Thursday, July 25, 2013

Doc Savage's oft-misunderstood "Crime College"

Modern readers unanimously find Doc's Crime College pretty creepy and sinister. It's a place where bad guys either get an operation to remove their memories, or are retrained psychologically to hate crime (exactly what the Crime College did wasn't that clear, and the hints varied on the novel). To modern eyes, the Crime College sounds like brainwashing, or a lobotomy, or both. It doesn't exactly help Doc keeps the place a secret.

Doc's Crime College crops up in other places in pop culture, never taken at face value, usually to talk about how disturbing the implications of it are. The B-Mod devices in "Squadron Supreme" were based on it, as was the memory wipe for criminals on Babylon 5. And the Crime College is immortalized in literature thanks to a mention in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

I've always said the Crime College is the single most misunderstood element of the entire Doc Savage canon. It has to be understood in terms of the context it existed. In the 1930s, the Crime College seemed very modern; a humanitarian alternative to prison that emphasized true reform instead of punishment. There was a time when the brain, as an organ, wasn't all that understood and lobotomy seemed like a miracle cure for many disorders. Lobotomy was on the cutting edge (no pun intended), much like how we regard stem cell research today.

The Crime College seems like an extension of the rationalism of the Doc Savage stories, applied to behaviorism and ethics: criminal tendencies aren't due to "evil" or supernatural causes but bad upbringing and problems with the brain as an organ. Modern psychology bears this out: a good portion of violent criminals were abused as children, physically and sexually. This doesn't give them the right to harm innocent people – I'm just saying, it's very possible to create a very reasonable argument violent crime is solvable by psychological treatments. Could anything be more modernist?

What's more, the 1920s and 1930s were defined by the shellshocked attempt to understand the hideous human evil of World War I. The answer, by writers of pulp and horror fiction, was sometimes to say that normal people aren't capable of evil. There were a few stories by August Derleth in the 20s that explained the cause of World War I: an evil subrace of mankind living among us in secret that hated and sought our destruction.

Heck, maybe one of the most famous artists of the early 20th Century, Stanislav Szukalski, claimed that Communism, Facism, WWI and WWII were caused by a subrace of humans that bred with Yeti. He seriously believed this and he was NOT joking. Heck, he devoted a huge chunk of his obvious talent to showing evil people in history kind of look like Yeti if you squint hard enough.

And…c'mon, guys: you really think Doc Savage of all people, Abe Lincoln and Hippocrates in a ripped shirt, would actually lobotomize criminals? It's beyond his moral code. Something like that would make Doc, his world and heroism, look sinister and hypocritical.

I find the view the Crime College is some behavior modification to be untrue. It has to be understood in the context of its age: the belief in rational, compassionate, scientific reform methods that make prison and punitive methods obsolete, and a naïve attempt to understand human evil. I think we have to accept the Crime College at face value and not project suspicion on it..

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Doc Savage Reviews: the 1987-1990 DC Comics

The Doc Savage DC comics could have been a series like the Marvel comics adaptation before it in the 70s, which started off adapting famous Doc novels into comic form, and then told original stories in the same vein.They used this formula just fine with Conan the Barbarian, which started with adaptations and then told original stories.

But instead, under Dennis O'Neil and the Kuberts, DC decided to do something more bizarre and unique: they decided to have Doc and his allies age in real time, and advance the timeline to modern day. It was the exact same idea as John Byrne's Superman/Batman: Generations Elseworlds story, where the two famous heroes started in 1939, aged in real time, found wives, and had children and grandchildren who continued their legacies.

The end result is that Doc Savage acquired a dynamism that was really lacking in the novels, which had a status quo like a sitcom. In the O'Neil/Kubert mini, one of his Five was a traitor. Doc got married (Monk and Ham didn't, but I guess they didn't change that dumb law yet). Doc's grandson fought evil, as did Pat's granddaughter. And most importantly, new characters were added as allies…including a woman.

Not only did Denny decide to advance the timeline, he also decided to make another very surprising creative decision: he wanted to actively question and deal with some of the contradictions in Doc Savage, which the books themselves conspicuously overlooked.

