The largely forgotten Doc Savage series of ‘pulp fiction’ novels dates back to 1933. They’re credited as the original American ‘superhero’ story, even predating Superman. The Man of Bronze was the first in the series.
Clark Savage, Jr. is part Sherlock Holmes (1887), and part Tarzan (1912). The Doc Savage character was created after the success of The Shadow. The Shadow was the name of the mysterious narrator who read out the stories on Detective Story Hour, a radio show featuring fiction from Detective Story Magazine. The Shadow became the show’s main attraction and the publisher rushed to cash-in on his popularity. They created original stories and a visual look for the character. The Shadow wore a distinctive black cloak with red lining (akin to a magicians cloak), and a wide brimmed hat. His first outing was in ‘The Living Shadow’ (1931).
The Shadow was more than a fighting hero, in the radio version he had magic-like powers. He could make himself semi-invisible, hypnotise others, and confuse or cloud a person’s mind. His ability to alter people’s thoughts was a precursor to Jedi mind control. After the success of The Shadow the publishers created another character, Doc Savage. Both The Shadow and Doc Savage went on to influence later pulp fiction and superhero characters. Doc Savage’s first name was Clark, and The Shadow’s was Kent, which may have led to Superman’s alias: Clark Kent. Doc Savage had a dome-shaped retreat in the Arctic, called the ‘Fortress of Solitude’ where he went to relax and study, and Superman had a similar hideaway, which was also called the ‘Fortress of Solitude’.
Doc Savage’s influences went beyond Superman, to include Bat-Man, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which opened with a seaplane landing in a jungle river, a ‘lost’ tribe, and golden treasure, all lifted from Doc Savage).
The strange eclecticism of 1930s pulp fiction went beyond creative exuberance, it was a commercial necessity. Reusing previously successful story elements increased the chance of a new story finding success.
Doc Savage went from urban New York into the jungles of South America, where he (re)discovers an ancient Mayan tribe living in the Valley of the Vanished. The valley is hidden from the rest of the world: the lost civilisation was a popular trope at the time and it had been used as far back as The Lost World (1912), and She (1898). The incorporation of cross-genre stories and repurposing existing tropes led to film serials like The Phantom Empire (1935): a western, a musical, and a science fiction story with cowboys and robots and a lost civilisation living underground.
Doc Savage is a wealthy, cultured superhero, like Bat-Man’s Bruce Wayne. He has a band of odd-ball supporters, his Fabulous Five as he calls them. They are all men, and all eccentric types. This is very much a man’s world, which seems quite weird today. One of his Fabulous Five is Monk. He’s an ape-like man who also happens to be an expert chemist. Doc Savage lives on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. He has a fleet of glamorous cars and planes, which are all painted bronze. Doc Savage is described as a bronze statue, with bronze skin, bronze hair, and golden eyes.
Although the prose style of The Man of Bronze is dated by today’s standards, it’s still surprisingly readable. The chapter headings are grandly Art Deco, with the chapter numbers in Latin numerals. The chapter names are designed for maximum effect, loaded with mystery and menace. Chapter one, for example, is called, ‘The Sinister One’, and chapter two, ‘A Message From the Dead’. They’re overblown, and bombastic, not a million miles away from the language of Blast or a Mark E Smith lyric. The overly self-important and dramatic tone of the Doc Savage novels gives them a tonal quality along the lines of a 1930s British Pathé newsreel.
To my mind, Doc Savage’s physical resemblance to a living bronze statue makes him feel like a true ‘superhero’, rather than an ordinary man:
This looked like the head and shoulders of a man, sculptured in hard bronze. It was a startling sight, that bronze bust. The lines of the features, the unusually high forehead, the mobile and muscular, but not too-full mouth, the lean cheeks, denoted a power of character seldom seen.
Most marvelous of all were the eyes. They glittered like pools of flake gold when little lights from the table lamp played on them.
The bronze masterpiece opened its mouth, yawned — for it was no statue, but a living man!
Even Doc Savage’s teeth get the writer’s attention:
The bronze man showed wide, very strong-looking teeth, in yawning.
