The “Ultimate Forbidden Doc Savage”
by R. Paul Sardanas
I have, in my literary life, been fascinated with the seemingly incompatible extremes of both classical literature and pulp literature. They seem to look at each other across a chasm of mutual wariness and sometimes disdain: one is “highbrow”, and the other is “trashy”. That fascination has led to a deep desire in me to fuse the two…to demonstrate that they are both, at their core, expressions of human thought and passion, of play and the serious business of society and relationships. To my mind Doc Savage is in some ways the perfect embodiment of both worlds.
He has, as a character, personal dignity, conviction and courage. And he is plunged, time and again, into impossible adventures of inspired pulp mayhem. From 1933 to 1949, the 181 stories that comprise the arc of the Doc Savage magazine followed an interesting path from apocalyptic, teenage/boyish myth, to quieter, more introspective stories, many tightly plotted with more of an adult feel. But I never felt that arc was quite done. The next step, which never really happened, was “Doc Savage as literature”.
As a reader and an author I followed a similar arc. In 1969, at eleven years old, I bought my first Doc Savage paperback, Merchants of Disaster. Its cover painting by James Bama possessed a camera-like brilliance that seemed to transcend any prosaic camera existing on Earth. The story itself was emblematic of the 1930’s Doc: a vivid thrill ride, with a deep current of idealism and a taste of the monumental.
Four years later in 1973, I was still reading Doc stories, but I also had sex on the brain big-time. One summer day I nerved myself up and penetrated behind the beaded-curtain doorway of a local head shop, which was called The Rainbow Tree. Such establishments were holdovers from the Sixties, where patrons could get smoking paraphernalia, edgy and/or obscure record albums, incense, and subversive (frequently erotic) literature. At fifteen I shouldn’t have been able to get in the door, but they were lax, and at that age I could raise a thin but passable mustache, so I got away with murder.
And there he was again. On their paperback shelf, amid underground comics, psychedelic drug mags and pamphlets calling for revolution, I did a double-take at the sight of a beat-up copy of the Essex House first edition of Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown, with a cover drawing featuring two nude figures: one certainly being a James Bama-inspired Doc Savage, wrestling with someone who looked suspiciously like Tarzan. That copy, which I still own, even had rather ominous red stains on it (probably the original owner had read it while eating pizza…but still…)
I opened the book, scanned a few pages, boggled at the almost insane levels of violence and erotic excess, and nearly put it back on the shelf. What the hell?
But I didn’t put it back. I paid four bits for it (actually less than what I had paid for Merchants of Disaster in ’69…used paperbacks were dirt cheap at The Rainbow Tree), walked with it down to the waterside of the beach town where I lived, began reading in earnest, and my mind lost most of the notion that literature has as its purpose the basic ordering of the human soul.
Could it be that its true, most noble purpose is to challenge and transform the reader, reaching into innermost depths and ripping out a thorny tangle of mores, beliefs, obsessions and hopes? Those are forms of insight which might take a lifetime to unravel – or which might never be unraveled.
As for the “real world”, time went on. I immersed myself in history and the classics, and also more trashy entertainment. It was not an unusual thing to see me, throughout my teens and early twenties, toting around a ponderous textbook and a pulp novel. My father, seeing my somewhat divided focus, and aware of my aspirations toward writing, once asked me, “You see the difference in the quality between these, don’t you?”
I said yes. Of course I did. Pulp writing was often hack work produced under punishing deadlines, and it showed. But perversely, I didn’t care. The raw quality of the writing was part of its allure. In its visceral force, it had qualities of human energy that seemed only barely harnessed. It was as alluring as the sophisticated writing of the classics. I didn’t tell my father that.
By 1976, at age eighteen, I could buy “men’s magazines”. Much earlier, right on the cusp of puberty, I had tried to buy a Playboy magazine at a newsstand, attempting with awkward conviction to convince the clerk that it was for my father. They refused to sell it to me, and I’d slunk from the place, blushing furiously. At eighteen I still blushed when I brought a girlie magazine to the counter to pay for it. But the clerks didn’t bat an eye anymore. I was getting closer to the forbidden, and it was exciting, daunting, and fun. I was convinced that, as with heroic pulp fiction, the realm of explicit lit was also primed to transcend its stereotyped shallow presentation of sex, and could become a vehicle for themes that included intellect, emotion and spirituality as elements of desire. I hoped, as at least a relatively enlightened male, to present the sexes as equals. Even exploring primitive, atavistic violent conditioning within the erotic drive could be done without it becoming an exercise in exploitation.
