The Art of Doc Savage
by Michael Dean
His adventures were first chronicled in the pages of Doc SavageMagazine in 1933. When that first issue hit the stands, however, it wasn't advance notice or word of mouth that made youngsters hand over a hard-earned dime. It was the cover art.
Covers of the early pulps, much like paperback covers today, were splashy, even somewhat garish, many displaying titillating images of half-clothed beauty queens. But the adventure pulps were a bit different. They promised action, and lots of it.
The cover of Doc Savage #1 shows an image of a bronze giant, clutching at a golden idol and running for his life from Aztec warriors who swarm over a golden temple in the background. This busy painting promised readers much of what they were to get inside the pages, but it did not represent the awesome achievement of who Doc or his fabulous five actually were. In many ways that first cover is just a typical pulp illustration. But that is not surprising. How was the artist to know?
That first cover, and the subsequent ones up until 1936, were painted by Street & Smith house artist, Walter H. Baumhofer. After 1936, the paintings were done by Robert G. Harris, who painted a grimmer, grey-chinned Doc. In 1938, Emory Clarke, probably the best of the lot, took over. He painted action filled covers that were technically proficient and could stand up to almost any paperback artist working today. Clarke created covers for the magazine until 1943. After that a painter of lesser skill, Modest Stein, assumed the job until the magazine folded in 1949.
Art in the days of the pulps was meant to be as disposable and as anonymous as the paintings on billboards or advertisment posters. There were few interior illustrations in those early days, and it is likely that the illustrator was Paul Orban, a member of the Street & Smith stable. It is likely Orban did not actually read the text, but was merely told what to draw by the editor. Doc is a hero, so Orban made him look like a hero; in this case, Doc is clearly based on the features of movie idol, Clark Gable. With later issues of Doc Savage, the interior art improved, and the Man of Bronze took on more of an identity of his own. His features, however, as depicted on the covers, came from matinee star, Gary Cooper.
The illustrations and covers are still wonderful, despite their trashy nature. Garish, yes, they are. Titillating? Yes. But they still manage to communicate the action and excitement of the adventures within. They have a style of painting and drawing that just is not seen today. The faces are 19301s-401s faces. The clothes are gone as well, lost to the past.
Personal tastes aside, the quaint nostalgia is probably the one reason why these illustrations are interesting. Because they are contemperaneous, the genuine article. They are not a revisionist vision of the eraŠthey are the era. They are the works of 19301s artists drawing the people, clothing and paraphenelia that they saw around them. If the art is not of masterpiece quality, it is, at the very least, culturally significant.
In 1940, Street & Smith published their own comic title about Doc Savage. The artwork was done by the S&S illustrators (the earliest issues probably by Paul Orban himself) and the comics followed the same styles as the magazine1s illustrations. Copies of these comic books are extremely rare today.
Toward the end of the 1940's things began to slow down. Doc Savage Magazine reduced its size and then folded altogether in 1949. The comic book followed shortly after. From that time, Doc did not exist in print or in illustration for 15 years. Doc1s adventures were not reprinted until 1964. That was when Bantam Books embarked on their plan to reprint all the Doc Savage canon in paperbacks.
To this end, the publishers hired a relatively unknown Western painter named James Bama to paint the covers for these books. Bama created the image that Doc is most closely identified with. His Doc differed sharply from the images seen on the pulp covers and inside the magazines.
The pulp Doc, though big, was never convincingly muscular. Bama's Doc was bursting with a Mr. Universe physique. The pulps showed Doc with a 19301s haircutŠshort at the back, but long at the front and swept to the side, with a Gary Cooper curl. Bama gave Doc a bizarre crewcut and a freaky widow1s peak. He also began what is now a tradition with Savage artists, the torn shirt and jodhpur pants.
Bama's realistic paintings established so much of what makes Doc recognizable to today1s audience. Doc1s features were based, not on any movie star, but on a craggy-featured actor named Steve Holland. (It is still Holland who models for the paperback covers of the new Savage adventures, painted by Joe DeVito.)
The Bantam paperback reprints proved wildly successful in the 19601s and 1970's. Doc's visibility quotient was on the rise and he found himself back in the comic book pages in 1972 with Marvel Comics' Doc Savage title. Marvel used Bama1s striking version of Doc for the series. These consisted of adaptations of the original novels, usually taking two issues for one book. Although the comic featured Doc and his five aids, and was set in the 1930's, they somehow did not have much of the flavor of the Doc Savage originals. This isn't surprising as the comic book had to conform to Marvel's house standards. The comic felt more like an issue of The Fantastic Four. (Marvel did produce a one-shot issue team-up between Doc and his men and Ben Grim, The Thing.) The comic was not really that popular with readers and was soon cancelled.
In 1975, the novels were optioned by producer, George Pal, of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine fame. Pal successfully made Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, based on the first of the supersagas. Although hampered by a low budget and a campy style, the film did place Doc and his men in the proper time period. The stark image of James Bama's Doc was replaced by the cleaner, more traditional good looks of Ron Ely (TV's Tarzan) to evoke the Doc that was seen in the 1930's. The film still has various 19701s touches. The collars are too wide, and the hair is too long, yet it does retain much of the flavor of the Pulp era.
