Will Murray has long been a journalist for Starlog and other publications, but he’s best known as one of the great pulp historians. Murray’s been involved with the recent reprints of Doc Savage, The Shadow and other characters. A few years ago, Murray had two major books published, Writings in Bronze, which collected a lot of his writings about Doc Savage and Lester Dent, and Wordslingers, a book about the pulp Westerns, and more broadly, about what the Western genre was and continues to mean.
All along, Murray has also been writing fiction, something that he’s spent more time and energy on in recent years. Besides writing multiple Doc Savage novels under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, Murray has written a Pat Savage novel, crossovers between Doc Savage and The Shadow, and books featuring The Spider, Tarzan and King Kong. Murray has also written a number of comics over the years, including co-creating one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters with legendary artist Steve Ditko – Squirrel Girl.
I spoke with Murray about his current projects, including John Carter and The Spider, his continuing love of pulp fiction and writing Squirrel Girl again.
I know that you were a fan and you were writing and publishing a fanzine, Duende, but how did you go from that to being a professional writer and novelist?
This was an evolution. I made my mark as a Doc Savage expert in fanzines. My research led to making connections at Conde Nast and then Bantam Books, when they were re-printing Doc Savage. I think my first professional sale was my afterword to The Red Spider––the lost Doc Savage novel I helped discover. My professional career began snowballing when I started writing for Starlog magazine on one hand and ghosting The Destroyer paperback series on the other, back in the early 1980s.
In recent years you’ve returned to writing Doc Savage novels. Why did you stop for so long and what made you interested in writing more?
It’s very simple. When Bantam Books shut down their Doc Savage program in 1993, I had a number of Docs started. I was determined to finish them. We published the first Wild Adventures of Doc Savage in 2011. So it was almost 20 years before I could restart the series. In between, I never stopped being interested in Doc Savage. I finished all my books and them came up with new ones.
What do you still enjoy about the character all these years later after writing so many books and writing so much about the character?
It’s hard to put it to words. I discovered Doc when I was 15. I love the character. I love the way Lester Dent wrote his adventures––and I’m not alone. Doc Savage sold in the millions of copies in the 1960s and 70s when Bantam was reprinting the series. I think I write Doc Savage because I ran out of Doc novels to read. Had Dent written more of them, I might not of written any!
You’ve also been writing Tarzan and King Kong books. How did that happen and what made you interested in tackling them?
It started with King Kong. I wanted to do something special for Doc’s 80th anniversary in 2013. My cover artist, Joe DeVito, had a connection with the Merian C. Cooper estate. Joe said, I can get you the rights. So were put together a deal that became Skull Island, which was very successful. We talked about doing some kind of a sequel, but it wasn’t until I got the rights to Tarzan did I envision a sequel I thought was worth writing. That was King Kong vs. Tarzan. I’m very proud of that book. It’s like a lost piece of the 1933 King Kong story.
Recently you’ve written Doc/Shadow crossovers, had King Kong meet both Tarzan and Doc. What is the challenge of writing characters like this meeting up?
The first thing you have to decide is: Whose story is it? Put another way: In whose world does the story take place? Most characters are not completely compatible, so you have to decide these things and then stick to one tone––the tone of the series you’re using as your setting. For example, The Sinister Shadow is a Doc Savage novel, but set in the gritty world of The Shadow. Doc is filtered slightly to fit this grim setting. The sequel, Empire of Doom, is a Doc Savage novel in which The Shadow is a major player. They are very different from one another. In King Kong vs. Tarzan, it’s a King Kong story. My depiction of Tarzan is a little bit more cinematic and mysterious than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ version––much the way Cooper treated Kong in that first King Kong movie––although it’s also compatible with the Burroughs characterization of Tarzan. Some of these adjustments are subtle. You might say they are filtered by the different style I write in.
In the book him I’ve just finished, Tarzan, Conqueror of Mars, it’s a Tarzan story with John Carter of Mars coming in later in the narrative. But since they’re both compatible in tone, and I wrote their story in the Burroughs style, I didn’t have to filter either at all. Tarzan being on Mars was a big enough difference by itself.
The Doc books have covers by the great Joe DeVito. The Forgotten Realm was the first Doc book I bought and I can still picture the cover DeVito painted in my head. How important was art to the pulps and what does the art mean to you?
The cover is a window into the book. You can read a blurb or even a whole chapter, but a good cover gives you a sense of the flavor of a novel. I’m fortunate to have Joe DeVito do my covers. He paints great windows! And I get to art-direct him so we get the window we need.
I know that you just wrote another Spider novel. Which I’ll admit I haven’t read (or any other Spider books to my knowledge). Who is the Spider and of all the books you could have written, what made you interested in writing him?
The Spider has the distinction of being the first bipolar superhero. I don’t know what was going on in Norvell Page’s emotional life––there are rumors that he had nervous breakdowns while writing The Spider––but his portrayal of millionaire criminologist Richard Wentworth, who thinks he’s some kind of chosen messiah and the only person who can save the nation from various madmen and super criminals. is unique in the annals of popular culture. Despite having a messiah complex, he swings between deep depressions and exhilaratingly manic moods. Occasionally, he’s on the verge of suicide. And paranoid? During his career The Spider has turned against most of his closest friends and allies, thinking that they were betraying him.
