Saturday, March 1, 2008

Doc Savage's 75th Anniversary

"Let me do right to all, and wrong no man." (Doc Savage, from his own personal code of conduct)

Doc Savage #1 was dated March 1933 and went on sale on February 15, 1933. This means that whether one goes by the magazine's cover date or when it hit the newsstands, Doc Savage has entered his 75th year of existence. Regardless of which date one relies upon as Doc's official "birthday," it would seem to be reason to celebrate. Doc Savage was not only one of the most successful pulp characters with his own magazine, but he also proved to be one of the most influential as well.

It is perhaps a bit simplistic to credit the creation of Doc Savage to Lester Dent. While the man from La Plata, Missouri played such a pivotal role in shaping the Man of Bronze that he can rightfully be called the creator of Doc Savage, in truth the idea for the Archenemy of Evil originated in the offices of Street and Smith Publications. Street and Smith had seen incredible success with The Shadow and decided that perhaps they should follow it up with a new character. Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic then wrote a broad outline for a new character they called "Doc Savage." Doc may have in part been inspired by a real person. Nanovic told pulp magazine historian Will Murray about a man named Richard Henry Savage, a latter day renaissance man who had been a diplomat, engineer, lawyer, military officer, and writer. As a writer some of Savage's books were published by Street and Smith, just when a young Henry Ralston had started working for the firm at the tender age of 17.

While Ralston and Nanovic wrote the broad outline that provided the basis for Doc Savage, it was writer Lester Dent who expanded on the character to the point that he should perhaps be considered the character's primary creator. Born in La Plata, Missouri, Lester Dent was a prolific pulp writer who had written for magazines ranging from Top Notch to Detective-Dragnet Magazine. In fact, Dent wrote a series of stories centred around a gadget laden detective named Lynn Lash for Detective-Dragnet Magazine. It was a Lynn Lash story, "The Sinister Ray." which caught the attention of Street and Smith and led the publisher to consider Dent as the primary writer on Doc Savage. As a trial Dent was asked to write a Shadow novel. The end result, "The Golden Vulture," met with Street and Smith's approval, although it would not be until The Shadow #154, July 15, 1938 that it would be published after having been revised by The Shadow's scribe Walter Gibson. Having passed Street and Smith's test, Dent was officially assigned to Doc Savage.

And while it was Henry Ralston and John Nanovic who initially came up with the concept for Doc Savage, it would be Lester Dent who fully realised the Man of Bronze. Quite rightfully, Doc Savage could be considered one of the earliest superheroes. Clark Savage Jr. was literally raised from birth to fight crime. While he was still a child, his father gathered together a team of experts and scientists to teach him and train him in nearly every human endeavour. From childhood he underwent rigorous mental and physical conditioning. Every single day he underwent two hours of two hours of mental and physical exercises to keep his mind and body in shape. As a result Doc was a genius with a photographic memory, nearly superhuman strength, and incredible endurance. And while Doc was first and foremost a doctor, he was also an expert in such diverse fields ranging from chemistry to law to gymnastics to the martial arts. Even his senses were more acute than the average human being.

Even without having been trained to be the ultimate crime fighter, Doc Savage would have probably been an impressive specimen. Although his exact height in never revealed in any of the novels, Doc is described as being tall, but so well proportioned that this is not apparent unless he is standing next to someone else. His skin was a natural bronze colour, and his hair was a darker shade of bronze. His eyes were flecked with gold and had a hypnotic quality to them.

Doc's physical and mental prowess would seem to be sufficient for him to fight crime, but Doc also happened to have limitless wealth coming from a gold mine his father owned in the country of Hidalgo. With such wealth Doc Savage could get everything he needed to fight crime. He made his base in the 86th floor of a skyscraper in New York (thought by some to be the Empire State Building). Connected to 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 fantastic 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.

With a genius IQ, almost superhuman strength, and nearly limitless wealth, one would not think Doc Savage would have need of anyone to assist him. Despite this, Doc was assisted by a group of men who came to be called "the Fabulous Five" in the Sixties (when Bantam began reprinting the Doc Savage) novels. These were five men, all top experts in their fields, whom Doc had trusted for years. There was Andrew Blodgett Mayfair, better known as "Monk." Monk's nickname came 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 (particularly when in the company of a pretty girl), 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 "Pat" Savage. Like Doc, Pat also had bronze skin and dark bronze hair. And like Doc she was extremely intelligent and well versed in many fields of endeavour. Despite this fact, Doc usually disapproved of her becoming involved in his adventures, feeling they were too dangerous for women. Of course, given that Pat was also very beautiful and charming, the Fabulous Five never objected to her presence (especially Monk and Ham).

