE: A Journey to Britannia From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall by Bronwen Riley dramatizes life in the Roman Empire (circa AD 130) by taking us on a journey from the imperial city itself all the way to the ultimate thulei of the isle of Britain, where Hadrian’s wall at the northern border literally marked the edge of the empire, This was a very good premise, allowing Riley to talk about Roman food (fish paste and olive oil!), travel, ships, military structure, life in colonial towns and weather without feeling info-dumpy. Among other things it makes me see just how much travel was going on in that era, and how risky a great deal of it was. Very good.

SCOOBY-DOO TEAM-UP: It’s Scooby Time! wraps up the Sholly Fisch and (mostly Dario Brizuela) series in the same cheerfully silly, fun vein as the previous volumes. Scooby and his human friends team with Mr. Miracle, Metamorpho, Black Lightning, Flash’s Rogues (haunted by the ghost of the Top) and in the final issue have to deal with pranks by both Batmite and Scooby-Mite. The issue is a tribute to all the Scoobies who’ve gone before, bringing back multiple sidekicks (Scrappy Doo, Vincent Van Ghoul, Red Herring) and multiple versions of the core characters (including DC’s rival series Scooby Apocalypse). Goodbye guys, you’ll be missed.

NIGHT RAVEN by multiple writers and artists collects the complete run of the Marvel UK series concerning a mysterious vigilante (“Night Raven” is one of the birds of abomination in the King James Bible, though the specific inspiration for the name was a John Milton poem) waging a one-man war on crime in 1930s New York, and leaving his brand on the faces of his victims. Much to my annoyance, this turns from comic strips to text pages — never as interesting — about a third of the way through; the early strips are decent, then they get really good under Alan Moore, who traces the battle between Night Raven and the immortal Asian crimelord Yi Yang across the decades. Unfortunately the last 40 percent of the book is text pages by Jamie Delano who is no Alan Moore (I’ve never particularly liked his comics work) so I wound up skimming a lot of them. I’ve been curious about the character but my curiosity is now satisfied. Still, the Moore stuff is really good.

As I said last week, I couldn’t resist reading Will Murray’s DOC SAVAGE: Skull Island, which opens with Renny applying his engineering savvy to figure out how to remove King Kong’s corpse from outside the Empire State Building. We then flash back to the post-Great War years, when Doc and his father went searching for Doc’s missing grandfather “Stormalong” Savage and found him on Skull Island, where Doc meets Kong. This confirms my opinion that Murray is no Lester Dent (not that he’s ever claimed to be) — he does great with the Kong scenes but Doc’s encounters with dinosaurs are nowhere nears as good as, say, The Other World, nor does the book capture how much Doc thrives on excitement — I think he’d have much more of a blast here. There’s also a lot of time spent battling uninteresting headhunters (and they’re a little too stereotypical savage brutes for my taste).

What does work, at least for me as a fan, is the spotlight on Doc’s prickly relationship with his father, and details such as how Doc acquired his nickname (working as a medic in WW I), a little about his mom (named Kendra Robeson, an obvious in-joke), Clark Sr. grumbling about his son reading puerile popular fiction such as Burroughs or Doyle and constant speculation about why Dad trained Doc the way he did. Regrettably it’s canon that Doc never learns so we can’t get an answer (I love Murray’s passing suggestion that it might have been Doc’s late mother’s idea, but that doesn’t work with what little we do know). So this one did have its charms.

Oh, and over on Atomic Junkshop I’ve posted an expanded version of an article from this site a few years back, about DC’s Beowulf.beowulf4

#SFWApro. Cover by Scott Jeraids, bottom by Ricardo Villamonte, all rights remain with current holder.

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Another ‘Other Doc Savage’ — Will Murray tries fiction

With the end of the Doc Savage canon approaching (about two more months and I’ll be done) I thought I’d take a break and check a couple of Will Murray’s “Kenneth Robeson” books from the 1990s. I own several, and would probably have more if money hadn’t been so tight in that decade, so presumably I enjoyed them back then. Rereading them with the original books fresh in my mind, not so much. Murray’s an amazing Doc Savage scholar but the two I read this month remind me of Lancer Books’ Conan series — bland imitations of the real thing.

