Doc Savage

views updated

Doc Savage

During the 16-year run of Doc Savage Magazine, Clark Savage, Jr. (better known as Doc) was one of the most exciting and popular pulp magazine characters. The appeal of Doc Savage is succinctly stated in the promotional blurb that appears on the back of the Bantam paperback editions that reprint his pulp adventures: "To his fans he is the greatest adventure hero of all time, whose fantastic exploits are unequaled for hair-raising thrills, breathtaking escapes, and bloodcurdling excitement." Doc is a transitional hero who unites the intellect of Sherlock Holmes and the physical prowess of Tarzan with the best gadgets imagined by the new genre of science fiction. In bringing together all of these elements, Doc Savage served as a model for the superheroes that followed.

Doc Savage was the creation of Street and Smith business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, who hoped to duplicate the success of the company's first single-character pulp magazine, The Shadow. While Ralston and Nanovic created the concept, the characters, and even many of the colorful details, it was a young writer named Lester Dent who brought Doc Savage to life. The house byline used was Kenneth Robeson, and there were six different authors who contributed Doc Savage stories under that byline. Lester Dent, however, wrote the vast majority of the Doc tales and edited, or at least approved, the work of the writers who ghosted for him. It was also Lester Dent, following his "master plot" outline and hammering out his pithy prose, who established the distinctive style of the Doc Savage adventures.

Doc Savage appeared in 181 fantastic pulp magazine adventures from 1933 to 1949. In October of 1964, Bantam Books began paperback reprints of every one of the pulp stories, plus one previously unpublished Doc manuscript by Lester Dent (The Red Spider). In 1991 Bantam began publishing original Doc Savage material. Escape from Loki was written by long-time Doc aficionado Philip Jose Farmer. Doc Savage fan and scholar Will Murray wrote seven books based on Lester Dent story fragments and outlines. There was a Doc Savage radio show in the 1930s, a Doc Savage movie in the 1970s, another radio show in the 1980s, and Doc Savage comic books from at least six different publishers, but the true Doc Savage adventures are the 182 stories written for the pulps.

Doc Savage is a hero of mythic proportions. Clark Savage, Jr., was born one stormy night aboard a tiny schooner anchored off Andros island in the infamous Bermuda Triangle. Doc dwells far above ordinary humans on the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building. Both his strength and intellect are herculean. At the age of 14 months he began his strenuous and life-long training. Even after Doc reaches adulthood and begins traveling the globe to right wrongs and help the oppressed, he adheres faithfully to a two-hour routine of intensive exercises for his muscles, senses, and mind. Though he excels in virtually every endeavor, Doc displays his most prodigious talent in the practice of medicine. By the time he was 30, Doc Savage was the world's most brilliant surgeon. In fact, he "rehabilitates" criminals using an intricate brain surgery procedure only he has the skill to perform.

When Doc first appears in 1933 he is six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. In later tales Doc is usually described as somewhat larger—around six feet eight inches and weighing 270 pounds. Yet, his build has such symmetry and proportion that he does not look big unless he is standing next to someone. Beneath his sun-bronzed skin, his muscles are "like cables" or "bundles of piano wire." When he flexes those great muscles he often rips his shirt and coat. His hair is combed straight back and resembles a metal skullcap. Doc's most riveting characteristic is the gently swirling flakes of gold in his eyes. Thanks to the dynamic covers painted by James Bama for the Bantam reprints, a virtual costume was established for Doc. On most paperback covers Doc wore boots, aviator pants, and a very precisely ripped shirt.

The first Doc Savage story, The Man of Bronze, establishes that the men who compose Doc's amazing crew are "the five greatest brains to ever assemble in one group." They include: "Long Tom," the frail-looking wizard of electricity who is a wildcat in a fight; "Renny," a grim-faced giant of a man who likes to smash his huge fists through solid panel doors and is the greatest engineering expert of his time; the tall, gaunt, bespectacled Johnny, with his bulging forehead and big words, who is one of the world's foremost experts on geology and archaeology; "Ham," who is a dapper clothes horse and possibly the greatest lawyer Harvard has ever produced; and the most remarkable of Doc's companions "Monk," a short, barrel-chested man whose knuckles nearly drag the ground. Although he looks like a red-haired ape pretending to be a man, he is one of the world's top chemists. Monk, however, would much rather work with his fists than with test tubes. The frontispiece of the Bantam paperbacks gives this characterization of the men who joined Doc Savage in his work: "Together with their leader, they would go anywhere, fight anyone, dare everything—seeking excitement and perilous adventure."

Although Doc Savage is a relatively minor fictional character, he has influenced some major popular culture icons. Superman is the most obvious "descendent" of Doc. In fact, in the stories themselves and in the advertisements for the magazine, Doc was often referred to as a "superman." In addition to sharing the first name Clark, both heroes have a Fortress of Solitude somewhere in the arctic. Both also have female cousins that look like them, have their powers, and want to horn in on their adventures. Doc was known as the Man of Bronze, and Superman is known as the Man of Steel. Doc's connection to Batman is less obvious, but more fundamental. Both heroes are "self-made supermen" who, beginning in childhood, devoted themselves to intense training. Both have considerable scientific know-how, as evidenced by Doc's utility vest and Batman's very similar utility belt. It is even possible that the batmobile is patterned after Doc's bulletproof and gadget-filled sedan.

—Randy Duncan

Further Reading:

Cannaday, Marilyn. Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.

Farmer, Philip Jose. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. New York, Playboy Paperbacks, 1973.

Murray, Will. Secrets of Doc Savage. Odyssey Publications, 1981.