The 86th Floor
BOOKS -- TIME, JULY 5, 1971
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Gore of Yore

A tall gray-haired man of distinguished appearance was browsing in a paperback bookstore. Balzac, Eliot, James, Kafka, Proust-all at once his eye lighted on a muscle-plated male glaring out of a black background. The slash, in big red letters, read: DOC SAVAGE, THE MAN OF BRONZE! Startled, the browser glanced left and right; nobody was looking. Then with a furtive movement he snatched The Man of Bronze off its shelf and, slipping it deftly under a copy of Hazlitt's essays, strolled thoughtfully toward the cashier.

Doc Savage? If you are over 40, you don't have to ask. Doc was the Hercules of the '30s, the natural father of both Superman and James Bond. Once a month, back before the war, every redblooded American boy who could lay his hands on 10 cents plunked it down for a Street & Smith pulp called Doc Savage magazine. Now, once a month and at about seven times the price, any redblooded middle-aged man who pines for the gore of yore can renew his literary acquaintance with derring-Doc.

In the past six years, Bantam Books has reprinted 61 of the 181 Doc Savage stories that first appeared between 1933 and 1945; No. 62, The Pirate's Ghost, will hit the racks next week. The 10.5 million copies now in print have realized about $4.5 million in sales. Doc Savage fan clubs have sprung up and three producers have been negotiating for film and television rights. "We've struck into a bronze mine," Bantam's Marc Jaffe explains. "Publishing one a month, we've got six years to go in the series. Then we can start over."

Doc was born in the early '30s under the sign of the dollar. "We're in a depression," the business manager of Street & Smith instructed his editors. "People feel weak and defeated. We need a hero so strong and so intelligent that nothing can stop him." The job of creating this giant was assigned to an unathletic and sketchily educated young writer named Lester Dent. Trained as a telegrapher, Dent was innocent of grammar ("of no value to we") and guilty of heinous cliches ("The warriors were certainly a chagrined lot"), but he could put out the prose at a Remingtonwrecking rate. Under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, he knocked off a 60,000word Doc Savage novel almost every month for nearly 15 years. As stories, most of them are bloody good. He is a funhouse mirror of the America that loved him and apparently still does-a big square joe with the body of Charles Atlas, the brain of Thomas Edison, and the implacable innocence of Mickey Mouse.

the pulps



Everything about Doc is superlative. To begin with, he is the richest man in the world. He is also the handsomest. His eyes are "hypnotic whirlpools ot flake gold" and his "perfect features display a power of character seldom seen." Best of all, Doc is really built. His "giant" body, "kilned by tropical suns and arctic winds" to a permanent bronze, possesses "a strength superhuman." He can dodge a bullet, crawl up a wall like a human fly, stay under water for eight minutes, smash through an inchthick steel door with one punch, and take on -- oh, say -- a hundred armed men at a time and flip them about like Frisbees with his bare hands.

Don't get the idea that Doc is just a jock, though. He is also the world's greatest surgeon, the greatest chemist, the greatest inventor. He had Polaroid, television and the shotgun mike at least a decade before the public did, and if you don't watch out, he'll "teleport" you atom by atom to his mysterious laboratory near the North Pole. Like James Bond, Doc is gadget-gaga. Dozens of tiny martial devices -- gas bombs, sedative darts, ultraviolet flashlights -- are concealed in his clothing. His cars are rolling fire bases that can "go like Barney Oldfield" and crash like tanks through concrete walls. The transports and fighter planes in his private air force are really "whizzers."

The other characters in Dent's stories are understandably something of a letdown. The Fabulous Five, Doc's "companions in adventure and excitement," are said to be "the five greatest brains ever assembled in one group," but they talk ("Holy Cow! That's plumb ding-y!") like the Beaver Patrol on an overnight hike. Dent's villains are far zingier. They have names like Ull, Ark, Var, Zoro, Rama Tura, "The Sinister Count Ramadanoff" and "The Horrible Humpback"-whose hump, by the way, is packed with nefarious electronic gear. One of his nastiest creations is an Eskimo known as Heck Noe (humor is hardly Dent's forte). Others have long pointy ears, or keep secret laboratories in hollow mountains, or come from an advanced civilization in the center of the earth. All are insanely resolved to conquer the world, and all come equipped with secret weapons -- like, say, a fluffy yellow cloud that sidles up to airplanes and skyjacks them.

The Fantastic Island (1935), a book lan Fleming obviously ransacked when he wrote Dr. No, the villain is a mad Russian pianist who owns an isolated Galapagos island, feeds his guests to a horde of clacking crabs and explains this little character problem in a marvelously sappy 19th century trope. "I am impelled to unspeakable desires," he sighs contentedly, "when my fingers wander over the keys!"

To tell the truth, Doc has a few little problems of his own. The big galoot can litcrally knock out a 12-ft. shark but he is scared of girls -- in one book he turns to a Mayan maid who is made for him and stoutly "vouchsafes" the following: "Monja, you've been a brick." But not all of Doc's quirks are endearing. Billed as a paragon of fair play, he nevertheless tends to characterize non-Nordic types as "a low specimen of the Central American halfbreed" or as "ratty, dark-skinned" people. In his books black men shuffle, gawk and sputter things like "ah never seed such muscles befo'." Even more peculiar is Doc's method of dealing with the criminals he captures. With confidence in his lofty motives, he ships them to his "crime college" in upstate New York, where their criminal tendencies are corrected by brain surgery.

But let's be fair, Doc did a lot of good in his time. He thinned out the werewolves in northern California, established a Brontosaurus preserve at the center of the earth and prevented an evil maharajah from hypnotizing the entire world. Too bad he could not have done more for the man who actually created him. Author Dent, who died in 1959, never got more than $750 for a Doc Savage novel. His widow, who lives in La Plata, Mo., has no contractual rights to the stories. Of the millions made by the Bantam reprints she will not get a penny.

--Brad Darrach

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