The Conseil du Mal discusses Philip José Farmer’s “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” – Part 1

What follows is a review/discussion by three diverse authors…all enthusiastic creators and readers of pulp adventure. The three of us met in 2021 and immediately enjoyed one another’s company and writings to the degree that we joined in the tradition of author circles like the 1930’s Kalem Club (a literary group whose last names all began with K, L or M, and included H.P. Lovecraft) and the Inklings, the Oxford circle made up of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. 

A brief introduction: Atom Mudman Bezecny is both an author and publisher, and created the Hero Saga, which has brought to life unique pastiches of classic — and some wonderfully obscure — pulp characters. R. Paul Sardanas is the co-creator (with artist Iason Ragnar Bellerophon) of the Doc Savage adult pastiche Talos Chronicle, and André Vathier is a French Canadian author who has written stories in both the Hero and Talos “universes”. Together we comprise the Conseil du Mal (or Council of Evil)…dedicated to wicked literary pleasures of all kinds!

SARDANAS: Hi Atom, Hi André…so we are here to chat together about Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. First published in 1973, it has been reprinted across the decades by numerous publishers, with revisions and expansion from Farmer enthusiasts and colleagues. At face value an unusual book, as it is a “biography” of a fictional character. In the almost fifty years since Apocalyptic Life was published, the fictional biography is practically a genre all its own, but at the time it was quite a thunderbolt of imagination. It was actually a companion book to another fictional-character biography Farmer had done: Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke.

Both books had a twofold effect on the landscape of fiction. First, exploring elements of these characters’ lives as if they were “real” afforded an unusual depth to characterizations designed for exciting adventures rooted primarily in pulp-style action narratives. Second, they spawned what has become an immense, complex network of interrelationships between Doc, Lord Greystoke, and an almost dizzying array of other literary and historical characters. In that sense, they were foundational building blocks of the “literary mashup”.

I encountered Apocalyptic Life the year it was published, and it was quite a revelation to me. I had been an enthusiastic reader of Doc Savage novels since 1969, when I was eleven years old (seduced by the stunning James Bama covers, after my first I was hopelessly addicted). There’s a big difference between an 11 year-old boy, and a 15 year-old, restless, edgy, intense adolescent. I loved Doc novels for their sense of wonder, for their relentless action, for their high ideals and relative simplicity. I didn’t feel any desire to give up those pleasures, but in many ways, for a young adult, they were not enough. I wanted to read books with more human dimension, more challenging and daring approaches to fiction (I also discovered Farmer’s A Feast Unknown that same year, and in conjunction with Apocalyptic Life, my wish was fulfilled in spades).

By interesting coincidence, Farmer says on the first page of the first chapter, “The Fourfold Vision”, that he was also fifteen when he first encountered Doc via the original pulp magazine. Here is Farmer’s description of that day:

“I could find out how the weather was on Friday, February 15, 1933, by checking an almanac. But it doesn’t matter if it was cloudy or snowing or clear and sunshiny. That day will always be bursting with a golden light.”

I’d encountered the golden light at a comparatively younger age through my own first Doc novel…but on my birthday in 1973 when my parents – who knew I loved Doc – bought me a copy of that original hardcover Apocalyptic Life, I went from the golden sunshine to a storm of fascinating, challenging, sometimes inspiring, sometimes subversive, ideas.

VATHIER: That is indeed an interesting coincidence. I discovered Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life later. I was 22 years old back in 2016. I just finished reading Tarzan of the Apes, Return of Tarzan and Tarzan Alive. After reading the first autobiography, I decided to jump in with the second. Back then the idea of reading all 202 (in 2016) Doc Savage novels seemed impossible. Therefore, I settled for the next best thing. Honestly, nothing can substitute reading them but this is a close second if you cannot afford to track all of them.

The thing that impresses me the most is Mr. Farmer did this without the aid of a computer. Reading and re reading those original magazines (Bantam would only finish reprinting the series in 1991 and again 25 years later with Sanctum Books.). Taking what I assume is an ungodly amount of notes. He laid the foundation for future chronologists. He set a standard that is still used today.

The  first chapter “Fourfold Vision” is a great introduction. Not only will Mr. Farmer bring us on this extraordinary journey. He lets us the readers in on his personal connection to the character. How he first discovered him 89 years ago and how he rediscovered it with the 60s reprints. While most of us first met him with those reprints.  His digression into poplit is marvelous.  The comparison he makes between E.E Smith, William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller is academia-worthy.

The second chapter “ Lester Dent the Revelator from Missouri” is possibly my favorite. Millennials like myself can forget that back before computers and internet databases finding biographical info on authors was not that easy. Sure, your local library might have some directories with dry information. However, this is different.

