The Conseil du Mal discusses Philip José Farmer’s “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” – Part 3

Welcome to the third and final installment of the Conseil du Mal (Council of Evil) discussion of this classic of pulp/heroic mythography. The Council is made up of three contemporary pulp authors: Atom Mudman Bezecny, editor of Odd Tales of Wonder publications and author of the multi-book Hero Saga…R. Paul Sardanas, author of over thirty books of fiction and poetry and co-creator (with artist Iason Ragnar Bellerophon) of the Doc Talos stories…and André Vathier, a French Canadian author who has written stories in both the Hero and Talos “universes”.

Let’s jump right in and pick up where we left off! We had reached the portion of the book where Farmer explores each central character in a series of “biography” chapters.

SARDANAS: The biography chapters were always my favorite. To me, they tapped into the tremendously alluring concept of deepening the characters from pulp two-dimensional characterization, and opened up a whole — fascinating — emotional landscape for each. In order, Farmer explored Monk, Ham (followed by a non-human digression with a chapter on Habeas Corpus and Chemistry), Renny, Johnny, Long Tom and Pat. 

The Bantam reprints were nowhere near complete in the early 70’s, but Farmer had access to the full run of pulps, and as you say Atom, he used snippets from various “Kenneth Robesons” to compile his dossier on each character. With 181 stories across the 16 years of the pulp run, that is a lot to sift through, but the results are entrancing. 

With Monk, for instance, we learn about his WWI experience, his techniques (as the chapter title introduces, being “Monk, the Ape in Wolf’s Clothing”) for attracting women, his smoking habit, his perpetual money troubles…and even esoterica like the fact that when knocked unconscious, he does not see stars, but a green waterfall. 

Each of the aides is explored in similar fashion. The effect, when returning to the canon of novels to read any individual story, is to see these characters in a much richer light. 

As you mention Atom, the longest (and gushiest) chapter of the bios is devoted to Pat. Farmer describes literally every adventure she appears in, and compiles and explores the character traits she exhibits in each. Farmer takes anything but a detached approach to his trip through Pat’s life…he flat-out states “I fell in love with Pat when I was just sixteen. Re-reading these stories at the age of fifty-four, I’m still in love with her.” He speculates — in what for its time was very daring — about her sex life, including her attraction to her cousin, Doc. He had, of course, already introduced this concept in much more graphic terms in his novel A Feast Unknown…but here he brings nuance to the possible relationship by enriching it with qualities of both Pat and Doc’s personalities, including dignity and bravery, along with Pat’s fierceness and passion. After reading this chapter, like Farmer, I fell in love with Pat too. Mirroring his statement above, that literary love was sparked at age fifteen for me, and it’s still there at age sixty-four.

VATHIER: I share your assessment Atom that the Fortress of Solitude is underused. Perhaps Dent and the other Robesons felt that after the tour de force that was Fortress of Solitude and The Devil Genghis that this was it.

The biographies are my favorite.

There’s just one thing that’s missing from these chapters. I would have loved to know Farmer’s opinion and insight on Monk’s secretary Lea Aster.  At first she was just that nameless secretary but in The Red Skull she plays a bigger role in the story and she is able to hold her own against  a gang of thugs. They could have done so much more with that character. After that she sort of disappears. Four months after her appearance in The Red Skull Pat made her debut and Lea just faded away (Will Murray did have her make a major appearance in Horror in Gold). To my knowledge she never once interacted with Pat.  

Let’s talk about Pat! 

BEZECNY: I think that one of the sadder aspects of this book is the mention of the last appearance of various aides. It’s always hard saying goodbye to certain long-lived characters, especially when there’s no real goodbye. Eventually, Renny, Johnny, and Long Tom simply cease to be part of the stories. Sometimes there are small, accidental ironies to these characters’ endings. But sometimes it’s clear that there was no regard for any sort of finality to the stories. We can expect nothing else from the pulps, who were here today, gone tomorrow.

In an unspoken way, these goodbyes also include those issued so abruptly to the many unsung dozens of weird and wonderful characters who popped up in the individual novels, who never had a chance to return to later stories. 

