Thursday, July 29, 2010

Headquarters of Literary Heroes

Everyone needs some place where he or she can work. It may be an office, a shop, a military camp, or even their own home, but every one needs some place from where they can work. This is as true in literature as it is in real life. Indeed, in various genres of fiction, from mystery to pulp adventure, many characters have their own very specialised headquarters from which they work. Whether it is Nero Wolfe's brownstone or Batman's Batcave, many heroes have bases of operations very different from the places from which most of us work.

It is difficult to say where this literary convention originated, but it may have been in the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. As everyone knows, Holmes lived in a flat at 221B Baker Street in London. At the very least, it was one of the earliest residences of a character who appeared in multiple stories to have been described in detail. Indeed, the stories establish that Sherlock Holmes' apartment was a suite of rooms situated above a flight of seventeen stairs in a lodging house. Sherlock Holmes' study, from where he did much of his work, faced Baker Street itself. His bedroom was right next to the study and was located to the rear of the building. Dr. Watson's bedroom was situated on the second floor (the third floor to Americans) towards the rear, overlooking a backyard with a plane tree.

Over the course of the stories, Conan Doyle elaborated a good deal on 221B Baker Street. Holmes' study included a bearskin rug, Holmes' desk, a velvet lined chair, Holmes' chemistry equipment, and many other items. One wall included a fireplace, complete with the coal scuttle where Holmes kept his cigars. The great detective seems to have been a bit messy, something which sometimes brought him to heads with his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, who valued tidiness.

Compared to many later literary heroes' headquarters, Sherlock Holmes' flat was very basic. To a degree this was not unusual for private detectives, some of whose bases of operations were downright Spartan. This was particularly true of Philip Marlowe's office. Raymond Chandler's famous detective worked out of an office that was originally on the 7th floor of an unnamed building and later said to be on the 6th floor of the Cahuenga Building in Los Angeles, located on Hollywood Boulevard. The office itself occupied a room and a half. The office itself was very basic, consisting of a glass top desk, behind which was Marlowe's squeaky swivel chair, a few chairs, and five green, metal filing cabinets. In the drawer was always a bottle of some sort of alcohol. Marlowe had no secretary at all, doing all the paper work himself!

That Philip Marlowe's office should be so basic  should not be surprising. His apartment is equally. basic. It was an efficiency apartment located on the sixth floor of a building (Marlowe must have liked the 6th floor of buildings). Besides the obvious necessities such as a bed, Marlowe has only a few items in his apartment: a radio, a chess set, a few books, a few pictures, and old letters that he had saved.

While Holmes and Marlowe both had very basic apartments, Nero Wolfe's brownstone was simultaneously a fortress and a refuge from the outside world. Indeed, it would do some superheroes proud. The address of the brownstone varied throughout Rex Stout's novels and short stories, but it was always said to be on West 35th Street. As to the brownstone itself, it had three floors, as well as a furnished basement with living quarters and a rooftop greenhouse also with living quarters.The brownstone's entrance was designed for Nero Wolfe's privacy as much as his security. The front door featured a chain bolt, as well as a pane of one way glass so that Wolfe's legman Archie Goodwin could see who was at the door without himself being seen. Nero Wolfe's office as similarly secure. When the doors to the brownstone's front room and the hallway were closed, his office was more or less soundproof. The office also featured a trick painting of a waterfall, which covered a peephole, through which Archie could see and hear what went on in the office without being observed. Behind Nero Wolfe's desk was his chair, which had been custom made with springs to support the great detective's considerable weight. Near the desk was a red leather chair, in which clients and other visitors to Nero Wolfe's office would sit.

Even Nero Wolfe's living quarters were designed with privacy and security in mind. There was an alarm which would go off in Archie's room if someone got close to Nero Wolfe's bedroom. Of course, the living quarters were also designed for comfort. Wolfe's bedroom had a device on a time which would open the windows to control the temperature in the room. On the roof was the greenhouse, which was temperature controlled. The greenhouse featured over 10,000 plants. Nero Wolfe was well known for growing orchids. The brownstone has a lift, although only Wolfe uses it.

