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…

Pre-release sale for the Rickie Talos anthology

Rickie, the big anthology collection of vignettes, short stories, novellas and artwork featuring the Doc Talos pastiche of the classic pulp character Pat Savage, will debut on July 15!

Cover painting for “Rickie” by R. Paul Sardanas

Despite appearing in forty original Doc Savage pulps, Pat Savage rarely got to truly shine. In more recent years, fans of Pat have been treated to the fine Wild Adventures of Doc Savage novel Six Scarlet Scorpions by Will Murray, and a pastiche of Pat headlines another splendid series by Win Scott Eckert and Philip José Farmer, the Pat Wildman adventures, which include The Evil in Pemberley House and The Scarlet Jaguar.

Rickie takes its own independent path, expanding and deepening the vitality and mystique in a new pastiche of this beloved character.

The Doc Talos series of novels and stories takes a more realistic approach to modern pulp storytelling, presenting tales that allow a deep dive into the minds and emotions of classic characters…moments of introspection, joy, sorrow, triumph and loss alongside tales of intense adventure. The stories are for an adult audience, and contain explicit content, as they portray powerful passion in addition to a unique subtlety of characterization.

Rickie will take the reader along with Patricia Talos from her early life as a teenager (and avid pulp reader) in Canada, to her arrival in 1930’s New York, to her career as a businesswoman and aviatrix, to her place as the Primal Woman within the secret society that shadows and shapes the lives of the Talos family.

Across the tapestry of Rickie’s life, the reader will experience her growth and evolution as a woman of strength and remarkable heart. There are tributes to Lester Dent and the “Kenneth Robesons”, a visit to behind-the-scenes Hollywood where Rickie was almost cast in the sequel to The Man of Bronze film. You’ll visit a Harlem nightclub in the 1930’s (where the truth about the “real” King Kong is revealed), experience the end of the pulp era in a 1950 tale, and celebrate New Year’s Eve with Rickie, Doc and the gang in the Fifties. You’ll see Rickie’s role as a WASP pilot in WWII. You’ll burst into the era of modern tech and beyond.

Rickie has a total of 23 tales, told chronologically from the 20th to the 21st centuries. In addition to a Foreword exploring the long history of Pat Savage stories and pastiches, there are tales by Doc Talos creator R. Paul Sardanas, and by superb authors Atom Mudman Bezecny, D. B. Brodie, Joe S. Stuart, and André Vathier.

Rickie contains close to 90 black and white digital-art illustrations, bringing each story and its remarkable characters to life.

Rickie is a deluxe 6 x 9 paperback, 246 pages, and after release will list for $21 plus postage. Pre-orders are now being accepted at the pre-release price of $15 plus postage. This special offer will be available only until July 15, 2022. US postage is $5 (Canada and International shipping will be pre-quoted to customers outside of the United States). For mature audiences, 18+ only.

If you are interested in the book, please send an inquiry via email to: taloschronicle@gmail.com

Experience Rickie Talos…unforgettable woman of bronze!

The 1970’s Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage Magazine – best comics Doc ever? Part 3

In the first two parts of this article, I began a look at the comics adaptation of Doc Savage that many fans — even almost fifty years after they appeared — consider the finest ever done. The Doc Savage magazine of that era was published hoping to ride the coattails of what was a hoped-for hit movie series — but when the movie tanked, the magazine went on.

Marvel/Curtis had introduced a line of black and white magazines a little earlier in the 70’s, aimed at a somewhat older audience, and showcasing some of the top writer/artist talent of that time. Doc Savage headlined writer Doug Moench, and artists John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga. The concept was to present a complete-in-one-issue story with every magazine, with a long page count that allowed for a “supersaga” vibe.

Doc himself was modeled not after the movie’s Ron Ely, but more in line with James Bama’s iconic paperback cover portrayal.

When we left off, the stage had been set for a rousing adventure — a mysterious force is destroying Manhattan buildings, and an immediate clue in the form of a woman looking for help comes right to Doc’s skyscraper headquarters. She gives him a scrap of paper, which proves to hold a cipher.

Before they can begin work to crack the cipher, a distraction arrives in the form of the woman’s boyfriend, who has a very volatile personality. Doc collars him and brings him into the office…and in short order all hell breaks loose.

A blast shatters the office windows, and in swing a cadre of costumed killers. Doc’s response is immediate…he appears to be everywhere at once as the attackers unleash an attack with lightning guns.

This sequence is very much in the style of Lester Dent’s formula in his pulp novels. Dent would frequently front-load the story with numerous supporting characters (often with clever or quirky names), and would frame their introduction into the story around wild action scenes.

And a wild scene this is. Doc, in an astonishing display of his fighting prowess, all but decimates the attackers — who respond, equally astonishingly, by committing suicide.

Despite the outbreak of intense mayhem, Doc and the aides remain all business in the aftermath. The next two pages dig into the puzzle of the cipher, and they are delightfully complex. I confess, at age 17 after reading these pages, I became obsessed with secret codes and ciphers, designing several that I felt were impossible to crack (I tested these on my siblings, who thought I was nuts, but nevertheless did not crack the codes).

The anagram portion of the cipher-cracking session had my full attention — I paused and attempted the anagram myself (coming up with stuff about the caliber of Johnny and Ham’s efforts), before being appropriately impressed with Doc’s solution. The cipher-cracking continues — cheating a bit as it is revealed that Doc knows the steps to break the code in advance — but still clever, and the answers revealed foreshadow events to come in the story.

Using information gleaned from the cryptogram, Doc heads for a location on Long Island, taking Monk with him. We immediately get to see more of Doc’s sophisticated arsenal of equipment, as they fly out there in his autogyro (a precursor to the helicopter).

Off they go, and it’s fun to see the scene they discover at the swanky Long Island restaurant, which is clearly unaccustomed to pulp violence and chaos.

The comics of that time were often caption-heavy, and used the device of an omniscient narrator to ground scenes and set the mood. To 21st century readers the device may seem a bit antiquated, and some Marvel writers had difficulty balancing it with the flow of the story itself. Moench was one of the most adept at the technique, and will use it throughout the magazine’s run of eight issues. The trick of course, is to enhance the visuals and enrich the fabric of the story, without bogging down the pacing. Moench mixes his captions with fast-moving visual action and clever dialogue to keep things moving briskly.

Another cipher is uncovered, just as obscure as the earlier one. Another of Doc’s signature gadgets is brought into play…his ultraviolet lantern. More violence erupts, as another Silver Ziggurat thug shoots a lightning bolt down from a hidden vantage point, and this time a chase is on to catch the bad guy.

The chase is exciting (and ultimately explosive)…and ends with the mysterious silver zeppelin escaping, but not before Doc has tagged it with a tracking device.

Aha…”Thus slew a zeppelin”…

Did Monk and the restaurant’s innocent bystanders get out before the lightning bolt struck? Where is the zeppelin going, and what is the goal of this high-tech (for the 1930’s) gang? Have there already been red herrings passed before our eyes regarding the solution of the story’s mysteries?

More to come….

The 1970’s Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage Magazine – best comics Doc ever? Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I took a look at some of the history of Doc Savage comics from Marvel in the 1970’s, which began in 1972 in the full color Doc Savage comic (which adapted original pulp novels in two-issue arcs), and then transitioned after the color comic’s cancellation into a black and white magazine version that coincided with the release of the 1975 Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze film.