Mr.:Farmer showed us one of the man behind Kenneth Robeson. Giving us both funny and sad stories told by Norma Dent. There is a thing that shines through with these stories. You can feel how much Norma loved her late husband. I cannot pin point it exactly but you can tell. His output of  130 000 to 140 000 words a month on average for 16 years! Holy S#!T.

Knowing what we know now about the infamous Doc Savage movie this quote from the 1975 edition is hilarious.

The movie was originally scheduled for the spring of 1974, but as [George] Pal reported to me, “We made it too good.”

BEZECNY: This book, as well as Tarzan Alive, are all about synthesis: the synthesis of different fictions, the synthesis of personal and fantastical experiences, the synthesis of the literary and the “lowbrow.” I believe that Jung, in his Gnostic period, expressed interest in synthesis as the primal form of enlightenment, and Farmer made it no secret that he was a Jung reader. Both Jung and Freud haunt this book, perhaps even more so than in Tarzan Alive–but that makes sense, as Doc Savage is a man of brains in more ways than one. Tarzan Alive, by contrast, was spiritually driven more by Jane Goodall and the anthropologists, because it was about an ape man living in an anthropologically unique situation. Anthropology is part of Apocalyptic Life as well, but it’s more a matter of sociology here. (While Farmer doesn’t speculate on it, I imagine Doc was one of sociology’s early defenders, when it fell under fire by the old guard of academicians in the mid 20th Century.) 

It does indeed take a remarkable intellect to produce such incredible research, from so many areas of scholarship–and to be able to shape that research into a compelling story. The genealogy that makes up one of the book’s addenda is fairly simple compared to that from Tarzan Alive, being an extension of such–but it is still a masterwork of research, of both real and fictional history. Farmer seeks out and pounces on physical and thematic similarities between Doc and such characters as Micah Clarke, Captain Blood, James Bond, Sam Spade, and Kilgore Trout, and notably, he is more keen to embrace the fantastical than in Tarzan Alive, making allusions to Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Cthulhu Mythos, among others. The fact that Doc’s genealogy is not as detailed as Tarzan’s feels thematically correct as well. Doc may be of noble blood, but he is not a nobleman; Tarzan is. So Tarzan gets the full Burke’s Peerage treatment, and Doc’s ancestry ends up a bit more working class.

There must be some record of Farmer’s opinion the Doc movie. Given his low opinions of the majority of the Tarzan films, one has to wonder. Though Farmer did very nearly get a sequel made, with himself in the writer’s chair! 

SARDANAS: The “We made it too good” comment from George Pal about the 1975 Doc Savage movie gave me a chuckle, André. The movie has of course been excoriated by fans for decades. It doesn’t fare quite as badly these days with critics, who usually rank it in the three-star range now rather than the one-half or one stars it garnered for a long time. I believe in interviews shortly after the film’s release that Farmer favored scaling back the camp approach, and his screen treatment for the sequel bears this out. It was an adaptation of the Doc Savage novel Murder Mirage (interesting that Farmer chose a Laurence Donovan novel rather than a Lester Dent one), and the camp was indeed greatly toned down. Though not entirely eliminated…for instance there is one scene where Monk plows through some bad guys, and Farmer gave the sound-effect instruction to produce a sound like bowling pins falling…but that kind of campy gimmick was the exception rather than the rule in his screen treatment. One note germane to Apocalyptic Life…when Farmer wrote the film scenes introducing the aides and Pat, he instructed that title cards appear with the same description he gave in the book chapters dealing with those characters. For instance, the heading for the scene introducing Pat was “Pat Savage, Lady Auxiliary and Bronze Knockout”.

Atom, your observation about Jung and significance of synthesis is an important point to keep in mind while reading this book, as well as looking at the massive structure of the “Wold Newton” universe that has evolved from Farmer’s creation of the “fabulous family tree” in Tarzan Alive and Apocalyptic Life. Your perception indicates that deeper psychology was at play throughout the book – where my impression when first reading it in 1973 was that the psychological explorations of the characters (which were most inspiring to my own later take on modern pulp writing) were separate from what I at the time considered clever literary play on Farmer’s part. I remember showing the family tree to my siblings, pointing out “Look who Farmer says Doc is related to!”…but it felt more like lighthearted fun. Over the decades since, I was amazed at the intensity and dedication fans and scholars brought to what has become Wold Newtonism (a reference to a location in England where multiple branches of the superhuman family tree were exposed to a meteor that altered/enhanced them genetically).

Today that process of synthesis had spread like wildfire through heroic fiction. It’s fascinating to see the connections that scholars after Farmer have brought into the mix, though I am personally less enamored of the “mashup for its own sake” stories, in which characters are flung together seemingly just for the novelty. Other stories, certainly, have taken a more ambitious approach, using the synthesis as a means to bring out unique qualities in characters that become highlighted in conjunction to one another.

