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Doc Savage and his oddly assorted team might be considered the progenitors of today’s “Fantastic Four” and many other teams of superheroes — even Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.” -Stan Lee, creator of Marvel Comics’ “Spider-Man” and “The X-Men”
There are probably two reasons to read pulp fiction that’s 70, 80, 90, and even 100 years old. The first is that you’re a true fan of the genre. The second is, if not for these ancient heroes, we wouldn’t have the modern ones that, at least up until recently, were box office blockbusters at the movies.
In the mid-1960s as I was about to enter Junior High, I didn’t realize these stories existed and more, I didn’t know that various publishers had finally convinced the owners of these older properties to allow them to appear as paperbacks. It was the perfect time for me. I was the age and sex of the target audience, and the average price for a paperback was around 40 to 60 cents a copy. Heck, back then, even a comic book cost 12 cents.
So Edgar Rice Burroughs’ entire Tarzan and John Carter of Mars book series abruptly appeared in mall bookstores all across the country. So did E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series along with what Robert E. Howard and every other author under the sun wrote about Conan the Barbarian.
I didn’t read all of them, of course (I didn’t get around to Conan until High School). In Junior High, while most of my friends (yes, these tales had a huge appeal for teenage boys) were reading the Lensman and Tarzan books, I was hooked on John Carter and Skylark.
However, I remember seeing a group of paperbacks I never managed to pick up, Doc Savage.
The image (reproduced from the original 1938 magazine) at the top is a collection of two stories plus various articles I bought from Amazon a month or two ago. The cover to the right is what I remember about Savage from decades past as painted by James Bama. It looked really compelling at the time.
But like Tarzan or the Lensman books, which I only started reading last year, I never picked up a Doc Savage…until now.
If you set aside John Carter and Conan, Doc Savage or Clark Savage Jr, was the original larger-than-life action hero. He didn’t wear a costume and didn’t have any superpowers, but he still pre-dated the comic strip’s first costumed hero The Phantom by three years, and Superman by five.
The classic stories were all written by Lester Dent under the name “Kenneth Robeson.” Unlike Conan creator Howard who died in poverty at the age of 30, Dent was paid very well, and between writing “Fortress” and “Genghis,” could afford to vacation with his wife in Europe.
Doc Savage was really implausible as a man raised from infancy by his Father and a group of scientists to be the perfect and even most extraordinary person ever to live.
He was an expert on everything, infinitely wealthy, and totally dedicated to defeating a collection of world-conquering maniacs all for the sake of doing good.
He had his “entourage” or team, but from the two stories I did read, “Fortress of Solitude” (mentioned earlier but described in detail in this 1938 story, pre-dating Superman’s arctic fortress by twenty years) and “The Devil Genghis,” they seemed to be played largely for comedy. Oh sure, they were all independently wealthy men in their own right, and each an expert in their field. However, Doc was far more intelligent and used them as assistants who seemed to need a lot of supervision.
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair, an industrial chemist.
Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, an accomplished attorney.
Colonel John “Renny” Renwick, a construction engineer.
Major Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts, an electrical engineer.
William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn, an archaeologist and geologist.
Doc’s headquarters was on the 86th floor of what was probably the Empire State Building, and like Batman would end up having, possessed a collection of highly advanced planes, cars, weapons, scientific equipment, and what have you.
Speaking of Batman, one of the inspirations for Doc was another pulp fiction era hero, The Shadow who first appeared on radio in 1930 and in print in his own magazine in 1931 as published by Street and Smith (which later published Doc Savage in his own magazine as well).
The relationship between the Shadow and Doc Savage was subsequently compared with that of Batman and Superman, both foes of evil, but also both darker and lighter sides of the same coin (Doc Savage and The Shadow wouldn’t actually “meet” until 1990 with the story set in 1935).
When I started reading “Fortress of Solitude,” I thought I’d die of boredom. The story initially focused on what would become Doc’s arch-nemesis “John Sunlight,” a Soviet master criminal who, after a prison escape with his cronies, managed to find and enter Doc’s “Fortress.” This was a large, blue dome taken care of by a group of “Eskimos” Doc was acquainted with.
The story picked up more once Doc, Monk, and Ham were brought into it, and like I imagine most of his stories went, each character, friend or foe, was a fantastic exaggeration.
After many harrowing twists, with Sunlight utilizing deadly devices he found in the Fortress, the villain was supposedly eaten by a polar bear while trying to escape from Doc Savage and his crew. This was a pretty transparent lead-in to “The Devil Genghis.” Also, I understand that the publisher forbade Dent from writing direct sequels to his stories, so another “novel-length” tale appeared between “Fortress” and “Genghis.”
Most heroes have their enduring enemies who come back time after time as in Superman’s Lex Luthor or Batman’s The Joker. However, at the end of “Genghis” (the story is eighty-three years old so I guess I’m revealing no spoilers), Sunlight is sliced and diced into a lot of pieces by Afghan warriors right in front of Doc and his crew. Yes, he died.
If I want to learn more about Doc, then I’ve just scratched the surface. Like the Conan books, eventually, a number of other authors wrote and published his adventures in the years since Dent’s death in 1959, including graphic novels like the one I cited above. I guess you just can’t keep a good hero down.
Referencing my quote of Stan Lee above, there’s another good reason to become familiar with Doc Savage. He and his companions were the prototype of just about every superhero and superhero team created in the 1950s and beyond.
If you read, for example, Marvel comic books from the 1960s (buying them would be expensive these days), you’re going to recognize Dent’s influences on Lee (and artists such as Jack Kirby) in types of villains, plotting, team dynamics, and even outlandish scientific inventions. These, of course, lead to the superhero movie blockbusters of the past 20 some odd years which raked in billions of dollars collectively. That’s quite a legacy.
While there were no doubt many influences, Doc Savage and his group may be the most direct. Reading Doc Savage is one way of understanding the foundations of the big business superhero industry of today…that is until what is about to come out in films like The Eternals (including actor Haaz Sleiman’s rather sweeping generalization about which types of families “are way healthier than regular families”).
The superhero movie may be about to take a nosedive. Another reason to favor the heroes from the past and hopefully attempt to capture the flavor of their stories in our present.