Doc Savage: The mold from which heroes were and are made


Doc SavageIt was recently announced that Iron Man 3 director Shane Black is in discussion to helm a new movie for Sony, starring the pulp hero Doc Savage.  A friend of mine saw this, and correctly guessed that I would squee upon hearing the news.

Why? I grew up reading the famous “181 Supersagas” of Doc Savage—also known as the Man of Bronze—and his friends Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, Renny Renwick, Johnny Littlejohn and Long Tom Roberts, occasionally joined by Doc’s cousin Pat Savage, as they raced around the world, investigating scientific mysteries, righting wrongs, and punishing evil-doers wherever they were found.  Doc and his friends were among the very first “science heroes,” those who embraced the modern world of steel and wonder, and who used science and intellect to solve mysteries and save the day… but with plenty of very unscientific fisticuffs and derring-do thrown in for excitement.  Doc Savage, the leader of the group, was no less than the template that future superheroes would be based upon for the balance of the 20th century.

Dr. Clark Savage, Jr. was called the “Man of Bronze” because of his uncanny appearance, a towering and herculean build—physical perfection, swathed in a skin fetchingly tanned by tropical suns.  Doc was quite literally a product of science, raised as a boy under the constant tutelage of numerous dedicated male scientists, experts in all of the arts and sciences, including those of the body.  He was taught many skills and disciplines from boyhood to late adolescence, by order of his father, Clark Savage, Sr., reportedly to atone for some unstated wrong he had done in the past.  Doc was to be his father’s version of the 20th century’s ideal man, engineered to be perfect in mind and body, and dedicated to helping and protecting others.

Together with his colleagues—each an expert in their respective fields, though none quite as brilliant as Doc himself—Doc and the Fabulous Five (coined well before the recent hijacking of that title by a certain group of not-so-macho fashion designers) were an unstoppable force for good, renowned internationally and feared by the biggest to the lowliest bad guys.  Doc was a philanthropist and a selfless hero, demanding (over the objection of U.S. officials) to be allowed to participate in World War II to defeat the Nazis.  He would pause in pursuit of a criminal to give a blind woman a card that would grant her access to a hospital, where he himself would perform a difficult operation that would save her sight, at no cost to her.  He had honorary police credentials in most metropolitan cities in the United States, and many around the world.  He did use guns, but preferred to arm them with “mercy” bullets, quick-working anesthetics that would subdue rather than kill their enemies.  He owned a wealth of air and water craft, maintained his home and lab on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building (the tallest building in the world at the time), and kept his own hidden “Fortress of Solitude” somewhere above the Arctic Circle.

He even thought science could cure crime, through brain operations made upon criminals that would remove their anarchic nature and put them on the path to honest and peaceful lives.  So, okay, nobody bats a thousand… but it was the thought that counted…

Doc Savage cover: The MonstersDoc’s exploits featured villains that used the extrapolations of 20th century super-science to hurt, kill and dominate others; and Doc often turned their science against them, using his own genius and intellect.  He helped young men along a healthy curiosity towards science, in much the same way that Star Trek has reputedly propelled many a young boy and girl into scientific pursuits and positions as researchers, engineers, astronauts and masters in their field.

The Doc Savage adventures were inspirational to boys (and men) in the 30s and 40s, seeking exciting and science fictional adventure, and something to aspire to.  They were inspirational to others as well… like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who patterned their own character, a certain “Man of Steel,” after Doc… and Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who created their own scientifically-trained ultimate hero and put a cape and bat-ears on him.  It can certainly be said with conviction that, without Doc Savage, we wouldn’t have many of the superheroes we have today, including—yeah, dogs—Batman and Superman.

Others used Doc as the model of the 20th century superhero, those who fought and bested bad guys with their keen wits and incredible-but-natural physical prowess, not super powers or magic weapons (though, in the pulps and comics of the time, science was often indistinguishable from magic).   The cinematic depiction of James Bond (pre-Daniel Craig) and of the TV series and movies of Mission: Impossible owe a lot to the incredible abilities of Doc Savage and his globe-trotting adventures, defeating science-based supervillians with his fists, wits and gadgets.

Doc Savage was featured in pulps, novels (mostly reprinting the original stories), comics and radio from 1936 to throughout the late 20th and early-21st centuries.  Most of the original stories and radio shows were penned by Lester Dent: He and others, all working under the publishing pseudonym Kenneth Robeson, wrote in a strongly formulaic but very effective adventure style that captured the hearts and minds of the pulp readers of the day.  Most of the books are now out of print, but ebooks of the original adventures might be obtainable online.

In the seventies, a movie was made by George Pal (maker of the 1953 film War of the Worlds), and starred Ron Ely (star of the Tarzan TV series).  Though Ely made for a good looking Doc, the actors chosen to portray Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny and Long Tom were uninspiring, and the script was written as camp in a similar tone to the Batman TV series of the sixties.  Doc Savage, Man of Bronze bombed in the box office, much to the chagrin of those of us who idolized the characters from our childhood and wanted nothing more than to see them shine on the big screen.

So, to hear that Doc and his associates might have a second chance at silver screen greatness is heartening to many of us who still know and love them.  Depending on how the characters are handled, he could potentially be as notable in modern cinema as Indiana Jones or Captain America have become today.  If not Shane Black, I could see other directors doing this material justice as a high adventure vehicle—Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon, James Cameron or Steven Spielberg come quickly to mind.  The look of Doc Savage would lend itself to the current popularity of Steampunk, with the period look of bulky electronics and mechanics, old vehicles and cunning gadgetry.  And fortunately, there are almost 200 existing original stories to choose from, not counting later material written for comic books in the latter 20th century to today.

But most iDoc Savage by Boris Vallejomportantly, the material must take itself seriously, even as it should include excitement, adventure, drama and a bit of humor.  The Indiana Jones movies come immediately to mind as the kind of action-adventure Doc Savage should be… with maybe a touch of Sky Captain or The Rocketeer thrown in.  (Little-known fact: The original Rocketeer graphic novel by Dave Stevens featured an unnamed super-scientist who invented the jetpack found and used by pilot Cliff Secord.  Though the character was never named in the book, it was clearly Doc Savage, joined by his friends Monk and Ham as they chased after the missing jetpack.  When Joe Johnston made the movie The Rocketeer, he substituted Doc with the more historically-familiar Howard Hughes as the jetpack’s inventor.  Those of us in the know just assumed Hughes stole it from Doc…)

The great thing about Doc Savage is that, although he is clearly a product of the early 20th century, he can easily transcend that era and continue to inspire into the 21st century… especially in this world of nuclear power, electronics and robotics, worldwide communications, spacecraft, working in orbit and struggling to save the planet from our own technological carelessness.  He’s a troubleshooter for the modern era, a man who uses brains, brawn and modern tools to win the day.

Whether the movie ever gets made, or turns out to be another complete bomb… or becomes the new template for heroes yet to come… Doc Savage will always be the ultimate hero for me, the man who beats evil using science, the bronze template for the ideal modern man.

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