Doc Savage: A Potential Beginner’s Guide

Earlier this week, Cat Rambo kicked off a series of post chronicling her re-reading the Doc Savage pulps. Coincidentally, I recently bought a large set of Doc paperback, nearly completing a collection I started over 10 years ago. Given Cat’s essay and word of a Doc Savage film in development, I thought I’d recommend a ten novels for people new to the series.

Reading Doc can be intimidating because there were over 180 monthly “novels” published by Street and Smith in pulp magazine format between Doc’s 1933 debut and the series end in 1949. Most were written by Lester Dent, but published pseudonymously as Kenneth Robeson.  As with any huge series, some are better than others.


Whether you like Doc Savage or not depends partly on your willingness to buy into the novels’ central conceit: a hero who is good at nearly everything, a genius Renaissance Man who is physically intimidating and morally upright.  Doc’s a bigger Boy Scout than any of the superheroes he inspired (Superman included).

The other hurdle to enjoying Doc is prose-related.  No serious writer looks to the Doc Savage novels for literary artistry.  Still, I can’t imagine any writer who wouldn’t admire Dent’s stamina as he knocked out a couple of 60,000-word , plot-driven novellas every month for 12 years (he wrote Street and Smith’s Avenger concurrently, letting William Bogart, Harold A. Davis, and others pen the occasional Doc story when needed).

Reading Doc is often the literary equivalent to watching The Bowery Boys or Hopalong Cassidy movies on TCM—they aren’t high art, but they’re evocative as hell when it comes to Americana. They’re fun, and fodder for Walter Benjamin-type dissection if one wants to engage with them intellectually.

With that said, where should someone start? I’m going to make a few recommendations not based on “best” or “most enjoyable” but on the potential entry points readers might have:

The Classics

1) The Man of Bronze (1933)

2) The Fortress of Solitude (1938)

If you only read two, these are the ones most referenced and most influential. Man of Bronze introduces Doc and his sidekicks, a group of extraordinary geniuses who met in the trenches of WWI and devoted themselves to fighting evil. Doc travels to a lost Mayan village where he finds his fortune (used to fight crime, of course). We also get the first of a recurring theme as Doc meets and rebuffs the affections of a beautiful girl (Doc’s celibate, ostensibly because any lover would become an enemy’s target). Doc’s Fortress of Solitude—a hidden, polar ice castle full of his inventions—was introduced by Lester Dent long before his book of the same name. Fortress of Solitude features a Russian villain who discovers Doc’s fortress and uses it against him. It was published the same year that Superman debuted in Action Comics, prior to Supes’ writers pilfering the Fortress concept, name and all.

Quintessential Doc

3) The Lost Oasis (1933)

4) Fear Cay (1934)

The most bang for your buck. Both feature globe-trotting adventures with Doc and his full crew at their finest. Lost Oasis features battles on a zeppelin, prominently featuring Doc’s mercy-guns that shoot knock-out gas pellets instead of bullets. The bad guys are dispatched in a memorable way. Did I mention ZEPPELIN FIGHT? Fear Cay is famous as the novel where Doc gets his ass whupped by a centenarian (the Fountain of Youth is involved). It’s a showcase for Dent’s writing method, which always leaves the heroes in bigger trouble at the end of a section than they where they began. The series always creatively juggled rational science and far-fetched ideas. Fear Cay is the probably the high-water mark of that approach.

A Man of His Times

5) The Czar of Fear (1933)

6) The World’s Fair Goblin (1939)

If you want to read Doc for a nostalgia vibe, try these. Doc plots don’t involve current events very often, but they can be very fun when they do. Czar of Fear finds Doc taking on the Depression in a rare case where our heroes don’t leave the States. It has lunch counters, folk singers, labor unrest, and lots of other topical luminaries. World’s Fair Goblin isn’t great plot-wise, but it all takes place on the grounds of the then-contemporary 1939 World’s Fair in New York. You get Doc and company swashbuckling through the Perisphere and Trylon, iconic Decopunk locales revisited by present-day writers like Howard Waldrop and Michael Chabon. (Note: a later work, The Hate Genius (1945), has Doc fighting Hitler, but came near the war’s end—not quite the “ripped from the headlines” tale we might hope for.)

