Monday, November 1, 2010

Jim Anthony: Bloated Death

In reviewing the pulp story I have with the character Thunder Jim Wade, I talked a little bit about the Doc Savage clones or wannabes. Jim Anthony is another that falls into that category. He started off wearing his pedigree on his sleeve though in later stories, he became a little more down-to-earth (as much as pulp heroes get), though a bit more the hard-boiled adventurer. Like most of the would-be Doc Savages, he never proved to be the break-out success that Doc was but he managed to last over 25 issues over the space of three years in the pulp Super-Detective (not to be confused with the Ghost's first few pulp issues called The Ghost Super-Detective and published by a different publisher).

I find Jim Anthony to be to Doc Savage much like the Spider is to the Shadow. The obvious parallels are there, but both Anthony and the Spider are infused with a passion that is lacking in their inspirations. Both are more prurient in their approach to men and women and their relationships. Doc and the Shadow acknowledge that men want to date women, Monk and Ham being notorious skirt chasers after all. Still, it's all done chastely. Jim Anthony and the Spider stories recognize the sensuality, the "why" of the chase. Women aren't merely being lookers, but give off heat when sitting close. Passionate kisses and embraces are given and received. In those sensibilities, it's taking a PG aspect of the Street & Smith characters and taking them to PG-13. In this particular novel, it mentions a female character as being flat-chested, a specific description that wouldn't occur in most other books.

This helps differentiate Jim Anthony from Doc. He has Doc's intelligence and ability, but he's also more human though not necessarily more enlightened. While Doc seems to do all his work as charity since he has a steady supply of gold, Jim Anthony has made use of his abilities for his own gain. Like Holmes, he has authored articles on criminology. He holds records in various physical feats such as running the marathon and swimming. He's made countless inventions and one doesn't doubt that he's added to his fortunes over the years through patents and such. He still fights crime and punishes criminals for free, but he doesn't come across as being all that shy about being recognized for his abilities despite his protestations of not understanding why exactly he'd be considered a celebrity.

Another aspect that helps make Jim Anthony interesting is his back story. He's the son of an Irishman and Native-American princess and as such, he embodies both cultures. He's a master of all civilized sciences and modern reasoning (with a bit of the Irish fighting spirit, but that could be just me reading into it). However, he's also a throwback to the more primitive culture and man and their closeness to nature, with the physical body and abilities that allow them to survive where modern man has grown soft. He possesses a sixth sense, an ability attributed to the animal kingdom and primitive man that allowed them to sense when danger is near. In many ways, he's exactly as a reporter compares him in this novel when he decides to go on a camping/hunting trip, Superman crossed with Tarzan.

Also interesting to note, when Bantam started reprinting the Doc Savage adventures, they hired James Bama to do the covers and history was made. While Bama produced a Doc that wasn't actually described in the books, his painting of him with the widow's peak, the torn shirt that displayed a massive physique became the default look of Doc Savage. He looked like a man capable of much that the novels would have him do, a superman. Well, the writers and artist of Jim Anthony seemed to recognize that concept from the beginning. Jim Anthony liked to do much of his adventuring with as few clothes as possible and still not get thrown in jail. This allowed the interior artist to draw illustrations featuring a muscular and burly hero clad in nothing more than his shorts and with a physique rivaling most superheroes. It's a bit surprising that he never made it into comics in the 1940s since he was already visibly designed along those lines unlike Doc, the Phantom Detective, the Avenger, etc. Subtle, he wasn't.

The plot of "Bloated Death" gets the ball rolling when Jim Anthony feels the need to take a vacation, to get away from civilization. The only problem he has is that no one (ie the press and public) seems to understand that he really wants to get back to nature and truly rough it with no more than what he can carry into the wilderness. He has no intention of carrying modern gadgets, staying in a lush cabin with indoor plumbing and staff to wait on him, etc. Among many of the visitors to try to sell him something or get an interview, are a couple offering him a cabin in the Canadian Northwest. They are intent on getting him to go and thus layer their offer with other inducements to spark his interest. The wife leaves a little note intended for him to find telling him to stay away. The photo the husband leaves of the cabin shows on enlargement the image of a couple being hanged in the background. Of course, he plans on investigating (though denying to his friends that he will), just on his own terms.

