Meet The Prose: doc savage
In the third instalment of our ongoing feature, James Lovegrove turns his attention to the bronze-skinned superman of pulp’s golden age
The making of a bronze-skinned superman
Doc Savage is the forefather of comic book superheroes as we know them. He, more than the other members of the classic pulp fiction pantheon – more than the Shadow, the Spider, Zorro, any of them – established the crimefighter template which the nascent comics industry swiftly copied and expanded on.
Doc had an Arctic-based Fortress of Solitude long before Superman did. He operated out of a New York skyscraper, much like the Fantastic Four. He fought bizarre villains, many of them with names which Stan Lee would later appropriate for his own bad guys – the Leader, the Vanisher, the Metal Master. Without the Man of Bronze, would there have been a Man of Steel? Without Clark Savage Jr, an ordinary human honed to the peak of physical and mental perfection, would there have been a Batman?
Nearly 200 Doc Savage novels were published between 1933 and 1949, the vast majority written by Lester Dent under the “house name” Kenneth Robeson. The series was wildly popular in its day, but how successful has Doc himself been in the medium he did so much to shape?
Without the Man of Bronze, would there have been a Man of Steel?
Even while Doc Savage was appearing in prose form, the novels’ publisher, Street & Smith, tried him out in comics. A Doc strip appeared as a back-up feature in the first three issues of Shadow Comics before graduating to its own title. Doc Savage Comics started out showcasing very abbreviated adaptations of Dent stories, but with #5 it was all change as Doc was refashioned into a standard long- underwear vigilante of the kind he had helped inspire. After his plane crashes in Tibet, he discovers a blue hood with a gem in it, the “Sacred Ruby”. The hood gives him superstrength, hypnotic powers, and the ability to fly and hurl energy blasts.
Gone was his team of loyal sidekicks, the “Fabulous Five”: chemist Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair, lawyer Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, engineer John “Renny” Renwick, electrical genius Thomas “Long Tom” Roberts, and archaeologist and geologist William Ham, gave added life to Doc’s prose adventures and helped humanise the somewhat aloof central character. All this was sacrificed so that Doc could become yet another caped, cowled super do-gooder.
A second series of Doc Savage Comics returned Doc to his costume-less roots but didn’t last long, forcing him to find a berth again in the back pages of Shadow Comics, where he stayed until the book’s cancellation in 1949. In general, the Street & Smith Doc comics are a typical product of their times, crudely executed and occasionally downright odd, as in the tale called “X – The Unknown Quantity”. Here, Monk confronts the strip’s artist, Al Bare, to complain about how he is drawn. “I ain’t as ugly as you make me look!” Monk fulminates, to which Bare replies, “Gad! I’ll make you better-looking – but it’ll be a lie!”
Adap tation Of Non-Movie
It wasn’t until 1966 that the next Doc Savage comic appeared, a one-shot published by Gold Key in order to tie in with a proposed film adaptation of the Dent novel The ThousandHeaded Man. At the time, Doc was enjoying a resurgence in popularity courtesy of Bantam Books, who were reprinting his adventures in mass-market paperback form. The success of the reprints was in no small part down to the sumptuous painted covers by James Bama.
The movie never happened, but the comic, written by Leo Dorfman and drawn by Jack Sparling, isn’t too bad. Doc and his aides are in a race with the villainous Sen Gat to reach the mythical City of the Thousand-Headed Man in Cambodia. This is a classic treasure-filled lost
city, protected by a poisonous mist derived from cobra venom. Sparling makes Doc look peculiarly old and craggy, but the energy and vigour of the source material is all there.
Make Mine Marvel
Six years later Marvel acquired the comic book licence for Doc Savage. Its first crack at the character comprised adaptations of four of the novels – The Man Of Bronze, Death In Silver, The Monsters and Brand Of The Werewolf – devoting two issues apiece to each tale. Steve Englehart did most of the scripting, and the underrated Ross Andru provided the pencils, his work looking its best in #3-#4 under Tom Palmer’s delicate, lustrous inks. The emphasis in these comics is very much on action, in the Mighty Marvel manner, making them good solid fast-paced fun.