Of course, that’s where Farmer works his magic, reviving many of these characters not just here but in his earlier text, which begat a new universe for Doc. 

I’ve hinted over the years that some of my initial reactions to Farmer’s work were negative. One of these moment came from the incest references in the Pat chapter of this book. I never understood the idea that just because two people were incredible they should get together. Then I read A Feast Unknown and realized that Doc/Pat was sort of Farmer’s OTP. These days (in part due to the writings of one Mr. Sardanas) I too ship it pretty hard. I think the thing for me isn’t that Doc and Pat are the only people smart enough, strong enough, and beautiful enough for each other. I think it’s just more that they are both sort of psychologically fucked up, but in a way that I, a reader, can enjoy behind the veil of fiction. Doc has never had a normal sex life. And Pat is like a supernatural being, a living spirit of adventure. She is never satisfied with any status quo, always seeking to change and disrupt. Of course she would follow a fellow supernatural being, regardless of blood, into the bedroom.

My young self let my disgust over the incestuous pondering distract me from the fact that it wasn’t just Pat’s body and sensuality that intrigued Farmer. He says much more about her kindness, her brilliance, and the hope she inspired, both in-universe and for the readers who followed her adventures.

It’s true that the pulps stereotype her and pin her into a role that is meant to be sexually appealing to straight male readers. But she is also treated with much more complexity than many other women in the pulps who served the same sort of function. She is a damsel in distress at times, but she is far from someone like, say, the women of the Barsoom series. Jane Porter really only got to kick ass in a couple of Burroughs’ novels. Pat Savage kicked ass in every single one of hers.

Original pulp portrait of Pat by Paul Orban

SARDANAS: I will certainly confess to a fascination with Farmer’s concept of an emotional/romantic/sexual relationship between Doc and Pat. And I put those two descriptive words first — emphasizing the emotional and romantic — with intent. At fifteen, when I first read the “Pat Savage: Lady Auxiliary and Bronze Knockout” chapter, I was — like you Atom — not enamored of the leap PJF was taking there. I was, at that age, a young intellectual still striving to find a balance with my Catholic upbringing…and the concept of anything even bordering on an incestuous relationship was deeply troubling. It still is, of course, in the real world — but the Doc and Pat link (as you also pointed out, Atom) didn’t seem to be suggested by Farmer for shock value or exploitation. It was rooted in the characterization of two extraordinary people with extreme, and challenging histories…and Farmer seemed intent on presenting Doc and Pat in a humanistic light, with their flaws and desires writ large in the pulp manner. 

The fathers of both had been murdered…neither had a mother or any siblings in their lives…both were brilliant and driven, but lacking in any form of conventional romantic relationships. From their first meeting onward they admired one another, and became fiercely protective toward each other. In that sense, they provided a link to one another that included feelings of emotional safety, mutual understanding, and caring. Those qualities, rather than their physical perfection, were what I saw uppermost in Farmer’s concept of the two as a couple. 

This was enhanced by Farmer’s depiction of Doc Caliban and Trish Wilde in A Feast Unknown…despite profligate sexuality in that novel, what moved me most was the intensity of their devotion to one another. 

I can certainly also relate to the melancholy nature of each bio chapter as they came to their individual ends…that sense of never having a proper goodbye in the pulp world was pretty keen for me (I’m pretty sentimental, even about pulp heroes), so there was a sense of fulfillment to at least be able envision their farewells to us and to each other. 

VATHIER: Paul like some people in real life we don’t get to say goodbye…they just fade away. I like to think the other aides after their final appearance just moved on from adventuring and settled down. However, that is just wish fulfillment. The likely reason is the many Robesons preferred Monk, Ham and Doc.

When it comes to the implied (and explicit in A Feast Unknown) relationship between the two cousins, you both opened my eyes to perspectives that I did not consider. Like both of you, in my first reading of the chapter I made a similar assessment. I found it troubling. I assumed that at the time it was written with the goal of titillating the readers. Pat being the “only woman [who] appears more than three times.“

In a different way, it reminded me of those comic book writers that want Superman and Wonder Woman together. Just because.

