Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.
I wish I could remember where or how I first heard of Doc Savage. In the early ’70s, even before reading about The Man of Bronze in Steranko‘s History Of The Comics, I somehow already knew Doc was a precursor to Superman. But I hadn’t had any exposure to the character, and I knew nothing at all about him.
When I was 11 or 12, maybe as old as 13 or thereabouts, I would occasionally help my Dad when he worked in the visitors’ clubhouse at MacArthur Stadium. MacArthur was the home of our AAA baseball team the Syracuse Chiefs, and Dad ran the clubhouse for the visiting team’s players. Dad was responsible for keeping the place clean and stocked, unpacking the players’ uniforms and arranging their individual lockers, and making sure there was an ample supply of food and beverage. Dad did this for years and years, and it was something he loved doing. This connection also gave me an opportunity to meet Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Whitey Ford, among others. My older brothers had helped Dad at the clubhouse in previous years, so I also gave it a shot when I grew old enough to try.
God. I was inept.
My recollection is that Dad was pretty patient with my woeful efforts to do the damned job. I tried, but I was just too slow. Still, I spent a lot of time at the ballpark, and I unearthed a few treasures in my spare moments. I found an old Detroit Tigers uniform, which I combined with a skull mask one year to create a Halloween costume as The Ghost Of Ty Cobb. And one day, I found a paperback novel: specifically, a Doc Savage novel, The Land Of Terror by Kenneth Robeson.
I had never read a pulp novel before. My heroes were the heroes of comic books, with strict codes against killing. So I was surprised to read this early Doc Savage adventure, and to see our hero Doc dispense with a bad guy. Permanently. Clearly, this was not how The Justice League of America would handle things!
Subsequently, I learned that the character of Doc Savage would himself regret this early use of fatal force, and would later eschew killing entirely. This copy of The Land Of Terror was missing a page, but it served as my initiation into a whole new world of heroic fiction, a world in which I would immerse myself through much of the ’70s.
Doc Savage had flourished originally in the 1930s and ’40s, the star of his own pulp magazine. Each issue of Doc Savage featured a complete purple-prose pulp adventure novel, credited to the Kenneth Robeson pseudonym, and usually written by main Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent. In the ’60s, Bantam Books began a very successful line of Doc Savage paperback novels, each book reprinting one of Doc’s old pulp adventures, generally wrapped in a stunning new cover painted by James Bama. Bama’s chiseled, gritty rendition of Doc looked nothing like Doc’s original likeness in the pulps, but it was irresistible, and it sold a lot of paperbacks.
I couldn’t tell you the name of my second Doc Savage novel, but I sure read a bunch of ’em. My parents even got me a box of them as my Christmas gift one year, and that was really cool. As noted above, I read more about the history of pulp magazines in Steranko’s History Of The Comics, and learned about just how much Doc Savage influenced the creation of Superman, right down to both characters having the same first name (“Clark Savage, Jr., meet Clark Kent. Kent, Savage. Savage, Kent.”). The Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel even shared a fondness for Arctic retreats, which they both referred to as a Fortress of Solitude. Doc’s fightin’ entourage, which Bantam hype referred to as “The Fabulous Five,” was also a big influence on both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, especially on their earliest work with The Fantastic Four.
Doc Savage’s paperback success was sufficient to prompt Marvel Comics to license the character for his own comic book series in 1972, and a feature film, Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze, was released in 1975. I liked the comic books, and really wanted to see the movie (starring Ron Ely, who had been TV’s Tarzan in the ’60s), but I don’t know if it even played in Syracuse. My cousins in Florida saw it and loved it, but reports that it was a campy take on the character dimmed my enthusiasm. I have yet to be able to sit through the film in its entirety.
I never exactly lost interest in Doc Savage, but I did kind of move on. The Shadow became my favorite pulp character, manifested in a terrific DC Comics series and some paperback pulp reprints courtesy of Pyramid Books. Bantam’s Doc Savage books had those gorgeous James Bama covers, but Pyramid’s Shadow books offered equally eye-popping cover paintings by Steranko. The ’70s were a golden age of vintage paperback pulp, with Doc and The Shadow joined on drugstore spinner racks by the likes of The Avenger, Tarzan(with cover art by my then-favorite comics artist, Neal Adams), The Phantom, Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger, Operator 5, and G-8 And His Battle Aces. I can’t tell you how much I loved this stuff at the age of 15. I wanted there to be new Batman pulp novels, and I wanted to write pulp novels. In high school, I wrote two short stories starring The Shadow for publication in The NorthCaster, and I even started writing a pulp novel called The Snowman. (The only decent, original pulp work I ever finished writing remains The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze, which was completed for this blog.)
But it all started with a Doc Savage paperback, a battered little book I discovered when I probably should have been cleaning or sweeping or unpacking a visiting player’s bag. That was my Fortress of Solitude.
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