While Doc was an expert marksman with a gun, he very much preferred using gadgets to firearms (much of this was probably due to the fact that Doc had sworn never to take human life). Among the various gadgets Doc used in the course of his adventures were tiny, glass balls which contained a powerful sleeping gas, infrared and ultraviolet goggles, periscopes, and so on. And while Doc disliked guns himself, he equipped the Fabulous Five with his own, specially built Super Machine Pistols--small, hand held, automatic weapons. Doc used so many gadgets and so often that he even sometimes wore a special vest with pockets and other compartments in which to store them.

Doc Savage would prove to be a roaring success for Street and Smith, ultimately becoming the most most successful Hero Pulp besides The Shadow. Such success naturally meant that Doc Savage would be adapted to other media. Strangely enough, Street and Smith gave the rights to Doc Savage in film, radio, and television to Lester Dent. It was in late 1933 that Dent made a deal with the Knox Company of St. Louis for a Doc Savage radio show. Debuting in February 1934 and reaching national syndication in October 1934, the Doc Savage radio show was 15 minutes in length. With so little time, Doc's supporting cast consisted only of Monk and sometimes Ham as well. In all 26 episodes were made. Sadly none have survived and we only have Lester Dent's scripts to get an idea of what the show was like. There would be another, short lived Doc Savage radio show in 1943, although it owed more to the comic book version of Doc than the pulp magazine (see below). Like the first series, only the scripts have survived. In 1985 NPR would air yet another Doc Savage radio show. Thirteen episodes were produced, adapting the novels Fear Cay (Roger Rittner wrote the radio play) and The Thousand-Headed Man (Will Murray, the legendary pulp expert, wrote the radio play).

Doc Savage would also have a career in comic books. Street and Smith moved into the comic book field early in the Golden Age of Comic Books, adapting both The Shadow and Doc to the medium. Doc Savage made his first appearance in a comic book in The Shadow Comics #1, March 1940. He would receive his own comic book, Doc Savage Comics, cover dated July 1940. Originally the comic books adapted Doc faithfully from the pulps. It was with Doc Savage Comics #5, August 1941 that the comic book version of Doc departed from the original. In the story "The Angry Ghost" Doc crashed Tibet where a mystic gave him a magical blue hood with a ruby embedded in it. The hood gave Doc even greater strength (as if he wasn't already strong enough) and hypnotic abilities (as if he wasn't already skilled in hypnotism). The "blue hood" version of Doc Savage, upon which the 1943 radio show was based, would last for the remainder of the run of Doc Savage Comics (cancelled in 1943) and one issue of The Shadow Comics. Fortunately, a more faithful version of Doc was featured in the remainder of his appearances in The Shadow Comics (which ran until 1949). In addition to comic books, in the Thirties Lester Dent tried to sell a newspaper comic strip based on the Man of Bronze.

When Bantam Books began reprinting the original pulp novels in the Sixties, there was renewed interest in Doc Savage. Naturally this would mean more comic book adaptations of the Man of Bronze. Gold Key issued a one shot Doc Savage cover dated November 1966; it had grown out of an aborted film project (more on that later). Starting in October 1972, Marvel Comics would publish nine issues of a Doc Savage comic book (one of which was giant sized). Beginning in August 1975 they would publish eight issues of Doc Savage in their larger, comic book format.Starting in November 1987 DC Comics would publish twenty four issues of a Doc Savage comic book which updated the character--it was not received well by fans. Millennium would publish Doc Savage comic books from 1991 into 1992, as well as a Pat Savage comic book. Theirs is considered to be by far the most loyal adaptation. In 1995 Dark Horse would publish two comic books featuring Doc Savage, including one which teamed the Man of Bronze up with The Shadow.

Curiously, while The Shadow was adapted into both feature films, movie serials, and even two unsold television pilots, it would be decades before Doc Savage was finally adapted to film. In the Thirties and Fortiesinterest was expressed in making Doc Savage serials. The projects fell through because Lester Dent, who owned the film and television rights to the Man of Bronze, insisted on writing the screenplay despite the fact that he had no experience in writing for the movies. In the Fifties there was interest in a Doc Savage TV series. The project again fell through because Dent insisted on writing the script. The Sixties would see no less than two film and TV projects featuring the Archenemy of Evil fall through. Goodson-Todman Productions, best known for producing game shows ranging from What's My Line to The Price is Right, planned to produce a Doc Savage movie in the wake of the success of Bantam Books' reprints of the classic pulp novels. It would have featured Chuck Connors as Doc Savage and was based on the novel The Thousand-Headed Man from Doc Savage #17, July 1934. The film was slated for release in 1966. Unfortunately, both Goodson-Todman Productions and Condé Nast Publications (who had bought out Street and Smith in 1959) had failed to secure the rights to make the film from the estate of Lester Dent. In the end all that would come out of the project was Gold Key's comic book adaptation of the film that was never made. In the Sixties The Adventures of Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey proposed a Doc Savage animated series, but it never went beyond the planning stages.

