Saturday, 3 July 2004

Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil

At least when it comes to fiction, I suspect my greatest influence as a writer comes from Lester Dent. For those of you who don't know who Lester Dent is, he was the man who wrote the vast majority of Doc Savage novels. In the Sixties, Bantam Books Inc. began reprinting the Doc Savage novels. My former brother-in-law (who is 17 years older than me) bought them from the beginning. He was the one who introduced me, when I was about 11, to the Man of Bronze. I have not read every single Doc Savage novel, but I have probably read the majority of them. That means I have probably read around 100 books by Lester Dent, albeit under the pseudonym of "Kenneth Robeson."

In the early Thirties, Street and Smith Inc., the biggest publisher of pulp magazines, had met with amazing success with a magazine devoted to a single character, The Shadow. Since The Shadow was a hit, they decided to try another magazine devoted to a single character. Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston came up with the idea for a new character, "Doc Savage." Ralston brought editor John L. Nanovic into the project and also brought on board writer Lester Dent. Dent was a prolific pulp magazine writer, born in La Plata, Missouri (just up the road from my hometown of Huntsville). Dent had been a telegrapher for both Western Union and Empire Oil and Gas Co. He also built his own Ham radio set, passed both the electrician and plumbers' exams, learned to fly a plane, and climbed mountains. If ever there was a writer for Doc Savage, it was Dent. In fact, while Ralston came up with the initial idea for Doc Savage, it was Dent who fleshed out the character. For this reason, Dent is generally considered the creator of Doc Savage.

Doc Savage (born Clark Savage Jr.) was an amazing specimen of a man. His skin was naturally a bronze colour, as was his hair. His eyes were flecked with gold and had a hypnotic quality to them. Doc stood over six foot, although he was so well proportioned that his height was not obvious unless he was near someone else.

Doc was raised from birth to fight crime and help people in need. He was educated by scientists and experts in nearly every field of human endeavour. He also underwent rigorous physical training. Doc kept both his mind and body in shape by undergoing two hours of mental and physical exercises each and every day. As a result, Doc was both a genius and nearly superhuman physically. While his primary field was medicine, Doc was also an expert in such diverse fields from chemistry to law. He possessed a nearly photographic memory. His skill in deduction was equal to that of Sherlock Holmes. Physically, Doc was a trained gymnast and he had the agility to go with it. His physical strength equalled that of many men. His senses were more acute than the average human being. Naturally, he was also trained in a variety of hand to hand combat techniques.

As if Doc's physical and mental prowess was not enough, he also had limitless wealth stemming from a gold mine his father owned in the country of Hidalgo. Obviously, such wealth could buy what he needed to fight crime. Doc's head quarters was in the 86th floor a New York skyscraper (thought by some to be the Empire State Building). Connected to the Doc's HQ by a tunnel were hangers and warehouses labelled "the Hidalgo Trading Company," where he kept his vehicles. In the Arctic, Doc owned a fabulous structure called the Fortress of Solitude, where he sometimes went to be alone in order to develop new inventions, undergo further training, and so on.

Although Doc was an expert shot, he preferred not to use a gun. Instead, Doc relied on his many gadgets. He often carried tiny, glass balls which contained a powerful sleeping gas. He used both infrared and ultraviolet goggles long before anyone else. His men were equipped with small, hand held, automatic weapons. A complete list of Doc's inventions could easily fill an entire page.

Doc was assisted by what became known in the Sixties as "the Fabulous Five," experts in their fields whom Doc had known and trusted for years. There was Andrew Blodgett Mayfair, better known as "Monk." Monk took his nickname from the fact that he was "half a man tall and two men wide," with arms too long from his frame. Despite his appearance, Monk was an expert chemist. He owned a pet pig called Habeas Corpus, so named as a jab at his best friend and verbal sparring partner's profession, law. Monk's best friend and sparring partner was Theodore Marley Brooks, also known as "Ham." Ham's nickname stemmed from his service in the Great War and an incident involving the theft of some hams. Ham was an extraordinary lawyer and a skilled fencer (he always carried a sword cane). Monk and Ham were engaged in an ongoing battle of words, although in truth they were the closest of friends. Ham owned an ape (usually thought to be an orangutan) which he named "Chemistry" as a jab at Monk's profession. Ham and Monk are the only two members of the Fabulous Five to appear in every single Doc Savage adventure

Besides, Monk and Ham, there was also John Rennwick, known as "Renny." Renny was nearly as impressive as Doc physically. He stood six foot four and had enormous fists, which he could easily drive through the average door. Renny was also the world's greatest engineer. William Harper Littlejohn, also called "Johnny," constantly looked as if he was near death's door. Despite his frail appearance, Johnny was actually very strong. He was also one of the world's greatest geologists and archaeologists. Thomas J. Roberts, also known as "Long Tom," was the group's electrical expert. He could build a radio from scratch, as well as more novel gadgets. Long Tom's pet project was an electrical device which would kill insects, which he detested.