For instance, Doc and his gang were staunch humanitarians, but how could they reconcile that with the fact they got into fights for fun and used heaping helpings of violence to solve their problems? A character of Doc Savage's grandson was added just to ask a pretty pointed question I've sometimes wondered: do Doc and the gang go on adventures out of a desire to help mankind...or because it's fun to beat people up? To his credit, Chip Savage isn’t just a buzzkill drag all the time. The story makes you respect him as a person of principle. He acts as the group conscience, and Doc listens to him and adjusts his strategies accordingly.

And then there was Doc's Crime College. Everyone who reads Doc today universally agrees the idea of a place where bad guys are either operated on to lose their memories, or retrained psychologically to hate crime (exactly what the Crime College did was vague and the hints varied depending on the novel) is pretty creepy and sinister. To modern readers, the Crime College sounds like either brainwashing, or a lobotomy, or both. So, why not do a story that deals with that head on?

And then there was some of the implied attitudes of Doc and the group that would come into conflict with the modern world. For instance, the urge to protect women and keep them out of the group, and getting past national rivalries that were white-hot in Doc and the group's time. To that end, one of Doc's new allies was a Russian, and another  was a woman.

In fact, that's a big problem with Doc's new allies, with the exception of Doc's grandson: they can be entirely encapsulated by single word. Hillbilly. Woman. Russian.

Finally, the book makes mention of the fact that it's kind of creepy how the aides do whatever Doc says and don't think for themselves. This is obviously due to their trust, but it is off-putting, and when confronted with that, Monk has a "blue-screen" moment.

In short, the book tries to be a more low-key version of Watchmen to Doc Savage. It was too "different."

The Doc Savage Family Tree

The decision to make Princess Monja from the Valley of the Vanished secretly Doc's wife was a no-brainer. Everyone seems to do that! It makes sense, though: she was one of the few women to show up more than once. She had a take charge attitude that marked her as different from the usual girl. Besides, it's interesting how PJF's speculations had more impact on the perception of the character than the actual content of the original novels did.

Besides, she kinda reminds people of Dejah Thoris from Barsoom, doesn't she?

This reminds me of nothing quite so much as how, in the 1960s, Superman had a lot of "Imaginary Stories" where he did things like get married, die, or reform Lex Luthor. Eventually, the same scenarios came up over and over to the point Imaginary Stories had a kind of weird counter-canon even the actual stories considered the default trajectory of events. Every Imaginary Story made practically the same assumptions, like Clark Kent would replace Perry White as editor of the Planet after Perry White retires. Rokyn was first mentioned in an Imaginary Story as the place the bottled city of Kandor was enlarged on, before Kandor was enlarged there in "reality."

Doc Savage's son with Monja was a neurotic who couldn't hope to live up to the standards of his legendary father, who ultimately lost his mind because he lived his life in a big shadow, and truthfully, was also a bit of a dick. Okay…does this remind anybody else of Dr. Venture from Venture Bros?

The SF Elements

Here's the first big problem: I don't think O'Neil quite understood a Doc Savage story was not quite the same thing as a Fantastic Four story.

His plots all seemed like they were originally meant for Fantastic Four: Doc Savage finds a crashed UFO (interesting, as Doc debunked UFOs in 1946, when they were called Foo Fighters), with a transporter that sends him away for years. In one story, new character Shoshonna Gold is revealed to be a psychic getting mental emanations from the Moon, where aliens are creating war waves. Doc has to head to the Moon in a rocketship to stop them. Along the way, a robot sentry left by the aliens tries to capture Doc's grandson (could that be more FF?).

That may work for an FF story, which was often about expeditions that find weird alien machines, and the solution is to the problem is figuring out the aliens don't understand humans or the damage they're doing. When the situation is explained, the aliens eventually leave, as they mean us no harm. But Doc Savage was about emphasizing plausibility. There are no real aliens or psychic powers, only mysteries with rational explanations.

The worldview of Doc Savage stories is fundamentally skeptical. Even the more far out things in Doc Savage usually were believable at the time of writing: in the 1930s, a dinosaur island was just at the limit of possibility, and based on sound real, current science about closed off/island ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the one place I would forgive a fantasy element – a cell treatment to keep Doc's gang in fighting trim – turned out to be a fake. This had the unfortunate side effect of leaving the original five mostly non-combatant. After fighting aliens on the moon making wars with mind waves, who dissolved when brought to earth…they pick THIS story to play the skeptic card?

