Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chasing the Bronze Knight of the Running Board

By Keith Howell
(Tribute to Doc Savage originally published in DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, Meteor House Press, July 2013)

I must admit that I feel out of place and unqualified to be included in this august group of contributors writing about their memories and experiences in the world of Doc Savage fandom—and especially in relation to Philip José Farmer’s brilliant DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.  However, having been asked it falls on me to regale you with my sideways tale of how Doc Savage, and particularly Phil’s take on the character has impacted my lifelong love of adventure fiction and super-heroes.

Let’s hop into the time machine and wing our way back to the halcyon summer of 1975 on the island of Puerto Rico.  My friends and I spent a lot of our days, when not out throwing overripe mangoes at each other, watching movies at the local cinema on Ramey Air Force base.  Our favorite repeated films were the European theatrical cuts of the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN TV-movies.  We, of course, were unaware that they were TV-movies.  We were just excited to see a super-hero on the big screen.  But come the summer of 1975 and the big budget DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE film, directed with tongue firmly in cheek by George Pal with a bombastic John Phillip Sousa score, hit our theater.  Now, I have since learned that the world of Doc Savage fandom almost universally despises this movie, and it tanked at the box office, but I am here to tell you that for this young viewer, it made a profound impact and I loved it. I thought it was hilarious, fun, exciting, and that Ron Ely made the perfect Man of Bronze at that time.  I lost count of how many times I probably saw that movie.  And I wasn’t the only one.  My circle of friends were all running around that summer playing Doc Savage and humming that ridiculous Sousa-based theme song.

When next Doc found his way into my life he showed up in a comic book where he teamed up with The Thing from The Fantastic Four.  This was my first encounter with the usual “widow’s peak” look for Doc.  Then I came across a hardback copy of DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE in the library on Fort Hood in Texas.  I was fascinated by it as I sat and thumbed through it at the table.  I was too young to quite grasp what I was skimming but I was definitely intrigued.  I didn’t actually check the book out and we moved to another town as my dad retired from the army.  A couple of years later, in junior high, I walked into my very first comic book shop and my eyes fell upon a poster on the wall with James Bama’s classic cover painting of Doc from the MAN OF BRONZE paperback.  I couldn’t ever get that image out of my head after that.

Now let’s move the time-machine forward a bit to the summer of 1990.  I’m freshly married and into adulthood when I picked up a copy of STARLOG magazine and read an interview with an author named Philip José Farmer where he discussed at length his writings.  I remember telling my wife after reading the article “Why have I never heard of this guy? Every single book he talks about sounds like something I need to read.”  And from that point on I made it a bit of a quest to track down his books and read them.  The first 3 I read were THE WIND WHALES OF ISHMAEL, TARZAN ALIVE, and DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.  I didn’t just read them I devoured them.

I wish I had more to contribute to the broader picture of Doc Savage fandom in the days before the Internet, but I was truly walking around in a blind haze oblivious to the fact that there was an active Doc and Wold Newton fanbase publishing Xeroxed-copy fan magazines and corresponding with each other around the world.  Other than the Doc Savage comics that DC and Marvel had published, I was unaware of and had no sense of there being a larger following for the character.  In fact, most people I mentioned the character to had already forgotten the 1975 movie or, rather, that was their sole point of reference.  So, I was a fandom-base of one and I was quickly adding to my new interest (and filling my bookshelves) because a local Friends of the Library book sale had a set of dozens of Bantam DOC SAVAGE paperbacks for sale at a quarter a book.  I scooped every single one up, including a near complete set of THE AVENGER books.  I also devoured these.  Probably my favorites were FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE and BRAND OF THE WEREWOLF—the latter because it introduced me to Doc’s cousin Pat Savage.

There was something about Phil’s writing that hooked me, but I completely understand why DS:HAL grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.  He began the book with his nostalgic memory of discovering Doc and his Amazing Five.  By the time I was at the end of the book, I felt like I had to know these characters myself and not just filtered through Phil’s nostalgia, wickedly sharp sense of humor, and desire to “connect all the dots” — essentially setting forth the basic principles and approach (along with TARZAN ALIVE) for his Wold Newton Family of stories.  My heart was energized by the exciting adventure and the archetypal mythology but my mind was engaged by the interconnectedness that Phil grasped as he pulled the pieces together to form a puzzle tapestry that made these characters so much larger and more important than their pulp roots ever aspired. 