Originally forbidden to go, Dolores manages to bribe Anthony's grandfather into switching places with her so that she accompanies Jim Anthony to the wilderness. Once there, the two find an Indian tribe that try to kill them in addition to a group of crooks, strangely bloated corpses and a deeper mystery involving a process of transmuting gold to a cold liquid form that allows for easily smuggling and a lost gold mine.

The set-up in such broad strokes reads exactly like a Doc novel. Several involved with either him or one of his men trying to get away for a vacation or in some location on unrelated business or simply people trying to lure Doc somewhere on false pretenses. The Pacific Northwest was also a common-enough theme in several Doc stories. Add in a science-fiction angle/rationale and a savage race/group to contend with as well as the crooks.

The surprise is, it actually reads as well as most Doc novels. The banter and humor between the aides are absent, but then Jim Anthony is more loquacious than Doc. The author's writing has a bit more of a wry humor to it and less situational/slap-stick. The villains are varied and well done, allegiances are unsure at times and the prospect of betrayal lingers just beneath the surface. In fact, I would have liked to have seen them played up a little more, the last couple of chapters beefed up some in that regard.

Taking Jim Anthony into the wilderness without access to gadgets and weapons works really well. The writer not merely tells us that Jim Anthony is capable of fantastic feats, but with each little "factoid" of some fantastic aspect of his past is coupled with him duplicating or exceeding it in the woods. We see Jim making use of his dual nature/culture as he must use woodcraft and his scientific knowledge to bring out and preserve fingerprints without access to his laboratories. The writer shows us Jim Anthony being smart, accruing evidence against the crooks while setting the odds against him. It's the pulp equivalent of crossing Survivor with C.S.I. and it helps to make the story stand out.

Modern readers will probably find the Indian tribe as being offensive and politically incorrect. They are portrayed in a very stereotypical manner. I will warn people to let go of a few of their preconceived notions when it comes to such portrayals though. In some ways, Jim Anthony himself is an example of modern portrayals of Native races, ie that he is better than civilized man because he shares that closeness to nature, he possesses a nobility and purity of spirit and lack of hypocrisy of modern man as well as the physical perfection that comes from being closely tied to nature vs civilization. More importantly, don't confuse today with the past. 1940 was not the same world today as it was then. Many places didn't have indoor plumbing, electricity and remote places were far more prevalent and would indeed come across resembling from something almost a century earlier than compared to large urban areas. It was a completely different culture than now in places. Many people, especially minorities were not educated and with ignorance DOES come superstition. And, if most people that portray natives as "Noble Savages" actually went and lived with them for extended time in that pre-civilized environment, they would probably find that they are indeed more of the latter than the former. Harsh living requires harsh rules and harsh consequences for those that disobey them. It's amazing really just how much the world has changed in the matter of two generations in terms of culture and how we see the world. However, I agree the portrayal here of the tribe is sadly negatively stereotypical which is typical for the time, but it doesn't make the portrayal by default inaccurate or all that far-fetched. What the novel doesn't do is make the crime of literally equating culture to race and making a value judgment based on that circular logic (and thus the superiority or inferiority of the culture is directly linked to whether the race is viewed inferior or superior which is reinforced as being superior and inferior because of their culture). Which is what gives this book its odd dichotomy. It portrays the culture negatively with stereotypes, but Jim Anthony's basic background is one of portraying the race itself in a generally positive light. It never really goes far enough either way to nail it down as being outright racist or groundbreaking. Like it's approach to women, it's a bit more developed and adult, but it's still just as thoroughly unenlightened.

Despite that drawback, it is a great read and reprinted recently so easily available by the folks of Adventure House. Makes me want to hunt down and re-read the other sole reprint of Jim Anthony's I have, one of the later stories titled "Mark of the Spider".

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