Phase II – The Mike W. Barr Years

Mike W. Barr took over Doc Savage after Denny O'Neil left, which constituted a dramatic lurch in the direction of the series to something more traditional, eventually ending in exclusively "flashback" stories to the 1930s. If O'Neil's take is New Coke, then Mike W. Barr is Coke Classic.

I feel sorry for poor Mike W. Barr. You can tell the guy wanted to write Doc but was saddled with a vision he didn't quite understand. He's an old hero and SF pulp aficionado usually given the job of working on licensed properties. During his work on Green Lantern, he slipped in Lensman references, introducing characters named Arisia and Eddore.

I don't think Barr ever warmed up to O'Neil's unique take, and I can't help but feel he was baffled by the whole thing. First chance he got, Mike W. Barr brought back classic Doc Savage elements. He set a story around the Valley of the Vanished, and in what might be the high point of the comic, had John Sunlight return to life thanks to the formula in Resurrection Day.

John Sunlight's return in #11-14 is easily the best part of this series. It is identical to the only Conan the Barbarian novel written by the original author: "The Hour of the Dragon." It's about a conspiracy bringing a mummy back to life to use as their puppet, but the mummy turns out to be smarter and more manipulative than the people who wanted to use him, and turns the table on them, creating an even more threatening menace than before. It's a downright chilling moment to see the Devil Genghis restored.

Let me go out on a limb here: Mike W. Barr's "flashback" issues set in the 30s might just be the most faithful take on Doc Savage, including the PJF stuff.

Why did nobody like it? 

Well, it didn't help it was introduced to the world by what might be the most misleading house ad ever:

In no sense is this ad true. Doc isn't a detective, he doesn't look different.

Personally, I didn't like these comics when I first read them. It was too different from what I was expecting, which was a more traditional Doc adaptation – something it only became near the end.

People usually read comic adaptations to recapture the enjoyment they had experiencing the original. This was a lot more important back in the day, when there was no VCR and movies infrequently played on television. Comics were how you got a "movie experience" when one wasn't playing. For instance, Bob Hope had a comic book that did well. It made sense to do one around Bob Hope, who had a reliable comic persona (an uncharitable person would say he played the same guy in every movie). The only modern comedian with a similar "brand" would be Adam Sandler. The comics replicated the experience of the usual Bob Hope movie, from his travel to his hound dog womanizing. In short, you read the comic version because you liked what it was based on and wanted to see some more.

That said, I liked it more on rereading it once I got over the experience of it being something totally different. It's like somebody handing you a coke and telling you it's a milkshake.

That said, I don't know if I'd really want to see any more in this timeline. None of the new characters are all that memorable, not Woman, Russian, or Hillbilly. The SF elements were so out of place I expected to see Kirby machines.

Worse, the O'Neil run didn't commit to its ideas, so it wasn't even a good Watchmen-like subversive take. If you're going to explore the morality of the Crime College, make a statement on it, instead of just using it as the backdrop to a thriller plot. That's the trouble with this incarnation of Doc Savage: it was too traditional to be subversive, and too subversive to be traditional. It had an identity crisis. The series toyed with some serious ideas but didn't commit to them. It figured just mentioning them is enough, and you've done your job. Monk is disturbed by the idea he might just be Doc's puppet? Have him change or make a decision about that, don't just have a scene where that's brought up!

The only interesting dynamic was Doc's pacifist son, but that's because he was the one subversive idea O'Neil gave some payoff.


The O'Neil/Kubert tales are a misfire, but it misfires in a very unique way (this is the difference between a failure and a fiasco – a fiasco is failing with style). Recommended, if you're curious, but know what you're in for.

The Mike W. Barr stories come recommended. Especially the John Sunlight arc at #11-14, and the flashback story starting at #19.

Final Thoughts

  • I understand coloring in four color "dot" printing is often imprecise…but why does Doc have the same skin color as Adam Warlock?

  • I take it back, the Russian member of Doc's crew was pretty cool. He was a hairy weirdo, but he was a Doc Savage fanboy that wanted to be just like him. I find it hilarious that, like Rasputin, he's irresistible to women despite not getting a haircut or shaving. 

  • The later drawings, incidentally, come the closest to how I've always visualized the character in my head. 