The film's release prompted Marvel to try again with Doc. The comic publisher released Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, a larger format black & white comic magazine. These featured all new adventures and are in some ways superior to the earlier color adaptations. The Man of Bronze stories take place in a believable 1930's setting and the characters of Doc and his men are intact. Doc is once again based on Bama's paintings, although not quite as harsh. Tony deZuniga's artwork captures all the excitement and flavor of the Doc Savage books, although the stories themselves are not really true Savage stories, but Marvel Comics stories that have co-opted Doc and his companions for their focus. The magazine lasted only eight issues, only slightly longer than the run of the movie.
After the release and subsequent disappearance of the film, Bantam continued to reprint all the adventures up to the last of the magazine run, Up From Earth's Center from 1949. Bama had quit doing covers for the series and had returned to his first love, Western art. Bantam recycled a few Bama covers, before replacing Bama with Fred Pfeiffer, who attempted to copy Bama1s style. Boris Vallejo, reknowned fantasy artist, replaced Pffeifer before being replaced himself by Bob Larkin, who had painted most of the Marvel black & white magazine covers. Larkin finished the rest of the run, completing even more paintings than Bama.
As an interesting sidenote, Bantam was not the only publishing company to reprint the Doc Savage adventures. In 1975, a company from Wisconsen, Golden press, who publish children's books, published six Doc adventures in their young readers1 hardback line, the only hardcover edition of Doc Savage ever printed! The line featured: The Man of Bronze, Death in Silver, The Sargasso Ogre, The Ghost Legion, Quest of Qui and The Secret in the Sky. These small hardcovers (remoniscent of Hardy Boys books) were illustrated by Ben Otero, Ron Villiani and Arnie Kohn. A full color painting graces each cover by Otero and there are a handful of black & white line drawings within. Despite the poor quality of the art, these books are interesting as collector1s pieces and can be found in second hand bookshops.
Eventually the excitement about Doc Savage began to fade, and Bantam could not sell enough copies of the adventures to justify publishing them as they had been. However, Bantam was committed to publishing the entire canon, thus began printing two novels in one volume. The covers for these consisted of two Bob Larkin reproductions side by side in the lower part of the cover, with the Doc Savage masthead above. This, of course, did not allow for a great appreciation of the full power of many of these paintings, some of which were taken from the old Bama stock.
Eventually the sales of the Double novels became sluggish. Near the end of the the original magazine run, when it was reduced in size, the adventures were sliced from 60,000 words to considerably shorter. Bantam took these short novels, which comprised the majority of the unreleased stories, and packaged them in Omnibus editions. There were thirteen of these thick books, each containing four or five adventures. The covers returned to one original picture of Doc. These paintings by Bob Larkin were merely poses of Doc against a colorful background. Larkin might have used Steve Holland for his model, creating his most Bama-like illustrations. Here was the Doc we all knew. The torn shirt, the craggy face, the close-cut hair and the widow1s peak, come back larger than life and ready for action.
Bantam had finished with Doc Savage, reprinting all 181 supersgas plus The Red Spider, a Lester Dent novel never released in magazine form. However, the publishers still felt that there was a market for Doc Savage adventures, and they began to publish the first original Savage stories in forty years. The first to see print was Phillip Jose Farmer1s chronicle of how Doc and his fabulous five met in Escape From Loki. After the Farmer book, Will Murray took over, writing under the Kenneth Robeson byline. Murray expanded unpublished fragments and story outlines left by Dent as well as began stories of his own.
The covers for the new adventures were painted by newcomer, Joe DeVito. DeVito has gone back to using actor Steve Holland for his model and has retained the James Bama hair, physique and costume. Though not really the equal of Bama, DeVito's work contains the excitement that the old Bama covers had.
Doc has undergone a mini-renaissance in the 1990's. After a brief and disastrous run at DC, Millenium took over the comic series. DC had updated Doc and given him a new and less interesting set of comapnion including his son, Chip. Millenium brought Doc back to the 1940's. A licensing company called Grafitti Designs has also begun to release the old James Bama covers as limted prints. (For a catalogue, write: 1140 N. Kraemer Blvd. #B, Anaheim, CA. 92806 1919)These reproductions are beautifully rendered and bring back all the power and excitement of James Bama1s Doc covers. A limited number of these are also signed by the artist. Graphitti has also marketed T-shirts with the Bama images. The first is the original painting of Doc emblazoned with the Doc Savage logo on a black shirt. Limited edition busts of Doc are available from Joe DeVito. It is exquisitely detailed and is striking bronze.
Doc's future looks very rosy right at the moment, which is an enviable thing when you consider how few of the old pulp heroes survived their original magazines. Clearly Doc Savage is still alive in print, and as long as that is the case, he will be alive in the fertile imaginations of artist. Although Bama's Doc is the most widely recognized, there is no one Doc Savage. Hopefully, if Doc1s popularity continues, we will begin to see more of, and a greater variety of the images of, The Man of Bronze.