[This is a Pulp Pit column, originally published at Inveterate Media Junkies. These columns are exclusively available at their site for two weeks, then I make them available here on my blog.]
I am Doc Savage.
If you know me, you know that to the world at large, I am a strange, mysterious figure of glistening bronze skin and golden eyes. A man of superhuman strength and protean genius. My life is dedicated to the destruction of evil-doers. I am the greatest adventure hero of all time.
Now hear me out. Sure, I lack the bronze. My eyes are blue, and I tend toward what you might call an Irish tan, which is to say, freckles at best, charbroiled melanoma at worst. So, I’m not literally the original superman, standing tall with a tropic tan and eyes of swirled gold.
Nor do I live in the Empire State Building, have a team of action-packed scientist aides, or play a mean violin.
Plus, I don’t live in the early twentieth century.
So where do I get off saying that I’m Doc Savage?
Well, as you may know from reading Insideman’s awesome summary of the character, Doc Savage was a popular pulp hero in the magazines of his own name back in the thirties and forties. He was second only to the Shadow in popularity. He was very cool.
Alas, as is often the case, something that’s cool and popular over time loses its cachet. And in time, Doc Savage too lost popularity, and ultimately the magazine died in 1949. The pulp era was over, replaced by comic books and TV.
But during this period, the primacy of the paperback arose. And into that mix, Doc Savage clawed his way back from the hell of obscurity (indeed, he’d actually gone to Hell in his last adventure). Bantam Books started reprinting his escapades in trim little paperbacks with incredible new cover art by master painter James Bama. And these books sold well.
The reprinting started in 1964. I was born in 1964.
But I’m not just Doc Savage because of this accident of timing, this literary synchronicity of reincarnated energies.
I’m also Doc Savage because I read Doc Savage. I was one of the kids who spotted those awesome Bantams on the rack, with Doc all mighty and bronze and thewed (I think my first was The Munitions Master), and I bought one and couldn’t stop. These were incredible books. I enjoyed their cliffhanger adventure, their quirky characters, and the ethics and intelligence of the hero.
I am Doc Savage because I read Doc Savage, and he made me aspire.
My father was an abusive drunk who tore down my sense of worth and made me feel more like a loser than any horde of bullies my age could have done. But Doc Savage, and other heroes and superheroes and sleuths and adventurers, gave me something to lean on, something to build on, to construct the notion that evil could be overcome and that men could rise above the limitations of the world they were thrust into and become something better, something nobler, something great.
As a kid, my efforts to become great varied from the noble to the ridiculous. On the noble end of things, I tried to keep to a regimen of daily exercise, doing pushups and laps of our small suburban yard, sitting and meditating to try to hear or smell things I normally wouldn’t notice, and I read everything I could get my hands on (though that compulsion came naturally on its own).
On the ridiculous side, I got my hands on a tube of the sort of tanning goop that was created in the seventies, which made people as citrusy and ridiculous as John Boehner, and I coated myself in it, even rubbing it in my hair to try to get that bronze hue of Doc’s. This didn’t actually make me as awe-inspiring as intended.
My stack of Doc Savage books had its own corner in my room. In my memory it was about four feet tall, though that’s not possible because that many paperbacks hadn’t been published yet.
I didn’t grow up to be a pulp hero, or an inventor, or even a scientist (which was the dual desire I had along with being a writer). But I did grow up to be a better man, a more noble man, a more learned man, and ultimately a better father than my father had been. And at least part of the reason I could do that was because I read Doc Savage.
So I’m Doc Savage.
Maybe you’re Doc Savage too. If not, there’s still hope for you.
This column is about pulp. If you’re not familiar with the term pulp, it refers to a broad spectrum of fiction that rose to popularity in the pulp magazines of the Depression era, called such because of the cheap pulp paper they were printed on.
The pulps evolved from the dime magazines and penny dreadfuls of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wove tales for a popular audience. While many people tend to think of heroic action tales when they think of pulp (and indeed I’ll be focusing largely on them), in truth most of what we consider genre fiction was born in the pulps.
The pulps brought us science fiction via writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury. They brought us fantasy from writers like Robert E. Howard, who created Conan, and Fritz Leiber, whose heroes Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser defined the genre of sword and sorcery. They brought us mystery through Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Elmore Leonard, horror from H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson, westerns from Louis Lamour and Max Brand. And many pulp writers wrote extensively across genre lines, becoming prominent in multiple fields.
And yes, the pulps gave us heroes. Lester Dent’s Doc Savage. Walter Gibson’s The Shadow. Norvell Page’s The Spider. Zorro, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Jirel of Jory, Solomon Kane, The Avenger, The Black Bat, John Carter of Mars…
The pulps inspired the creation of Batman and Superman, James Bond and Indiana Jones. Their literary DNA is neon-bright in Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. And when I was looking for, and not finding, contemporary books to share with my son which captured the old pulp magic, they inspired me to write my first novel, Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, the first of a series from Putnam, itself a love letter to Doc Savage and H.P. Lovecraft.
My mission here is to share cool stuff from the world of pulp. In that spirit, to close this introductory column, I want to point you to three of pulp’s modern children that you might enjoy.
First, writer William Preston has begun a series of tales that are pure pulp channeled through a very contemporary filter, focusing on “the Old Man,” who, though not explicitly named, is very clearly Doc Savage. The first story, “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down,” originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, but can be had for free at this link from the author’s blog. It’s a very well-written, smart, ultimately moving tale which explores the place of heroes in the post-9/11 world of government-encouraged paranoia and police state tactics.
Then, for fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos stories, there’s Kenneth Hite’s wonderful Where The Deep Ones Are, illustrated by the awesome Andy Hopp. This clever parody is a mashup of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where The Wild Things Are and Lovecraft’s (greatest, in my eyes) story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Hopp brings unspeakable, colorful gloppiness to his aping of Sendak’s art, and Hite echoes both his inspirations in clever verse. The book is available in hardcover from Amazon for $19.95, but is now also available as an app for iPhone and iPad for just a buck.
Finally, I’ll be self-serving and tell you that my book, Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, is a fun pulp adventure for all ages. It’s similar to something like Pixar’s The Incredibles in that its characters and action and wit can be enjoyed by the young, while other things are going on that they won’t notice but which enliven things for older readers. Writer Barry Hunter at The Baryon Review wrote, “It’s a true delight…Tim Byrd has taken Doc Savage, added in a pinch of Robert E. Howard, a liberal dose of H.P. Lovecraft, and mixed it all together in a well done, enchanting pastiche of the pulps that will appeal to the adult audience as well as the young adult readers. It is an over the top at times, rip-roaring adventure that returns us to the days of yesteryear and leaves us wanting more.”
I hope you’ll give it a try.