  • The Air Lord arc starting in #18 is one of the few times Doc fights a true supervillain. Somehow, it feels right. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Characters You Won't See in the Doc Savage Movie

The Four Golden Boys (Funny, Don, Mental, Elmer)

"The Gold Ogre" was a totally weird Doc Savage novel where the main characters weren't Doc and the gang, but four scrappy mystery-solving teenagers clearly meant to be a "permanent" addition...who thankfully, we never heard from again.

Making Doc a guest-star in his own magazine who shows up midway through someone else's story, is exactly the kind of experiment you can do if you have a long lasting series, and one the series should have tried more, very much like that one novel written in the First Person.

The four mystery solving teenagers are basically the James Bond, Jr., Muppet Babies, or Tiny Toon Adventures versions of Doc and the Five, with brawny Don Worth as the Buster Bunny-like teen Doc Savage (Don, not Doc, get it?), "Funny" Tucker is the broadly drawn comic guy not unlike Monk in that he was both funny and fat, Mental, the erudite Johnny of the group who had the dignity and solemn gravitas of the original Doc that muscle boy Don Worth doesn't have, and Elmer Dexter, who had no clear 1:1 analogue in the five, but who had the five's sense of adventure, love of travel and dreamed of polar expeditions.

The four were placed in a mystery that involved murderous circus midgets, yet another Doc Savage mystery that involves killer circus freaks (see also: the Monsters). Basically, it's some high school lunkheads against the Murder Moppets from Venture Brothers.

As you might guess, the four new characters, added to an already crowded Doc Savage universe, were abandoned. They remind me of nobody quite so much as Captain Marvel's Lieutenant Marvels (Fat Marvel, Tall Marvel, and Hillbilly Marvel), a supposed "permanent addition" who lasted for one appearance and were utterly forgotten about afterward.

Side note: anybody who tells you the Super-Pets (except for Krypto), or the Lieutenant Marvels were a "major part" of their respective comics is flat out lying to you. Not honest error, but a deliberate misrepresentation, for the purpose of  making these books sound sillier and more whimsical than they really were. (Ahem, Erik Larsen.) The Super-Pets barely showed up (and, other than Krypto, had exactly zero appearances after 1969). The Lieutenant Marvels only appeared once total in the entire Golden Age, and were only brought back in the 80s because superfan Roy Thomas remembered them.

The four amigos came about in a period in the Street & Smith hero pulps that saw the introduction of several new supporting cast members to once unshakably reliable, glacially unchanging mags. Heck, the cast of Grey's Anatomy changed more times in 7 years than either the Shadow OR Doc Savage did in the same time.

The most successful and enduring introduction in that period of experimentation was the Shadow's girlfriend, Margo Lane, brought into the pulps only a year after the Gold Ogre. Margo Lane might have been the first ever "continuity immigrant," like Harley Quinn: she was originally on the radio show, created because it was believed a male voice wouldn't be enough to contrast against the Shadow.

Notice that not a single one of the Four Golden Boys was a girl, though. Jeez, as if the world of Doc Savage wasn't a big enough sausage fest!

John Thunden from Fear Cay

John Thunden is a hearty 137 year old man who once punched Doc Savage in the face.

Of all the supreme scrappers set up from the get-go as a physical match for Doc Savage (Bruze, aka the Sargasso Ogre comes to mind), John Thunden might be the most unlikely.

The source of his tremendous vigor? He devoted himself to regular exercise and to eating syliphium, a plant that, in the Roman world, was used to treat impotence. Thankfully, we were spared the image of a 137 year old man going to the bone zone. The story leads us to believe that Syliphium might be the source of eternal life, but as this is a Doc Savage story, in the end it turns out Syliphium is just a vitamin rich superfood that kept Dan Thunden vigorous into his old age, and is as much a source of eternal life as yogurt and spinach are.

Giving a supporting cast member tremendous vigor due to the Roman world's equivalent of Viagra was an especially bizarre decision, but I strongly suspect they were silently hoping you didn't look it up for yourself. Doc Savage stories were well researched enough to be believable, but judging by moments like when Doc speaks the "native language" of Trinidad (which is ENGLISH), a lot of these stories work by Stephen Colbert's "truthiness." If something sounds right, it's more important than if it is right.

Also, John Thunden has an attractive daughter (of course he does). Though you'd imagine the daughter of a 137 year old man would be 100+ years old, you'd be wrong.

As awesome as Thunden would be in a feature film, I somehow doubt they'll go in that direction.

