Thanks to an invite from Ellid, I'm taking a turn at a BSBTG diary today. Today's topic is an archetypical hero from the Pulp era who had an amazing run - and isn't done yet. There are few who would consider the pulps great literature - but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of fun to be had indulging in them.
The interval between the World Wars: a time of turmoil, innovation, deprivation, and the continuing struggle for good in a world of misfortune, bungling, and evil. The horrors of World War I had ground to a halt only after tremendous bloodshed, and idealistic efforts to build a better world out of the wreckage managed only a mixed success. The U.S. had its own hubristic experiment in morality, again with mixed results. The Roaring Twenties still managed to party thanks to bootleggers and bathtub gin, but all parties come to an end - and this one crashed hard. The world was becoming a smaller place, thanks to advancing technology and daring, but that too would prove to have mixed results. The world of popular music was entering into the jazz age; art was transforming the machine age, culminating in a future that is a long time gone.
It was a time of heroes and exciting adventures - in the world of fiction! Simon Templar, AKA The Saint had already been loosed on the world. John Wayne and Gene Autry were both whooping it up as cowboys on the silver screen and The Shadow was sending chills down the spines of listeners to his radio adventures, having made the jump to the then new media from the world of pulp magazines. Speaking of which, Amazing Stories had launched in 1926 and was in full swing with tales of super science. Superman and Batman would both come out of this era.
And then there was Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze.
Clark Savage Jr. is one of the more interesting creations to come out of the Pulps. The more you learn about his career, the more you'll begin to see how many of his contemporary and our current hero-adventurer characters have elements that look like they could have been borrowed from him and his tales. Some of it is because of the similar story terrain, of course - but some of it is because he was a big influence on the field.
His career begins in the eponymous "Doc Savage - Man of Bronze". No super powers, no mystical abilities - yet still larger than life. Doc Savage has almost superhuman strength and reflexes the old-fashioned way: good genes and an intense course of physical and mental conditioning from early childhood at the hands of the best scientists his father could provide. Every day he spends two hours doing a special exercise routine to bring his body, mind and senses to the absolute peak of human capability. Physically, his body is so well proportioned that his larger than life stature is not apparent at first glance. His skin is of a bronze color, his close-fitting hair a slightly darker shade - and his eyes have a peculiar golden color that can be hypnotic.....
According to the wikipedia entry, his creation was a response to the success of The Shadow. 181 adventures of Doc Savage were published between March, 1933 and the summer of 1949; that works out to around 11 a year. Nearly all of them were written by Lester Dent, under the Street & Smith Publications house name of Kenneth Robeson. If the wikipedia article about him is to be believed, he was able to write the Doc Savage stories based on personal experiences.
Issue Number 1 of Doc Savage magazine hit the stands in February, 1933; within 6 months it was one of the top selling pulp magazines on the market. Much of the success stemmed from Dent's fantastic imagination, fueled by his own personal curiosity. Dent was able to use the freedom that his new-found financial security allowed him, to learn and to explore. In addition to being a wide-ranging reader, Dent also took courses in technology and the trades. He earned both his amateur radio and pilot license, passed both the electricians' and plumbers' trade exams, and was an avid mountain climber. His usual method was to learn a subject thoroughly, then move on to another. An example is boating: in the late 1930s, Dent bought a 40 foot two-masted schooner. He and his wife lived on it for several years, sailing it up and down the eastern coast of the US, then sold it in 1940. The Dents traveled extensively as well, enough to earn Lester a membership in the Explorers Club.Doc Savage is not just a perfect physical specimen, he's also a polymath, trained in every branch of science, math, medicine, multilingual, ambidextrous...... He could easily hold his own with Spock, Data, or Doctor Who when it comes to comprehending new phenomena, mysteries of science, or obscure bits of knowledge. Save for the inability to fly or be bulletproof, the Man of Bronze could almost pass for the Man of Steel. And as it happens, Doc has his own Fortress of Solitude somewhere in the Arctic where he periodically retreats to work on his fantastic inventions, scientific investigations, and refresh himself mentally.