In the extreme world they live in. with crime glands, atom stopping devices that turns you into dark smoke…they are meant for each other.

Doc, unlike let’s say Tarzan, The Shadow or The Spider never really got a woman companion. Rhoda Haven from The Freckled Shark does not count. It’s in this one where he uses the persona of Henry Peace. I found the persona to be reminiscent of  Clark Kent in an odd way…it was not Clark Savage Jr. who was in “love” with Rhoda Haven but Henry Peace.

The closest I think we ever got was Seryi Mitroff but she only appeared In Hell, Madonna/The Red Spider (1979) and The Frightened Fish (1992).

So all we are left with is Pat.

I had to search what you meant by the abbreviation OTP.  For those who don’t know, OTP as defined by the urban dictionary is :

‘’One True Pairing in a work of fiction. Characters that a person thinks work well together.”

I second your opinion Atom. Nita Van Sloan, Jane Porter, Margo Lane…ain’t got nothing on Pat.

Farmer also highlights Patricia Savage the successful businesswoman. Women in pulp novels were often dependent…not Pat. She is independently wealthy.

This pulp cover, featuring Doc and Pat, was one of the finalists for Farmer’s choice of artwork for the hardcover first edition of DS:HAL

The next two chapters are “Doc the Gadgeteer” and “Some of the Great Villains and Their World-threatening Gadgets”.

After reading completing  the blog series exploring John Sunlight (Omnipresent Sunlight), I think Mr. Sardanas said everything, read everything there is to know about John Sunlight. I think Farmer’s helped cement that mythology. 

BEZECNY: I think you guys did a great job conveying the mystique that surrounds Pat and Farmer’s thoughts and feelings about her. She is truly unique among pulp heroines. 

It wouldn’t be a true Doc encyclopedia without the gadgets and the villains. It is those two elements, alongside the group dynamic with the aides, that have left the biggest impact on superhero comics. Doc has famously been described as one of the pulp ancestors of the modern superhero, alongside Tarzan, The Shadow, and the Avenger. I don’t really have much to say on that matter, since it’s something that many Doc fans already know about, and besides that one little mention of Clark Kent, Farmer is not interested in the superheroic descendants of the pulp heroes. All I’ll say is that Farmer handles these last trope-studies with his usual finesse.

And then…the ancestry! Wow! Not quite as elaborate as Tarzan’s background, like I said, but there are some clever details here. The “Clarke” which is not Doc’s first name in Farmer’s view, but rather his middle, comes from Doc’s descent from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Micah Clarke. Doc is also descended from Captain Blood, a physician and scientist who found himself transformed into an adventurer. As a kid, I always appreciated that Doc’s ancestors included Ned Land, who was one of my favorite 19th Century heroic figures during my big Jules Verne phase. As in Tarzan Alive, characters are pruned from the whole of fiction not merely for their physical attributes, but for their thematic resonance as well. This is a great finale for the book, especially coupled with Farmer’s excellent chronology for the Doc stories. 

SARDANAS: When initially reading Apocalyptic Life back in ’73, I was so bowled over by the bio chapters that my brain went on automatic when shifting into the chapters on Doc’s gadgets, the rogue’s gallery of villains, and the family tree. I found them fun and fascinating, but Farmer had made his most powerful impression to me through his humanizing of the characters, and that would be the most lasting legacy of the book into my own creative life. 

However, through many re-readings, I’ve come to appreciate those latter chapters more and more. I believe you are quite right Atom, in your observation that the gadgets and villains of Doc’s world had a huge influence on the superhero comics that would in essence replace the pulps in popular literature. The formula of clever gimmicks and colorful bad guys would run rampant through comics culture in the decades after the pulps came to an end. Interesting in a way that Farmer – from what my artistic partner in the Talos books, Iason Ragnar Bellerophon, has told me — really didn’t care for comics much. Farmer flat out said so to Iason when the two met. And certainly Farmer seemed quite indifferent (at best) to comics culture, never scripting one (as far as I know) or making much effort to incorporate them into his elaborate cross-connections of pulp literature. Though in an amusing “read between the lines” part of the Family Tree chapter, Farmer wickedly toys with his contemporary maverick author, Harlan Ellison (a vocal comics fan), through a gently acid-penned page in the chapter concerning “Cordwainer Bird” (Ellison’s pseudonym which he applied to any of his own works he ended up loathing).  