Like you André, I enjoyed the parts of Apocalyptic Life that illuminated the lives of Doc Savage creators – particularly Lester Dent. Though Farmer’s research into the other authors under the “Kenneth Robeson” house byline was badly flawed in the original book (with much more accurate attribution of works done by later scholars), I was actually thunderstruck in 1973 to realize Kenneth Robeson was not a real person, who had written every adventure!

VATHIER: “Doc ancestry ends up a bit more working class.” Well said Atom. I could not pin point the thematic differences between the two genealogies exactly. You identified it perfectly. At first glance it might look like Mr. Farmer chose various fictional characters at random. However, when you pay close attention you find out that he took great care.  Now I need to read, “Tarzan vous Salue Bien “ (French edition of Tarzan Alive) again but from an anthropological perspective in mind. That is what I love most about these biographies. I always find something new with each subsequent reading.

By the way Paul I need to read the script someday. I know it is available somewhere. I wonder what Mr: Farmer thought of the other Robesons.

Earlier you said “Mash-up for its own sake” – I have to agree with you there. Some of these crossover/Wold Newton stories can feel that way. It is easy to assume that a crossover with two or more characters makes a story a Wold Newton universe yarn but that is not always the case. I have to ask Atom. Among the three of us she is the expert for all things Wold newton universe. I want to know Atom. What makes a good Wold Newton yarn in your opinion? Why do some succeed and others fail?

Next we get the following chapters  “Son of Storm and Child of Destiny”, “The Bronze Hero of Technopolis and Exotica” and “The Skyscraper”. That is where we really start to get into the meat of the book. We get a deeper look into Doc’s childhood and by extension his father. Mr. Farmer really wanted to explore the psychology behind Clark Savage Sr. What could possibly motivate a man to raise his son the way he did? Guilt. I find it fascinating that Phil used the same theme in A Feast Unknown four years earlier. Both fathers want to atone for the sins they committed. A big contribution he made to the canon that might not seem big at first but I think it is worth praising. He named Doc Savage’s mother. She was up until that point this nameless person. Will Murray would later give her a different name and story in the Wild Adventures of Doc Savage: Skull Island (2013).

Arronaxe Larsen. Daughter of Wolf Larsen. Little did Farmer know this bit of info would play a huge role in the Wold Newton Mono-myth. Part of it reached its conclusion with the recently released The Monster on Hold, a posthumous collaboration with Win Scott Eckert. He names more of the mentors. Only a handful of them were given names in the main books. It is also in this chapter where we get the seeds that would lead to Escape from Loki. Farmer talks about Doc’s military service in the Great War. In addition, how Doc met his future aides.

It is too bad that Dent never got around to writing of this highly ingenious and exciting breakout. Perhaps someday Condé Nast will give its permission for an author (myself I hope) to write this very first of the super sagas”.

Escape from Loki is a topic for its own Conseil du Mal.

In “The Bronze Hero of Technopolis and Exotica” Phil gives us a good profile of James Clarke Wildman Jr (Doc Savage) and how he changed and evolved from 1933 to 1949. How he went from the stoic gadget man to the flawed science detective. I like his thesis that everyone changes over the years even characters.  In addition, “Technopolis and Exotica” sounds so cool.

“The Skyscraper”. Win Scott Eckert partly refers to that chapter in a Farmerphile article and said it best, “While not always successful, you have to admire the lengths Phil went to while researching Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. We get a detailed plan of Doc’s savage 86th floor headquarters and its many secrets. It’s great!

A little digression. Phil makes the following comment:

Some Savage scholars [Speculate] that [Doc Savage] was a suppressed homosexual.  According to modern psychology (admittedly a discipline that keeps changing its mind)”.

 It’s worth noting that back in 1975 it had only been two years since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders).

BEZECNY: I enjoyed the Doc Savage movie…maybe not one of my favorites but I’m glad it exists. The only other Doc film we have (besides the Western film Ride Beyond Vengeance, which began life as an adaptation of The Thousand Headed Man) is the 1966 Fear Cay fan film, which, while ambitious, is about as barebones as a film can get. The bowling ball sound effect in the sequel script is very much in keeping with Farmer’s sense of humor…God, I wish we’d gotten that movie!

