Monday, August 11, 2008

"Doc Savage, Man of Bronze" by John Amos

I figured they had put me in the dumb class by accident. I was in the sixth grade, and all the smart, cool kids were down in the other wing of the building as part of some new-fangled “team teaching” experiment. Somehow I got stuck in a traditional classroom with none of my friends. It proved to be a lonesome year, redeemed only by my discovery of Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.

Once a week my English teacher allowed us free time to read whatever we wanted. I’m sure she hoped I would choose quality classics or the kind of Newberry Award winners she was always reading aloud to us. However, after I found Doc Savage, nothing else could compare.

Doc was part Superman, part Tarzan, and part Sherlock Holmes. He fought evil in the shadowy underworld of big city criminals. To a boy, how could literary merit compete with the dark seediness of a Doc Savage adventure? It couldn’t.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these novels had first appeared in the 1930’s and were classics of pulp fiction: dime novels printed on cheap pulp paper with eye-popping covers. The classic pulps included such long-running magazines as “Amazing Stories,” “The Shadow,” “Captain Future,” and, of course, “Doc Savage.”

Just a glance at their lurid covers (with one-eyed aliens attacking scantily clad, buxom beauties; and bulbous spaceships disgorging giant spiders onto our unsuspecting Earth) let you know that pulps were the cream of lowbrow literature.

In the late 1960’s, just as I was hitting middle school, someone got the idea to update the Doc Savage books. The stories themselves, I think, remained as they had first appeared in the 30’s; but the covers were modernized, adopting a sort of James Bond-as-Rambo look. The “new” Doc wore a sleeveless safari vest with a cartridge belt full of ammunition slung across his chest. He stared coolly out at the reader, his massive arms crossed Schwarzenegger-style, an automatic weapon hanging at his side.

The stories inside didn’t really match the covers, but so what? Anybody who’s ever read the teaser on the front of a comic book knows that covers are designed merely to catch the reader’s interest. The updated Doc Savage certainly caught mine.

So, I spent all my free reading time on titles like “The Green Eagle,” “The Mindless Monsters,” and “Cold Death.”

I will always be grateful to Mrs. Burnett for letting me read these cheesy things. Even back then, I must have realized that Doc Savage books bordered on the illicit. Many teachers would have strongly discouraged kids from reading such stuff at school. Many would have tagged these books as “trash” or banned them outright. But this most traditional of teachers, this gray-haired minister’s wife who tolerated no nonsense, turned a blind eye and let me keep on reading.

She was one wise woman, and she understood boys. Pretty soon, she began to pass along copies of things she liked (and things she thought would be good for me). I especially remember "Up A Road Slowly" and "Light in the Forest," quality teen lit with strong moral messages. I read them and liked them, but I would never even have cracked their covers had she tried to squash my interest in the Man of Bronze.

A Washington Post article recently argued that young boys resist reading because books of heroic action have gradually been nudged out of the curriculum. Biographies, war stories and adventures on the high seas have been replaced with things like Sarah Plain and Tall and Julie of the Wolves. These are perfectly good books, but (at the risk of sounding sexist) they ain’t no Doc Savage. I don’t blame boys for not wanting to read them.

In reality, however, it’s not just boys that don’t read anymore; it’s people in general. Reading today is under siege from a pervasive, insidious video culture. Kids and adults alike satisfy their craving for action stories not with books, but with images from television, movies, and electronic games. Who wants to expend effort reading about heroes fighting villains when, with a few clicks on the computer, you can actually be the hero who defeats the villain?

Like Doc Savage himself, I sometimes feel as if I’m up against the amassed forces of evil. I keep hoping that, like Doc, I can win this battle. But as of now, it looks pretty grim. The bad guys are winning.

- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos, reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"

Day 58 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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