Think Batman is cool with his utility belt? In the course of his adventures, Doc Savage comes to habitually wear a vest of many pockets filled with handy little gadgets of his own devising. Special chalk to leave secret messages that can only be seen with UV light. Capsules filled with sleep gas. Flashlights powered by miniature spring-wound generators. Miniature grapples and lines for climbing. All that and more. Doc's incredible strength, balance and dexterity allow him to scale buildings, cliffs, etc. where no handholds seem visible; his ability to move swiftly and silently is uncanny - and his unarmed combat skills are incredible. Put him and Batman in a dark room, and well let's just say the odds on who would be the last man standing would be problematic. I don't know if Gordon R. Dickson ever read any of his adventures, but in many ways Doc Savage could pass for a prototype Dorsai. Dickson was born at the right time to have grown up with Doc Savage.
Doc Savage has his main base of operations - offices and labs - on the 86th floor of what is (probably) the Empire State Building, where many of his adventures start. It's a bit taller than the Baxter Building, but Doc's landlords must have had many of the same headaches as Reed Richards'.
At the beginning of the Man of Bronze he's alone there while, unknown to him, an assassin is stalking him from a nearby building. At this time we get to meet his five associates: Colonel John Renwick, William Harper "Johnny" Littlejohn, Major Thomas J. "Long Tom" Roberts, Brigadier General Theodore Marley "Ham" Brooks, and Lt. Colonel Andrew Bldogett "Monk" Mayfair. Their military titles are the reminders of their shared service with Doc in World War I; respectively they are now a top engineer, geologist/archeologist, electrical wizard, lawyer, and chemist. They're all world-class experts - and Doc can surpass each and every one of them in their own specialty.
Each of them is very distinct in appearance, to put it mildly. Renny is over 6 feet tall with outsized bony fists. Johnny is tall and gaunt, "like a half-starved, studious scientist." Long Tom looks like a physical weakling: "thin, not very tall, and with a none-too-healthy appearing skin." (But he's one of the toughest of the bunch.) Ham is "Slender, waspy, quick-moving" and carries a sword cane. Monk "had the build of a gorilla, arms six inches longer than his legs, a chest thicker than it was wide", tiny eyes in gristly pits, and a huge mouth. Each of them has a distinct personality to go along with their appearance.
Needless to say, all of this leads to some interesting group dynamics. Ham and Monk in particular have an ongoing pattern of constantly squabbling and trying to prank each other (while also being best friends beneath it all.) Any time there's a romantic interest in a story, the two of them vie for her affections. As the stories progress, the other members of Doc's team tend to come and go, but Ham and Monk are nearly always there at Doc's side.
Doc has been training his whole life to follow in his father's footsteps. Clark Savage Sr. was a world traveling adventurer and philanthropist. He'd gone through most of what must have been a good sized fortune doing that, while planning to set his son up in the same line. Alas, he was never to see it - he'd died mysteriously while Doc had been away at the fortress, and his friends were joining him to commiserate while they worked out what to do next. They'd already decided on a life of adventure together, and were looking forward to traveling the world, righting wrongs, solving mysteries, etc. etc.
Which, if you think about it, rather resembles the set up for Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers.
What happens next sets the pattern for most of the Doc Savage adventures. When they come together, Doc reveals that while he was away someone burgled the safe in the office, and destroyed most of the last message his father had left him - but they didn't know about the secret message he'd written for Doc on a window using that special chalk. Just as Doc gets the UV light on it, a bullet comes crashing through, followed by another right through the wall. They all take cover until Doc gives the all clear and then immediately go into action. Renny gets to work working out the trajectory of the shots and Long Tom creates a sighting device to locate where they came from; Monk gets chemicals ready for sleep gas; Johnny uses his skills as an archeologist to piece the window and the message back together. Ham waits impatiently and keeps alert.
They read the message on the window, and then set out to track down the shooter - but come up empty. Upon their return, they discover someone has been in the office to read the message - and he's still in the building. A chase results - the unknown intruder escapes - but Doc has already pulled a trick that saves the day.