This progression of personal interest, and remember this is still happening without my being in contact with any other Doc fans or even realizing they are out there in the world, eventually led me to track down not only all affiliated Wold Newton books I could get my hands on by Phil but also works and characters referenced in the family trees of DS:HAL and TARZAN ALIVE.  This led me to grabbing copies of the “Professor Challenger” stories by Arthur Conan Doyle because Challenger was listed by Phil as Monk Mayfair’s uncle.  Had that connection never been made, my online nom de plume would never have become “Prof. Challenger.”  I specifically chose that name in honor of the Doyle character that I became aware of through Phil’s family trees.

As our time machine continues trudging forward, we get to my first foray onto the Internet around 1993 or so.  One of the first things I did was track down a used book service to order myself a copy of Phil’s elusive VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL (Kilgore Trout edition).  Then I wound up searching for Phil, thinking half-heartedly that I might find a P.O. Box or something that would allow me to write him a letter.  And lo and behold I got his home address!  I decided to not only write him a letter but I also decided to draw him an original illustration utilizing some of my favorite characters from his books, including his Doc Caliban (maybe or maybe not actually the “real” Doc Savage) featured prominently.  I mailed that off and never really thought about it again until many years later when I wound up making contact with Mike Croteau and Win Scott Eckert through some Phil/Wold Newton web forum I believe—but also I think Phil had mentioned or shown the art I sent him to Mike.  Honestly, the info has been lost in the scattered ruins of my mind, but what is important is that I had quit the art profession for a few years.  I was totally burned out on the entire thing and had lost my creative spark.  So I decided to exercise different mental muscles and go to law school.  It was while in law school that I got asked if I would be interested in contributing a quick wrap-around cover for a book devoted to those crazy collectors of Phil’s work.  I was thrilled to do it even though I was severely out of practice. It was crude and done without any access to Photoshop or such programs but I knocked that out and the book was published and the rest is history.

Let’s bring the time-machine back to the present and as we fast-forward through the years we can look fondly as we pass through the now frequent contributions I have been able to make to Phil’s literary history. Let’s remember meeting Phil and Bette and spending time with them in their home.  Let’s remember designing the art and logo for DocCon. Let’s remember the thrill and honor of taking Phil’s notes and Win’s kibitzing to construct the official “Wildman” Coat of Arms – Doc’s family line. Let’s take note of how much my personal worldview expanded through exposure to Phil’s work and how many times I have gone back to DS:HAL because it holds a special place in my heart.  This book is dripping with enthusiasm and fondness for Doc and his family and friends to the point that no reader could conceivably finish it and not have a nagging desire to pull out a Doc Savage adventure and get lost in it. Yes, Phil’s love of the character rubbed off onto an adult who was prepped to receive it.  Super-heroes have always had a strong appeal to me.  I’m drawn to their innate goodness and the sense of tapping into the higher mythical archetypes that underlie all myths and heroic legends.  Doc is the precursor to all other modern heroes.  Even “Clark Kent” was named Clark in homage to “Dr. (Doc) Clark Savage, Jr.”  I’m 46 at the time of this writing and when I recently tore a sleeve on my shirt, my first thought was of Doc Savage flexing his coiled serpent biceps and tearing through his shirtsleeve.  Doc has been a part of my inner world since 1975.  He is an example of the best that a man can be. He is smart, strong, loyal, and honest. 

I will forever be incapable of listening to Sousa without singing along inside my head with:

                         Have no Fear, the Man of Bronze is here.
                         Peace will come to all who find
                         Doc Savage, Doc Savage.
                         He's a friend to all Mankind.
                         Pure of heart and mind.
                         Who will make crime disappear?
                         Doc Savage, Doc Savage
                         Part hero and pioneer.
                         Thank the Lord he's here.
Thanks to George Pal for introducing me to the character.  Thanks to James Bama for intriguing me about the character.  Most especially, thank you to Philip José Farmer for making the character real to me and igniting a spark that continues to this day.