What I love about The Spider is that the cast of characters have more dimension in the usual pulp heroes, while the stories a crazy fever dreams beyond the imagination of most other pulp writers. Stan Lee said The Spider was his favorite pulp magazine and you could see the influence, not only on Spider-man. But on his character-driven approach to superhero writing in general.
One reason I ask is because like a lot of people, the two pulp characters most people know are Doc and The Shadow. Similar to how everyone knows Superman and Batman? But there were a lot of other characters, thousands of stories and novels that were published. Are there other characters you want to write?
I’m running out of favorite characters I’ve never written. In the last few years, I’ve been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for the MX and Belanger Books anthologies. I think Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane are two I’ve yet to take on. King Kull is another. Beyond that, I would love to write a stand-alone Shadow novel.
What’s the challenge of writing a Pat Savage novel?
Contrary to some fan perceptions, Pat Savage is not a female version of Doc. Sure, she’s altruistic, but if you read the stories where she plays a role, Pat is depicted as an unabashed fortune seeker. And that’s how I portray her. Because Doc is very rich, Pat would like to be wealthy, too. She’s not a gold digger. She loves adventure for its own sake. But if there’s money in it, Pat is even more motivated. That was the premise of my first Pat Savage novel, Six Scarlet Scorpions, where he goes into the oil wildcatting business. If I do another, I’ll just have to find another treasure for her to pursue.
For all the Doc Savage novels, you haven’t published them under your own name. Why have you always written them under the pen name Kenneth Robeson?
My contract with Conde Nast requires that I use the house name of Kenneth Robeson. I prefer to do it that way, too. To me, it’s a magic name. He’s my favorite writer. Also, since most of these books are collaborations, a single byline is a lot neater for marketing purposes. But I did get to use my own name on Skull Island, where Doc met King Kong. So far, it’s my best seller.
You published Writings in Bronze a few years back collecting your writings on Dent and Doc Savage. Have you thought about putting together another book collecting some of your other pulp related writings?
My publisher, Matt Moring, and I have discussed this. One project we’d like to do is to take my old History of The Shadow and bring it out an expanded and revised edition. Another collection of my pulp articles is also under consideration. But the novels come first.
A few years back you published Wordslingers, about the western and the pulp western. And I think most people’s reaction is, pulp westerns? But you did capture something about the western as a genre. How did you even start writing about and looking into this topic?
Wordslingers is one of my favorite nonfiction books. It started as a simple article on the highs and lows of being a pulp western writer and exploded into a full-blown history of the pulp magazine as seen through the Western titles. We got great reviews on that book. People say it’s unlike any book that’s ever been written. Not just on the subject matter, but it’s a entirely new kind of book! It’s an oral history of a field told by the writers, editors and other participants, and makes the pulp era come to life through carefully-organized quotes.
You returned to a character you co-created a couple years back for the anniversary of Squirrel Girl. Where did the character come from in the first place?
Squirrel Girl is a combination of Mary Martin as Peter Pan, my crazy imagination and an old girlfriend whose name was Doreen. She was into animal rescues, which included squirrels. I had squirrels in my attic and observed them closely. One of them I used to feed peanut butter. I called him Monkey Joe. So everything I created for SG comes from real life!
What was it like working with Steve Ditko? Did you have any interaction with him working on the book?
I enjoyed working with Steve Ditko. He was a true professional. We used to talk a lot. And we interacted on that first Squirrel Girl story. I provided a full script. He followed it pretty closely, made some changes, such as adding the knuckle spikes and designing a different costume. I wanted her in green, with a Robin Hood look, akin to Peter Pan. I was pretty happy with the results. I was eight years old when I read my first Ditko comics, so it was a big thrill to work with him. I wish we could have done more Squirrel Girl stories together.
The series by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is different from what you envisioned, I’m sure, but you clearly wanted to write a more light-hearted, fun character.
I had a lot of ideas for what to do with Squirrel Girl, which I never got to execute because Marvel decided at that time she was just not a good fit for the Marvel Universe. Actually, there were going to be darker directions for her. It’s not obvious to everyone reading my first Squirrel Girl story, but she’s scripted as a 14-year-old girl with the speech patterns and emotional reactions of seven or eight-year-old. You could rationalize this as Doreen having essentially the mind of a squirrel––or you could wonder if she doesn’t have some type of emotional or developmental disability. She’s an upbeat character in the same way Peter Pan is. But why won’t she grow up? Is it her rodent nature? Childhood trauma? Even an upbeat character can have downbeat aspects.
I like the way she’s been developed by other creators, but it would be nice to have fleshed her out more because there’s a lot more to Doreen than that first story reveals.
What’s next for you? What do you want do more of? More Doc? Other novels? More comics? More radioplays?
Right now, I’m focusing on my next Spider novel, Fury in Steel. I’m hoping to do more Docs and maybe another Pat Savage. Another Doc Savage-Shadow crossover would be fun to do. Maybe a sequel to Tarzan, Conqueror of Mars.
The other day, Tom Breevort asked me to write a one-page Squirrel Girl story for Marvel Comics #2001. I dropped everything and scripted it that day. As a freelancer, I try to be open to new possibilities and opportunities. Maybe something unexpected will pop up.