There is a rite of passage that happens for all Doc Savage fans…the first time you were seduced by one of the series’ long, long array of spectacular covers. It might have been on a Bantam paperback, a comic book or magazine, or even an original pulp. The artist names included in that gallery of covers is legendary: Walter Baumhofer, James Bama, Jim Steranko among them.
My first happened in 1969. I was 11 years old, living in New England — a town called Framingham, Massachusetts. In that area, about 20 miles from Boston, there were many small, formerly farm-towns in the 1960’s, and Framingham, being more of a manufacturing town (the Dennison office supplies factory was located there) was a little bigger than most. It is probably hard for Millennial generations to really understand how deeply the life of a town in those days was integrated with those who lived in it. Framingham downtown had a small movie theater (which I would frequent as often as I could afford it, watching serials like Flash Gordon and The Shadow), it had a good library (being bookish, I spent a lot of time there), an ice cream parlor (where the best root beer floats in the world could be found), a department store where my grandmother worked, and a main street where they had parades on holidays.
And there was the local drug store, Dean’s Pharmacy, where I went to buy comic books. In 1969 I was a big fan of Marvel comics, and even at 12 cents each (the cover price in those days), it was hard to have enough cash to get all the issues I wanted to read.
I usually didn’t buy books. I had the library for that, and paperbacks generally cost five times the amount of a comic book. Until the day, on my way to the back wall where the comics were, I passed the Bantam Books spinner rack, and saw this:
I’d never seen anything like it before. At first I thought it was a photograph, but could there really be a man who looked like that…so powerful, with that dynamic widow’s peak? The colors were so vivid, the pose so intense…I paused, and took it off the rack to look at more closely. The back cover looked like this:
The hyperbolic story description was captivating to my 11-year old mind…and there were more of these novels listed at the bottom, a lot more! All with titles that shrieked with excitement, mystery and adventure.
The old Bantam spinner racks looked like this:
They could, of course, be spun, and you could see the titles on the spine of many books hidden by the one in front. I looked for the author’s name, Kenneth Robeson, and yes! There were more! All with visually arresting covers, which I would learn were actually painted, by an artist named Bama.
It was all too much for me to resist. 60 cents! Could I actually bring myself to spend that immense sum of money on one book? I could buy five comic books for that amount! But I had to have it. I bought Merchants of Disaster, and I carried it around with me for days, reading every moment I got the chance.
After that, I was a goner. My life no longer could be calculated in 12-cent increments. I now had to save 60 cents (later 75), to buy each new Doc book that appeared (and at that time they were monthly), as well as all of the older ones I could find. That Bantam spinner rack became my source for a treasure hunt that felt gloriously endless.
Over fifty years later I have dreams sometimes of going into Dean’s Pharmacy (which is long gone, as well as most of the icons of small-town America that I grew up with)…and finding a Doc Savage book on that rack that I have never seen before (even though I have now seen them all), and I feel the same rush of excitement I felt a half century ago.