Doc’s “Cure” for Crime

7) The Annihilist (1934)

8) The Purple Dragon (1940)

As fans know, Doc tries to avoid killing and, brilliant neurosurgeon that he is, comes up with a solution. Each bad guy he captures is sent to a hidden “Crime College” where he receives an operation from Doc that removes all memory of his past. He’s taught proper morals and a trade, and then released. Often, modern readers dismiss this “cure” as a product of the writers’ utopianism, assuming that Dent and his audience didn’t understand how problematic the notion of erasing villains’ minds was. Hogwash. The writers knew they were playing with fire and at least two novels’ plots deal directly with consequences resulting from Doc’s unorthodox operation. The Annihilist features an attack on the Crime College, and a police captain who’s not convinced Doc is the angel everyone thinks he is. The Purple Dragon features a baddie killing off graduates of the Crime College—men who think they’re normal, law-abiding citizens being mistaken for former bootleggers and hitmen.

Latter-Day Doc

9) King Joe Cay (1945)

10) No Light to Die By (1947)

In his book Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Philip José Farmer asserted that Lester Dent’s writing got better over time. While the early ’30s stories have exuberance and freshness, the later stories do have better sentence-level writing, moving closer to the noir-ish feel that Dent used in later short stories.  If you want a Doc novel with a sprinkle of Dashiell Hammett, these later ones are good bets.  I’ve met people who say King Joe Cay is their favorite Doc novel, although it was allegedly just a noir manuscript Dent re-wrote to include Doc.  Doc, posing as low-level criminal, begins to actually enjoy his new persona.  No Light to Die By is a hard-to-find classic and one of only a handful of stories Dent wrote in first person.  It’s told by Sammy Wales, a mouthy, opinionated, but overall decent youth who is skeptical about Doc’s sterling reputation. It begins all pomo metatextual as Kenneth Robeson provides an intro, then reprints a series of cablegrams between himself and Doc Savage about whether or not to publish Sammy’s story, followed by Doc’s intro (see below).

There are many other categories other folks would pick: best stories featuring his five regular sidekicks, best stories featuring his beautiful cousin Pat Savage, etc. As I said, there are 180+ of these; I’ve read just under a third of them. I’d love to hear others’ recommendations.

Note: Dates of original publication come from Wikipedia’s List of Doc Savage Novels, which was originally created by fans at The List Oasis.

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More News Soon…

I will have news about the non-fiction, academic book in the coming month.  Beyond that, some of my short fiction is circulating.

The next few weeks will include gathering reappointment materials for work, writing a number of recommendation letters for students, and converting files from last year’s classes into the new platform (Canvas) so I don’t do it all at the last minute before spring quarter.

Basically, I’m busy, but not posting much here.

Oh, and Worldcon 2018 in San Jose memberships are still at early-bird rates for a few more days.  Get in on it.


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Forget ‘Best of 2016.’ Here’s the ‘Catch-Up in 2017’ List.

I only get to read/watch a fraction of the things I want to during a year.  So I asked friends over on Facebook to recommend one thing from 2016 that I should experience, be it book, film, comic or otherwise.  Here’s a partial consolidated list with my comments:

  • Station Eleven (novel that clearly has staying power and crossover appeal)
  • Manifest Destiny (comics series)
  • Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (album that I’ve really enjoyed over the year, esp. opening track, “The Werewolf”)
  • Providence (comics series by Alan Moore, which I will definitely read though I’m likely not cut out for his 1,000+-word novel, Jerusalem).
  • Swans, The Glowing Man (album)
  • Midnight Special (a film that I missed completely but will now seek out)
  • City of Blades (part of Robert Jackson Bennett series that sounds very cool)
  • Hark, A Vagrant (web comic series)
  • Miss Sloan (film)
  • This is Us (TV series)
  • Rotör (band, who clearly understand how to use röck umlauts)
  • Hell or High Water (I loved this movie)
  • The Book of Ralph (novel by Christopher Steinsvold with a pretty funny SF premise)
  • I Contain Multitudes (non-fiction book by Ed Yong)
  • Black Mirror
  • The Arrival
  • Westworld (these last three are shoe-ins that I just haven’t been able to fit in yet)


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Goodbye, Princess Leia

In mourning for Carrie Fisher until further notice.

The year has not been kind to science fiction fandom or music lovers.  The best quote I read yesterday was from Twitter’s Miss Texas 1967 who said:

“It is becoming increasingly obvious that David Bowie has established a better alternate universe and is populating it selectively one-by-one.”


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Chris Mars’s Video is “New Weird” Sci-Fi Goodness

The video for Chris Mars’s new song, “Down by the Tracks,” is like a cinematic version of a China Miéville novel as scored by the Kinks in 1968. (There’s more going on there, but that should grab the right people’s interest.)

Chris Mars, the former Replacements drummer who virtually abandoned music to become a painter of weird, disturbing landscapes and portraits, has apparently returned to songwriting. His website says he has an album coming out next year.

The tune features a psychedelic narrative about a “pancake marmalack” and “floating dice.” Like the material on Mars’s 1990s solo records, it has a distinctly British Invasion feel.

Clearly, Mars is  having fun blending his music with the iconography of his weird paintings and videos. The recent Replacements biography, Trouble Boys, notes Mars’ discovery of H.R. Giger as a major moment in his artistic development. When I saw the the video on Facebook, people mentioned Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman in the comments.

The video is an early Christmas gift for Replacements fans who like bizarre sci-fi visuals and catchy songwriting.

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2016 End-of-Year Items

It’s the end of 2016, and I’m using it for the usual shameless plugs.  A lot of my work from 2016 won’t be appearing until next year or later:

  • My non-fiction book is under double-blind peer review at a university press
  • Two articles should be out in book collections next year, one in the Cambridge History of Science Fiction and one in Routledge’s Centrality of Crime Fiction in American Literature.

The other professional highlights from this year:

  • Published a short story.
  • Presented a paper at American Literature Association.
  • Taught half of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s novel course at University of Kansas.
  • Helped run the academic-track at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City.
  • Traveled to Big Sur, Santa Cruz, and other regional sites.

I feel like I haven’t read/heard enough good stuff this year, at least not to have anything to champion right now.  I’ll post my to-reads and to-listens in a separate entry later.

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“Stranger Things” Soundtrack Makes Best Albums of 2016 List

Rolling Stone just listed their “50 Best Albums of 2016” and there’s a surprise appearance at #47 by the soundtrack to Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series, Stranger Things.

The recognition is for the theme and incidental music, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (not for any of the 1980s pop tunes that appear in the show). Like the rest of the series, it’s mostly referential to the era. The music’s synthesizer beats and creepy/tinny keyboards evoke a 1980s when John Carpenter was scoring his own movies using what sounded like a cheap, toy-store version of a Casio keyboard.

Fans of the music to Halloween, Escape from New York, or Big Trouble in Little China obviously love it. It’s also not hard to picture my students, who’ve never seen those films and weren’t alive in the 1980s, grooving to this soundtrack on earbuds while doing math homework at the library.

In hindsight, Stranger Things was probably the retro-SF event of 2016. It was engaging, fun, and pulled off the not-easy task of being kitschy and serious at the same time. It mined some elements of the 1980s that hadn’t been resurrected ad nausem yet: Stephen King mini-series adaptations, Spielberg’s Goonies and E.T., and all things Winona Ryder.  Stein and Dixon’s music is part of that too.

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