Lea Aster

Lea Aster is homely monkey-like chemist Monk's sexy secretary, taken prisoner back in "Land of Terror," and never mentioned ever again.

Monk brags about her as being a "honey," and a "real peach," which I'm guessing is Old Person for smokin'.

It's easy to imagine her leaving Monk's service after Land of Terror. Even if she didn't work for a horny monkeyman trying to play a game of grab-ass, she still is in danger of being attacked by ancient Mayans, archers dressed up in silver, trained panthers, and assorted Thousand-Headed Men.

Of all the characters on this list, I can see Lea Aster showing up in the movies more than the others (though the chances are still remote), simply because she gives the single most interesting of Doc's allies an inner life and a supporting cast independent of being Doc's buddy.

Well…kind of a harass-y inner life, left over from the Mad Men days when Americans still had balls and sexual harassment was rampant, seen as hilarious, and assumed to be built into the fabric of boss-secretary relationships. Just look at every 60s Playboy magazine humor cartoon.

Interestingly, Monk isn't the only hero to have a secretary who gets involved in the action. That would also include the sinister Atlantis-seeking Doc Savage clone Sun Koh, published in Nazi Germany. One of his allies was a badass old lady who had children who died in the Great War, and who kept a loaded machine gun under her desk.

You know, I have to get around to reviewing Land of Terror, because it was full of many attempts to give the aides inner personal lives independent of their work with Doc. The best example would be electronic expert Long Tom's tricked out supercar, which had an electrical antibug field several years before "bug zappers" became widespread. Long Tom always seemed like an interesting guy who was relegated to the background, much like many Star Wars characters who got an action figure: in "The Phantom City," we hear he had a personal museum of electronic gadgets taken from numerous battles.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Doc Savage Reviews: "The Dagger in the Sky" (#82), aka Doc Savage vs. John Galt

"The Dagger in the Sky" eerily predicted the premise of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and argued against it. Seriously, Dagger in the Sky is so shockingly forward thinking in anticipating Libertarian fantasies, I wonder if Lester Dent had access to a time machine.

Who is Doc Savage?

In some ways, Atlas Shrugged and the Doc Savage books are very similar. One is about a unrealistic super-rich hero adored by women with a childishly impractical personal ethos. The other, of course, are the Doc Savage books.

Dagger in the Sky is about scrapper supreme Doc Savage vs. a collection of greedy, callous super rich captains of industry who create a war in order to seize power in a small Latin country. Their ultimate goal is to create their own idealized ultra-capitalist libertarian utopia, free from taxation, labor unions, and government regulation. They choose to do this by exploiting legends of an ancient Inca stone possessed by the evil god Kukulcan, known to create a giant dagger in the sky that heralds a mysterious murder where a person vanishes utterly. Since this is a Doc Savage novel, it's not exactly a shock to say the dagger story isn't related to the Inca god of death, but is actually malarkey that will be debunked down the line.

With Doc Savage's selfless ethos, proto-libertarian types are a natural opponent for him. They respond to his heroism with head-shaking disdain. Most people respond incredulously to Doc's vow to battle evil in these stories; instead of being awed, most people cynically suspect he's too good to be true. This is something people forget when they say Doc was a sterling example of irony-free heroism; he was never any such thing. He was a light in the darkness.

Doc Savage and Atlas Shrugged are both teenage boy fantasies, but Doc Savage is a daydream that's harmless, normal, and wholesome, whereas Atlas Shrugged is damaging to society as a whole because of the belief there's something moral about selfishness, about "opting out." Who the heck doesn't daydream about being big and strong, having cool vehicles, going on crazy globetrotting adventures, and being desired by women? Likewise, it's usual for a teenage boy to go through a phase of development where Ayn Rand really speaks to us: in our immaturity, we think of ourselves as supermen, held back by a faceless orthodoxy designed to prop up the mediocre. No wonder many teenage boys go through an Ayn Rand phase! It's like the formula for coca-cola in teenage male brains: add equal parts distaste for society with rampant egotism.

The incredible and hard to believe thing is that despite the fact Knight in the Sky is a dead-on satire and critique of Atlas Shrugged, the similarities to Atlas Shrugged are entirely unintentional, since Knife in the Sky came first, published in 1939.