The brownstone also had a rear entrance which led to Wolfe's private gardens in the back. It was there that his cook Fritz tried to grow herbs for cooking. A passage through the gardens led directly to 34 Street, specially designed so one could leave the brownstone and evade notice. More so than either Holmes or Marlowe's bases of operation, Nero Wolfe's headquarters was an extension of his personality, designed for maximum comfort, privacy, and security.

Of course, most private detectives did not have as extravagant headquarters as Nero Wolfe. On the other hand, the superheroes of the pulp magazines often had HQs that put even Nero Wolfe's brownstone to shame. This was no less true of The Shadow. What his sanctum lacked in size, it made up for in style. The sanctum was located in the north section of the basement of a small office building in New York City that had only a few tenants. Its walls were covered by black curtains and its floor by a black tufted carpet. It had a Victorian style lamp that emitted  a blue light.  The sanctum is equipped with a tables, file cabinets, and a complete laboratory. In addition to the main exit, the sanctum also had a secret back exit.

As extravagant as The Shadows' sanctum was, it was nothing compared to Doc Savage's headquarters. In fact, Doc had not one, not two, but three different bases of operation. The primary one, and the only one known to the public was on the 86th floor of an unnamed skyscraper in New York City. Because there was only one building with that many floors in New York City in 1933 (when Doc Savage began publishing), it has most often been assumed that the unnamed skyscraper that was home to Doc's headquarters was none other than the Empire State Building itself, although this is never made explicit in the novels. Doc's 86th floor headquarters is reached by a high speed elevator accessible only to Doc, his aides, and his cousin Pat (sometimes Doc would try to find a way of locking her out, but she always figured out a way to get in). For added security, Doc also rented the 85th and 87th floors to keep people from spying on him. References are made to offices in floors other than the 86th which deal with such ordinary matters as security, correspondence, and so on.

Perhaps the headquarters of no other superhero or private eye was as well equipped as Doc Savage's 86th floor abode. It had sufficient accommodations not only for Doc and his men, but also several guests as well. It also had a fully equipped laboratory, a library with thousands of books, and a gymnasium. As might be expected, Doc's headquarters was protected by the same sort of gadgets which he uses on his adventures. Not only did Doc rent an entire three floors (and possibly others) of the skyscraper, but there was also a secret basement garage where Doc's various vehicles were located. Indeed, Doc not only owned cars, but planes, autogyros, boats, a submarine, and a dirigible. These were stored at another one of Doc's headquarters, a secret hangar on the Hudson River disguised as a warehouse belonging to "The Hidalgo Trading Company ." The secret hangar was accessed by a pneumatic tube system linked to the skyscraper where Doc's offices were.

Not only did Doc have three floors of what may have been the Empire State Building and a hangar, but his own hidden retreat as well. This was the Fortress of Solitude (if it sounds familiar, it because a certain comic book company ripped off the idea from the Man of Bronze...). Its whereabouts were initially unknown even to his aides and to his cousin Pat. It was here that Doc went for periods of time to develop new gadgets, conduct experiments, and engage in intense study. The Fortress of Solitude was located in a remote region of the Arctic. In the novel suitably entitled Fortress of Solitude, the Fortress is described as a "Strange Blue Dome." It is said that it resembled "...the perfectly spherical half of an opaque blue crystal ball--of incredible size, of course. It surface appears perfectly smooth, with no obvious openings, no doors or windows of any kind. It was made of an unknown substance, that was not glass or metal but resembled both." Within the Fortress of Solitude one can assume there were the same amenities as Doc's 86th floor headquarters--a laboratory, a library, and a gymnasium at least. Unfortunately it was also where Doc stored those gadgets which he thought were too dangerous for mankind to possess. This nearly led to disaster when his archenemy, John Sunlight, discovered the Fortress and stole two of these gadgets (in the aforementioned novel Fortress of Solitude), weapons with which he hoped to start World War II (keep in mind Fortress of Solitude was published in 1938).

Not to be outdone by Street and Smith's superheroes Doc Savage and The Shadow, Popular Publications' character The Spider also had his own special headquarters.In fact, because villains occasionally invaded his headquarters, The Spider's alter ego Richard Wentworth would find himself moving from time to time, which also meant The Spider's base of operations would change. As of The Spider March 1937, Richard Wentworth would be based out of Hopecrest Apartments. It was in October that he would move to his most famous headquarters, "..erected partly on filled-in land between two piers behind Sutton Place, was a walled and armed fortress."  Steel shutters covered the windows. Inside it had a series of passages designed to confuse any invaders and hidden elevators so Wentworth could leave without detection. Its garage was filled with armoured cars, and a boathouse on the Hudson filled with boats. The Spider would remain at Sutton Place for many years.