The color comic had its highs and lows (the best to my mind being the adaptation of Death in Silver by Steve Englehart, Ross Andru and Tom Palmer), but with frequent author changes and the space restrictions of trying to squeeze a full novel into two comic book issues, it never quite hit a consistent stride of excellence. Basically, the eight issues of the comic run failed to fully embrace the profound difference between the world of Marvel Superheroes and that of classic pulp adventure.

By contrast, the 1975 black and white magazine came out of the gate with polish and confidence.

Doc Savage by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga

Instead of adaptations, the stories in the ’75 magazine were all originals. They could be structured and paced to put a single strong story into every issue. The first story in the series, written by Doug Moench, with art by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga, tapped right into the zeitgeist of the 1930’s Doc with it’s explosive opening page.

By Page Two, we are introduced to Doc’s skyscraper headquarters, and inside, Doc’s five aides. Over the decades, comic portrayals of the aides have varied widely (which is always inexplicable to me, as they were described pretty clearly in the pulp novels). Here, they almost all fit the pulp descriptions. Monk has a burly gorilla-look, and Ham, to my eye, is done perfectly (many later comics would persistently and inexplicably give him a mustache, and his natty 1930’s attire would be poorly depicted with a garish lack of both fashion sense and dignity). Renny is big and has the “puritanical features” often described in the novels, though his hands are not quite the freakishly-large size of the books. Long Tom looks appropriately scrawny but with his tough-guy attitude as ample compensation for his size. Johnny is perhaps the one aide not visually compatible with the pulps — he is not remarkably tall and rail-thin — though his use of big words is right on the money.

Doc is also introduced here, and in a subtle way (in the midst of his two-hour daily exercise routine). He is more Bama-inspired than styled after the Baumhofer pulp Doc…nor does he resemble the Ron Ely Doc from the film. Though the series will mostly see him in attire resembling that of the Bantam pulp covers, he will also sometimes appear in clothing suitable for the climate where the adventure takes place, and on occasion in a “normal” outfit suitable for the day.

In the pages to follow, the scene deftly shifts between interplay between the aides, the arrival of the woman who heralds the adventure to come, and Doc exercising, while listening on the office intercom.

The story begins to unfold, and it has a very Lester Dent-like flavor, with danger and mystery intertwined.

Doc appears, leaving Miss Tremaine somewhat speechless…and the action is about to kick into high gear!

to be continued…

The 1970’s Marvel/Curtis Doc Savage Magazine – best comics Doc ever? Part 1

The classic pulp character of Doc Savage has had an uneasy relationship with the medium of sequential graphics — comic books. For some reason, though each time a new Doc Savage comics series appears the publisher claims they “finally did Doc Savage right”…very few readers and critics seem to agree. Some fans don’t like Doc in the comics at all, period. Personally, I love the comics, and have followed each and every effort to translate Doc Savage into that medium. There have absolutely been some splendid stories done over the decades — Millennium’s The Monarch of Armageddon by Mark Ellis and Darryl Banks and Dynamite’s The Ring of Fire by David Avallone and Dave Acosta come immediately to mind. But each of those was either followed or preceded by stories with a sometimes marked drop-off in quality. A sustained run of exciting, well-written, high-quality tales from any one publisher has been elusive.

Except perhaps, for one. In 1975, Marvel launched a second attempt at bringing Doc to the comics. Their first try, a full color comic begun in 1972, lurched through eight vastly inconsistent issues, each adapting a pulp novel into visual form with only two issues each to tell the story. This resulted in intensely compressed storytelling, with the plot intricacies from the novels frequently tangled, and each climax rushed. Marvel, of course best known for superheroes, put Doc in a frankly ridiculous costume, sporting a tiny vest to show off his muscles, very much in the superhero style. Only one story, the Steve Englehart/Ross Andru/Tom Palmer Death in Silver, had the feel of a cohesive package, and even that was rushed…though it was exciting, and hinted at how good that series might have become.

It was not a great surprise when the series folded — it simply never found a balance in style and storytelling that seemed to work.

What did come as a surprise was that within a few years, Marvel would try again. From a business standpoint, they were clearly hopeful of riding on the coattails of what many felt would be a blockbuster motion picture (and ongoing film series), starting with 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, starring Ron Ely. The film, instead of the hoped-for blockbuster, proved to be a disaster…the high camp tone of the movie contributed to it being a critical and commercial flop. The planned-for second film was never made.

Marvel’s magazine, however, did not sink with the film. Hollywood had clearly been out of touch with changes in the comics industry since the campy tales that were prevalent in the 1960’s — a shift into more serious, more sophisticated storytelling had been going on for years in the ’70’s. In addition, Marvel had recently launched its black and white line of magazines, which was squarely aimed at somewhat older readers — late teens and up, instead of the pre-teen audience which had fueled the camp era.

One characteristic of Doc Savage fans — and Doc comics fans are no exception — is many readers identify the time they discovered the character as the “best” phase of his presentation. It’s a unique quality in the Doc readership — the character inspires loyalty which often begins at a pivotal time in our lives, and can last a lifetime. But even among fans not yet born in 1975, I have seen an enthusiasm through conversations on social media for the black and white Marvel Doc.

Serendipitously, I was the exact target age for the stories produced in 1975, being 17. I was, at the time, appalled and disappointed by the film (my feelings have softened in the decades since)…but I loved the magazine. It felt to me exactly as it advertised in one of the opening pages of issue #1, “A Return to Greatness”.

The cover of that issue was simply a reproduction of the movie poster, and there were copious movie-related articles in the issue as well, but the main attraction was the story itself.

Marvel had assigned two of its top talents to the series. Author Doug Moench was one of the most prolific writers of that era, one of the “young turks” who were changing the face of comics storytelling. He was doing work across the spectrum of color and black and white comics — one of his greatest successes being the Master of Kung Fu series he was doing with artist Paul Gulacy.

Doug Moench in the 1970’s

The artist was John Buscema, arguably one of the most formidable talents in comics at the time. He had taken the reins from Jack Kirby after “The King” departed from Marvel, on headliners like The Fantastic Four and Thor. He was also expanding into Marvel’s growing sword and sorcery tales, and would draw Conan for a long, long run.

John Buscema, 1975

Equally important to the Doc Savage series — as he would come to provide a remarkable degree of continuity to the visuals as the pencil artist changed frequently, was Tony DeZuniga.

Tony DeZuniga in the 1970’s

These three teamed to start the Doc Savage magazine with quite a bang, in a story called The Doom on Thunder Isle.

to be continued…

Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 18

And so we come to the last installment of this immense, 18-part exploration of all the mainstream appearances of Doc Savage’s persistent nemesis, John Sunlight. It began in 1938, with the Lester Dent pulp novel Fortress of Solitude, and Sunlight’s final appearance came in the 2017 comic series from Dynamite Entertainment, written by David Avallone and drawn by Dave Acosta, The Ring of Fire.

At the end of this article David Avallone will add his own comments to this final chapter.