His “villains” chapter seemed to really be interested in leading him to the final issue of Doc Savage magazine, the now-classic “Up From Earth’s Center” story…a concept he clearly wanted to revisit, and did so with his 1980’s The Monster on Hold teaser chapter and story summary, which was finally — and thrillingly — completed by Win Scott Eckert. 

And then, of course, there is the Family Tree. This — along with its companion exploration of Tarzan’s ancestry in Tarzan Alive — was the part of the book I was most conflicted about. It was tremendous fun (I have told the tale of how I regaled my siblings back in the 70’s about all the luminaries “Doc is related to”)…and the concept of cross-linking literary canons seemed a natural extension of the presentation of characters like Doc and Tarzan as “real people”. But it had an aspect of Pandora’s Box to it as well. Certainly a fresh idea in ’73, with Farmer’s research into “literary genealogy” done with a kind of glee that showed how much he was enjoying himself…still, the downside of the idea to me was that much of the dynamism in literary canons rested with their unique individuality. Too much mashup made me feel as if the excitements and unique revelations of each popular character would be watered down, their kaleidoscope of colors blurring into more and more of a gray slurry if the technique was overused. 

What I did not anticipate was the cleverness and dedication of those that followed Farmer into this territory. Yes, there have been stories that felt like simple exercises in the novelty of pairing disparate characters for its own sake…but concurrent with that, the concept of a strong, complex and carefully structured multiverse of characters took hold, with some works (like the aforementioned The Monster on Hold) crafted to blend literary streams into a vibrant river, rather than the stagnant, overcrowded pool I feared. I think the legacy of Farmer’s venture into genealogy/mashup (which he called “Creative Mythography”) has ultimately energized pulp storytelling — one of the finest examples being your own works, Atom (which, to my shock — and delight — inspired me to take part in what I found to be an exciting vision within your “universe”. You jolted a lukewarm “multiversist” right off his ass into a bold world indeed). 

The Family Tree

VATHIER: Doc’s influence on comic books can not be overstated. I firmly believe that the modern version of Batman is a re-tooled version of Doc Savage. A man through physical and mental training fights crime using an array of gadgets. The villains when captured are sent to an institution for the criminally insane. R. Paul, I never heard of that story about Farmer. ”[He] really didn’t care for comics much. Farmer flat out said so to Iason when the two met.” Iason must have felt a little disappointed. 

But now that you mention it it’s somewhat obvious. I’m sure the family tree of Tarzan and Doc would be quite different if he had been a comic book fan. Atom, as a French Canadian I can’t help but smirk. Ned Land is related to Doc Savage. hehehe 

At first “Addendum 1 The Fabulous Family Tree of Doc Savage” was my least favorite part. Truth be told, most of the names present I was not familiar with. It’s only later did I really start to appreciate it. Meeting Atom who’s way more knowledgeable of pop culture and obscure media did help open my eyes. She can give me mini-bios for every character in both family trees.  Also like Paul Sardanas she inspired me to also take part of her very own creative mythography with her Hero Saga

As for the villain chapter I have not a lot to say that has not already been said. 

We are now reaching the last part of the book. The chronology. To this day this is the most contentious part of the book. with fans making their own chronologies . The latest chronology we got in book form was released a year ago. I don’t know many fandoms (beside comic book) who dedicate themselves to creating new chronologies. Tarzan only has two chronologies (that I know of) Rick Lai produced one for The Shadow . But Doc Savage has FIVE distinct chronologies with different interpretations of the same texts. Each with different conclusions. Reading them, they all make their very own compelling case and I find that fascinating  (I’m not here to determine which one is correct…this is for you to decide). I’m still impressed that Farmer did that without the use of a computer. I assume he was forbidden from highlighting or taking notes in the original pulps he borrowed from Jack Cordes.  