Jump ahead to 1986. At twenty-eight years old, I had a “real job”, I was married, I understood the concept of sex as an act so layered with depth that its effects and consequences covered a vast spectrum of human want and human fulfillment. I was still hopelessly enmeshed between reading classical works and pulp fiction. My response? I tried to write an adult Doc Savage novel. I explored Doc’s world as if he himself was living in the 1980’s. Getting pretty old, but still a Promethean figure. I grappled with that wish to find an alchemy which could move a reader as the best of classic works could, and entertain with unabashed, practically unholy glee, as a pulp could. I didn’t quite carry it off. But I still haul that book out and look at it sometimes with mildly embarrassed affection.
Since I’d enjoyed writing the 1986 book, I started another, this time going back in time to before the 1933 start-date of the Doc Savage pulps. I was interested in Doc’s father, who had been provocatively described by Farmer as Jack the Ripper, and in the original Doc Savage novels as a mysterious figure who had subjected his son to an astonishingly regimented life, dedicated to the unlikely career of “righting wrongs”. Certainly a fascinating guy. But somehow I couldn’t quite bring it together in my mind. It all needed to be psychologically valid, and consistent with the idealism central to the characters I so loved.
So I set it aside. As it turned out, for a long time.
I went on to other writings. Poetry, novels, history…as well as works that explored what I felt was the mesmerizing juxtaposition of fulfillment, fear, joy, doubt, human bravery and empowerment to be found in sex.
I started an independent publishing house, and had many wild and wonderful experiences publishing the works of people with earnest visions far outside the mainstream. I never made any money, but who cared about that? I hung out with poets, authors and artists, the famous (in certain circles) and the unknown — truly the best people on Earth. That house grew into something of a philanthropic/artistic movement, with a mission to present works that actually helped people who might be struggling in life, or who could benefit from the company of other caring people in an effort, however small, to make the world a better place.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yeah, Doc was still with me. I had started taking Doc’s life-model of righting wrongs into the literal, everyday world.
Through it all, I couldn’t give up the idea of an adult pastiche of the Savage mythos. Some of the books I published at that time had covers or interior pages painted by me, and the idea began to gestate of painted accompaniment to the text. I painted fetishized abstract figures, combining the approach of late-period Matisse (particularly his Pasiphae illustrations, which were simple, evocative white-on-black scenes) and Jackson Pollock’s drip techniques.
The results brought me closer to the fusion of text and art I felt was so essential to the vision of the project, but they were still too limited to fully embody the emotional and spiritual complexity of the story. Closer…but still not there.
Jump forward again. It’s the mid twenty-teens, with me in my fifties. I visited Farmer’s website, still going strong after PJF’s passing, and discovered that a few copies of the fanzine Farmerphile were still available. I had missed this publication when it first appeared, and so I purchased a little stack of them.
The results of that indulgence in collecting would go far beyond anything I could have envisioned. In Issue #2, I ran headfirst into Jason Robert Bell, a fine artist whose paintings and sculptures have graced galleries from New York to Chicago. In an article called “My Feast Unknown”, Jason described an audacious project he had done: it seemed he loved, above all other books, A Feast Unknown, and artistic dynamo that he was, created hundreds of pictures from the first chapters of the book…with thousands envisioned. He had taken the visceral elements of the story and amped them so high, layered them so deeply, that the story had virtually expanded and exploded with uncontainable energy. He’d received permission from Phil and Bette Farmer to present them on stage, in a 2005 multimedia show at Brooklyn’s Brick Theater, to what I’m sure was a greatly stimulated, if somewhat puzzled audience.
I wasn’t puzzled. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Some of the images had been reproduced in the Farmerphile, and a quick search unearthed many more of them online. The project was insane, impossible, outrageous…and magnificent. He had somehow captured a mix of fine art (citing inspirations like Pollock), comic art (artist/authors Jack Kirby and Frank Miller being mentioned), and beyond that, he described working with Feast as a “Gnostic experience”…something I had never thought to hear outside of my own head. His work was not simply surface illustration…it plunged deep into the soul of the concepts in the story; pulp that felt simultaneously like scripture.
Well, you don’t see the Promised Land, then shrug and walk away. It was 2015, Dent and Farmer were in Valhalla, and I had no idea if Jason might by this time be there with them. I further scoured the internet, found an email address, and reached out to him. He wrote right back. I asked if he had ever finished his planned thousands-of-drawings rendering of Feast. Because if he had, I would kill to see them.
He hadn’t. Artists had to eat too, and support their families…the magnum opus of A Feast Unknown illustrated by a mind-boggling tidal wave of images had never been completed.