PYTHON ISLE is based on an early 1930s outline by Lester Dent that his editor rejected. Snake stories, the editor believed, didn’t sell, though he also turned it down when Dent proposed making it Lion Island . We open with Doc in his first Fortress of Solitude (before he built the blue dome of Fortress of Solitude) then cut to a gang of South African smugglers led by Blackbird Hinton and King Hancock (“He hadn’t an evil bone in his body. Nor a good one either.”) who shoot down a plane coming too close to their boat. Then they realize the plane is a patchwork held together by gold plates and patches and decide to take a good look. The plane carries Tom Franklin, a pilot who vanished several years earlier, and the beautiful Lha of Ophir (an obvious Tarzan joke by Dent). Franklin escapes and gets a message to Renny, who’s working on a dam project nearby.

Renny gets word to Doc before he’s captured. Hinton gets word to Bull Pizano, a hulking brute (with a soft spot for animals) who can slap Monk around and more than hold his own fighting Doc. There’s the usual assortment of danger and escapes before Doc and his crew wind up on the eponymous island, currently in the grip of  evil high priest, Taxus, whose “invisible wrath” reduces his enemies to zombies (villains used similar gimmicks in Hex and The Czar of Fear but it’s unimpressive here). Eventually Taxus and the smugglers go down; Pizano winds up being eaten by sharks without a final battle with Doc or Monk (Murray says he didn’t think he could do justice to that showdown).

Dent wanted to do a series of stories spotlighting Doc’s aides, starting with Death In Silver but the rejection put paid to that (only The Sea Magician saw print). He did reuse several elements of Python Isle in later stories, for example turning the opening with Lha into the first appearance of the much more impressive Z in The Mental Wizard.  Murray follows Dent’s outline more faithfully than Dent might have (he often made changes when he got to the writing); Murray’s desire to make this just like a 1934 Dent novel is a weakness, reproducing the long detailed descriptions of Doc and his crew that Dent wrote into the early books. It wouldn’t have hurt to leave that out. Though the continuity references to earlier books are good.

THE FRIGHTENED FISH is based on a Dent plot synopsis rather than a detailed outline. Set after The Red Spider (unpublished until Murray dusted it off and got Bantam Books to reprint it in the 1970s) starts off effectively, as three hoods terrify a man with images of fish. The bad guys escape Doc but then the obnoxious, arrogant Celia Adams “of the Massachusetts Adams” shows up, demanding Doc find her missing boyfriend — why, yes, boyfriend Baker Eastland is unwittingly caught up in the same plot, how did you know? Investigating leads Doc & Co. to Massachusetts, where the fishing areas are mysteriously empty of fish; from there they eventually travel to occupied post-war Japan, where the same thing is happening. Doc points out that with Russia now having the a-bomb, the world is already unstable; Japan losing its primary food source would result in even more stability.

Enter Jonas Sown, the mastermind from The Screaming Man, to conform this is exactly his plan: just as his mind-control tech whipped the Axis leaders into war mode a couple of decades earlier, now he’ll do the same with the communist bloc. Japan will become communist and then WW III begins! This time Sown won’t fail!

Unfortunately Sown — added by Murray to Dent’s plot — remains underwhelming. Part of that is that like a lot of post-war Dent stories for the series, this is very talky: Sown spends much more time detailing his big and evil plans for the world than actually doing evil. Eliminating fish as a source of food is indeed a serious threat, but it’s not a very scary one. John Sunlight could have put this across, but Murray says that violates his What Would Lester Do? approach: Dent left Sunlight dead, so dead he must remain.

And then there’s the women of the book. Seryi, the Russian anticommunist from Red Spider, returns but only to break Doc’s heart by sacrificing herself to save him; Celia is written as a bitch with no redeeming features. Dent’s women were usually more capable and likable; even “she-male” Velma Crale in The South Pole Terror comes off better than Celia. She feels like a leftover from when Murray was ghostwriting The Destroyer, a series I found horribly sexist whenever I read it.

