Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Doc Savage - Skull Island

My Rating: See Below

After King Kong's deadly fall from the Empire State Building, Doc and crew are contracted to remove the body, leading Doc to narrate the account of his first encounter with the giant ape.  Many years before Doc was "Doc", he and his father discovered Skull Island and King Kong while searching for his lost grandfather, Stormalong Savage.

In recent years, writer & fan Will Murray has brought Doc Savage & crew back to life in the form of newly released adventures "written in the style of Lester Dent".  I'll get back to that point in a moment because I had some issues with the writing, but first up, HEY, it's Doc Savage meeting King Kong!

It's the most natural pairing of pulp fiction era characters ever, really, given that Doc's headquarters was the Empire State Building's top floor(s), a 30's-style setup that nicely predated the Baxter Building.  The book kicks off just after Kong's death drop, as Doc and his men arrive on the scene.  While Renny coordinates the massive engineering task of removing a giant ape from the street, Doc sadly recognizes Kong from an earlier encounter, and the story segues into the classic "fireside chat" motif as Doc gathers his friends and tells the story of his first encounter with Kong.

Doc wasn't Doc yet, though he'd already picked up the nickname - Instead, we get the adventure of a 20 year old Clark Savage Jr. on an ocean voyage with his domineering father, the man who shaped Doc's entire life by having him raised by scientists.  The two Savages are looking for Doc's grandfather, the amusingly-named Stormalong Savage, who was presumed lost at sea.  In the course of their search, they butt up against a vicious tribe of headhunters, discover Skull Island and Kong, and fight dinosaurs and natives all the way to a blood-curdling climax.

So, that's the plot.  I've been looking forward to this book for some time, ever since reading about it in Famous Monsters magazine, and was delighted when it became available on audio. And overall, it's a win, though there were some elements I wasn't crazy about.  First and foremost would be its prequel status - It isn't really a Doc book, per se, it's more of a "Young James Bond"-style story.  The Fabulous Five are absent except from the wrapping chapters, and Doc isn't quite the character that fans are familiar with.  Young Doc is still the superman, but he's both brasher and more obedient, usually following his father's orders instead of commanding the adventure himself.  He's also a hell of a lot more ruthless about killing, and we get intimations throughout the story of how and why Doc will eventually eschew guns and lethal force, as well as a few excellent moments where key bits of Doc canon are first established.  So, my hopes of reading a full-bore "Doc & the Fabulous Five on Skull Island" story were somewhat disappointed.

There is also the issue of Will Murray's writing style.  In a nutshell, he takes ten pages to tell what Lester Dent could tell in one.  This may be the result of trying to serve a modern audience that's more accustomed to getting character insights and inner turmoil than the original pulp fans, but whatever the case, I thought it was a little unnecessarily long... The first half is a bit of a slog as you travel around the Indian Ocean watching young Doc tinker with his machinegun pistol and get repeatedly shut down by his bossy dad, who is the very archetype of the cold, commanding military father.  Dent, by contrast, would have taken the crew straight to Skull Island, probably in a flaming dirigible that was collapsing under them.

The audiobook is also read in an "old time radio" voice.  This is fun but distracting at times, and becomes a little wearing over the course of the book as EVERYTHING is read as if it was a case of life or death!!  Radio shows were a half hour, so the effect gets a little overwhelming in an eight hour book.  It IS enjoyable and the action scenes are downright terrific, it just gets a bit much after a while.

My final demerit is the role of Kong - He overshadows the island but isn't in the book very much, and his final encounter is disappointing.  The story winds up to a dynamite conclusion that's action from start to finish, but Kong's role is minor where I'd hoped for something more involving (In truth, it reminded me of Bane from Dark Knight Rises - a powerful presence through the first part of the story that fades out by the end).

Despite these caveats, it was still a whale of a good time - Doc gets to try on his Tarzan swings, Doc fights raptors, there are several classic "Doc is more human than human" moments, and a certain explosive rescue scene is easily Indiana Jones' level of awesome.  It's hard to give such mixed reactions one single rating, so I'll split it up:

As a fun adventure book: 7/10  (Action, dinosaurs, headhunters, what more could you ask?)

As an intro to Doc: 3/10 (The personality differences, the lack of experience, the absence of the Five... all these make it a very un-Doc-like Doc story.  The cues and motifs tucked throughout that resonate for longtime fans will be completely overlooked by new readers)

As a Kong story: 5/10 (Good atmosphere but limited use of Kong)

As an audio presentation: 4/10 (The radio-style reading was enjoyable to a point, but just got tiring after a while)

Despite my somewhat-mixed comments, I would still recommend it, as it is an intriguing look into what Doc's younger life was like, what his relationship with his family was like, and for Pete's sake, it's a new Doc Savage novel!  We need more!  Even 80 years later, the Doc Savage creed is still worth living by:

Let me strive every moment of my life, to make myself better and better,
to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it,
with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.