"Knife in the Sky" even argues against Atlas Shrugged's basic idea (rules to protect us from the predatory power of the rich hold society back), with the Galtians shown as pretty much what everyone expects them to be: selfish "Mr. Burns" style robber barons longing to create in isolation with their wealth and power a dog-eat-dog world because they want the "freedom" to loot and prey. It's not hard to understand why the Mr. Potters of the world hate regulation and trade unions…for the same reason crooks don't like cops.

Here are the villains laying bare their own scheme to Doc:

“Our motives for doing this, you may or may not know, are – well, they are idealistic…” “Idealistic?”
B.A. Arthur cleared his throat. “The world today is a turbulent, war-ridden place. In no country, no nation on the face of the earth, are property rights unhampered by taxation. I am an American citizen, for instance, and when I die, the United States government plans to take over half my fortune in inheritance taxes – which means they will take some seven hundred million dollars, in spite of all my lawyers can do to the contrary. Granting, of course, their taxation had not made me a pauper before then.”
B.A. Arthur scowled before he continued. “Government meddling – you find it everywhere. Take the New York Stock Exchange, for example – what do you find? Government regulation everywhere you turn. The banks? Deposit insurance – eating up the banker’s legitimate profit. Utilities? Government competition forcing rates down until return on capital is cut to a measly seven or eight percent.”
Doc Savage looked around the table and said, “The point is that you fellows – you very wealthy men – don’t like the way the world is today. That it?”
“And you propose?”
“To take over the mountainous portion of Cristobal – a perfect place to live, if ever there was one on the face of this earth….”
“And then?”
“We will create a sanctuary for wealth,” B.A. Arthur said grimly. “There will be no income tax, no inheritance tax, no tax on any business enterprise of any size. There will be no regulations. Operating from such a country, we will soon make it the financial
center of the world.”
“What about the natives of Cristobal?”
“Oh, them? They will be shown their place.” B.A. Arthur suddenly pounded the table. “There will be none of this damned rights-of-labor stuff! No unions. The first time the fools go on strike, we’ll have them shot down. That’ll teach them!”
Doc Savage remained emotionless, asked, “And where do I come in?”
“We need brains. We might hire yours.”
“What makes you think I would work for you?”
“You’re one of those idiots who spends his time trying to make a better world, aren’t you? Well, we’re offering you the chance of your lifetime.”
Doc Savage shook his head.
“You won’t do it?” B.A. Arthur exploded. “But we’ve kept your friends alive solely in hopes of getting your good will in the end.”
“And why not, you idiot?”
Doc said, with no noticeable excitement in his voice, “This whole setup is rather hideous. It’s selfish and ugly. It is simply a case of rich men – men more wealthy than anyone has a right to be – trying to keep their money and get more.”

(Great example of Doc's almost Vulcan self-control and emotionlessness, incidentally.)

The ending of the story gives the captured Galtians an extra-ironic fate. Since it's possible for men of their wealth to escape regular trial, they're sent to Doc's "Crime College" to be retrained to be philanthropists and use their wealth for good deeds. Poetic justice...and a fate worse than death for any Randroid!

Maybe because Doc Savage started off as a medical doctor with a Hippocratic Oath, and also because he was the first hero with a humanitarian code against killing (one Superman borrowed, just like he borrowed the first name Clark and an arctic Fortress of Solitude),  it shouldn't surprise us Dr. Clark Savage, Jr. had a more expansive, humanitarian view of his heroic mission than a lot of other heroes who exclusively focus on justice like the Shadow. Doc Savage was more about charity, and it's easy to think of him as a "bleedin' heart" type, especially in contrast to pulp peers like the scarily implacable Spider.

Even though Ayn Rand hadn't started writing that famous novel, the idea for it was probably around, in the ether. Just like the fact Edgar Rice Burroughs' critique of Communism in "A Princess of Mars" came five years before the Russian Revolution shouldn't surprise us. The ideas that gave rise to both Galt's Gulch and Soviet Russia were widely talked about. It shouldn't surprise us at all, actually. What should surprise us is that Atlas Shrugged fantasies are still read and talked about despite the fact Doc Savage brought up really obvious arguments against it before the book was even written!

