Monday, August 25, 2014

Apocalypse Aborted: Philip José Farmer's Literary Plea



Dynamite’s Doc Savage #8 is now out, completing the series. I have blogged about this twice before; rather than reiterating those remarks, let me just say that the story’s ending offers no further introspection into the ideology of its protagonist, who vows “to abide by the court’s decisions” in the wake of certain scandalous revelations concerning his methods, and merely sets the stage for new stories set in the twenty-first century present. Update accomplished. Since most mainstream comics over the past generation or more seem afflicted with an emphasis on continuity over storytelling, resulting in mere dry tabulations of events rather than full-blooded storytelling, it would have been a false hope to expect an adaptation of this venerable property to buck the trend. Still, as the inspiration of such diverse and durable pop culture franchises as Superman and James Bond, I was rooting for Doc. But my basic judgment stands: this was an ambitious project that would have been better treated as a prose text, and a creditable first outing for newcomer artist Bilquis Evely, who was confronted with the arduous task of reconciling the Baumhofer and Bama versions of Doc while evoking nearly a century of eras from World War II to the present. But the Dynamite Doc reads more like a dry run for a movie bid and a slightly plodding exercise in revamping. One only hopes that a collection of this series into a graphic novel package will allow author Chris Roberson to add some textual background for the reader to flesh out some of the conceptual material he had in mind.

If this series will be remembered for anything, I suspect it will largely be for its enshrinement of certain concepts belonging to Philip José Farmer into the official Savage canon. For, what is not extrapolated from Lester Dent’s original pulp series is derived almost entirely from Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and Farmer’s other original Savage adventures. These texts are mined for such concepts as Doc’s alleged immortality serum, which accounts for Doc not aging past fifty and Pat Savage aging more slowly, as Monk, Ham, and the other Fabulous Five grow old and fade away; and for the ethical qualms, such as they are, over the Crime College and other practices deployed by Doc. It is unfortunate that Farmer’s distillation of the pulp ethos, “to tell a rattling good story,” was not equally taken to heart, nor his speculation that the only suitable mates for cousins Doc and Pat were each other (Farmer also points out incestuous themes in the later Lensman novels of E.E. Smith, although I never made it that far with the other Doc). But the latter probably was not possible under the constraints of a licensing agreement.

But unfortunately, Farmer’s influence on most comics and fiction fans has always been his penchant for arcane continuity (in line with industry obsessions) more than his ribald sense of humor. Farmer’s followers have always taken his “fabulous family tree of Doc Savage,” which they have dubbed the “Wold-Newton Universe,” far more seriously and reverently than Farmer himself. To be sure, Farmer’s schematization, not only of Doc’s 181 “supersagas,” but a vast wealth of popular literature besides (including most of the oeuvre of Edgar Rice Burroughs among others) is done with a great deal of affection if not obsession and, as Win Scott Eckert points out, without the benefit of spreadsheet or database technology. The interrelation of adventure characters such as Doc Savage, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and myriad others has inspired such projects as Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman (and will no doubt subtend Dynamite’s Doc Savage team-up with the Shadow and The Avenger). Indeed, Farmer’s penchant for tying everything together neatly has contributed not only to the comic book industry’s mania for continuity, but extended to TV and movie franchises as well, becoming a general cultural obsession.

Farmer, not as talented a writer as Burroughs or even Dent, was at least clever enough to realize if he made the sexual drives underlying the pulps more explicit in the manner of writers such as Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and Norman Mailer, among others, he could unleash more of the sublimated energy of the genre. Farmer succeeded, not only with the intentionally perverse and satirical Doc Caliban series (most notably in the homoerotic A Feast Unknown), but eventually striking gold with his best-selling Riverworld series, which for a brief moment in the late 1970s dominated the fledging paperback bookstore market (it was said that the backbone of chains like B. Dalton and Little Professor, forerunners to juggernauts Borders and Barnes and Noble, was paperback science fiction, primarily Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and James Blish’s workmanlike adaptations of the original Star Trek TV series).