I forgot to add do we know what happened to the Kent Lane novel Farmer mentions in the family tree.

Kent Lane. (See my short story, “Skinburn”, in The Book of Philip José Farmer, and my forthcoming novel, Why Everybody Hates Me.) Kent Lane became a crime fighter, too, but he operated (mostly) within the requirements of the law. 

Page 234 (1975 Bantam ed)

Page 234 (Playboy paperback)

Page 219 (Altus press softcover)

Page 219 (Meteor House hardcover)

BEZECNY: It’s definitely interesting that Doc, of all the pulp heroes, has attracted so many chronologists. Perhaps the lack of similar efforts for other pulp heroes is due to either the length of the history of the character in question (such as in the case of The Shadow, who had over 300 stories in his series) or due to the vagueness of the property. There are a number of shorter chronologies for certain pulp characters out there, such as those on the Wold Newton website, and their brevity reflects the comparative simplicity of those series next to the Doc Savage canon. That’s not to say that Doc’s universe is the deepest of all the pulp worlds. Maybe this is the sign that Doc is the most famous of all the pulp heroes, besides Tarzan, whose name is nearly as well-known around the world as those of Superman and the founders of the world’s religions.

Curious but perhaps unsurprising that Farmer wasn’t big on comics. Superhero comics are after all the bastard children of the pulps (which are in turn the bastard children of ancient myths). As someone who has mixed feelings about comics myself, I very much understand.

I am also in awe of Farmer’s ability to assemble vast swaths of knowledge without the Internet. I am grateful that the Internet has helped make a lot of the texts he drew from more accessible, to say nothing of the fact that I can pay a good price to read many of his own books at the touch of a button. It’s fascinating to consider what he could have come up with if he had lived in the age of the Internet. But he has left a devoted fanbase who have, as you guys say, created tons of awesome new content using that very power. (It’s certainly kind, the things you guys said about me…but unlike older members of the community, I am not a Jedi yet. At the very least…I don’t like to toot my own horn, even if it’s a horn I’ve spent a lot of time and hard work on.)

SARDANAS: And so we come to the final chapter of the book: “Addendum 3, the List of Doc Savage Stories”. This of course has been massively improved and made more accurate over the decades since 1973, but forty-nine years ago I can tell you it was a revelation to me. 

Like, I suspect, most older Doc Savage fans, my one source for the bigger picture of Doc publishing history was the list of Bantam reprints that appeared inside many of the paperbacks. The story titles were magical and alluring, promising so much adventure and excitement…but beyond those it was, in a way, like looking for treasure without a map. I did not own any original pulps at that time, and the internet was far, far away from existing. So beyond the Bantam paperbacks, it was a tapestry filled with mystery.

Farmer listed the pulps grouped in their years of original pulp publication, then noted with a B those that Bantam had reprinted up to the time of Apocalyptic Life’s publication. Then he added more initials…to my utter shock…which were author notations.

Say what? In the late sixties, early seventies, I thought every story had been written by that Kenneth Robeson guy. The existence of Lester Dent was unknown to me, and I was thunderstruck to learn that not only was Robeson a “house name”, but that other authors had written Doc tales too. Suddenly the divergence in writing styles that I’d seen when reading some paperbacks made sense, despite the constant repetition of the Robeson name.

Farmer’s data regarding this, needless to say, was in some cases faulty. He credited the Laurence Donovan novels to Norman Danberg, and the only other Doc ghosts noted were Alan Hathway and William Bogart. The work of Doc scholars after Farmer corrected all of that in fabulous detail over the years.  

So, quite a book, and a lot to sum up! Even a discussion as wide-ranging as this one has only scratched the surface. At the very least, whether you love or loathe Farmer’s approach to Doc Savage and the constellation of pulp/literary figures he worked to weave into a much broader tapestry than ever imagined…Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life left the landscape of heroic fiction much changed, and an amazing amount of inspiration has flowed from that effort in the past half century.

The Conseil du Mal will return soon with our ongoing discussion of the world of pulp entertainment, and more!

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