Who is Doc Savage? The hero of 181 pulp-magazine novels published between 1933 and 1949, reprinted to surprising popularity starting in the early 1960's and continued by Murray and others once those novels ran out in the late 1980's. Trained since childhood to be a physical and mental marvel, Doc fought super-villains and monsters in that pulp series, becoming the second-most popular pulp hero in sales, after The Shadow.
The Man of Bronze supplied the Superman Mythos (through Doc-savvy Superman editor Mort Weisinger and through Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) with a number of attributes:
- Doc's Fortress of Solitude predates Superman's.
- Doc's first name, like Superman's, is Clark -- Clark Savage, Jr.
- Doc, like Superman, has a crime-fighting female cousin.
- If the Man of Bronze, Doc's most famous nickname, led directly to the Man of Steel, well, another Doc nickname -- the Man of Tomorrow -- was appropriated verbatim for Superman.
- One of Siegel and Shuster's early Superman pages describes Superman as "A Genius in Intellect! A Hercules in Strength!", which sounds a lot more like Doc Savage than Superman.
Anyway, Skull Island is both terrific and atypical. The frame narrative concerns Doc returning to New York from his Fortress of Solitude c. 1932, too late to save Kong from his tragic fate. Two of Doc's lieutenants, apish chemist Andrew 'Monk' Mayfair and waspish lawyer 'Ham' Brooks, witnessed some of the final battle shown in the 1933 movie from Doc's heavily armored New York offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. So, front-row seats.
Doc accepts the task of moving Kong's body from its impact site at the base of the Empire State Building and preparing it for transportation back to Kong's home of Skull (Mountain) Island. Once Doc has sent an embalmed Kong on his way in the world's largest burial shroud, to be shepherded back to Skull Island by promoter Carl Denham in the hold of the freighter that fatefully brought Kong to New York, he tells Monk and Ham the story of his first encounter with Kong.
A young Doc Savage sets off on a sea voyage with his generally absent father in 1920, after Doc's return from WWI. Clark Savage, Sr. wants to find his missing father, Doc's grand-father, 'Stormalong' Savage, lost for years somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Battles with head-hunters and pirates come along before the Savages discover Skull Island, hidden within its permanent fog bank. On the island is Stormalong Savage, along with the monsters we saw in the original King Kong and some dinosaurs and perils we didn't see in King Kong. And there is Kong, of course.
Given the chance to tell a story about Doc Savage before he was Doc Savage (if you know what I mean), Murray delves much more into the psychology of the young hero. Clark Savage, Sr. has just been murdered as the first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze, begins. Here, I think Murray does a swell job of fleshing out the relationship (and lack thereof) between the two Savages. Stormalong is also a terrifically fun and poignant figure. So, too, Kong, a threat who becomes an ally to the Savages, possibly because they don't have designs on taking him back to civilization.
Murray gives us some lovely moments, often spiked with graphic violence -- Doc has not yet adopted his 'no killing' policy. Indeed, he wouldn't adopt this until several novels into his career -- the early Doc Savage novels present a fairly murderous Doc.
Skull Island also acts as a welcome antidote to Peter Jackson's ridiculous retconning of King Kong into a really big gorilla. King Kong, faithful to the original novel, is almost completely bipedal and resembles no ape on Earth -- he truly is a rara avis, a different species. This makes sense. In Peter Jackson's world, a tiger would exactly like an over-sized domestic cat and an ostrich a big chicken. Screw you, Peter Jackson.
Anyway, this is a swell Doc Savage novel, somewhat revisionist insofar as we delve into the origins of Doc's psychology (and into the origins of the Doc Savage Oath!). It's fun without being entirely weightless, as good pulp entertainment should be. Highly recommended!