The cover of The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988), featuring Doc, Pat, Ham and Monk (or their parodic approximations). © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

While I confess an early fascination with Farmer’s Savage family tree, which has played a role in my own work (most notably Bizarre Heroes in the 1990s), I have always valued Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life primarily for reasons other than those valued by the Wold-Newtonians. Having read some fifteen or twenty of the Bantam reprints by 1975, I was at first perplexed by that white-covered Bantam paperback, purporting to tell the true “life story” of this purportedly fictional adventure character. It was probably an overcast, wintry day in suburban Detroit when I purchased this odd little book, but to paraphrase Farmer, I will always remember it as a golden afternoon. I have read parts of His Apocalyptic Life too many times to recall, particularly its opening chapters.

Megaton Man visits his Fortitude of Solemness, where he meets Philip José, the kindly caretaker. Spread of pp. 2-3, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

Farmer begins Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life with a mixture of nostalgic sentiment, provocative literary polemic, and a discursus on the apocalyptic aspect of the Savage supersagas, all of which are quite moving. Apart from the emotional recollections of his youthful readings, and the terse litany of plotlines paraphrased from the adventures themselves, Farmer has a serious point to make on behalf of the “ungreat literature” of the pulps. Following a long harangue against academic snobbery, Farmer concludes, “I am convinced that poplit, despite its massive flaws, is worth a serious study.”

However, Farmer declines to develop this argument any further, sensing perhaps that a literary defense of the pulps is perhaps unsustainable, least of all by him—he would have had to have read more Joseph Campbell than Sigmund Freud. Instead, in the very next sentence he intimates his personal uncovering of several “biographies of so-called fictional characters,” introducing the fanciful idea that pulp literature is based on factual accounts of the exploits of living persons. At first, this seems almost a perverse throw-away joke, but it will soon emerge as a dominant theme for much of the remainder of the book. This is sad, because Farmer’s critical plea is serious and heartfelt, and worth far greater development. But Farmer gives up, as if to say that the only way to take the pulps seriously is to literally pretend that they are real, to double down on the credulity of childhood.

It is worth quoting passages at length to examine how Farmer presents, and then aborts, his argument. Farmer begins the book with a moving recollection of his youth and the magazine rack of pulp imagination awaiting him at Smitty’s drugstore. “It was truly a vessel for me,” he recalled,


one which I boarded for many a fabulous voyage down the Mississippi of a boy’s mind. […] It was here that I dipped my line into the waters and brought up the fabulous Argosy magazine once a week. […] Those were golden days. At least, they had their golden moments, and these are what I’ve treasured up in my memory.

After a stint in the service and college on the G.I. Bill, Farmer developes more grown up tastes in literature. “In my young manhood and beginning of middle age, between 1949 and October 1964, I rarely thought of Doc Savage. Such childish things were behind me.” Instead he read a litany of serious authors and critics, until “Bantam Books resurrected the buried fifteen-year-old” with the reprinting of the Doc Savage series. 

 I was just beginning to turn back to the “classics” of my childhood and the pop lit of my youth. And as the Bantams came out, starting with The Man of Bronze, I re-experienced the delights of my juvenile days. This nostalgic joy was tempered by a recognition of literary faults which I’d not noticed during the original readings. However, by then I had gotten over my snobbishness. I knew that much of the “great” literature of the world had, along with the great virtues that made them classics, great flaws.  Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Melville, and Twain are splendid examples of this. Examples in poetry are Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake.

Farmer continues,

There is a fifteen-year-old in my brain, and he loves Doc. There is also a seven-year-old who still loves Billy Whiskers, a nine-year-old who still loves Oz and the heroes of ancient Troy and Achaea, a ten-year-old who still loves John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Rudolf Rassendyll, King Arthur, Og, Son of Fire, Umslopogaas and Galazl, the Ancient Mariner, Captain Nemo, Captain Gulliver, Tom Sawyer, Hiawatha, Jim Hawkins, and Sherlock Holmes.

It is then that Farmer proceeds into his most forceful polemic.

The “ungreat” literature, the poplit (mystery, romance, adventure, gothic) was put down or ignored by most of the literary critics (and, hence, the intellectuals) on the grounds that they had no merit whatsoever. This is just not so, and perception of this has begun to filter into the academic community. […] There are elements in poplit other than just entertainment. […] It was Jung who pointed out that there was more to be learned about the archetypes and symbols of the unconscious from H. Rider Haggard than from any hundred of self-consciously psychological artistes. And Henry Miller seconds this.

