David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

Have no fear, the man of bronze is here!

In an age of superheroes, not nearly enough people know about Doc Savage.

Doc is one of the greatest adventure characters of all time. He was created in 1933 by Henry W. Ralston and John L. Nanovic, and his adventures were published in Doc Savage magazine for the next sixteen years. Most of his adventures were written by Lester Dent, under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson, and Dent really deserves the lion's share of credit for Doc's success. Doc was a proto-superhero who broke ground for the genre, and for so many major characters that came after him that if he were reintroduced to the public today in a major feature film, most of the potential audience would consider him a rip-off.

You think I'm kidding?

He's a wealthy man who dedicated his life to fighting crime, with the help of his aides, whom he treats like family -- they're all he has. He is a physical and mental marvel who travelled the world, learning skills from masters of every field, from Tibetan lamas to martial artists of the East, and he supplements his natural abilities with an array of gadgets, from grappling hooks to drug-tipped darts, all of which he keeps on his person in a specially-designed article of clothing. He helps people for no reward. When he wants to get out of the city, he goes to the Arctic, where he keeps a hidden base known as the Fortress of Solitude. Oh, and his real first name is Clark.

Any of this sound familiar?

Doc Savage served as a model for Batman and Superman, as other real and fictional heroes had served as models for him: "Sherlock Holmes with his deducting ability, Tarzan of the Apes with his towering physique and muscular ability, Craig Kennedy with his scientific knowledge, and Abraham Lincoln with his Christliness," as Lester Dent put it. (Craig Kennedy, the scientific detective, is another character once very popular but almost forgotten now.) Superman's Fortress of Solitude first appeared as such in 1949, the same year Doc's adventures ceased publication, and I suspect that it was a deliberate tribute by Superman's writers to Doc.

Doc was not motivated to fight crime by a childhood tragedy. He was trained by his father, literally from the cradle, to be a superman. No expense was spared: Doc learned from the finest tutors, studied with the great geniuses, and became a polymathic genius. Nor was his physical development neglected. Doc trained his body to the peak of perfection. He is brilliant, athletic, and extremely strong. (As can be seen in the image at right, from the Bantam reprints of the pulp novels.) He keeps up this perfection of development with an exhausting two-hour daily exercise regimen.

Doc is aided in his adventures by five friends. Behind Doc, from left to right: Brigadier General Theodore Marley "Ham" Brooks, a brilliant, fastidious lawyer; Dr. William Harper "Johnny" Littlejohn, geologist and archaeologist; Col. John "Renny" Renwick, a giant, dour engineer possessed of a great physical strength; Major Thomas J. "Long Tom" Roberts, a wizard of electronics and electrical engineering; and Lt. Col. Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair, an earthy, skirt-chasing chemist whose appearance is such that on one occasion when he went skinny-dipping in a river, an overeager primatologist attempted to capture him as an example of an unknown species.

The chemistry between Doc and his five aides is a big part of the delight of the stories. I have special fondness for Johnny's use of big words ("I'll be superamalgamated!") and the never-ending squabbling of Monk and Ham.

Oh, and there's Doc's cousin Patricia Savage, who appears every so often and who makes Lois Lane look like a pathetic little frill. (Which, of course, Lois was back then. But she makes *today's* Lois look wussy. And this was in the thirties.)

You can read the stories(known to fans as "supersagas") online [ETA: Not any more, alas. But you can buy several of them here. Here are a few recommendations:

  • "The Derrick Devil" is a really fun adventure with some great Johnny stuff.

  • "The Motion Menace" features Doc's cousin Patricia in a supporting role.

  • "The Hate Genius" -- not very well-written, compared to some of the others (though remember, these things were banged out and rushed to print one a month), but it's heavy on Monk, Ham, and Pat, and there's some good insight into the characters.

  • If you're going the Nostalgia Ventures route, you could do a lot worse than the first, which pairs "Fortress of Solitude" and "The Devil Genghis," which feature the only villain to return after one battle with Doc Savage.

For more on Doc, see such Doc Savage fansites as The 86th Floor [ETA: also apparently defunct now, alas].
Tags: books, doc savage

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