A Doc Savage movie finally become a reality in 1975, produced by George Pal and starring TV Tarzan, Ron Ely. Marvel got in on the act by relaunching its Doc strip under its black-and- white, magazine-sized Curtis imprint. The first issue offered a painted cover by Roger Kastel based on the movie poster and promised “A Return To Greatness!”
It was no idle boast, as this comic book version of Doc Savage, although lasting just eight issues, is a triumph. Allegedly, writer Doug Moench read only a single Doc novel before embarking on the project. If that’s true, his powers of pastiche are remarkable, because his scripts get the tone and plotting exactly right.
The story titles are evocatively spot-on: “The Doom On Thunder Isle”, “Hell Reapers At The Heart Of Paradise”, “The Earth Wreckers”, “The Sky Stealers”… The characterisation is strong too, and Moench finds room for all the elements familiar to and cherished by Doc readers. The perpetual squabbling between Monk and Ham; Doc’s feisty and troublesome female cousin Pat; the pneumatic “flea run” transport capsule which connects Doc’s headquarters on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building to his waterfront warehouse, the Hidalgo Trading Company, where he stows his fleet of incredible high-tech vehicles – all are present and correct. There are baffling puzzles, cunning gadgets, lovely but deceitful women, hidden ancient civilisations, baddies with world-conquering ambitions, and super natural-seeming mysteries which turn out to have logical explanations.
The artwork is lush. Although there are different pencillers – John Buscema, Marie Severin, Val Mayerik – almost every story carries the mark of inker Tony DeZuniga, whose use of grey wash and stippling is exemplary. DeZuniga is no slouch in the pencilling department either, as issues #5 and #6 show, and Ernie Chan’s work in #8 is similarly praiseworthy.
DC took a crack at Doc in the late ’80s, testing the waters with a four-issue miniseries. It was the immediately post- Watchmen/Dark
Knight era when realistic (read: disrespectful) deconstructions of the superhero were all the rage. Writer Dennis O’Neil’s tale, “The Silver
Pyramid”, starts in 1945 but is soon winging forward in time to the 1960s and then the present day, all nicely illustrated by the Kubert brothers, Andy and Adam. At the end of #1 Doc is seemingly disintegrated by a mad Nazi scientist’s ray, leaving his son and grandson to carry on his legacy, with diminishing returns. The son, Clark Savage III, is shot dead by police after gunning down some street hoods. The grandson, known as Chip, grows up feckless and weak-willed, while Doc’s five aides continue fighting the good fight but are losing their battle with the infirmities of old age.
Doc eventually returns, looking not a day older than when he disappeared. He wasn’t dead, it transpires, merely trapped on a distant planet. There followed an ongoing series which notched up 24 issues plus one annual between 1988 and 1990. Here Doc is provided with a new, younger team of sidekicks to supplement the now marginalised original Five. These include a female Israeli special forces officer, Pat’s granddaughter Pam, and a bearded Russian who has patterned himself after Doc.
Throughout his run, O’Neil evinces no great love for the character, so it’s a relief when he retires from the writing duties with #6. Taking over, Mike Barr swiftly undoes O’Neil’s most jarring and egregious misstep: Long Tom was shown to have betrayed Doc to the Nazis out of jealousy – “I was tired of living in your shadow” – but Barr reveals that he was under the influence of a mind-controlling evildoer all along. He also jettisons the ill-fitting SF story elements O’Neil introduced, and revives Doc’s only recurring villain, John Sunlight, who featured in two of the original novels, Fortress Of Solitude and The Devil Genghis. Finally, after a nice four-issue crossover with DC’s other ongoing pulp-hero title The Shadow Strikes!, the series reverts to a period setting, where it belongs.