When we left off, Doc had been captured at Sunlight’s hidden installation on Phoenix Island. Also on the scene are Doc’s cousin Pat, the five aides, and notably, Amelia Earhart. Sunlight is in the midst of enlisting the pre-WWII Japanese in his scheme to terrorize the United States with his immensely destructive weapon, which can precipitate huge eruptions along faultlines of the Earth’s crust — like the titular Pacific “ring of fire”.

While Doc and Sunlight engage in an angry exchange, the rest of the cast is moving into position for the final confrontation.

Things now begin to happen quickly — the Japanese commander rejects Sunlight, but is abruptly executed by his own junior officer. The antagonism escalates into more violence, resulting in the young officer taking off to trigger Sunlight’s terrible weapon and devastate the United States’ west coast.

Sunlight’s growl as he physically attacks Doc is an attribute of his right out of the original pulp novels — a nice touch. As is Sunlight’s somewhat twisted idealism…his goals, though arrived at through brutal means, are to unite the world, and end war.

Battle breaks out all across the Phoenix Island installation, but the plane carrying the super-weapon has already left. Amelia bravely insists on going after it, while Doc and his crew continue to fight Sunlight. The parting is a hard one for Pat and Amelia, who are close friends. Everyone is aware that if successful, this is a one-way flight, which Amelia cannot possibly survive.

Doc and Sunlight fight for the final time, but it is Pat, merciless in her anger and loss, who lines up her gunsight on the villain.

The final scenes are skillfully intercut for a powerful emotional conclusion. Instead of dialogue, author David Avallone — with remarkable artistry for a pulp/comic book story, orchestrates the scenes accompanied with captions that present Amelia Earhart’s poem, “Courage”.

Amelia rams the plane carrying the apocalyptic weapon, Sunlight, shot by Pat, falls (presumably to his death)…and disaster is averted, but at great cost.

These are very powerful scenes, presented with strong emotion and drama — really elevating the tale beyond adventure melodrama.

The story ends quickly after that, with a poignant farewell. And despite the hopeful caption at the bottom of the page, this has, to date, been the last mainstream Doc Savage story to be produced.

Here are author David Avallone’s final thoughts:

Chapter Four: Already? I could have written twelve issues of this story. In 1938, there was considerable tension within the Japanese military and I wanted Matsui and Osato to represent both sides of that debate. History demonstrates, tragically, who won that argument in the long run. Matsui’s list of objections to the Ring of Fire/Superwave Modulator are based on the principles of the Bushido Code. Matsui is ticking off all the ways in which the weapon breaks those rules. Of course, so does the atomic bomb. Now we finally rip Doc’s shirt. Is everybody happy now?


I always knew that Amelia would likely not survive my series: the joy of writing about her, and “bringing her back,” was always tempered by the knowledge that I couldn’t really write a happy ending to her story… because we don’t live in a world where she got that. Dave’s panel of their last embrace absolutely kills me. It’s perfect. Like everything else he did in this series, it’s everything I wanted and better than I could have imagined.


There is a popular 1980s “cult film” that is an homage to Doc Savage: a movie about a brilliant scientist/doctor/musician/adventurer who travels the world with a team of amazing specialists, writing wrongs and fighting supervillains. Dave had to introduce the concrete wall a few issues back so I could have my little nod towards BUCKAROO BANZAI. I thought it would add just the tiny touch of lightness amid the unfolding tragedy, for the few who recognized the reference.

For all the research I did into Amelia Earhart, I mostly used it as a way to understand her as a person (and a character,) and used very little that was specific. The one vital “discovery” in the research was the poem “Courage,” which I’d never seen before. It is by Amelia Earhart, it is beautiful and I decided to let it play in “silence” for the finale, mirroring somewhat the silent dream sequence that opened the first issue.


And so we come to the end. Evil is defeated, at a terrible cost. Doc can hope that the last of his lost superweapons has been destroyed and Pat can accept the heroic fate of her beloved Amelia. As a lifelong James Bond fan, I couldn’t resist captioning this final image – certainly inspired on some level by You Only Live Twice – with: The End, But Doc Savage Will Return. Indeed he will, and I hope to be a part of it when he does.

_______________________________________

And so this look at the long history of John Sunlight also comes to an end. As a character he has clearly held a fascination for both writers and readers, and though his appearances can’t be woven into any kind of single continuity, they have, across eight decades, provided an intense and fascinating look at the concept of an “arch-villain”.

His last words: “And you won’t stop me!” may yet prove to be true…time will tell if John Sunlight ultimately returns — yet again — to cast his omnipresent shadow over Doc Savage.

The Council of Evil discusses Harold Bloom’s “The Flight to Lucifer”

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!

Cover to the hardcover edition of The Flight to Lucifer

SARDANAS: Hi Atom, Hi André, good to have the Conseil du Mal assembled again to discuss another book that’s been influential to modern pulp writing. We’re going to talk today about Harold Bloom’s The Flight to Lucifer, an intriguing choice for a modern pulp conversation, as it was first published in 1979, with an unusual literary provenance behind it, and perhaps equally unexpected influences on pulp writing ahead of it. Bloom has made his formidable reputation as a literary critic, most famously producing many books discussing the works of William Shakespeare. But one of his own favorite books was a bizarre pulp-visionary 1920 novel by David Lindsay, called A Voyage to Arcturus. Here’s a description of the book and some of the luminaries it inspired:

A Voyage to Arcturus is a novel by the Scottish writer David Lindsay, first published in 1920. An interstellar voyage is the framework for a narrative of a journey through fantastic landscapes. The story is set at Tormance, an imaginary planet orbiting Arcturus, which in the novel (but not in reality) is a double star system, consisting of the stars Branchspell and Alppain. The lands through which the characters travel represent philosophical systems or states of mind as the main character, Maskull, searches for the meaning of life. The book combines fantasy, philosophy, and science fiction in an exploration of the nature of good and evil and their relationship with existence. Described by critic, novelist, and philosopher Colin Wilson as the “greatest novel of the twentieth century”, it was a central influence on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and through him on J.R.R. Tolkien, who said he read the book “with avidity”. Clive Barker called it “a masterpiece” and “an extraordinary work … quite magnificent”.The book sold poorly during Lindsay’s lifetime, but was republished in 1946 and many times thereafter. It has been translated into at least ten languages. Critics such as the novelist Michael Moorcock noted that the book is unusual, but that it has been highly influential with its qualities of “commitment to the Absolute” and “God-questioning genius”.

Paperback wraparound cover for A Voyage to Arcturus

A very incongruous collection of admirers…some from the literary ivory tower, others from the horror and adventure-fantasy genres. And the book itself is written in a style that is often blunt and unconstrained, practically the opposite of a “high literary” narrative. It reads, in fact, like a pulp novel. Bloom’s admiration for the book led him to write the only novel of his long career, The Flight to Lucifer, which re-imagines A Voyage to Arcturus in terms of Gnostic belief. Bloom somewhat notoriously hated his own creation – once saying that he wished he could buy back every copy printed and burn them all (the fate, ironically, of many an old pulp magazine and comic book in the hands of parents who considered them “trash”). The Flight to Lucifer also did not sell well, and was savaged by many critics…most commonly objecting to its dry scriptural tone, mixed with bursts of violence and dark eroticism more commonly to be found in pulp lit. In fact some of its scenes are strongly reminiscent of Philip José Farmer’s pulp-pornographic novel A Feast Unknown. Four decades later, The Flight to Lucifer would also provide a layer of inspiration to myself and artist/co-creator Iason Ragnar Bellerophon in our creation of the Doc Savage pastiche Doc Talos, and the six-volume Talos Chronicle. In A Voyage to Arcturus, and in some ways even more strongly in The Flight to Lucifer, is a fascinating blueprint for both the elevation of pulp fiction – or equally true, the infusion of visceral elements from those same “bloody pulps” into the dry and scholarly realm of literary fiction. A trip upward toward the ivory tower, while at the same time improbably tearing down that tower and hauling its pretensions (kicking and screaming) down into the mass readership of the pulp world.

