September 29, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case File #202: Doc Savage

A character who may be the world's first superhero deserves a comeback.

OK, I may be cheating a bit this week.  Normally I go for comic book characters who have indistinct personalities, disappeared for one reason or another, or even are no where near as prominent as they used to be.  But this week’s Misplaced Hero didn’t start off as a comic book character, but a hero from various pulp novels, so I’m gonna count it.

Hey, I’ve done over 200 of these things on a nearly weekly basis.  I should be allowed to discuss the awesomeness that is Doc Savage if I want to.

Pulp novels, for the uninitiated, were cheap, quickly written series of adventure stories that appeared in magazines made from pulp paper that often had reoccurring characters, sometimes heroic, and sometimes not.  Pulp paper was cheap, and many such heroes were considered cheap, throwaway entertainment as a result.  Doc Savage’s creation was credited to his publishers at Street and Smith Publications, but most of his adventures were written by one Lester Dent, so Dent should probably get most of the credit for the character.

First appearing in his own self-titled magazine in 1933, Doc Savage was one Clark Savage Jr.  Raised from birth by his wealthy parents to be the best man possible, Clark was given over to a series of scientists who experimented on the boy, giving him vast (though still human) strength and a photographic memory.  Along the way, he also picked up martial arts, became a surgeon, and learned many different branches of science.  Essentially, he was Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and a whole mess of characters and historic figures that were recognizable in 1933.  He was Batman before there was a Batman.

Especially since, I suspect, his parents were dead.

But unlike Batman and many other such heroes, Doc didn’t work alone.  Despite being seemingly unstoppable and a genius in just about every field imaginable, Doc had a team of sidekicks known as the Fabulous Five.  All known by various nicknames they were:

  • Monk Mayfair, a chemist with a somewhat simian appearance
  • Ham Brooks, a brilliant attorney who often squabbled with Monk, and a formal guy that obvious had a cane-sword
  • Renny Renwick, a construction engineer who never looked happy, a giant of a man who got his jollies punching things
  • Longtom Roberts, an electrical engineer with a sickly appearance
  • Johnny Littlejohn, an archaeologist and geologist who liked using big words

As time passed, people noted Doc didn’t really need those people and they appeared less often aside from Monk and Ham.  And on occasion, his female cousin Pat Savage would show up as essentially a female version of Doc.

Operating out of the 86th floor of a New York City skyscraper, Doc used his vast wealth and advanced (by Depression-era standards) technology to fight evil and do good for everyone around the world.  In point of fact, Doc had sworn an oath only to do good for mankind, as did the Fabulous Five.  Ayn Rand probably hated that.

So, what happened to Doc Savage?  His regular adventures ran for something like 181 magazine issues, many of which were reprinted at various points in time.  But like a lot of pulp heroes, he mostly just disappeared when the pulp era ended.  He has had periods of popularity, and he has likewise gone on to inspire various other characters.

You can see Doc in Buckaroo Banzai, and the Fabulous Five in the Hong Kong Cavaliers.

Likewise, when Warren Ellis started the comic series Planetary and his superhuman archaeologists went exploring and discovered the first of many one-off characters that were basically thinly disguised versions of other recognizable characters, the first they found was one Doc Brass who was obviously meant to be Doc Savage.

There was a 1975 movie version of Doc Savage, but I can’t say I’ve seen it or can speak for its quality, but the fact that I never heard of it before doing my usual light research for this column tells me it probably is for the best if I haven’t seen it.  But more recently, writer/director Shane Black suggested he wanted to make a Doc Savage movie, and even got Dwayne Johnson interested in playing Savage.  Quite frankly, that may be the most perfect casting they could possibly do.

Doc Savage is one of those characters that probably deserves a second look.  Stan Lee considered him a superhero forerunner, and the right writer or director, one who takes the character as seriously as he probably deserves (which is to say probably not too much) could probably make something out of this proto-Batman.  Why not?  He is, arguably, the first superhero, and those things are all the rage right now.  I know I’d go see a Doc Savage movie from Shane Black and Dwayne Johnson.

Which probably means it won’t happen, because that’s how those things work.