The Conseil du Mal discusses Philip José Farmer’s “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” – Part 2

Playboy Press version of DS:HAL

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!

Picking up where we left off…

SARDANAS: There’s no doubt that the book contains language – and attitudes – that are unenlightened regarding gender identity and sexuality. As you noted Atom, Farmer is pretty free with the word “fairy” (which he also uses in A Feast Unknown). There was never a time in my memory when it wasn’t an insulting term (and I was born in 1958), but it mollifies me a little to read in Apocalyptic Life how Farmer takes what at least appears to be a critical view of what in Chapter 18 – discussing Lizzie, one of the villains in The Annihilist – he calls “pulp magazine tabus”. He elaborates that these tabus were very much effect in all literature circa 1934. As you say Atom, I believe Farmer learned as he grew older. And in 1973, when Apocalyptic Life was published, the word “queer” was considered an epithet – it was not until later that through strength in protest and advocacy, the word was reclaimed and repurposed as a statement of pride.

Of course the pulp novels were also rife with racial stereotypes and sexism…it’s an aspect of the pulp experience that troubled me even as a pre-teen, as I grew up in a family environment where any form of intolerance and marginalizing was considered one of the deepest and most reprehensible forms of ignorance. It always surprised me in the course of my wide-ranging reading when I encountered it…I somehow thought that writers, whose world of the imagination all but required the ability to strive to understand the perspectives, self-identity and beliefs of people across the human spectrum, would be immune to intolerance. Not so, obviously.

In any case, I think of Apocalyptic Life as something of a bridge in attitudes as they developed between the 1930’s and 1970’s – heroic fiction was evolving right alongside society.

One interesting point about Doc as a character, is that even when one of the pulp novels veered into (sometimes appalling) stereotypes, Doc himself treated everyone with dignity and respect. Not in a preachy way, but simply behaving toward others with an equanimity he afforded every human being. It’s one of the reasons I was – and still am – drawn to Doc as an example of basically a decent guy under all the pulp blood and thunder.

VATHIER: Atom I share your hope that one day someone will write an Arronaxe Larsen story. Ned land is my favourite character from 20 000 Leagues.

We may suppose that the outraged Ned Land made an extensive search for his daughter’s betrayer, nut that story was not written by Jules Verne, though it may be written someday by somebody else “

Now that is a story I want to read! (Perhaps I will write it myself) Knowing what we know now about the Farmerian monomyth and Wolf Larsen’s real identity.  I may be repeating myself but that is what I love about that book. It always gives me a boost of creativity.

Doc is one of the few characters from that specific pulp era who aged best. We still feel Doc’s presence and shadow in 2022. Modern Batman shares some characteristics with Doc. Both are physical and mental marvels. Both fight crime. Batman’s utility belt would not be out of place on Doc Savage.

Atom you said earlier, “This book isn’t just a biography of Doc Savage– it’s a highly detailed encyclopedia.”

I agree 110%. He could have easily followed the Tarzan Alive route. Focus on Doc himself…update the family tree and call it a day. Instead, Farmer gives detailed illustrations of the 86th floor headquarters. In addition, how it changed from 1933 to 1949.

“The Crime College” chapter is fascinating since it quotes the 1966 book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The quote concerns Reverend James Post who at the time was the prison chaplain at the Kansas State Penitentiary. The Reverend talks about the rehabilitation of criminals. That part showed me just how popular and influential Doc Savage magazine was back in the 30’s and 40’s. Doc was way ahead of everyone with the idea of rehabilitating criminals. When you have characters like Tarzan, The Spider and The Shadow who have no moral objection to killing criminals. it is a radical idea to have your main protagonist not only be against killing and the death penalty but also promoting rehabilitation.

BEZECNY: Any look into the past is going to be something of a political challenge, but a necessary one. Fundamentally, it’s noble to try to do and say what is right in the moment, regardless of chronological limitations. I look forward to being criticized by younger people when I’m older. I have much to learn, and I appreciate insight into my perspectives.

Interesting that so many, Farmer included, ascribe such insight to Doc in the face of his pulp simplicity, and indeed his rougher qualities…but there is something authentically wonderful about the guy, beyond the fannishness and the stereotypes. He’s a figure who would definitely grow wiser with age, probably always being notably wiser than the others of his era. That’s why I think it’s so tempting for so many authors to place Doc, or versions of him, in decades later than the pulp version got to see. 

Is this the discussion where I break down and ask you guys what you think of the Crime College? Let’s just say yes, even though I’m sure we’ve discussed it elsewhere. Here are my thoughts… It’s true that while Doc’s rehabilitation methods are in some ways more humane than the barbarities of the U.S. justice system, it clashes fundamentally with modern ethics in several ways. Doc tampers with people’s free will, and besides that, much of the process is based on psycho-physiological conceptions of the brain which we now know are not accurate. One could argue that in a just society one must accept the consequences of their crimes, including external determinations about one’s free will, but it’s hard to say even with some of the crooks Doc fights that this punishment is proportionate.

This is a consistent region of ambiguity for me, and Farmer’s statements on the matter don’t resolve that. The Pandora’s can of worms is opened…please feel free to dismiss the discourse summarily if you wish. André, I agree with you that the general act of having Doc be merciful is quite radical for the time.