BEZECNY: That’s a pretty apt description, as both Lindsay and Bloom’s books involve characters ascending physical towers which are actually more like dimensional bridges, warping them across infinity to the respective titular planets. Both stories are, fundamentally, about the passage from the material world into a spiritual world of gnosis, and this early sequence literalizes that. It really is interesting to me, the balance that Bloom strikes between pulpy and literary aspirations. On one hand, his book is an intellectual academian recontextualization of an earlier fantasy story. On the other, the book has a curious obviousness to it if one has already read Voyage to Arcturus. Bloom is very much telling the same story as Lindsay, down to the same sequence of events, but in a way that makes Lindsay’s incidental Gnosticism much more clear. It’s a smart criticism because it takes a strong knowledge of religious and mythic themes to come up with such a direct correspondence. But in changing the names of Lindsay’s places and characters into Gnostic variants, Bloom is crafting a surprisingly simple narrative, and in some ways he is stripping some of the magic out of Arcturus in a way that feels almost materialistic. And yet the revelations about Lindsay’s work which Bloom draws are almost Gnostic in their transformative nature. He creates the sort of paradox which my weird spiritual beliefs associate with the godly. This is essentially the same as rewriting the Narnia books to replace Aslan’s name with Jesus, but the simple fact that David Lindsay didn’t intend for his book to serve as a Gnostic vision makes this case a very different animal (pun intended?). The issue with good pastiche is that it wouldn’t exist without its predecessor. At the same time, criticism is, in an ideal sense anyway, about progress. It’s about investigating the old to inspire the new. Good criticism opens up new views of old stories that make them shine brighter (or stranger) in new light. And sometimes that fresh illumination comes from a crossing of the supposed barriers separating “highbrow” from “lowbrow.” Like A Feast Unknown, this book melds those two barriers together to shine light on both attributes at once. It can’t be contained by conventional criticism and yet in that sense it is in some ways participating in the ultimate form of criticism. 

VATHIER: See I think I made a mistake by not reading A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay first. I decided to jump right in. It is sort of becoming a tradition whenever I talk to both of you. I missed the subtleties of the book. Because I have not read the previous, work it pastiches. We should start a drinking game. Take a shot whenever André tells you he has not read a work or is unfamiliar with an English-language author. I must admit, I found it to be a frustrating read at first. I was not enjoying it. Parts of the book reference previous works or concepts that i felt I should get but I did not. Therefore, after a while I decided to start over and just “feel” the book instead of understanding it through the lens of a pastiche or academic highbrow. Reading it that way was more enjoyable. Bloom’s style is interesting. He’s an academic. I thought it would be Umberto Eco type book.Where he flexes his academic knowledge. However, the small chapters in The Flight to Lucifer are perfectly made to convey emotions. That is what I like about it. Like A Feast Unknown this book is emotionally intense. It’s raw in a way that very few authors dare to go. After I was done with it, I decided to read some of the Goodreads reviews. It’s either “This book is great” or ‘’This book is the worst book I ever read in my entire life”. There very little in between. I feel a lot of the critics miss the forest for the trees.   This is unrelated but the Wikipedia states the following. “The book received negative responses, and was compared, including by Bloom himself, to the film Star Wars (1977)” Star Wars? Personally, I do not see it.

Paperback cover for The Flight to Lucifer

 

SARDANAS: In a way André, the fact that you read The Flight to Lucifer without first reading Lindsay’s book gave you a unique perspective — sometimes the experience of pastiche-first, original-second can be very illuminating. Particularly since Bloom’s style is distinctly academic, and Lindsay’s is almost anti-academic.  Interesting point Atom, that Bloom, as a lifelong literary critic, actually achieved a unique form of criticism through his only novel as well. As you know I’m fascinated by both the dichotomy and potential symbiosis in “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literature, and while Bloom himself (by disowning his own book) disliked the result, he did indeed take Lindsay’s often amateur-like writing (Lindsay did things like make up words instead of finding sophisticated ways to describe unique elements of the story…in addition to a sometimes crude and simplistic style) and shape it with a much more disciplined hand.  Interesting too that we all feel an analogue to aspects of Farmer’s raw, intense A Feast Unknown in The Flight to Lucifer. I agree with you André, Bloom took the narrative at times to places many authors are too timid (or too limited) to explore…as did Farmer.  How all this relates to modern pulp writing comes into play in intriguing ways. In the modern pulp-author community, I see a lot of frustration among authors who feel “no one is listening”. Low sales, lack of widespread fame…of course those can be discouraging, but I feel that sometimes those frustrations will lead to modern pulp authors abandoning faith in their own most innovative and challenging concepts. If the criteria for achievement is sales and fame, both Lindsay and Bloom as novelists were resounding failures. Lindsay, discouraged after Arcturus’ poor showing commercially, shifted gears and attempted to tailor his next works to commercial tastes, resulting in books that have been utterly forgotten. Bloom returned to his critical writings (for which he has wide readership and acclaim)…but Lucifer arguably continues to inspire as much as any of those works over forty years after its publication.  Both books have achieved what might be thought of as “underground” followings. People are passionate about them (as you say André, often either strongly loving or hating) which I actually consider a hallmark of important books. Perhaps at least part of the lesson to today’s writers being faith that a willingness to go out on a limb to present a powerful personal vision may not make you a cartload of money, but may inspire passion in readers a half or full century after you write those works. Pulp readers have a strong affinity — and deep loyalty — toward characters and authors that strike a deep chord of emotion, often defying commercial convention while they are doing it. 

BEZECNY: If it’s any comfort, André, I tend to read pastiches way before I read the originals. I’ve read far more Doc Savage pastiches than I have original novels. I think these two books have a dualism that lets you indulge them in either order.  I agree with you that Lucifer doesn’t quite work as a pure sequence of events; it’s more like prose poetry, and viewed through that lens it’s very effective. Alas, no one really likes prose poetry, probably because they’ve only read bad examples, when in fact there are many, many good examples out there. Critics, in an effort to sell to increasingly narrow algorithms, have to display more and more intensely polarized opinions, which means that books like this are never very popular. Capitalism and art just don’t mix. I think that’s partly why the Star Wars comparison came up–even in the 80s, there was a push to always compare lesser known stories to better known ones, because marketing. There was a time not too long ago when every single new sci-fi book that came out was said to be “just like Stranger Things” when it had nothing in common with that show. I think it’s hard because the same environment and social system which has led to this lack of mainstream critical nuance is also that which is starving most of the world’s population. The disparity between wages and costs of living is growing worse without anyone in power seemingly interested in halting it. No one wants to work a job that kills them on an emotional level, and so making a living wage in the creative arts involves serving the creative wishes of corporations. This isn’t to say that every author who’s made it is a sellout–far from it. But there are creators whose visions are inherently going to be held back from success because they run contrary to the acceptable conservative status quo. And it’s very easy to see that many people view the exercise of imagination or the creation of “high art” as a symbol of privilege. But I don’t think any of that reduces the necessity of the sort of creativity that authors like Lindsay and Bloom put forward. I think that it’s important to challenge boundaries and meld mutual exclusitivies even if those experiments aren’t always successful. As a lover of trash movies, I know that there’s always someone out there who will find value in a work which most condemn as useless. 

