Sunday, October 26, 2014

Doc Savage - The Red Skull

In stature, he was a giant, although proportional with such symmetry that only his relation to the size of the door in which he stood showed his bigness. His every line—the metallic tendons of his hands, the columnar cording of his neck—denoted great physical strength. The man had the gigantic muscles of Samson.

Bantam, May 1967, Cover art by James Bama

This giant is, of course, Doc Savage himself! The Red Skull by Lester Dent, under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, was the 6th Doc Savage adventure, published in Doc Savage Magazine in August 1933. In it, Doc Savage and his pals Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny and Long Tom, take face off against a whole lot of skullduggery in the wild desert country of Arizona. It’s through the manic events in New York in the first half of the novel that wind up getting them all there, however. First, Doc Savage and his pals have to deal with assorted dead bodies and kidnappings, thanks to an hombre named Buttons Zortell and the rest of his goons. Buttons Zortell earned his moniker thanks to a pair of button-like scars on both cheeks; souvenirs of a bullet once blasting through his mouth. That’s right, a bullet through the choppers! How’s that for an identifying physical attribute? Also, Buttons and his gang all speak an interesting version of English I’ll call “Goonspeak”. Shakespeare would not be impressed, but your grandparents might.

Like all superhero capers, Doc Savage adventures are only as thrilling as their villains. We all know that Doc always triumphs over evil, so no one reads these wondering how it will all turn out in the end. They read them for the villains. In this outing we’ve got a lot of hooligans (too many!) from the Wild West who deliver each line in a mishmash patois of cowboy-gangster lingo like, “I’m the jasper what’s gonna ventilate your hide unless you spill the beans right quick!” Even Doc himself has to adopt the lingo when disguised as one of the outfit. This tough outfit works under the command of an ornery hombre that goes by the handle of Nick Clipton. Not exactly a name that’s going to put mortal fear on one’s ass, but maybe Lester Dent was running out of menacing monikers to pick from. Regardless, right off the get-go we’re clued in that Nick Clipton is a fake name for the real mastermind behind the dastardly hijinks. Ultimately we learn that only one of three likely candidates is the chief villain: Nate Raff, Richard O’Melia or Ossip Keller. The trouble is, Doc and his pals have all three of these wily tomcats hampering their investigation.

Also tossed into the mix is the gorgeous Lea Aster. Lea is Monk’s personal assistant, secretary and Girl-Friday, rolled up into one. She’s also handy with a high-heeled shoe when it comes to rapping goons on the noggin with it. Unfortunately, Lea also has a habit of getting kidnapped. Still, I liked Lea. I’m a firm believer that the boys need a strong dose of feminine guts and wiles on their side when it comes to taking down evil masterminds. Usually that’s the role that Doc’s cousin, Patricia “Pat” Savage, takes on. I don’t know how often Lea turns up in Doc Savage adventures. For all I know this was Lea Aster’s one shot at glory as this is the only Doc I’ve read with her in it.

Sounds confusing? Well, it sort of is. Events go from an abandoned Native American ruins, to a “subterranean world of red-hot lava,” to a trouble prone dam site. At stake is an “irresistible power that can level mountains!” It’s a pulp adventure that is literally all over the map. But this is why we’re fans of this stuff! It’s wild, wooly and utterly ridiculous. And we like it that way.

Lots of bullets get thrown around in this caper, in addition to fist fights, gas attacks, poisonings, repeated kidnappings of a hot damsel, and…I already said it…skullduggery! In other words, it’s a typical Doc Savage yarn from early from his career. 

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