To make a long story short, eventually all of them are aboard a powerful 3-engined plane flying down to the Central American country of Hidalgo, where papers they found in a secret cache from Doc's father tell them he has some kind of legacy waiting. Assassins continue to dog their trail; Doc and his crew are repeatedly attacked; Doc's special talents prevail and eventually lead them to a lost tribe of Mayans in a remote hidden valley. There are further complications, but Doc and his companions triumph - and obtain the resources they'll need to get them through the nearly two hundred adventures to follow!
Man of Bronze was written by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic at Street and Smith Publications, before they brought Dent on board. They set the basics, and Dent ran with it. Along with Doc's crew of 5, a cousin was added - Patricia Savage. Sharing Doc's exotic skin coloring and love of adventure, she'd periodically get tangled up in his adventures. Although not the Amazon equivalent of Doc, she still had a set of brains and a way of throwing complications into the plot.
Here's a quick sampling of titles from the early years: The Polar Treasure; Pirate of the Pacific; The Red Skull; The Lost Oasis; The Sargasso Ogre; The Czar of Fear; The Phantom City; Brand of the Werewolf; The Man Who Shook the Earth; Meteor Menace; The Monsters; The Mystery on the Snow. They could take place any where on earth, and usually featured a villain or villains with grotesque features and character utilizing some fiendish device which Doc would have to use his vast knowledge and mental acuity to unravel. Again, a lot of parallels with Batman.
Doc Savage and his men, although often finding themselves in the midst of carnage, did try to avoid taking life when possible. He and his men often used sleep gas to subdue the bad guys. They had special machine pistols that could - among other ammo - fire mercy bullets that would put people to sleep. Evil henchmen captured by Doc and his team got an extra special treatment when possible. It seems Doc had a special hospital/prison upstate where they'd be quietly carted off to undergo brain surgery and conditioning to transform them into law-abiding citizens who could no longer commit crime. They'd then be set up with jobs so they could make a living. If this sounds creepy today, don't forget Doc Savage comes from the era when lobotomies were routinely performed for some mental disorders.
Considering that we seem to have entirely abandoned the idea of prison reform and rehabilitation these days, Doc's allegedly superior brain surgery technique doesn't sound like the worst fate for people who would otherwise end up as a pile of bodies. (The Shadow was notorious for the trail of corpses he left in his wake.) A simpler time in some ways. Not that we seem to be doing all that well with tasers either.
Doc Savage Adventures tend to be full of fast action, sudden reversals of fortune, and cliff hangers. Doc and his men are always getting kidnapped, captured, escaping, and turning the tables. There's usually some secret (Who IS the bad guy? How ARE they doing their evil?) that isn't revealed until the final climax. Doc is often on top of things, but keeping it secret from everyone else until the time to act. Dialog is often of the 'snappy' kind; it's there to move the plot along mostly, not do a lot of deep psychological probing. And every so often Doc emits a mysterious melodic trilling sound by involuntary reflex indicating something big just happened - a sudden insight, a critical observation, satisfaction. It's a cue to the reader that may not go explained until later.
It seemed like each adventure would feature Doc trundling out some new machine, like a special radio detector or a rocket-propelled dirigible capable of cruising through the stratosphere. (He went through an awful lot of aircraft!) He was always pulling scientific miracles out of his hat, and demonstrating the depth of his knowledge. Gunfire, bombs, and slugfests with bad guys were a constant, as were ingenious traps and nasty ways to die, barely evaded. People attempting to practice deceptions, questions of identity were a constant challenge. There was just one thing Doc Savage couldn't handle.
The explanation was that Doc had resolved to live a celibate (as far as we know) life, feeling it would be unfair to any woman to have to live with his constant absences and continual danger from unscrupulous villains. (Plus, he didn't have to be constantly breaking up with romantic interests every time some new woman would show up in a story. That avoids a whole set of plot complications for the author.) Damsels in distress would almost inevitably be attracted to him before being set straight by his team. Ham and Monk became rebound experts...