VATHIER: Atom You talk about your love of trash movies. Youtuber Kyle Kallgren said the following in one of his videos. I think it applies really well to the book too.  Even a badly worded statement can inspire. Even a poorly made gesture can move “ It’s sad that Harold Bloom never tried fiction ever again. He of all people should know that practice makes perfect. Commercial failure does not mean failure. Consequently, I have noticed it to Paul. That frustration among pulp author is about “no one is listening low sales, lack of widespread fame”. I do not share that frustration. On the other hand, I do not have that need for that widespread fame. I mean knowing that both of you read and enjoyed my short stories filled me with Joy. I share your opinion. If authors cannot make a living from writing then they totally should write a book or produce a piece of art that is personal or just follow their own vision regardless if it will be commercially successful. Atom you mention that capitalism and art do not mix. I agree I have seen authors; content creators online try to quantify or create “objective” parameter for judging and creating art. I dislike the fact that people online feel the need to justify what they like or what they find inspiring.  What happened to liking something just because you do? Paul  if it were not for you, I would never have picked up Flight to Lucifer. For one before you brought it up I had never heard of the book (I think Bloom himself is the cause of it .Allegedly paying the editor a large sum of money so it never gets a second printing or editions). I am curious to know where you first heard of it and when you first read it. Reading Flight to Lucifer after reading your Talos Chronicle stories. I could see it’s a source of inspiration for you.

SARDANAS: An interesting sidelight to the “trash film” side of the conversation – there is a terrific trash movie of A Voyage to Arcturus which was made in 1970 by student actors and filmmakers…done on a shoestring budget with almost no special effects, it is a fantastic example of a film being made on heart and inspiration alone. Extremely difficult to find, I snapped up a copy when it was briefly available on DVD, and was alternately appalled and enthralled by its crudity of technique melded to an intense dedication to filming “the book that is impossible to film”. No underground film fan should fail to see it sometime in their life.

 

Film images from the 1970 underground/student film of A Voyage to Arcturus

Regarding art and capitalism, they are indeed uneasy bedfellows at best, bitter adversaries at worst. When you add in the social disdain frequently aimed at “trash lit” – pulp storytelling being a notable wicked stepchild of the literary world – things get even more intense…and interesting. This is certainly one reason why I find The Flight to Lucifer such a compelling milestone. As you’ve described, Atom, it often reads like a prose poem, but loaded with an almost insane mix of elements that are hallmarks of pulp excess. For modern pulp authors, I think one distinct trap they can fall into is failing what I call the “Cardboard/Cartoon” test. Much pulp fiction of the 20th century was rooted in shallow, bloodthirsty plots, or driven by gimmicky sensationalism. Great fun, but given the sheer quantity of the stuff, it can feel stale when recycled over and over. I’m the last person to look down on mindless fun (mindlessness can be a Gnostic experience in and of itself), but in heroic pulp fiction, it is all too easy to fall into the comfort zone of reading and writing stories of hollow men and women. Everyone of course has their own personal touchstones for what makes pulp fiction enjoyable and inspiring. But I have used two books for decades as a test for whether or not I have (unconsciously or not) fallen down a hole where I am no longer striving hard enough. Those books are Farmer’s A Feast Unknown and Bloom’s The Flight to Lucifer. Both books succeed and fail in some (actually in many) ways, but they show a courage in opposing the paradigm of cardboard characters in cartoon situations that is relentless. As both a reader and writer, I want to aspire toward that kind of courage. André to answer your question, I actually didn’t discover The Flight to Lucifer in what might be the expected manner – following the path from Arcturus (which I read in the 1970’s) to its pastiche, Lucifer. My mother was a Shakespeare and Blake scholar (my own name is a direct lift from a character in Macbeth), and by 1979 I was also heavily into both authors. This, of course, was Bloom’s wheelhouse…I was (and still am) endlessly fascinated by books like Bloom’s Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, which I also read in the 1970’s. When I learned that Bloom’s first novel was going to appear in 1979, I acquired it immediately. Only on starting to read did I realize that this was a book with deep, deep roots in Lindsay’s Arcturus. I’ve always had one foot in the academic world and the other in the pulp world…and the synthesis of those in Lucifer practically had me hypnotized. When the time came, much later, to begin work on my own pastiche Talos Chronicle, I went back to those two mentor books, Feast and Lucifer, as core aspects of inspiration. Discovering that my creative partner for the Chronicle, Iason Bellerophon, equally treasured both books, was an incredible bit of serendipity.

BEZECNY: You can’t tell, dear readers, but I temporarily froze time in the middle of this conversation so that I could watch the Voyage to Arcturus film. It was an enlightening experience! Definitely a mixture of the exciting and the disappointing, as you said, R. It started off with a brilliant energy and then just sort of lost focus, presumably as deadlines and budgets ran out. But it did still capture a sliver of Lindsay’s novel. The dreamy cheapness of it was an adequate reflection of the almost incomprehensible pseudo-psychedelic atmosphere of that book. I wonder if Bloom ever saw the movie, either before or after he wrote Lucifer. I imagine that he and the filmmakers felt similarly about their respective products, but it’s a testament to the raw imagination of Lindsay’s work that it’s a hard thing to try to do twice. André, I love that quote by Kyle…it really defines my life and my perspective on things.  Incidentally, I highly recommend pairing the Arcturus film with another student film from the ’70s, Moonchild from 1974, which managed to score both Victor Buono and John Carradine, two of my favorite actors. That movie, too, is overflowing with occult symbolism (including, as the title implies, Crowleyan themes) and was, I’m sure, an influence on the Eagles song “Hotel California.” We’ve talked now a little bit about the literary alchemy that Bloom’s practices, but I figure since this is kind of an obscure novel, and a complex one, it might be fun to dig a bit more into the plot. There are a lot of Gnostic names here, and modern readers can decipher much of the symbolism behind these names with the power of Wikipedia. But others, like Nekbael, are more elusive, and require some perusal of authentic Gnostic texts–those which survive, anyway. I’m curious what the two of you thought of the plot of this–and while I know you’ve both explored Gnosticism in your other writings, I’m curious to know how you reacted to this book’s spiritual themes on a personal level. 

