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

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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?

Doc Su­per­hero

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.

Re­cast Bronze

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.

Shadow Play

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.

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