SARDANAS: The Crime College has certainly proved to be a hot topic over the decades. As you noted André, Farmer cites the passage from In Cold Blood where Reverend Post makes his “Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea” comment. The reverend, troubled by the overabundance of wickedness in the world, considers Doc’s solution in a favorable light.

Farmer himself raises the “what constitutes a criminal” question, with examples like a starving Depression man who stole food to live, or a militant advocating the overthrow of a government, as gray areas where Doc probably wouldn’t resort to his anti-criminalizing surgery. He also makes an amusing comparison between Doc’s method and that of his contemporary crimefighter, The Shadow:

(The Shadow) has none of Doc’s desire to reform criminals. He stops the criminals’ careers by putting huge holes in them from his two .45 automatics.

Art by Joe DeVito for “The Sinister Shadow” by Will Murray

Post-pulp takes on the surgical technique include comics author Denny O’Neil’s presentation of the technique as a lobotomy…and in Dynamite Entertainment’s Man of Bronze comic series, Doc is brought before a government judiciary panel to explain himself when “The College” is revealed, and the story is filled with serious societal repercussions from Doc’s rehabilitation techniques.

Needless to say there are powerful problems of morality with the whole concept – the wiping out of a person’s memory and removal-reinsertion into society as a blank (albeit “crime-hating solid citizen”) slate – even if taught a “useful trade” — is a violation of human rights at the very least, however well-intended. In the pulps things were pretty black and white, with the criminals portrayed as wantonly murderous, completely amoral, and essentially beyond redemption…and the primary Crime College story, The Annihilist, makes Doc seem mild as opposed to The Crime Annihilist’s solution to the issue, which is to cause anyone who has violent thoughts to have his eyes literally pop out of his head. Such is the nature of moral debate in the bloody pulps!

“The Annihilist” cover art by James Bama

VATHIER: You are right Atom. Doc Savage’s method is quite at odds with our modern ethics. I wonder what happens to the loved ones of these criminals. To them they just up and vanished one day.

Most of the Kenneth Robesons wave it away with sentences that imply that they do not have living relatives or have no one waiting for them when they go home.  The following question goes to the most knowledgeable Savageologist. To my recollection, Doc only performed the surgery on the most violent and evil criminals. Did he ever performed the surgery on let us say a kleptomaniac?

I did some research and found the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Centre.

This nonprofit, according to the Clark County prosecuting attorney (situated in Nevada ) is quoted in saying, “[Death Penalty Information Centre] is probably the single most comprehensive and authoritative internet resource on the death penalty [in the United States]  ”

Starting in the 1920s the American abolition movement loses support. We see a peak in execution in the 1930s the average being 167 per year.

https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/stories/history-of-the-death-penalty-timeline

The pulps reflected that. With the main protagonists gunning down criminals left and right without remorse.

At first Doc did kill his foes but later on he promotes his non-killing rule. Lester Dent was bold to promote the rehabilitation of criminals during a time when most folks supported the death penalty. His methods were flawed but I’m sure it planted the seed in pulp readers readers that there is another way. 

BEZECNY: I think you both nailed the ambiguities surrounding this element of the pulps. What I’ve found is that the legacy of the pulps is, unlike the pulps themselves, far from being black and white. It’s easy to condemn stories like the Tarzan series on the basis of its racism, or the Doc Savage series for its perspective on criminality – and it’s equally easy to praise those series for what progressive qualities they have. People like Dent and Burroughs and others, by and large, did make an effort to enhance themselves as time went on, even if they maybe didn’t go the full distance – even though there are massively retrograde elements in both of their bodies of work. This is where I separate authors like Dent and Burroughs from writers like my two big hate-targets, Sax Rohmer and H.P. Lovecraft, who did not try to learn or improve themselves and really only changed as a result of market demands. I really can’t accept the “product of its time” argument on any level, but I am also willing to accept that the people of the past were hugely complex, and not everything can be judged by my own desire and admiration for revolution.

Following the segment on the Crime College, Farmer digs into the Fortress of Solitude, and beyond, the various aides (and Pat, whom I’m sure we will gush about to no end, just as Farmer does). The Fortress has always been one of the most interesting but most underused aspects of the Doc mythos, as Farmer excellently outlines. His major focus is on the John Sunlight duology, Fortress of Solitude and The Devil Genghis, as those stories most closely deal with the Fortress itself. In some ways, he treats the Fortress like a character unto itself, like the aides but inanimate. Though its appearances in the series are limited, it’s easy to view it as Doc’s TARDIS in a sense – one of his companions, albeit one which never speaks.

“Fortress of Solitude” and “The Devil Genghis”, Sanctum Books reprint

The biographies of the aides are evocative and exciting, loaded with all of the tantalizing hints about their pasts that the authors slipped in. That’s part of why Farmer’s work is so fun, is that it takes years and years of exceptionally minor references and reveals them to be relatively cohesive pieces of larger character sketches. There are still continuity hiccups, of course, but generally speaking, there’s a fairly straightforward sequence of events for each of the characters. The pulps really didn’t like fleshing out a lot of their characters, so when people do collect the tidbits and speculate on how they come together, it’s always a thrill.

to be continued…

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