I had heard about Doc Savage, of course, but I didn’t really know that much about him. I guess I thought it was cool that there were superheroes before there were comic books — well, not a superhero in the strictest sense. Clark Savage Jr. was the result of intense training, not a radioactive spider or a childhood journey from a far-distant planet.
I’m not sure why I decided to give Doc Savage a try that day in 1968 that I found him in the paperback book spinner rack of one of our local stores. The book was called Cold Death, and it was labeled #21 in the series. The cover showed a powerfully built man in a ragged shirt riding on top of a diesel locomotive racing through a crossing. I don’t remember much about the story, but I must have liked it, because I kept buying them.
I collected a bunch of the paperbacks — Bantam Books reprints of the dime novels from the 1930s and ’40s — and let the habit slip. I probably dropped them all in a box and gave them to a used book shop. Then one day at an antique store in Toledo, Ohio, of all places, I found four of them on sale, and my fascination was rekindled.
Under the “house” author name Kenneth Robeson, Lester Dent wrote most of the 189 Doc Savage novels that appeared monthly between March 1933 and 1949, and Bantam Books reprinted them all — they published 96 as single novels, then doubled up for the next 30, running two at a time from #97-98 through #125-126. Finally, they published 13 Doc Savage Omnibuses, printing four or fives stories at a time until they finished the run. Most of the time they appeared in a different order than originally published, although #1 was indeed that first story from March 1933, The Man of Bronze, and the last story in the last Omnibus, Up From Earth’s Center, was in fact the novel that appeared in the final issue of Doc Savage Magazine, dated Summer 1949.
Dent’s prodigious output impressed me 50-odd years ago, and I am as awestruck as ever. I always wanted to try writing a novel a month, but the closest I ever came was when I aimed to write a monthly 10,000-word Mike Phoenix novelette for a year. After those 12 novelettes and about 120,000 words, I was beat, more in awe of Dent’s 50,000-word monthly outputs than ever.
Thousands of writers are trying to write a 50,000-word novel this month, National Novel Writing Month, and a big percentage will fall short. Lester Dent did the equivalent of NaNoWriMo pretty much every month for 17 years. OK, he wrote around 120 to 130 of the 189, but holy smokes.
There in that Toledo shop, I caught the bug again and started searching old book shops and the like for those fantastic adventures. I found them for three or four bucks in antique stores and used book shops — the most amazing find was #91, The Purple Dragon, which a church thrift shop sold for 10 cents. I collected most of those first 96, and then something called eBay was invented, and I started finding the double issues and the Omnibuses.
One day I spent more than I should have to win an eBay auction for Doc Savage Omnibus #11, and all of a sudden after about 10 years, I had them all. And when setting up the new home office this weekend, of course those Doc Savage paperbacks have a special space.
What fuels this urge to collect? I admire that Lester Dent wrote so fast and so much, and I guess I wanted to see it all. And when I realized Bantam had actually reprinted every single issue of Doc Savage Magazine, it was like I had to honor that effort by trying to own a copy of each, and I felt a sense of accomplishment holding that 11th Omnibus. But if you were to ask me, deep down, why I collected all 189 Doc Savage novels, I really have no better response than, “Why not?”