Despite my disappointment, I couldn’t resist picking up one of Murray’s later works, Doc Savage: Skull Island because a Doc/King Kong crossover set right after WW I seems irresistible. But that one will get a separate post after I finish it.

#SFWApro. Covers by Joe DeVito, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Doc Savage vs. evil, terror and hate!

We’re still in the Doc Savage, Science Detective phase, which may explain why THE PURE EVIL is such a dull yarn — though not why Edd Cartier’s cover doesn’t illustrate or even mention Doc’s adventure.

This one opens with Gail Adams (while Gail isn’t another first-person narrator, she does get most of the POV) driving her brother Dan to his work as a radar operator. Something he sees on-screen drives him to smash his equipment and then go to church. Later in the day, he’s found strangled in his locked room; the supervisor, who might know what Dan saw winds up dead the same way. A Mr. Morand (no relation to the man in Danger Lies East I assume) with a weird speech pattern (“Your brother. Most unfortunate. Very sad.”) offers Gail a life insurance payoff, double indemnity in case of suicide, which Gail deduces is to stop her asking any questions. Instead, Gail calls Doc, then flies to New York when it appears he won’t take the case otherwise.

One of the passengers tries to kill her in an effectively chilling scene (though not as effective as Colors for Murder). Fortunately Doc and Monk have snuck aboard and save Gail, but the man impossibly vanishes. Morand, also aboard, explains the killer is one of several evil entities his research has manifested, though he insists they’re scientific forces, not supernatural.  As more weirdness happens, a trio of wealthy debunkers recruit Doc to prove Morand is full of crap.

It’s a decent set-up but mediocre execution. Doc being a science detective is presumably why we get a long, detailed search of the plane with lots of technical detail about where he could be hiding; I didn’t need it. The big reveal is a talky scene in which Renny reports to Doc what he learned eavesdropping on Morand’s gang: this is all a scam to earn money for his “research” from the wealthy trio. Although we gets some old-school elements like anesthetic grenades, this ultimately turns out to be a generic detective novel.

The curiously titled TERROR WEARS NO SHOES shows how the zeitgeist was changing: coming out in 1948, it presents the USSR (not specifically named, much like pre-war novels such as The Rustling Death didn’t outright label the villains as German). Russia has perfected a bioweapon it plans to introduce into America, the first step in WW III. In contrast to the 1950s political paranoia where commies were infiltrating America to destroy us from within (something I covered in Screen Enemies of the American Way), Doc declares that communist infiltration has proven worthless, hence the turn to open warfare.

The story opens with Doc, in disguise, trying to impress Canta, a female crimelord in the mold of Crockett from Danger Lies East. While we’re told she’s powerful and a legend in the Far East, once she joins forces with Doc — she gave the U.S. the pseudonymous tip-off about the plot — she comes off rather ineffective, a typical woman out of her depth. Crockett was more fun.

Much of the plot concerns a hunt for Long Tom, who was investigating the conspiracy. We learn Long Tom was largely absent from Doc’s WW II adventures because he was working on the Manhattan Project; now he’s disappeared again, and the Russians believe he’s dead. Nope, he actually killed the ruthless Soviet agent sent to eliminate him, then successfully assumed his identity. Unfortunately I guessed this trick well before the big reveal.

This wasn’t as bland as its predecessor — despite how the book treats her, Canta’s pretty cool (I would so love to see a fanfic with her, Pat, Retta Kenn, Rhoda Haven and Crockett all working together). However Dent spends a lot of time warning us about the unspeakable evil of the international communist threat (which as usual comes off interchangeable with the recently defeated Axis) and that’s old hat (and a dull hat) to me.

THE ANGRY CANARY starts in a package depot where a weird-looking dude (“he wore a green suit of a shade hitherto unheard of.”) and a good-looking woman both attempt to pick up a canary cage without a claim ticket. The clerks on duty, refuse, but then hear the canaries fighting inside the cage until of them kills the other. Meanwhile, someone sends Doc half of a $1,000 bill and the claims ticket. After Doc uses his science detective mojo to deduce the person who sent the envelope is a woman, smokes exotic cigarettes, has recently returned from India, etc., Doc sends Monk to pick up the cage — though by the time they finally get it, one of the clerks has lost his life.