We talked. Our exchanged emails became somewhat surrealistic; he appeared to have read every weird, esoteric piece of literature, pseudo-literature and philosophy that I had read myself across the past half-century (he’d read more, and faster, something I wouldn’t have thought possible). I read his own book, The White Feathered Octopus, which he told me very few people finished. I not only finished it, I read it nonstop in a day. Force of nature, explosive supernova of creativity and arcane insight, cool guy, body double for God, thoughtful and perceptive friend. That’s Jace.
Like me, he felt that Doc Savage’s journey into a new artistic and literary depth had been left unfinished. More, the project to expand those concepts to an amplified, unleashed and paradoxically refined degree had been left equally unfinished.
And so at long last, improbably, we began to finish it. He resumed the feverish effort of creating thousands of images, while I simultaneously began to immerse myself in an (admittedly insane) effort to emotionally, intellectually and spiritually adapt and explore the abysses and empyrean heights of the whole nearly century-old saga.
The two Farmer sequels to Feast (Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin), with the frenzied sexuality of the previous book cleaned up (to my regret), nonetheless used a clever device: two simultaneous stories, one told by Grandrith, the other by Caliban. My cherished dream (which had faded with Farmer’s death, since who else could possibly write it?), was to see the device extended backward, through a re-telling of Feast, which had been narrated by his stand-in for Tarzan, in another type of mirror-book, this time from Doc’s point of view. The violent, explicitly sexual nature of the story (which prompted the 1960’s and 1970’s publication of Feast in venues like Playboy and the “quality porno” Essex House – not to mention translated for presentation in a French skin magazine), would be embraced.
That was just one aspect of what we felt needed to be a sprawling storyline. The story would delve into the past (if one accepted Farmer’s premise, how did Doc’s father, a deeply idealistic man, become Jack the Ripper?), extrapolate on the future (how close are we to a world where pulp sensibility melded to virtual reality swallows us up, questing brains, hungering libidos and all?), and along the way, exalt and blow the minds of both classicists and pulpsters. All the names would be changed, but no one who knew Doc could fail to recognize whose life we were writing and illustrating.
We would present the visuals as a hybrid of both fine art and comic art. We would take the narrative into emotional and intellectual places familiar to a William Blake or William Shakespeare, right alongside a hammering pulp narrative that paid homage to those fierce, unrelentingly fun scraps of cheap paper…those treasures of the newsstands which were read with such pleasure by the “regular” people of multiple generations.
The result, to this point, has been a massive, almost half-million word saga, illustrated by almost 1000 paintings. Jason and I, somehow remaining a passionate team across years of concentrated effort, work together in unique ways…I write chapters and stretches of narrative, print them out in bound “workbooks”, send them to Jace (he lives in New York, I live in Florida)…and he draws all over them. Wildly innovative sketches that he sends to me, in response to which I adapt my writing to explore new depths he’s uncovered. By the time the book reached 800 pages, I was sending him workbooks the size of dictionaries and heavy as Hidalgo gold bars. He would paint and draw in them until they practically burst their bindings. An amazing experience. We became one another’s eyes, hands, and questing minds.
The embodiment of Doc, Dr. James Talos, Jr. (for those of you familiar with Greek mythology the origin of the name is self-evident) is the same brilliant, driven man of all those pulps, comics and novels, though much humanized; his mind and emotions laid bare. Wherever something completely made-up in the pulps appeared, I would restructure it into the real world (Hidalgo becoming Guatemala, for instance). The characters have sex lives, and they are quite explicit (this is not “Doc for kids”), but the erotic content is not intended to be prurient; it is an essential component of these characters’ lives (as it is to ours). The story is violent – intensely so – but counterpoints that violence with cerebral and contemplative scenes…even serene ones. It spans a space of time from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and moves through New York, London, Africa and even Greenland, with each time and place intensely researched. The framework of the story owes an immense debt to Dent, Farmer, and all the other Robesons; the book is fleshed out on the powerful bones of their work. But even beyond the Doc-as-a-real-person approach of authors like Farmer and Wold Newtonists, the extreme and fantastic elements of the story have simultaneously become grounded and elevated. It’s intended to be pulp for the mind, body, libido and soul.
Why? Because the idealist in me somehow failed to die across the fifty-year span from ’69 to ’19, and I found an artistic partner in Jason to bring that to the fore, through “Doc”. The terror and danger of the pulps, the mystery and hunger of sex, the desire to live life as an adventure through our heroes …the yearning in the soul for all of these things, still called out from the dreamers still deeply entrenched within us. We wished to explore all of that through sophisticated language and art. And we believe, to this day, that there is miraculous nobility in that quest.