Friday, March 15, 2013

Remembering The Man of Bronze

One of the most influential fictional characters of the 20th Century is someone you’ve probably never heard of: Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr., the Man of Bronze.  He made his debut in pulp magazines 80 years ago in March, 1933 (around the same time that King Kong made his first appearance).  Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith, and Doc was created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, but most of the 181 novels were written by wordsmith Lester Dent (1904-1959).

Doc Savage was a surgeon, explorer, scientist, researcher, criminologist and all-around physical marvel.  He did two hours of intense exercise every day, giving him a fabulous physique.  His body had been tanned a deep bronze during his world travels, and newspapers have dubbed him The Man of Bronze.

Along with his medical degree, he holds several scientific degrees and has published extensively in everything from physics to anthropology.  He lives on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, which includes his living quarters along with his various laboratories.  Doc leaves this fabulous art deco paradise by personal elevator, which moves so fast that he is usually the only one who can remain standing during its descent.

Doc stores his cars, submarine, plane, autogiro and dirigible in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan emblazoned with the legend The Hidalgo Trading Company.  This is something of a joke on Doc’s part (a rarity, as he seldom jokes) – Hidalgo is the Central American nation in which a lost tribe of Mayans mind his private gold mine.

When Doc is not traveling the world, battling mad scientists, super-villains and various fascists, he travels to the Arctic Circle to his Fortress of Solitude, where he can catch his breath and devote time to his scientific studies.  It is also the spot where Doc, an inveterate tinkerer and inventor, creates most of his gadgets.  Doc the Gadgeteer is legendary, creating hypnotic gas, “mercy” bullets that only stun, lightweight bullet-proof vests, the first answering machine, radar…. The list goes on and on. 

How did Clark become the Man of Bronze?  Doc is, in the final analysis, something of a scientific experiment himself.  His father created a strenuous training program for his only son; Doc was reared by a group of scientists who not only developed Clark’s body, but his mind, as well.  Though this sounds like it may have been something of a grind, young Doc was also taken around the world to learn the many languages he speaks, as well as various “mystic” arts of the East.  His boyhood travels alone would have been enough to make Indiana Jones footsore.

Doc has a coterie of friends who go adventuring with him, nicknamed The Fabulous Five.  The Five are the top men in their fields, and include Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, famous lawyer and fashion plate; Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair, brilliant chemist who looks vaguely simian; John “Renny” Renwick, celebrated engineer who has a penchant for knocking down doors with his oversized fists; William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn, archeologist and anthropologist with a taste for big words; and Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts, the world’s leading electrical engineer.  Doc met these five men during the Great War – all are Doc’s senior by at least a decade or more, but Doc calls these men “brothers” and they are fiercely devoted to one-another.

The earliest stories would include all five of Doc’s friends, but later tales would include only two or three, most frequently Monk and Ham, who have a good natured rivalry and inflict endless harassment upon one-another. 

Oddly enough, Doc’s pulp magazine success was not transferable.  There was a best-forgotten radio series and a truly execrable movie version in 1975.  And most Doc Savage comic books fall flat – an oddity considering the visual potential of the corpus.

So … what is so special about the Doc Savage novels?  Well… in terms of influence, Doc’s achievement is colossal.  He was the template for the much better-known Superman, and, indeed, much of the mythology of Superman was stolen from Doc.  Both are named Clark.  Doc is the Man of Bronze; Superman the Man of Steel.  Superman has a Fortress of Solitude up north, and a group of supporting characters beside whom he can look more super.  Most tellingly, advertising art for Doc Savage Magazine often simply read … SUPERMAN.  Doc, however great his accomplishments, is fully human; Superman’s Kryptonian past separates him from us.  Doc is what we all could be, if only.

Doc the Gadgeteer has also influenced everyone from James Bond to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., as well as the adventuring family seen on Jonny Quest and even the dysfunctional adventurers found on The Venture Brothers.  Another key quality of the Doc Savage novels are their exotic locales – the novels usually open in a sun-kissed New York, a sort of art deco neverland – and before long Doc and his crew are in a dirigible or private plane headed for some barely charted spot on the map.  This taste for period exotica was an influence on heroes as diverse as TinTin and Indiana Jones.

All right, I hear you crying, enough!  So, Doc was hot stuff and a huge influence on junk adventure fiction.  But why do you like him?

Well, the simple and unvarnished truth is that I love Doc.  I love him and Ham and Monk and all the rest of them.  There is a portrait of Doc hanging in my studio where I paint, and not a day goes by when I do not think of him at least once.  This does not blind me to the flaws in the series.  Writing at breakneck speed, Dent was not a prose stylist.  He was not, nor could he ever be, Sinclair Lewis.  Hell, he couldn’t even be Edgar Rice Burroughs.  But… Dent delivered what was needed.

I read the Doc Savage novels in my middle teens – the perfect age for the series.  (Since I still love Doc, that teenager is still alive in me somewhere.)  The tremendous sense of Doc’s personal accomplishments along with the variety and scope of his travels and adventures provided a landscape for my own imagination.  Maybe, I thought, one day I would see the world.  Learn a language.  Write a book. Develop deep and lasting friendships.  And maybe … something big, something exciting, something of great importance, would happen to me, too.

The other charm of the Doc Savage corpus is found in the quieter moments of the series.  They are richly infused with comedy (mostly when Ham and Monk bicker), but there are always grace notes that underscore Doc’s quiet benevolence and humanity.  Like the Lone Ranger, Doc would not kill his enemies.  Doc kept a quiet poker face, but it never hid the kindness and warmth that could be found within.
After 1949, the world forgot Doc.  But then, something remarkable happened in the 1960s.  Bantam Books started republishing the novels, and several new generations came to know and love Doc Savage.

The best Doc novels are those from the 1930s.  The world was a large place before World War II, and the exotic settings and outlandish plots are delicious.  Doc Savage novels are easily found on ebay, and writer Will Murray has written several new adventures over the past few years, many based on notes that Dent left behind.  For anyone who is young at heart, Doc Savage is highly recommended.

Not bad for an 80 year old.


jplatt39 said...

Hello. It's interesting to read about the Pulps and mid-twentieth century heroes without reading the name Philip Wylie. He was an engineer and novelist who published in the most prestigious magazines. Joe Schuster admitted that Superman evolved out of what was essentially fan fiction from Wylie's The Gladiator (and the opening of Almuric may have a similar inspiration). The first page of Flash Gordon owes a lot to Wylie and Edwin Balmer's When Worlds Collide. Then there is the Savage Gentleman. This was a satire about a rich man who, after a messy divorce, sends his son to a remote island where he is well educated and kept fit - and not able to see meet or here about any woman. Eventually he grows up and comes home to get his estate - and meets women. Does this sound at all familiar? Apparently Lester Dent was given this book and told to use the background for adventure stories. I don't remember my source for that (the source for my summary is the copy of the book in my bookcase)but it may well have been an editor who read the book and did the extraction, as it were.

You really should look at Wylie - the intellectual forebear of not just much SF but of Tom Clancy and other technothriller writers.

James Abbott said...

Yes, we're very familiar with Wylie, and think Gladiator is a terrific read. So ... yes, perhaps a post on Wylie in a future Sphinx. Any thoughts, readers?