At times, Doc was also assisted by his cousin, Patricia Savage, known as "Pat." Pat had a bronze tan like Doc and she was also extraordinarily beautiful. She was the equal of the Fabulous Five in many ways, yet Doc usually disapproved of her getting involved in adventures. He felt they were too dangerous for women.

Doc Savage Magazine went on sale for the first time on February 15, 1933. It was an immediate smash. It should then come as no surprise that Doc and the Fabulous Five found their way into other media. A radio show, scripted by Lester Dent himself, ran from February 1934 to October 1934. In 1936 a Doc Savage comic strip was proposed, although it never got off the ground. Street and Smith started publishing a Doc Savage comic book in August 1941. A radio series based on the comic books ran briefly in 1943. Curiously, a movie serial based on the Man of Bronze was never made.

Perhaps a greater measure of success is perhaps the influence Doc Savage had on other characters, particularly superheroes. Batman's use of gadgets may largely have been inspired by Doc's use of gadgets. Similarly, the Batcave may well owe a lot to Doc's headquarters on the 86th floor. Doc Savage probably had an even greater effect on the creation of Superman. In creating Superman, writer Jerry Siegel appears to have drawn in equal parts from Philip Wylie's 1932 novel Gladiator (which was about a man who gains superhuman strength) and Doc Savage. Indeed, while Doc is the "Man of Bronze," Superman is the "Man of Steel." Both share the same first name, "Clark." Even after Siegel and co-creator Joe Schuster were forced to leave Superman, Doc's influence could continue to be felt. Superman's "Fortress of Solitude" is so much like Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude that it is a wonder Street and Smith never sued DC Comics for copyright infringement.

The pulp magazines declined in popularity in the Forties and Doc Savage was no exception. In November, 1949, the last issue of Doc Savage was published. That would seem to be the end of the line for Doc and the Fabulous Five. It wasn't. In 1964 Bantam Books Inc. decided to reprint eight of Doc's adventures in paperback. Sales proved so strong, however, that it was decided to continue reprinting Doc's adventures. Indeed, from 1964 to 1990, Bantam managed to reprint every one of Doc's 181 adventures, an unprecedented achievement for a pulp character.

Bantam's reprints revived interest in the character in the Sixties and Seventies. Nearly each decade since Bantam started reprinting the pulp novels, someone has tried launching a Doc Savage comic book. Gold Key tried in 1966 with a one-shot, to be followed by Marvel in the Seventies, DC Comics in the Eighties, and both Millennium and Dark Horse in the Nineties. Of course, a feature film, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze was released in 1975. The film took a "camp" approach to Doc and his aides and it did poorly at the box office. Although a script for a sequel, Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil, had been completed, there was never another Doc Savage movie made.

In 1990, once Bantam had finished reprinting the original novels, they commissioned a series of new Doc Savage novels. The first was Escape from Loki by Philip Jose Farmer. Following Farmer, Will Murray wrote several new novels featuring the Man of Bronze. Unfortunately, Bantam discontinued the new series because of poor sales.

For now it seems that Doc Savage is enjoying a bit of quiet time. There are no new books, not even new comic books. Despite years of rumours of a new Doc Savage movie, no new film has emerged. Despite all of this I rather suspect that this will not be the last we hear of the Man of Bronze. After his pulp magazine folded, little was heard of Doc Savage until Bantam started reprinting the old pulp novels. It is only a matter of time before someone reprints them again or makes a movie based upon the character. Once that happens, I have no doubt that Doc Savage will once again ride a wave of popularity.

At any rate, the Man of Bronze has had an enormous impact on my life. As I've said, my style of writing fiction is no doubt influenced by Lester Dent. My taste in reading material has also probably been influenced by the Man of Bronze, as I have always been a fan of similar characters, from James Bond to Remo Williams. And I cannot say that the honour and integrity which Doc displayed in his novels have not made me strive to be a better man. As far as I am concerned, even before Superman, Doc was the greatest superhero of them all.

1 comment:

glbras said...

I came across your blog on Doc while just discovering he is in print again!! They have been doing double novels since 2006 and I never even knew it, complete with pulp-like cover.

Your final lines says it all. My reading of Doc as a kid has made me strive to be a better man. He is my hero!