Just so, there is much to be learned from the works of the poplit writers, past and present. And the reader, even the Ph.D., can enjoy himself, if he puts himself into the proper frame of approach. First, he has to be able to enjoy the art of telling a rattling good story. Second, on rereading, he has to be able to abstract the elements that make them psychologically valuable. This requires a somewhat schizophrenic mind, but most scholars have this. Third, he has to be able to fuse one and two if he is going to emerge with the pearl of great price from the depths.

Why is it that A. Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, mere romance adventure writers, are so vastly read today, while hundreds of their contemporary colleagues, so lauded by the critics, have dropped into oblivion? Why is it that these two, along with Haggard, will continue to attract larger and larger audiences, while so many so highly praised today will be forgotten? What are the ingredients of their appeal? Why is it that Burroughs, for one, has had a larger readership, and far more influence on literature, than has Henry James, a hyperconscious “psychological” writer?  This latter statement will drive the literati far up the wall (where they should stay), but an objective study would confirm it. This judgment, by the way, comes from Robert Bloch, a mystery-horror writer, author of Psycho, and a keen literary critic. He is widely read, knows the classic psychologists well, but brings up his stories from his personal psyche, which has an umbilical attached firmly to the collective unconscious.

Whether my argument is valid or not, I am convinced that poplit, despite its massive flaws, is worth a serious study.

It is at this point that Farmer’s polemic takes an abrupt nosedive. From this point forward, the conceit that the Savage supersagas are real, and the “family tree” theme, will progressively take over the book, filling two entire addenda. In the meantime Farmer will compellingly compare Dent, the “revelator from Missouri, to Henry Miller, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and William S. Burroughs, and rattle off a breathtaking synopsis of the supersagas in support of his contention that they are apocalyptic literature. But he will no longer argue for the literary merit of poplit in literary-critical terms.

Philip José recounts the fabulous exploits (and fucked up sexuality) of Doc, Patsy, and his sidekicks. Spread of pp. 4-5, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

This is disturbing, among other reasons, for what it implies about the creative literary impulse itself. For, in order to take the Wold-Newton concept seriously, we have to posit a world in which mainstream journalism and publishing completely ignore the world-saving exploits of adventure characters, who nonetheless grant permission to pulp and adventure publishers to chronicle their exploits in rushed and sloppy hackwork. Lester Dent, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other fabulist writers are reduced to mere reporters of actual facts. Indeed, whenever Farmer comes across a moment in the Doc Savage mythos which is either too absurd or irreconcilable with the continuity he is establishing, he consistently chalks it up to writers relying on their feeble imaginations to fill in gaps in the factual account. Of one Savage installment he finds particularly implausible, Farmer asserts,

the ridiculous and badly written Yellow Cloud read[s] as if plotted and typed in one day and sent out by midnight messenger directly to a drunken printer with literary aspirations.

In other words, the best pulp writing is when the writer sticks to the facts, and the worst is when the writer is just making stuff upcertainly a paradoxical way to praise the literary merits of creative material.

Philip José lays out the fabulous family tree of Megaton Man. Spread of pp. 6-7, from The Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988) © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

Perhaps the popularity of the Wold-Newton Universe, and the mania for continuity in comics and other popular media that has gripped our culture at large, is indicative of some innate self-loathing expressed by Farmer in His Apocalyptic Life. In any case, it would be preferable if creative artists and writers were to keep in mind Farmer’s visionary if not apocalyptic postulations, and embrace the sheer love of “the art of telling a rattling good story.”

Quotations are excerpted without permission from Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (Bantam, 1975), from Chapter 1 and 2, “The Fourfold Vision,” and “Lester Dent, the Revelator from Missourri,” pp. 1-25. A “Definitive Edition,” edited by Win Scott Eckert, complete with a heavily “Wold-Newtonian” introduction, was published in 2013 by Altus Press; the ebook version was consulted in preparation for this post. © 1973, 2013 by the Philip J. Farmer Family Trust. All rights reserved. Images from The Return of Megaton Man #2 are © Don Simpson 1988, all rights reserved.

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