It was in the Seventies that producer George Pal secured both the film and television rights for Doc Savage from the estate of Lester Dent. His plan had been to launch an entire series of Doc Savage films and perhaps eventually a television series. The screenplay was based upon the first novel, The Man of Bronze, and written by Pal and Joe Morhaim. Michael Anderson, director of such classic films as The Dam Busters and The Quiller Memorandum, was hired to direct. Ron Ely, who had played Tarzan in the NBC Sixties TV series, was cast as Doc Savage. While Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze was visually faithful to the pulp novels, including the Fortress of Solitude, the 86th floor headquarters, and the various gadgets, it departed from the pulp novels in that it was played mostly for camp. Warner Brothers had initially slated the film for a spring 1974 release date, then shifted it to an Easter 1975 release date. When it was released, it was to generally scathing reviews. Doc Savage fans were largely disappointed with the movie's campy approach. Ultimately, the film bombed at the box office. A sequel Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil (which would have been based on the novel Death in Silver from Doc Savage #16, October 1934) was announced on screen at the end of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, and both the screenplay and some filming had been completed upon it. With the failure of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the sequel was never made.

Since then there have been other attempts to bring Doc Savage back to film. In 1999 Castle Rock Entertainment announced its intent to make a Doc Savage movie starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with a screenplay by Brett Hill and David Johnson. Nothing ever came of the project. More recently, Sam Raimi announced plans to make projects featuring both Doc Savage and The Shadow.

While the last issue of Doc Savage was published by Street and Smith in 1949, the classic pulp novels would find a new lease on life in the Sixties. Starting in October 1964, Bantam Books began reprinting the novels in paperback at the rate of about one of month. Not only would Bantam publish every single Doc Savage novel (and a previously unpublished Lester Dent novel--The Red Spider), but it would also start publishing new Doc Savage novels in 1991 by writers such as Philip Jose Farmer and Will Murray. Earlier in 1935 The Ideal Library would publish the first three Doc Savage novels in hardback. In 1975 Golden Press published six of the novels in hardback. Starting in November 2006 Nostalgia Ventures began reprinting the Doc Savage novels again.

Perhaps a greater measure of Doc's success than adaptations into other media and the reprinting of the classic novels is the lasting impact he has had on pop culture. Not only was Doc Savage was one of the earliest characters who could be described as a superhero, but he would be a direct source of inspiration for Superman. It was in an issue of The Shadow that Jerry Siegel saw an add for a new pulp magazine, whose copy read "SUPERMAN..Doc Savage--Man of Master Mind and Body...." Naturally, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster would buy that first issue of Doc Savage, and its influence can be seen on Superman. Both Doc and Superman share the first name "Clark." And while Doc is the Man of Bronze, Superman is the Man of Steel. And while Doc had his Fortress of Solitude, as early as Superman #17, July 1942 the Man of Steel had his own "Secret Citadel" built into a mountain near Metropolis. By 1958DC Comics would outright plagiarise Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude, giving Superman his own Fortress of Solitude in Action Comics #241, June 1958.

Superman is not the only comic book superhero who may owe something to Doc Savage. While the primary inspiration for Batman would seem to be pulp heroes such as The Shadow and The Spider (with a bit of Zorro thrown in), the Dark Knight. would seem to owe some things to the Man of Bronze. Detective Comics #29, September 1939, introduced Batman's utlity belt, more than a bit reminiscent of gadget laden vest. The Batcave, introduced in the 1943 movie serial The Batman and in comic books in Detective Comics #83, January 1944, seems reminiscent of both The Shadow's sanctum and Doc Savage's penthouse HQ. In addition to Superman and Batman, Doc Savage has influenced numerous other characters, from Buckaroo Banzai to Sam Beckett of the TV series Quantum Leap.

Doc Savage has been immensely successful. He has had a lasting influence on pop culture, inspiring many other characters. He has been referenced in everything from Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood to the Big Audio Dynamite song "No. 10 Upping St." He still has a huge following 75 years after the publication of the first issue of Doc Savage. Doc Savage has most likely lasted 75 years because of what he stands for. It is not his genius I.Q. or nearly superhuman strength to which fans are drawn, but rather it is to the Man of Bronze's integrity and sense of honour. He truly did seek to do right and to wrong no human being. I've no doubt he'll last another 75 years.


Jim Marquis said...

I remember going through a Doc Savage phase back in the late Sixties or early Seventies. The books were a lot of fun.

Iggy said...

There is nothing like Doc. Just great, great stuff, and an addiction that is impossible to explain to people.