Rod Whigham pencils almost every issue, and there isn’t much to be said for his work except that it’s nowhere near as poor as the art to be discovered in the various Doc Savage miniseries produced by Millennium Comics in the early ’90s. John Sunlight is back (again) in the first of these, a tale entitled “The Monarch Of Armageddon”, while the second, “Doom Dynasty”, pits Doc against Dr Nikola, the occultist criminal mastermind antihero of several late-Victorian novels by Guy Boothby. The third series, “Devil’s Thoughts”, is a shambolic farrago set early in Doc’s career and graced with art that wouldn’t look out of place in the Beano. A fourth series, adapting the Dent novel Repel, was never completed. Millennium’s enthusiasm for the
character cannot be faulted, but the results are uniformly amateurish.
Dark Horse was next in the round-robin of licence holders, and set out its stall by teaming Doc Savage and the Shadow in a 1995 two-issue micro series, “The Case Of The Shrieking Skeletons”. This sees the two crimebusters clash over their opposing methods of dealing with crooks – the Shadow kills, while Doc does his utmost to avoid taking life – but nonetheless they manage to co-operate in thwarting a Nazi plot to create a human growth serum. Steve Vance’s robustly enjoyable script is accompanied by decent art from Stan Manoukian and Vince Roucher, although their Doc looks hulking and slightly inhuman rather than the perfectly proportioned giant Dent describes.
Also written by Vance, the four-issue miniseries “Curse Of The Fire God” takes Doc and the Five, plus Pat, to South America. There they encounter corrupt local politicians, a crooked oil magnate, and Mayan cultists. Again, Vance provides a well-balanced mix of pulpy elements, and all the requisite character traits are present and correct, from Johnny’s love of long words – “I’ll be super-amalgamated!” – to Pat’s tempestuous temper. Gary Gianni’s covers are superb; Pat Broderick’s interior artwork looks sadly pedestrian by comparison.
DC grabbed Doc Savage back as part of its 2009 First Wave initiative, in which Batman, Doc, the Spirit and other non-powered heroes were reimagined in a contemporary but noirish setting. A Batman/Doc Savage Special by Brian Azzarello with Phil Noto on art served as a leadin to a six-issue First Wave miniseries, again by Azzarello and drawn by Rags Morales. This selfcontained universe also featured versions of the Blackhawks, Black Canary and the Avenger.
Twelve issues of a Doc Savage title followed, and it’s unconvincing, clunky stuff, Doc’s oldschool heroism awkwardly juxtaposed against modern war-on-terror story elements. Writers and artists come and go, none of them able to make the hybrid work. The Avenger-starring Justice Inc back-up feature, gorgeously drawn by Scott Hampton, blows it out of the water.
As Good As He Ever Wa s?
Dynamite Comics is currently publishing a series which rivals the Moench-written strip for the accolade of best comic book Doc adaptation. Chris Roberson pens adventures which are faithful to the character and his world while gradually, issue by issue, nudging him forward through time into the 21st century. He introduces little Easter Egg references that will delight Docolytes; for instance the plant silphium which, in the novel Fear Cay, turns out to be the true source of the Fountain of Youth. Bilquis Evely’s disappointingly flimsy art notwithstanding, Roberson’s Doc Savage is the Man of Bronze as he ought to be: decent, noble, indomitable, eternal.
how iconic characters
from the world of prose fiction made the leap into
Issue #1 of DSC recycled a painting from the 1933 pulp cover for “Pirate Of The Pacific”.
The short stories appeared in the Doc Savage Magazine.
A highly stylised Doc: all rippling muscles and an arrow-like widow’s peak.
Marvel mined the novels for some Doc Savage gold.
Curtis’s eight-issue run probably best captures the feel of the pulps.
Doc attempts to stop the Air Lord blowing up the Hindenburg in Doc Savage #19.
Cousin Pat makes a welcome return during the Moench-led glory years.
Azzarello and Noto’s Batman/Doc Savage Special #1.