The strange days of Doc Savage, Science Detective

For a brief period before Doc Savage magazine ended its run in 1949 (and the hero pulps as a genre essentially disappeared), the magazine changed its title, adding “Science Detective” after Doc’s name. That decision was reversed just before the end, with an attempted return to style and appearance of the 1930’s pulps, but it was a unique interlude in the long history of the series.

I won’t go into a long presentation of the editorial changes, publisher mandates, dates, names, and personalities involved in those last years of Doc Savage magazine — others have done that, with far more accuracy than I could hope to achieve. But I’d like to explore the zeitgeist of the times, and how the evolution of the stories felt to a reader of the second wave of Doc fandom, after the revival by Bantam books.

Bantam, despite the changes in postwar storytelling from the original run, did not change its style of cover art. Following their successful formula to the end of the reprints, every cover featured a dynamically-posed single figure of Doc in the James Bama style. The last paperback, issued in the 90’s, had very much the same cover approach as the first one, in 1964.

The covers during the period of Doc Savage, Science Detective were very strange indeed. They were abstracts, suggestive of the story but not really specific to its action.

Jarring as they are to someone who visualized a Doc Savage magazine in the light of a Walter Baumhofer or James Bama, they were not just a mad editorial whim…book and magazine covers in postwar America had undergone a great change since the debut of Doc Savage magazine in 1933. Penguin Books in the 1940’s launched a successful line (sometimes new novels, sometimes re-packaging old ones) that used similar abstract techniques, pioneered by artist Robert Jonas.

Robert Jonas cover for Graham Greene’s “The Ministry of Fear”

They were considered stylish and sophisticated. And there were even pre-war examples of the trend in the “slick” magazines, like this 1939 cover of Harper’s Bazaar (note the similarity in the eye motif to the Doc Savage issue Terror Wears No Shoes).

Alexey Brodovich cover for Harper’s Bazaar, 1939

The stories themselves in the “Science Detective” era were generally of smaller scope than the grand adventures of the Thirties. They had tight, relatively narrow plots, and spent a good deal of time on characterization and mood. This style was the standard of “fine writing” at the time. The de-emphasis of the hero in literature was a distinct tone of the times (notice that the cover of the March/April 1948 issue of Doc Savage, Science Detective does not even mention the Doc novel inside).

World War II had changed the way adventure entertainment was perceived. Though I am from the next generation (born in 1958), I can well understand how, having passed through an unprecedented time of war and devastation, the reading public was less interested in world-threatening gadgets and larger-than-life villains.

Also, there is a generational quality to the readership of long-running series. Doc Savage had been designed and marketed to a mid- to late-teen male audience, and those readers had aged, while a new wave of younger readers had been seduced away from the pulps by the emergence of comic books. So Doc Savage magazine was in an unusual void. Its choice to attempt to hold onto their older, existing readers through a change in story content and packaging is not so unusual (even if it was not ultimately successful).

For me, reading these stories with a traditional Bantam Doc cover was unsettling. My mindset was still in the Thirties, and I was not immediately comfortable with the changes in the stories and characters themselves. Some of the stories felt so lightweight as to be trifles. But when I got past that culture shock, I actually found some of them to be quite compelling in their own right.

They were, after all, still being written by Lester Dent…and he seemed invigorated through being able to embrace a somewhat more adult style of writing. This was a direction, as I understand it, that he wished to take his writing career anyway…taut detective fiction for the slicks, and for the larger houses publishing novels at the time.

In time I came to appreciate this period in the Doc Savage saga more and more. I still cherish the Thirties adventures, which are so emblematic of the series as a whole. But for a slightly more adult Doc, with some richer shadings of personality and stories that don’t crowd out that characterization, they can be illuminating and enjoyable.

Doc Savage grew up a little, as the whole world did after the wrenching realities of war and its aftermath. As a reader, I grew as well from the teenager who fell in love with Doc. Both sides of my personality are still going strong all these years later, and in the whole of its run, Doc Savage embraces both those selves.

(Thank you to Ralph Grasso of Fans of Bronze for suggesting this article.)

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