VATHIER: I will need to watch both movies now. Describing the plot can be difficult. The book does not have a traditional structure. Characters can fast-travel from one place to another in an instant. Multiple events happen concurrently. Some individuals that the characters meet along the way disappear without any explanation never to return. The plot summary from the Wikipedia article does not do the book justice. We follow Thomas Perscors with his friend Seth Valentinus an amnesiac who can remember a great deal and nothing at all and Olam a yellow-eyed being.  Olam takes both men to the planet of Lucifer, Seth wants his memory back and Thomas Perscors’ purpose and quest are ambiguous for most of the story. You asked how I reacted to the spiritual theme on an emotional level. See while reading it. I quickly realized that I was not as well verse as I thought I was when it came the Gnosticism.  Wikipedia did help but it only offered some superficial understanding. I will read this book more than once. I feel bad because I wish I could give more insight but to tell you the truth I did not fully understand the book. It frustrates me deeply because talking to you both of you obviously understood it. While I was left confused. This might because of my ignorance. (My knowledge of what Gnosticism is growing.) The fact that English is not my first language. However, I think the biggest reason above all else as to why I found this book to be a challenging read is this. I have not read A Voyage to Arcturus before reading this one. A lot of reviews call Flight to Lucifer a spiritual sequel or a re imagining of A Voyage to Arcturus and I am starting to believe them. I want to “get it” the same both of you “Get it”. However, I do not and it makes me frustrated, that led to slight anger.  So seeing Thomas Perscors being angry in the book felt somewhat cathartic in a weird way because like him I was on an alien world that I did not fully understand.Speaking of Perscors. He reminds me a lot of a video game protagonist. I personally do not play video games but my partner and his friends do. Right now, they are playing a video game called Elden Ring. From what I can understand from watching them play, the game is set in a hostile fantasy world (Not unlike Lucifer) where your goal is complete quests while killing everything that stands between you and the quest. It’s kill or be killed. At one point, I asked my friends if a peaceful option was even possible. Like could they win the game by not killing a single character?  They told me no. the mechanics would not allow it. To complete the quest you need to slash, hit, punch, kick, bite your way until the end. For those of you who know about the game I know there is a lot more to it than that but in that way Thomas was that video game protagonist. He listens to someone then moves forward killing or trying to kill anyone who stands in his path. Listen to someone else that makes the story go forward then he fights the person who crosses him, which segues into the next scene. In the book he’s a representation of Adam Kadmon (The primal man). Like a video game protagonist from a violent game both are an unstoppable force. I want to reiterate this is not a bad book. Confusing maybe. Nevertheless, its raw essence is very inspiring. It stays with you. It’s one of those pieces of art that relies a lot on what you bring to it. 

SARDANAS: André, don’t feel troubled that your experience of the book was confusing. Part of that is due to not having experienced A Voyage to Arcturus, but that book is also mightily confusing. I have read both books multiple times for decades, and certainly make no claims to fully understanding them even now. And in a way, that is the point of a story that is at its heart a spiritual journey — in fact, multiple journeys. Like abstract art, I don’t believe its intent is for a full intellectual understanding. Instead, that kind of artistry can lead to feelings from a visceral place that no words can fully articulate. The story (sometimes literally) boosts a reader up to a platform where strange vistas can be viewed, but the viewing and the feelings provoked by that act are enough; to attempt prosaic explanations would drain those vistas of their majesty.  Quite right Atom, we have explored a lot of oblique paths in talking about this story, but heaven forbid we should actually talk about the plot! André, you are also quite right, it is not a plot that can be easily summarized. In essence, a small group of individuals (Perscors, Valentinus, Olam) wander the planet Lucifer — mostly apart from one another — pursuing goals that are in no way clear. Perscors, though an intelligent and perceptive man, also embodies the Primal Man of Gnosticism, and frequently behaves in a distinctly primal manner. He flings himself into situations both sexual and violent. Valentinus is more deeply philosophical, but suffers from amnesia. His journey is one of slow and fragmentary remembrance of powerful beliefs that once made him a spiritual leader. Olam is a being from a higher existence (an Aeon in Gnostic language), and he is looking to reclaim a tower he once raised on Lucifer. He is coarse, blunt and powerful…but represents a form of unshakable honesty in a world filled with deceit and illusion. Each character runs a gamut of catastrophes, strange encounters with bizarre beings, and along the way there are numerous revelations that are tantalizingly opaque.  By any measure, a strange story. But it is bold (as was Lindsay’s Arcturus) in its effort to create a visionary experience for the mind and soul.  My personal responses — over decades now — are often ones of feeling that these characters are illustrating very important aspects of life, including my own life. That can feel exciting, frustrating…even frightening. It’s inviting readers to look at potentially very difficult aspects of being alive and human.  Creatively, I have certainly found it inspiring. As mentioned previously, many aspects of the story provided pathways into human mysteries that I wished very much to explore…and did so (taking my own tangent on Bloom’s presentation of the Gnostic pantheon) in the Talos Chronicle

BEZECNY: I also wanted to assure you, André, that this book is a hard read even among those of us for whom English is our first language. Like I said, it’s very much like prose poetry, and the feeling it evokes is in many ways more important than the story–but that’s not to say that those feelings are easy to conceptualize. The story itself is frustrating at times, because of how cryptic it can be and because oftentimes the characters act more in accordance to vague, unspoken mythic tropes rather than an ordinary sort of reason. In many ways this makes most if not all interpretations of the text valid. That’s part of why I enjoyed the book so much–but I am, as I’ve probably indicated many times here and elsewhere, fond of experimentalism for its own sake. There’s a lot of interesting intersections surrounding your video game interpretation. I do think it’s interesting how death and conquest are such important parts of games. It recalls Ronald Reagan’s statement that video games would create better jet pilots–there’s a certain militarism in giving kids stories which involve so much killing. A lot of popular, celebrated games are much smarter than this, but it is odd that young boys are expected to kill fictional characters as part of their upbringing. I feel inclined to target boys in this instance–sorry, gentlemen–because I have to admit that the conception of the Primal Man in Lucifer is often very patriarchal in his depiction. There is an emphasis on his Primal nature being tied to sex and murder, when in truth humanity’s Primal instincts are more complex than that. Our ancient ancestors learned to cuddle, to heal the sick, to feed each other, give gifts, etc. as part of their dawning sentience, and these too are part of our Primal ancestry. It’s been centuries of male-led anthropology that has convinced us that sex and death were the only instincts that mattered. We are compelled by so many different feelings that we take for granted. The video games that rise to the top, I feel, are the ones which incorporate these multiplicities into their experience, and don’t submit to status quo concessions. Much like any other medium. But I realize also that, while the Gnostics may have envisioned the Primal Man as our ancient ancestors, the concept of the Primal Man is one based on archetypes. In a sense, the Primal Man is a sort of cosmic everyman, a Platonic ideal of a spiritual traveler. In this, Perscors is much like the sort of allegorical protagonist found in books like The Pilgrim’s Progress. This in some ways makes Perscors’ violent tendencies more troubling. This is part of why “the West”‘s dependence on the imaginations of millennia-dead Europeans is an issue. The ancient stories, the myths of old, are very violent and very patriarchal. In replicating that vibe, modern writers have succeeded in evoking literary power, but we really do need to question it more on a general basis. It may sound like I’m turning on the book, but I personally enjoy any fictional experience that is about the pursuit of enlightenment. As an atheist I don’t really believe in enlightenment on a cosmic level, but I do believe that the deliberate pursuit of wisdom is a noble goal. I tend to lean into the Gnostic/Buddhist interpretation of the process, which is that the material world often causes one to deviate from truly enlightening paths. At this point the natural human obsession with enlightenment is such that it seems the world is covered with cults, all of them eager to sell their own solution to existential issues. But then, the world has always been that way, as I tend to believe the line between cults and mainstream religion is pretty thin. I believe that a true Gnostic or a true Buddhist would understand that even Gnosticism and Buddhism can’t give them all the answers. Truth must come from a study of many disciplines, with a willingness to accept that one’s preconceived notions could always be proven wrong.  In a sense, books like this will always be imperfect because the path to learning is a continuous one. There is no end to knowledge, and the only thing we mortals can hope for is to be better than we were before.

