Behind Doc’s resurrection (day)
Doc Savage received a second generation of fans when Bantam Books decided to start reissuing paperbacks of “The Man of Bronze” in October 1964. Much of the credit for the series success usually (and rightfully) go to cover artist James Bama, who had painted 62 of the first 67 covers with mind–blowing vigor and meticulousness. Every one of those covers is a miniature masterpiece to be marveled at.
But there is another man at Bantam Books who deserves a lion’s share of praise when it comes to the resurrection of Doc Savage. That man is Len Leone Sr. None of us would probably be reading Doc Savage today if it were not for Len’s influences.
Len Leone was the art director and vice president of Bantam for more than 30 years spanning the mid–’50s to the mid–’80s. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and after he graduated high school before the age of 18, he tucked his art portfolio under his arm and pounded the pavement looking for work.
Len got his first chance at Shipman Studios where he cut mats, ran errands and got his feet wet in the industry. He quickly moved over to Fawcett Publications which was the home of True Magazine, Startling Detective, Today’s Woman (among others) and comic books like Captain Marvel and Hopalong Cassidy. Len was at Fawcett for three months before a little thing called Pearl Harbor happened and he ended up getting a draft card along with the rest of America.
Len initially joined the Army but ended up in the Army Air Forces for three years as a combat radio operator and he became a master at Morse code. When he was discharged from the Army Air Forces at the end of WW II, he returned to Fawcett and ending up redesigning and working on True Magazine for five years. Len then moved over to Argosy as Art Director where he stayed for eight months.
When the entire staff walked out on Argosy due to problems with upper management, Len secured a position as an Art Director at a small advertising agency called Friend–Reece. He stayed there until his agent got him an interview with Bantam, which was looking for an Art Director/Designer. The rest, as we say, is history, where Len and Bantam Books proceeded to change the face of paperback books.
Back to Doc Savage:
I had previously picked up copies of The Bantam Story by Clarence Petersen that related the history of Bantam Books at their 25– and 30–year publishing anniversary. In it was a chapter on cover design that featured Art Director Leonard P. Leone. When I purchased the 2006 Flesk Publications hardcover of the James Bama: American Realist book, it included a forward by Len Leone. I reasoned that if I could get Len Leone’s address, I could ask him all sorts of questions regarding Fred Pfeiffer, Doc Savage and the paperback industry itself. It took a year for me to finally obtain Len’s information, and I quickly shot off a letter to him that included all sorts of various questions. The prompt letter I received back from Len had some startling information.
When Marc Jaffee the editorial director of Bantam Books approached me one day, he asked, “Len, did you by any chance ever hear of Doc Savage?”
“Doc Savage? Are you serious? Man, everyone has heard of Doc Savage. I would buy every one of those pulp magazines I could get my hands on. They were a hell of a lot of fun to read when I was just a kid, and they only cost one thin dime. I would buy them every month with the other pulp magazine called The Shadow. That, too, was only a dime. Why do you ask?”
“I’m seriously thinking of purchasing the entire property. Do you think I should?”
“I certainly do. You can’t miss, especially if I can get someone like Bama to do the covers. When I was reading them I could hardly wait to get my hands on the next issue. And when I did, I couldn’t put the magazine down.”
Len further wrote “When we finally launched the line, I received more mail asking about additional availability of visual material. That line of books took on the flavor of a ‘cult’ following in a very short period of time. It was incredible.”
Wow! So first, we can thank Len for helping with the decision to resurrect Doc Savage in paperback, and second for hiring Jim Bama to do the covers. But there is more.
When asked about the idea of Doc’s widow’s peak, this is what he wrote:
Years ago, appearing on all of the pulp covers, Doc always appeared as a very normal man of his day. He had black hair, a normal, masculine body, and nothing strange or unusual about him. However, I wanted to convey to the reader that this man was not just another mortal man, but something far more visually spectacular. That’s when I told Bama, “Present him with a strange looking widow’s peak, that might have been made of bronze, and present him with significant muscular definition.” And of course, a man of action must always be depicted wearing a torn shirt, showing a segment of unusual muscular development.
While Len provided direction to Bama on what he wanted for the first book, “The Man of Bronze,” he said that Bama did all the other covers on his own. The nickname that Len and his art staff gave to Jim Bama was “Doc” due to all the Doc Savage covers he did. Len has called James Bama “the greatest, most gifted paperback artist on the face of the Earth.” And I think most of us Doc Savage fans would agree with that.
In one of my further conversations with Len, another revelation came out. When asked about the Doc Savage book logo, Len admitted that he created and designed it himself. Upon hearing this news, I exclaimed that he was my hero, since that Doc logo attracted me to the books more than anything else! He also designed the letters of the book title that went above the wavy logo. The titles were hand drawn for each Doc novel by his art staff.
I had many more Doc Savage questions for Len that only a fan would ask, like why were some Doc spines suddenly white (he said, “They had no business changing the color of the spines” and laughed), why did the same Pfeiffer cover appear on two different titles (Len stated, “Somebody screwed up there”), who did some of those early non–Bama covers, who painted the foreground picture of Doc Savage on His Apocalyptic Life, and so on. He wasn’t able to answer these questions, but who could blame him when he was in charge of art on up to 75 titles a month! The phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” certainly applies to Len as his covers were brilliant compared to a lot of the writing and material content that was included inside. Thankfully, the Doc Savage stories equaled the promise of the fantastic cover illustrations and design.
Len Leone was a very creative and inventive Art Director who clearly helped propel Bantam Books to be No. 1 in the paperback industry. Among his many ideas was the use of the white cover, foil embossing, “Step–back” covers (a double-page illustration when you open the cover), multiple color covers for the same title, and lots more. Go to a used bookstore and pull out any Bantam Book from the ’50s through mid–’80s and they will each have the distinction of being designed by Len and his small art staff. He worked with and hired some of the most brilliant illustrators on the planet including James Bama, Robert McGinnis, Bob Peak, Sandy Kossin, Tom Lovell, Barye Phillips, Mitchell Hooks, Lou Feck, Jim Avati, Mort Kuntsler, Fred Pfeiffer, Frank McCarthy, Bob Larkin, Roger Kastel and Boris Vallejo, to name just a handful. He was the subject of a 1970s article in Page One (a publishing industry magazine) titled “The Man Behind the Billion Dollar Look. Len Leone, the Art Director Who Changed the Face of Paperbacks.”
Today’s paperbacks have changed for the worse. They include too many photographs and not enough innovation, and the illustrator and artist has almost disappeared. As Len said, “It is a shame what has happened to magazine and paperback illustration. We’ll never see another great day for the illustrator.” And we will never see another great Art Director like Len Leone.
And so, to this very generous and courteous (and extremely interesting) gentleman, I can say, “Thank you, Len, for all you did in helping to resurrect Doc Savage.”
Editor’s note: Mr. Leone died Monday, July 1, 2013.
This article originally appeared in The Bronze Gazette (#53) in June 2008 and in The Big Book of Bronze (#1) in 2008.