Doc Savage’s father is mentioned in many of the pulp novels, but only in the context of his strange obsession to turn his son into a superman, trained and equipped to fight the evils of the world. Why would he do such a thing? The concept is intensely extreme…and yet what drove the elder Savage to do this is never explained.
Retroactively, various creators doing “authorized” (meaning rights have been granted by the copyright owner, Conde Nast) versions of Doc Savage stories have delved a little more into the mystery of Doc’s father. Will Murray did so in his Wild Adventures of Doc Savage novel Skull Island, and several comic book takes on Doc have also centered around the senior Savage. All are vastly different, and thus none of them have a feeling of canon to me. Still, they are interesting. In the Millennium comics story Devil’s Thoughts, Savage Sr. is depicted as a borderline (and sometimes over the line) criminal. In the final story of DC Comics’ late 1980’s/early 1990’s take on Doc, his father is presented as a very hard man, not averse to dealing out cruel justice, as in this version of the night of Doc’s birth aboard the schooner Orion.
But perhaps the most compelling theory of the obsessions of Doc’s father came through the pastiche character Doc Caliban, written by Philip José Farmer. The family history presented in Farmer’s novel A Feast Unknown is lurid and intense. Farmer linked the identity of Doc’s father to a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Priory School, James Wilder. And beyond that, he identified Wilder as Jack the Ripper.
Certainly that would provide a motivation for such extreme life-philosophies and behavior. Tormented by his own acts as one of the most grisly killers of the 19th century, Wilder (changing his name to Caliban) might well swing to the other extreme in order to find atonement.
Farmer lays out this premise in the Foreword of A Feast Unknown, but does not pursue it in depth. Nevertheless, a great puzzle of the soul had been set out — to my mind, crying out to be assembled. Farmer presented Doc’s father as something of a madman in his brief visit to the Victorian roots of the character, but it has always felt to me as if deeper and more complex psychologies must be at play within such a character.
Countless novels, movies, “true crime” theories, and other speculation has run rampant about Jack the Ripper. Many are fascinating, many are illuminating. But England at the end of the 19th century is a compelling study in and of itself. The Victorian Era was one which proudly wore a veneer of great order and control…a “civilized” place and time. But it seethed with subcultures of mysticism and sexuality, all of which might come to bear in shaping a character like Doc’s father. It was a society filled with many hypocrisies, many temptations, many conflicts…which could potentially tear even the most idealistic individuals in two.
It was also a time when the world was opening up through exploration and European domination/exploitation of unexplored areas of the world map, feeding, in the pulp years of the 20th century to follow, a fascination with the concept of “lost worlds” and “secret societies”.
This would have been the world of Doc’s father…one which would inevitably lead to the strange extremes of the son’s life to come.
To be continued…