VATHIER: Atom is right. I don’t want you, the reader, to think that we disliked the book. Far from it. It’s true that it made me frustrated but I feel that’s why it succeeded . It made for a more active read. Under normal circumstances I would say go buy it but you can’t since it’s out of print. You can always find a second-hand copy but they can be very expensive. I wish Bloom had not salted the earth with his singular fiction book. It’s one of those books that would have benefited from a critical reappraisal. 

Harold Bloom

SARDANAS: Just as the book is challenging to read, our discussion about it is equally challenging to sum up. Appropriate, in a way. It led each of us on interesting tangents – from the spiritual and cultural to the commercial…not a bad legacy for a work of fiction. As it applies to pulp literature, it’s one of very few books with the audacity to ram the academic world and the pulplit world together, and in doing so producing an intense experience. To the authors in our pulp circle who despair about their works being appreciated, I hope you can take heart. Here is a book that the author himself would have liked to suppress, even wipe out of literary memory, and yet all these years later – after crashing and burning in bookstores – it is still being read…still inspiring new efforts to expand the realms of scholarly thought and pulp thrills. If you put your vision out there, amazing things can happen.

Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 17

In the previous installment, David Avallone, author of the last (to date) John Sunlight tale, joined me to talk about his inspirations and process for the story, The Ring of Fire. David will return again, giving us more background on the third issue of this four-issue tale, published by Dynamite Entertainment in 2017.

The first two episodes of the story achieved a great deal…they presented a richly-researched period setting, captured characterizations for Doc, Pat, and the five aides that rang true to their original pulp incarnations, and issue #2 ended with the unveiling of the tale’s antagonist, none other than John Sunlight.

Sunlight, from his secret base — Phoenix Island, in the Pacific — had downed Pat Savage’s plane and taken her prisoner. As the third chapter opens, Pat and Sunlight briefly confront one another…again, their personalities captured to perfection. Pat is impudently defiant, Sunlight calm and self-assured.

Pat, taken away to a cell, finds her friend Amelia Earhart there. Earhart (whose disappearance over the Pacific is of course the stuff of legend), had also fallen prey to Sunlight’s motor-stopping weapon.

Speaking of John Sunlight and weapons, Avallone and artist David Acosta then treat us with a revisiting of Sunlight’s original pulp appearance, in the classic Doc Savage novel Fortress of Solitude. Skillfully done, it makes me daydream of how great it would be to see this author/artist team do a full adaptation of that novel.

Sunlight’s second pulp appearance, in the novel The Devil Genghis, is briefly described but not shown, as The Ring of Fire shifts back to its main storyline. Sunlight is attempting to forge an alliance with the Japanese empire…whose military representative is arriving to discuss Sunlight’s claims to be able to use his weapon to damage the earth’s crust, raising volcanoes, starting earthquakes…particularly effective along the planet’s fault lines.

Sunlight presents himself with both dignity and menace. The understated tone of these scenes is very effective, grounding them in an atmosphere that feels real, rather than loaded with comic-book hyperbole.

Meanwhile, Pat and Amelia have escaped their cell, and (true to form for Pat) are raising some havoc as they attempt to reach one of the planes at Sunlight’s compound. Sunlight, having tea with the Japanese officers, does not seem particularly concerned.

Doc Savage himself is now approaching the island, which Sunlight has clearly anticipated. He takes his guests to view a demonstration of the technology which he uses to capture planes.

The action heats up, with Doc and the aides avoiding being helplessly disabled, and they too begin to wreak some havoc on Sunlight’s installation. In the midst of the conflict, Sunlight and his minions succeed in getting the drop on Doc, giving us the cliffhanger to this penultimate chapter of the story.

Here once again is David Avallone, with his thoughts on this third chapter of The Ring of Fire:

David Avallone

Amelia at last! Her friends called her Millie. Amelia’s about a decade older than Patricia Savage. Amelia spent the late twenties and early thirties giving a lot of lectures to college students, and went to a lot of events with the best and brightest young women in the country. Also… she formed an organization of women aviators called The Ninety Nines. I’m quite sure that Pat would have been a Ninety-Nine.


Doc tells the origin story of John Sunlight, for those who haven’t read Lester Dent’s FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE or THE DEVIL GENGHIS recently. (Go read them. They’re awesome.) Lester Dent never named the Siberian Penal Colony where John Sunlight was exiled. Because I’m obsessive about such things, I looked at Google Maps for Siberia and narrowed the possible locations down to Krestovaya.

In this Chapter, Doc finally makes his “sound.” In the original pulps, when Doc is deep in thought, he unconsciously emits a strange trilling sound. His men are used to it, but I’m sure Admiral Leahy has never heard anything like it. I didn’t want to use it gratuitously, just for fan service… but this is the moment where Doc really connects all the dots and figures out his course of action. In the art for this issue, Dave Acosta references both INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and THE SIMPSONS. But here we are… three issues in, and Doc’s shirt STILL hasn’t been ripped. One issue left, Doc.

To be continued…and both The Ring of Fire and Omnipresent Sunlight concluded!

Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 16

In the last installment, I began with a look at the first issue of Dynamite Entertainment’s 2017 Doc Savage limited series, The Ring of Fire. The author was David Avallone, the artist Dave Acosta.

Since then, David Avallone himself has graciously offered to let me share his thoughts on the series here. What follows is the first part of an Afterword he created for the collected graphic novel version of the story. This will be new to those who have only read the comics — and in addition, sheds some light on his thoughts concerning the topic of these articles: the presence (and continuing mystique) of John Sunlight as an adversary to the Man of Bronze.

Here is David Avallone:

I thought you might be interested in a little background on the making of the book you hold in your hands (or are reading on your iPad.) When Dynamite Executive Editor Joseph Rybandt kindly asked if I would be interested in doing a Doc Savage miniseries, I jumped at the chance. I love Doc, and had only done a “what-if” style Doc one-shot. I was excited to do a classic 1930s “Supersaga” in the Lester Dent tradition. Joe didn’t even have to ask if I wanted my Twilight Zone: The Shadow artist back for this one… Dave Acosta and I were both looking to work together again, after having such a terrific time on that series.


To come up with a pitch (or three) I thumbed through some 1930s history and looked for things that might have caught the attention of Doc Savage and his crew. A few events jumped out at me, one of which was the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Doc’s Cousin Patricia, a character I’ve always adored, was an aviatrix herself, and surely would have crossed paths with Amelia. I decided they became inseparably close, and that Pat was still haunted, a year later, by her girlfriend’s disappearance, and maybe something else… something more mysterious. I submitted this pitch with two others, and when Joe let me pick which one I wanted to do the most, chose the one with Amelia Earhart. She was irresistible.