Analyzing the birds’ brains, Doc discovers they’ve been altered: they fought because something stimulated them to hate each other. Margaret Prince (the woman who sent the envelope and tried to collect the cage) eventually explains that she’d been working at her missionary uncle’s establishment in India when it became obvious something was whipping up Hindu/Muslim hostility far more than normal. The villain is sinister Mr. Plott (green-suit guy) who’s figured out a technology that stimulates rage and hate (Doc tells Prince about his crime college to confirm this is indeed possible). This idea works much better than it did in The Screaming Man.

The novel also works in one nice twist: Audrey, the blonde Monk and Ham have been fighting over for a while, insists on horning herself in on the adventure. It looks like she’s more than the brassy blonde she initially seems to be, and she is, but not the way I expected. Rather than an excitement junkie, she’s Plott’s wife, infiltrating herself into Doc’s circle when they realize Doc’s probably going to get involved. The results are not classic, but they are enjoyable.

#SFWApro. Bottom two covers by Walter Swenson, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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The Pat Savage syndrome

One of the points Tim Hanley makes in his Batgirl and Beyond is that in the Silver Age Batwoman, Batgirl I (Betty Kane) and Batgirl II (Barbara Gordon whom you’re probably all familiar with) were all shown to be competent, but still constantly sidelined. Reading I Died Yesterday this month has me thinking how I’ve often seen that trope, and it definitely applies to Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage.

When we first meet Pat in Brand of the Werewolf, she’s 18 years old, just lost her father and is determined to figure out the mystery behind his death. She can shoot, fight and track and has the same taste for adventure her cousin does. When she shows up in New York in Fear Cay, she tells Doc that after the previous adventure, life in the Canadian wilderness is just too dull. When the bad guys target a young woman, Pat trades places and lets them kidnap her instead. She admits later it was more excitement than she’d anticipated, but she’s up for the gig. By the following book, Death in Silver, she’s opened Patricia, Incorporated, her New York beauty salon/health spa which charges skyhigh prices (I Died Yesterday says Pat’s ruthless about turning away potential clients, thereby reassuring people she’s exclusive enough to be worth paying through the nose). And whenever she can, cutting herself in on Doc’s adventures.

It’s understandable Doc’s never very enthused about this. He’s in his thirties, Pat’s barely an adult; as he says in The Feathered Octopus, he knows she could hold her own with his team but he doesn’t want his last living relative risking her neck. It doesn’t change the fact that she is sidelined even in the stories she appears in; I Died Yesterday is one of the few that really shows her capable, and even there Doc’s conducting himself like a jerk to discourage her. It’s the kind of trick Ricky Ricardo might play on Lucy, if they’d been PIs. And it’s not unique; while one WW II book mentioned Doc recruiting Pat because his regular resources are stretched so thin, Violent Night has him using US spies to scare her off the case (it doesn’t work). Given he’s supposed to be hunting down Hitler, it’s a remarkable waste of resources. Pat almost never gets to shine, though both Millennium’s and Dynamite’s Doc Savage comics made it a point to give her more action.

Pat’s hardly unique. I’ve seen lots of books and movies where they establish the female lead is competent and capable, but then treat her as just the love interest. Or assume that no matter how competent or professional she is, all she really wants is to land a man; once she does that, forget her career! Or simply assume she’s just not good enough. I read a sequel in the 1970s to Robert E. Howard’s stories of mercenary Dark Agnes and it ends with this tough, capable warrior woman going all weak at the knees — good thing there’s a man around to hold her close and tell her everything’s okay (it makes me appreciate why Sigourney Weaver said she was so glad they never put a scene like that into Aliens). It’s an equivalent of sorts to the hot mess approach to writing women: show that no matter how tough, capable or adventurous she is, she’s not really going to be the hero Because our culture tells us that’s a a man’s job!

#SFWApro. Covers by Carmine Infantino, James Bama and Walter Swenson, all rights remain with current holders.

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Filed under Doc Savage, Undead sexist cliches