In November 1942 Richard Wentworth moved his base to 5th Avenue, in a penthouse atop Park Amrs. The penthouse featured a drawing room and a music room, where Wentworth stored his Stradivarius and a pipe organ. By tapping three of the pipes of the pipe organ, Wentworth would open a hidden panel which led to a room containing racks of clothing for disguises, a dressing table with make up for disguises (not to mention to transform himself into The Spider), weapons, and, most importantly, the robes of The Spider. A panel in this room led to a lift which would take The Spider down to the basement and his many vehicles.

The superheroes of the comic books would be directly influenced by the superheroes of pulp magazines, so it was natural that superheroes would have their own headquarters as well. Indeed, perhaps the most famous base of operations of any literary character is the Batcave, Batman's headquarters. As hard as it may be to believe, the Batcave was not always a part of the Batman mythos. Originally there was merely a tunnel that ran from Wayne Manor to an old barn where the Batmobile and Batplane were stored. It was in Batman #12, August-September 1942, that writer Bill Finger mentioned "secret underground hangars." It would be the movie serial, The Batman, that would introduce the Batcave  in 1943, although called "the Bat's Cave" in the film. Essentially, the Batcave was a secret, underground crime lab accessed through a grandfather clock in Wayne Manor. The Batcave then appeared in the Batman daily newspaper strip on October 26, 1943. In the comic strip the Batcave already featured a study, crime lab, garage, hangar, and workshop. It first appeared in the comic books in Detective Comics #83, January 1944. By the Sixties the Batcave would even include a computer, featured prominently in the TV series starring Adam West.

As mentioned earlier, a certain comic book company would pretty much plagiarise the idea of Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude, right down to its name. To be fair, however, Superman was said to have a "Secret Citadel" on a mountain on the outskirts of Metropolis in  Superman #12, September-October 1941. Very little was ever done with the Secret Citadel, and by the Fifties it was nearly forgotten. It is perhaps for this reason that Action Comics #241, June 1958 (nearly a full twenty years after the publication of the Doc Savage novel Fortress of Solitude and 35 years after it had been first mentioned in Doc Savage magazine) that Superman's Fortress of Solitude first appeared. Like Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude, Superman's Fortress of Solitude was located in the Arctic. It was located within a steep cliff in a mountain. Its door could only be opened by a giant key which only someone of Superman's strength could lift. It contained an alien zoo, a laboratory, a communications room, a computer, and (like the Batcave) trophies from his past adventures. Sadly, Superman's Fortress of Solitude is now better known than the Fortress of Solitude, the refuge of Doc Savage.

The often very specialised headquarters serve multiple purposes for their characters. At their most basic level, they provide the characters with a workspace from which they can solve mysteries, fight crime, develop new gadgets, and so on. In the case of many of the superheroes, they also offer an added measure of security. It is safe to say that if Richard Wentworth's homes had not been fortresses, he would have died only a few months after The Spider magazine debuted! In the cases of superheroes with secret identities, they also offer the privacy and secrecy they need. Visitors would become suspicious if Bruce Wayne had a complete crime lab in Wayne Manor, and villains would constantly be attacking his home base if it was publicly known, hence the need for the Batcave. Particularly in pulp magazines, heroes often lead dangerous lives and have need of the privacy and security of a secret headquarters.

To a large degree, however, the headquarters of various literary characters also act as an extension of the characters themselves. Philip Marlowe's office reflects the simplicity and practicality of the man himself. Nero Wolfe's brownstone reflects his desire for both privacy and comfort; it is literally a refuge from the outside world. That such headquarters reflect the characters themselves even holds true for pulp magazine and comic book heroes. The Spider's various HQs were all designed to help in his constant battle with crime.

Regardless, such headquarters have become a part of Anglo-American pop culture. There are those who know Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude or The Shadow's sanctum as well as their own homes. Indeed, among the most memorable lines from the old Batman TV show remains Bruce Wayne's "To the Batave, Robin!" It is safe to say there are many who would like to go there with them.

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