To prepare for the series, Dave Acosta and I spent some time on the designs of the characters. As usual, we started a Pinterest board for visual reference. We decided on the incredibly important and controversial question of Doc’s hair: a Bama-like skullcap but one that was clearly made of real hair, which could be disturbed, and not the bizarre helmet-thing from the otherwise excellent 1970s paperback covers. We also came up with a “cast list” for the whole book, with the actors (mostly from the period) serving not as caricatures but as templates for “type”. Perhaps eagle-eyed fans can figure out who was inspired by who. Or you can cheat and look up our Pinterest board for the series… Doc Savage: Ring of Photo References.

All of Anthony Marques’ covers bursts with power and energy. Brent Schoonover’s interconnecting covers show the path of Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated round-the-world flight… a lovely touch which I didn’t notice until I read something Brent wrote about it. I also didn’t notice (until putting them side-by-side) that beyond the obvious use of the Bantam books font, even the formatting (the rectangle with our names and the number) mimics the great paperbacks from the 1960s/70s.

Chapter One: maybe it’s a pretentious tic left over from too much Fellini, but I like opening a story with a mysterious dream sequence. We discussed a bit whether or not the audience would “get it.” I felt we should give the reader the benefit of the doubt. I thought the “silence” of the scene… and Doc’s horrible “death” would be enough to make the nightmare plain enough. From the very first page I loved how the book looked: the talents of Dave Acosta and colorist Morgan Hickman are very much apparent here, and on every page that followed.


I love doing the research for these period-set comics, and for what it’s worth… there really was a U.S.S. Augusta, it really did carry Admiral Harry Yarnell, and there was a naval base on the Palmyra Atoll. Calling it Palmyra Island was my very weak geology “joke”. It was an island before the Ring of Fire blew it in half and turned it into an atoll. I chose the Augusta because it shares a name with my beloved wife, but reading up on it I discovered it was a very significant ship in history. My favorite history teacher is honored here with the non-historical-figure Captain Calimano. Thanks, Mr. C.

Speaking of historical figures, Chapter One also has a cameo appearance by comic book hero President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delighted to be using an early Doc Savage version of Facetime. I loved writing FDR: it’s fun stuff when you have a character who – famously – really knew how to speak and express himself in interesting and charming ways. His buddy is the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Bill Leahy. I figured Bill would be in on a call like this. This is a good place to draw your attention to the lettering of Taylor Esposito, who handled a lot of challenging stuff in the series with great imagination and talent.

Chapter One then introduces the Fabulous Five. To be honest, I feel that the Five can be a challenge, and it’s a challenge Dave and I were very much interested in taking on. How to make them all clearly defined, visually and as characters? We worked on this a lot, and I hope it shows.

Chapter One ends with a curious thing about research, and the subconscious. When I started writing, I wasn’t sure what “clue” would lead Pat to know where to look for her friend. In the real world, Amelia vanished not terribly far from an island group called (in 1938) the Phoenix Islands. At the time I wrote Amelia’s transformation to the Firebird I was not consciously aware of that fact, or thinking about it. When I got to this scene I suddenly realized I had already planted the clue in the first sequence. My mind played a trick on me identical to the one it played on Pat Savage: I assume “Phoenix Island” was lodged somewhere in my brain from doing the research, and the dream sequence – just like in the story – was trying to give me the answer.

Chapter Two gets its title from a Bogart movie from the period. Ironically, in the Bogart movie he never quite makes it to the Pacific.


As the US Navy guys watch Doc Savage fall from the sky, I couldn’t help myself from gently tweaking the famous superhero who owes a lot of his foundations to Doc. Doc’s diving suit here can be found on the cover of the October 1937 issue of Doc Savage magazine. Old film nerds might also recognize the design of Doc Savage’s gas grenades. In 1933, Doc supplied them to a filmmaker named Carl Denham, who was concerned that he might need to knock something enormous unconscious.


The issue ends with the reveal of our villain, foretold in story and song and Previews solicits: John Sunlight. I know that some fans are like “c’mon, man, John Sunlight? Again?” In prepping this series I went back and reread the Sunlight pulps and really wanted to write the character. I also felt like Kenneth Robeson/Lester Dent still left something there unfinished. Dave and I both picked the same “photo model” independently, and I love the way his design came out.

To be continued…

Omnipresent Sunlight: Doc Savage’s archenemy – Part 15

The most recent appearance of John Sunlight in a mainstream venue was in the 2017 Dynamite Entertainment comic book limited series Doc Savage: The Ring of Fire. The author of this story is David Avallone, and the interior art is by Dave Acosta. This is also the last time (to date) that a Doc Savage authorized comic book story has been done by any company. I’m glad to say that if it is a finale (at least for now), it’s a good one.

Dynamite tried a lot of different approaches during its time working with the Doc Savage characters and mythos as a whole…some of which were ambitious and interesting, others more pedestrian, and one (the previous appearance of Sunlight) to my mind, a disaster. But The Ring of Fire went back to Doc’s period roots, and pulled it off with considerable skill and poise — and an obvious love of all things Doc.

John Sunlight does not appear until halfway through the story, and in most of the reviews in this series, I jumped straight to the moment where he steps onstage. But bear with me for a bit, as I feel this story is worthy of setting that stage properly.

There are numerous elements to this story, all of which are handled deftly — great credit goes to author Avallone, who entered a minefield that many other authors have attempted, but few have navigated with success. Among the challenges: presenting an authentic 1930’s period atmosphere, including historical personages in the narrative without them appearing for the sake of novelty alone, and balancing an exciting storyline with genuine emotional strength to the characterizations.

All of this is done well in The Ring of Fire. It begins with a dream sequence featuring Doc and his cousin Pat, in which a traumatic episode of fiery death unfolds before Pat’s dreaming eyes.

Included in the dream sequence are Doc’s death, and the appearance of what is to us a legendary historical figure: Amelia Earhart.

Pat awakens, and goes to Doc to talk about her dream. Practical as ever, he is skeptical that it is more than simply a subconscious expression of Pat’s emotions — it’s explained that Pat and Amelia were actually very close friends (a logical connection, given Pat’s own prowess as an aviatrix).

One creative choice evident in the pages above, is Avallone and Acosta are depicting the characters as dressing normally for the 1930’s, without a hint of superhero costuming. This is something the comics over and over were hesitant to do, but it was a huge breath of fresh air to see in this story — linking it visually to the pulp era and style. The characters all speak realistically as well — another excellent decision, as it avoids the pitfalls of camp or comic book speechmaking tropes.

The story progresses with a call from President Roosevelt, using a prototype videophone — also adeptly presented, with a realistic feel for the 1930’s setting.

Next on the scene are Doc’s five aides, as they prepare to investigate the mystery. Doc also agrees to hunt for the missing Amelia Earhart, with Pat’s gratitude presented in a warm scene that shows how deeply the cousins both respect and care for one another.

Pat, of course, is never to be counted out of an adventure — she muses about her own feelings about Amelia and the dangers facing Doc and the others, and decides to head into the thick of the mystery herself…and the stage is set for what will be a memorable reappearance of John Sunlight.

to be continued…