Monday, February 18, 2008

Savage Birthday

According to Mark Evanier's blog, yesterday was the 75th "birthday" of Doc Savage. More precisely, it marked 75 years since the pulp fiction hero exploded into life in the pages of his Street & Smith magazine.

When I was a kid, Bantam was still publishing its paperback reprints of the Doc Savage pulp stories. Those paperbacks were a publishing phenomenon, primarily because of the new covers James Bama did for them. Bama's Doc, with his infamous widow's peak, didn't look much like the 1930's pulp paintings or illustrations of the Man of Bronze. But they did sell huge numbers of reprints of 30-40 year old stories.

I used to gobble up the reprints. They were cheap, easily available in used book stores, and short enough that I could consume a 125-page book in a few hours on a Sunday. I can't remember many of the details of those stories, but I loved them as the prose equivalent of the comic books I collected.

I've recently bought some of Anthony Tollin's reprints of the Doc Savage books. Reading them as an adult, I can see that the stories were linear and lacked subplots. I can tell that writer Lester Dent reserved characterization for Doc (not always easy, considering Doc's repressive upbringing and emotional control -- I savored every scene in which Doc suffers some emotional failing, just because he's otherwise so omnicompetent), his closest assistants, Ham and Monk, and the occasional interesting villain. And I note that Doc's three other assistants are primarily defined by their catchphrases, which are repeated ad infinitum.

Yet I can still get swept up in Dent's masterful storytelling. Anyone who wants to write adventure fiction of any kind should read some of the Doc Savage books, just to see how to use vivid descriptions and suspense to suck the reader along at a breakneck pace.

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