Needless to say, today there would be a lot of snide remarks and knowing glances at a bunch of guys who spend all their time hanging out with each other - but then also remember this was a common trope in stories of the time, and still is. (Look at how many of the heroes in the Avengers movie who hang out together are male - and how the female characters tend to have a certain eye-candy factor as part of their persona...)
The pattern is set in the very first book. Among the people they encounter is an incredibly beautiful Mayan princess, Monja. After she's led them to exactly what they need to triumph over the bad guys:
Doc turned to pretty Princess Monja. He hesitated, then said: "Monja, you've been a brick."And that's about as hot as it gets between them. At the end of the book, she comes to terms with it.
"What's that?" she asked. Evidently her supply of English slang was limited.
"A wonderful woman," Doc grinned. "Now, will you do something else? It'll save time."
She smiled. "I will do anything you say."
Pretty Princess Monja was a sensible woman. She saw bronze, handsome Doc Savage was not for her. So she made the best of it. Bravely she hid her disappointment.If you want an idea of what a Doc Savage adventure might look like, picture any of the Indiana Jones movies. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Doctor Jones and Doc Savage crossed paths somewhere. Speilberg created the series as an homage to the old 1930's adventure serials. You could also speculate on how much of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow borrows elements from Doc Savage. It wouldn't be hard to rewrite it as one of Doc's adventures. The novelized version of The Rocketeer has Doc Savage as the inventor of the rocket back pack. What goes around, comes around - and the Man of Bronze keeps popping up.
She even discussed it philosophically with homely Monk.
"I suppose he will find some American woman," she said.
"Now you listen," Monk said seriously. "There won't be any women in Doc's life. If there were one,you'd be the one. Doc has come nearer falling for you than any other woman. And some pippins have tried to snare Doc."
"Is that the truth?" Princess Monja demanded.
"So help my Aunt Hannah if it ain't!" Monk declared.
Then Monk got the shock of his eventful life. Princess Monja suddenly kissed him. Then she fled.
Monk stared after her, grinning from ear to ear, carefully tasting the young Mayan princess' kiss on his lips.
"Gosh! What Doc is passing up!" he exclaimed.
Although the original pulp run ended in 1949, it saw a rebirth in 1964 when Bantam Books started reissuing them. That's when I first encountered Doc Savage, that and by way of chance with a Junior High School jazz band connection. Ed Shaughnessy, drummer with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band, did a program at the school, and I was one of the band members who got to do a concert with him. We played several charts he'd brought with him, including one titled "Doc Savage".
The original run of Doc Savage didn't just confine itself to the pulps. There were comic books and radio dramas. Bantam's project sparked further interest; one movie was released in 1975 (to bad reviews), another never saw light of day, and there was even talk of a television series. Both DC and Marvel comics have had Doc Savage stories; the man does get around. Philip Jose Farmer got brought in to do some more Doc Savage stories. Among other things, he ended up 'discovering' Tarzan and Doc were cousins, and wrote a biography of Doc. I recall an Ace Double he did featuring both Doc Savage and Tarzan. The Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees was two novels in one cover - you flipped the book over to get to the other story. Farmer updated both characters into the 1960s (thanks to an ongoing story about a worldwide conspiracy and an immortality drug) and the two stories are linked, coming to the same conclusion by different routes for each character. It's a rather interesting tour de force.
If you've never read any Doc Savage, and you're in the mood for some good old-fashioned rip roaring pulp adventure, you're in luck. You can find a lot of Doc Savage paperbacks at eBay and Amazon. If you go through the Apple iTunes store, you can find ebooks, podcasts, and the 1975 movie. Given the current wave in Hollywood of mining comic book heroes and the old pulps, who knows if Doc won't return yet again to the silver screen or even TV?
I'm going to be traveling for the next few days, so my ability to comment is going to be limited. Feel free to chime in on Doc Savage or any other related Books So Bad They're Good.