I try not to discuss politics, but if a work is political, you have to discuss politics. It reminds me of a weird conversation about the John Carter of Mars books where I was told not to bring religion into it. Bring religion into Barsoom? Are you kidding? As if that was something I had to add! These stories are defined by the conflict against not one, but two races of false gods, where, over and over, any religion turns out to be a scam that's laughable when revealed, and any priest turns out to be a cynical con-artist. This isn't "interjecting religion into the discussion." This is talking about what's there. If you want to talk about attitudes toward religion in Burroughs' Gods of Mars…just give an accurate summary of the plot!

Other than the startling indictment of what today we call Randianism, the story has one other thing going for it: this story sets out to disprove, possibly in response to letters page critiques, that Doc was way too remote. In a rare moment, we get access to Doc's private thoughts and we learn he's terrified of becoming an emotionless machine. "The scientists who trained him were afraid of him losing his human qualities. When a man's life is fantastic, he must guard against his own personality becoming strange." Good advice, a shame Michael Jackson never listened to it. Doc attempts to get a vacation to connect with the average male. He even tries...eating food that doctors say is bad for you!

At one point, Doc even finds himself captured…because he was distracted thinking about a beautiful girl, showing that he avoids women not because he is inhumanly cold but because he actually means it with that "concern for a woman's safety in his line of work" spiel.

This story takes pains to emphasize that the Republic of Cristobal and Hispaniola are a fictional stand ins for real countries, and that the real formula that could be used for evil had to be redacted from the text. It's thanks to details like this that the perception came among fans that the Doc Savage stories were just reporting on real events with names changed, an idea PJF in particular ran with to make his Doc Savage: an Apocryphal Life.

Weird Doc Savage Skill:

During a stopover in Trinidad, Doc stops a black porter and "speaks to him in his native language." What a feat of linguistic polyglot prowess that is! Even more impressive when you consider the official language of Trinidad and Tobago is…English!

Weird/Hilarious Sign This Was Written in the 1930s: 

"Aërial" is spelled with umlauts every time.

In response to hearing about the Cristobal/Hispaniola conflict, Monk says, "I thought all the wars were in Europe and Asia." Are they ever. There's a reference to how it's illegal for studiously neutral Americans to ship arms to warring countries except via "cash and carry."

As always, what dates this story in time is what it doesn't mention. The fact Europe is in a horrific, inevitable war is something this story tiptoes around very conspicuously. Much like how Jane Austen's novels were set during the Napoleonic wars, and were so terrified of the French war machine, the novels avoid mentioning the growing Second World War to the point it becomes delusionally pathological.

Gadget of the Day:

Criminals respond with awe when the Hidalgo Trading Company's doors open automatically in response to Doc's car. "Radio controlled doors!" They say. This must have really blown people's minds in a world without garage door openers.

Doc Savage's flashlights are said to be crank-wound instead of battery powered. Again, impressive for 1939, but I personally have a crank powered radio and flashlight in event of hurricanes, and I don't even fight evil.

Doc and the gang have short-wave radios inside their cars. This is the first time the five's private vehicles were mentioned since Long Tom's car in "Land of Fear."

Debunk of the Day (Spoilers):

Would I really shock you if I said the gigantic dagger shadow that appears in the sky isn't actually the work of an evil Incan death god, but is actually just a four-way dark smoke flare blasted into the sky? If I did shock you, congratulations on finishing your first-ever Doc Savage novel!

The mysterious disappearing black daggers were used as murder weapons, but were of a chemical that dissolves in air over time. 

Finally, there was no Inca artifact or black rock at all; it was just a scheme by the Galt's Gulch gang to rattle the Indian-descended natives into revolt in order to seize power.

Things to Ponder: 

  • One of the chapter titles of this book made me giggle: "The Queer Navy." 
  • Of all the Docs I've read before 1944, this is more like a traditional mystery and less filled with action and fistfights, possibly a prototype for the detective thrillers Doc would have after 1944. 
  • At the beginning of the book, the proto-libertarian crooks sneer at Doc's car for being an unimpressive little jalopy (at least on the outside). Goes to show an important characteristic of Doc lost in the showy, visual-obsessed comic and film adaptations: Doc emphasizes not attracting attention.
  • Doc Savage definitely got more polished as it went on, and 1939 might just have been the high point. It's weird to read a rough early Doc novel and then read a later one. In the early issues, Doc is more likely to show emotions, and calls his allies "brothers" and "you birds."
  • The story tells us Monk's reading of the newspaper only gets as far as the comics page. It's that kind of detail that makes Monk far and away my favorite of the aides: he's like a big kid.