Some of the literary techniques can be a little rough. For example, this attempt at weaving in some subtle character detail into a dialogue tag is heavy handed:
‘We have no facts upon which to base suspicion!’ clipped Ham, the waspish Harvard lawyer whose quick thinking had earned him a brigadier generalship in the World War.
At other times the choice of words can seem a little strange. For example, ‘the room reeked silence’. I don’t think of silence as having a smell. At other times the attention to detail can seem overly precise: ‘Doc Savage was the last of the six to enter the adjoining room. But he was inside the room in less than ten seconds.’
And, some of the descriptions are surprisingly detailed for pulp fiction:
A bilious dawn, full of fog, shot through with a chill wind, was crawling along the north shore of Long Island. The big hangars at North Beach airport, just within the boundary line of New York City, were like pale-gray, round-backed boxes in the mist. Electric lights made a futile effort to dispel the sodden gloom.
Doc Savage is very much the cardboard cut-out alpha-male hero, one might call him a hollow action figure. We get to know a lot about his exercise routine but very little about what goes on between his bronze ears. While the novels don’t refer to his as ‘superhuman’ it’s made clear that he’s a sort of ultimate human, both in terms of his genius intellect and his perfect physical form. There’s little fear that an enemy could defeat him. His invulnerability can feel like arrogance. (His five buddies provide comic relief, and a point of vulnerability, requiring him to rescue them in later stories.)
Doc popped the corridor lights off as a matter of safety. He feared no encounter in the dark. He had trained his ears by a system of scientific sound exercises which was a part of the two hours of intensive physical and mental drill Doc gave himself daily. So powerful and sensitive had his hearing become that he could detect sounds absolutely inaudible to other people. And ears were all important in a scrimmage in the dark.
And, later on in a different scene:
Doc himself set off alone through the night. Thanks to the marvelous faculties he had developed by years of intensive drill, he had little fear of his enemies attacking him successfully.
I found Doc Savage’s rigorous exercise regime quite annoying:
Doc had taken his usual two-hour exercise long before dawn, while the others still slept.
The alluring ‘exotic’ Princess is another 1930s adventure trope. No trip into the jungle, to Mars, planet Mongo, or an underground civilisation, would be complete without an alluring Princess. And, wherever they are, they always seem to speak perfect English.
She was by a long stretch the most attractive of the Mayan girls they had seen. The perfection of her features revealed instantly that she was King Chaac’s daughter. She was nearly as tall as her father. The exquisite fineness of her beauty was like the work of some masterly craftsman in gold.
Predictably, the ‘entrancing’ Mayan princess from The Valley of the Vanished falls for Doc Savage, unfortunately he’s just not that into women. (He’s far too busy being a dashing adventurer.) One can’t feel a little sorry for the Princess though, and we are relieved to learn that, ‘She was, of course, well bred enough not to show her feelings too openly.’
Slowly it dawns on her that he’s probably too into himself and his tedious exercise routine:
Pretty Princess Monja was a sensible girl. She saw bronze, handsome Doc Savage was not for her. So she made the best of it. Bravely, she hid her disappointment within her bosom.
The baddie of the story, the evil Snake Man is a kind of Mayan witch doctor from the Valley of the Vanished. When he’s unmasked (in a completely Hardy Boys, and Scooby-Doo style exposé) he’s revealed to be ‘Don Rubio Gorro, secretary of state of the republic of Hidalgo’ the fictitious South American country where the adventure has taken place.
The 181 issues of the original Doc Savage lived on in a revamped 1960s comic, and a 1975 film. The film Doc Savage: Man of Bronze was supposed to be the first of many, but flopped at the box office. This was attributed to its high camp style (reminiscent of the 1960s Batman TV series). Its excessive American patriotism is so over-the-top it feels like satire. It was widely believed, at the time, that the audience wouldn’t accept the story unless it didn’t take itself too seriously. Later, in the same decade, Star Wars arrived, and it didn’t make the same mistake. Star Wars had a substantial budget, a much better script, a literally out-of-this-world story, and decent acting, so there’s little to compare.
Doc Savage is another fictional character who has taken his place in the pantheon of faded heroes, lost in the vastness of time, like The Shadow, and Dick Tracy, once beloved and now largely forgotten.