Friday, June 11, 2010

Doc Savage visits Tulsa

So after mentioning Doc Savage in my last post, I remembered that I had a Doc Savage novel that took place in Oklahoma and dug it up. I believe this was the first Doc Savage book I had ever read.

I don't remember how I first learned of Doc Savage. It may have been Steranko's History of Comics, Volume One (which I wish I still had, but I think it was burned in a fire, along with Volume Two), in which Steranko spends a loooooonnnngg chapter talking about various pulps as influences on the development of the comics superhero.

At any rate, I bought this book at some point. The copyright statement says the Bantam publication date was 1973, so I was probably 11 or 12 when I bought this, and I wonder about it now. As a kid, I deliberately steered clear of stuff that seemed as if it would be too mature, and the back cover illustration of Doc and his Fantastic Five has a swanky 70's feel that puts it right next the Executioner in my memory.

I'm including that scan of the entire book, including the frayed edges, just so you understand how thoroughly used this book is. I've probably read it four or five times. The cover is creased, the pages are yellowed, the ink is fading, and there's a curious dark stain on the first page of Chapter XVIII that I believe is blood (I think I cut myself on a page while reading, but I don't remember). The cover also bears the indentations of something I wrote or drew on another piece of paper using this book as a support, and there are pencil doodles on the first page that I don't remember making. It's not just a book; it a marker of my youth.

The price on the cover is 75 cents, and it's only 138 pages long. Death Wave was obviously written in the wrong time and for the wrong market.

The funny thing is, though I had read the book several times, I couldn't remember much about the story. I remembered the secret of the Derrick Devils (jellylike blobs who supposedly had risen from the center of the earth from a deep-drilled oil well to consume unfortunate oil-field workers), and I remembered one very dramatic moment from the climax, but other than that, the plot was a blur.

Reading it again, I realized why. The plot, such as it is, is a dull string of pointless events. When the woman who brought Doc into the mystery apparently dies early on, it has little impact. Number one, we don't believe it, and number two, it doesn't have any real effect on the story. Doc and his men do not seem to be any more motivated because of her death, nor do they for one second think, "The woman who needed our help is dead. Our job is finished."They go on almost as if nothing has happened.

The mystery has lots of twists, and there are the requisite number of action scenes and narrow escapes, but Doc is such a cool, calculating character that you never doubt he's in control at all times. I mean, I can sort of see why I liked Doc as a kid; I liked heroes who were strong and in control. I didn't read for emotional involvement. I read for thrills and mystery.

But I can also see why I prefer the Spider now. The Spider bursts with action on a scale never seen in Doc's cerebral mysteries, and everything he does burns with melodrama. Every emotion is either agony or rage.

Doc always seems to have a secret plan, and usually it seems as if he's mainly keeping it secret because he finds chilly amusement in watching his aides blunder about without realizing what's really going on. The Doc is a dick. The Spider, on the other hand, also comes up with secret plans, but he mainly keeps them secret because he's paranoid and desperate (with pretty good reason).

And then, of course, there's the final reason I prefer the Spider now, which is that Doc's mysteries always presented a dull, mundane solution to the mystery. Those evil red blobs from the center of the earth? Foam rubber and big liquid-filled balloons, manipulated by wires, while the "victims" were actually dissolved in acid. Like Scooby-Doo with a body count.

The Spider, meanwhile, battled menaces that were just craaaaaaazy! I've already mentioned the explosive distilled from eels. In Death Reign of the Vampire King, it's vampire bats from South America who have been brought to America by blowgun wielding natives who paint the bats' teeth with curare to cause instant death from the bites. In Satan's Murder Machines, it's giant suits of robot armor, Golden Age mecha. It's outrageous nonsense, presented without apology just because it's so cool (and who knew the Rule of Cool applied back in the Depression?).

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