Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part III: Phantom Lagoon, a Doc Savage Adventure

All right, we have already written about Doc Savage in these pages.  Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr., the Man of Bronze, made his debut in pulp magazines in March, 1933 (around the same time that King Kong made his first appearance).  Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith, and Doc was created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, but most of the 181 novels were written by wordsmith Lester Dent (1904-1959).

Doc Savage was a surgeon, explorer, scientist, researcher, criminologist and all-around physical marvel.  He did two hours of intense exercise every day, giving him a fabulous physique.  His body had been tanned a deep bronze during his world travels, and newspapers have dubbed him The Man of Bronze.  His adventures spanned the globe: often starting in his laboratory offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, and usually ending up anywhere from the Gobi Desert to the Sargasso Sea.  He was accompanied by five fellow-adventurers, the Fabulous Five – the finest minds ever assembled in one group.  Sometimes, his beautiful cousin Pat Savage would tag along, creating no-end of problems for Doc.

The end of the pulp magazine industry might have meant the end of Doc (his magazine stopped in 1949), but the Nostalgia Boom of the 1960s saw his adventures reprinted in paperback editions, and he found a whole new legion of fans.  The entire Doc corpus was reprinted, reawakening interest and bringing the character to comic books and a series of new novels, written by novelist Will Murray. 

I recently picked up one of Murray’s new Doc Savage adventures, Phantom Lagoon, and it’s a pip.  Set in 1939, and based on notes by Dent himself, Phantom Lagoon concerns Hornetta Hale, aviatrix and world explorer who comes to Doc’s 86th floor HQ looking to hire him, or at least rent his submarine.  Doc and two of his aides, Monk and Ham, send her away as a glory-hound.

Next thing you know, Doc’s HQ is demolished, his hidden hanger of aircraft, boats and submersibles is burned to the ground, and Doc and the boys are on another harrowing adventure – this time, concerning a possible race of underwater men, a sword-cane carrying Nazi, FDR and a volcanic crater.  If you can resist a mix like that, you’re a better man than I, Gunga-Din.

It was actually Phantom Lagoon that started me thinking on the consolations of junk art, and the columns for this week.  Initially, I was going to quote passages from the book here, but, honestly, there is no prose anywhere in the novel worth quoting.  Yes – it’s filled with snappy banter and delicious period phrases, but seekers of beautiful prose must go elsewhere.

Nor did I learn anything about Doc (or Monk or Ham), New York in the 1930s, the then-state of world exploration, or even the Nazi menace while reading Phantom Lagoon.  And, odds are, in just a few scant weeks, the vast majority of the novel will have been sponged from the wet-and-wooly lump of gray matter I call my brain.

But why, then, is Phantom Lagoon art, even if art of a low type?  Because … reading the book rejuvenated my sense of fun and playfulness at a moment that I needed that boost.  Spending a couple of hours with Doc gave me the feeling that the world was still a wide, rich and romantic place, and that there were adventures to be had by the adventurous.  That life, if played correctly, is still a game and that it is possible to be young at heart forever.

It is a book told with zest and esprit, a sense of fun and light-heartedness.  For a few hours, at least, I was on a volcanic Caribbean isle with Doc, fighting Nazis and plunging the mystery of undersea men.  I was, in short … happy.

Look – there is nothing of high mark in this at all.  The characterization is flat or by rote, the writing merely serviceable, the adventure predictable.  But it did the job – and more so.  And that is my point, entirely.  At a moment when I was a little tired and perhaps a little blue, Doc (once again!) came to the rescue. 

It may not be art, but it may just be a benediction.

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