A good Wold Newton story, in my opinion, is one that does its research but also doesn’t turn into an essay. Farmer balanced his intensive theorizing with a solid plot and good characters–something which was facilitated by the fact that many of the characters he drew upon were already richly detailed by their original authors. On top of that, the wilder the crossover, the harder you have to work to make it fit, and sometimes it’s just not worth it. There are some characters which work in the Wold Newton setting and some which don’t–this is why there’s a no superhero rule, though Apocalyptic Life does mention Clark Kent. (Farmer never says whether or not Clark is Superman in this universe, though the general consensus these days seems to be that Superman did exist in the WNU, albeit neither as powerful nor as public as the comics indicate.) The idea of putting hard literary research behind one’s crossovers has admittedly set the bar high for me. I freely turn my nose up at things like Warner Bros.’s upcoming fighting game MultiVersus, which promises you the ability to fight Arya Stark as Shaggy Rogers, among other unlikely pairings. I understand it’s for fun, but also the idea of trying to fuse the world of Game of Thrones into that of Scooby-Doo violates a sense of order I’ve built up in myself, for better or worse.

André, the description of the various chapters you’ve provided reveals that this book isn’t just a biography of Doc Savage– it’s a highly detailed encyclopedia, a guide to every little component, recurring or otherwise, that makes up the world of the supersagas. And that Farmer summarizes all of that information so swiftly and so thoroughly on top of adding details like his speculations about Doc’s mother is truly awesome. The idea of Doc’s grandfather being one of the most repellent antiheroes in literary history has always fascinated me–it’s a brilliant elaboration on the conclusions which Farmer had already pried out of Doyle’s The Adventure of the Priory School. Not only was Doc raised in the shadow of his father’s guilt, but he was stamped from the beginning as a grandson of evil. The pulps were always vague about the motivations of the two Savages, and Farmer’s ideas are some of most coherent ever conceived on the subject. 

I hope that someday we get to see Arronaxe Larsen’s story. I’m sure it’s as astonishing as that of her son.

And yeah, it’s so surreal to think that my identity was once in the DSM, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Admittedly, Farmer does say some unenlightened things about queer people in this book, speculating that Doc is “a fairy.” But, the ’70s were like that. Stonewall had only happened a few years before, and its events were not sufficient to educate most cishet folk on the particulars of respecting queer culture. It’s not an excuse, but I have the benefit of knowing that Farmer learned as he grew older. 

to be continued…

4 thoughts on “The Conseil du Mal discusses Philip José Farmer’s “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” – Part 1

  1. As anyone who has read my own chronology of Doc already knows, Farmer’s bio is a mixed bag. It is a colossal bit of research and a fountainhead of creativity — but it is not scholarship, i.e., the search for truth. For whatever reasons, Farmer had an agenda that he pushed, ignoring and purposely misconstruing what was written in the canon as he saw fit. It is noteworthy but overlooked by many that Farmer himself did not call his book a work of scholarship, but one of “creative mythography” — he knew he wasn’t telling the truth; he thought he was crafting a legend.

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    1. It’s interesting Jeff…I note in my reminiscences about first reading the book in ’73 (at least obliquely) that the book did not have the feel of scholarship with the definition of a search for truth either. Scholarship in the sense of exhaustive research, certainly, but I believe he was indeed interested in crafting and shaping modern myth in ways that fit his own creative vision. In that sense, it did indeed become a fountainhead of creativity…and along the way, inspired more meticulous scholars to document finely what he approached in what were sometimes broad, wide strokes. For me, it had a transformative effect on my own approach to characterization and the integration of a more humanized depth with my love of pulp fiction…in that regard, it was quite a significant touchstone for me as a young writer.

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      1. Don’t get me wrong. He was a great writer. I love his Riverworld books particularly. I also really enjoyed Venus on the Half-Shell, in which he throws away a couple of ideas that others would have made an entire novel from. I started my chronology in the late ’70s trying to place the 4 (in the edition I had) that he claimed were entirely fictional. I didn’t really start it until I’d read enough of the books that I hadn’t read when I bought DSHAL so see how much I disagreed with Farmer’s placements. This caused me to write an entire chronology in the early ’90s. BTW, part of farmer’s chronology problem is he used the publication order — completely unaware of the submission order, which is what Will Murray uses, and is in fact a very good overall rule of thumb for order. If he’d had access to the submission order, his chronology would have looked a lot more like mine and Rick Lai’s.

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      2. The insight into the background and history of the Street & Smith Doc Savage pulp done by Will is really amazing in its depth and complexity…not only the submission order of the stories, but many fascinating backstories about the creations of the tales themselves. No question, the work done in the decades since 1973 to unearth records and correspondence from the time of the pulp era is remarkable. It always impresses me that a pulp character like Doc has inspired this degree of dedication. Not too surprising, I guess, as Doc is a unique creation in his embodiment of an everyman/superman. What I see most in books like DS:HAL, Farmer’s other pulp works, and the works done by those that have followed is love — love for ideals, for adventure…for characters that are so inspiring we build worlds of imagination where they stand tall, and (in metaphor and affection if not in concrete reality) are very real to us.

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