Superman died (then came back to life). Batman had his back broken (then returned to the cowl). Jean Gray died (then came back as the woman you do NOT want to meet in a bar). Heck, even Patrick Duffy came back to life (after realizing Bobby Ewing really was the best he was ever going to get). All these characters, and more, faced death, got hurt, or realized a bad career move.
They got nothing on Doc Savage. In this Year of More Pulp I’ve started, I decided to start with the man tagged as the first superhero. I’ve known about Savage pretty much my whole life and I’ll admit to a misconception: I always thought his sobriquet (“The Man of Bronze”) really meant the man was made of metal, like Colossus from The X-Men. Nope. But I don’t think Colossus could have done half the things Doc did in his first adventure.
Clark Savage, Jr., AKA “Doc” Savage, stepped onto the pulp fiction stage in March 1933. Street and Smith Publications wanted another pulp hero to go along with The Shadow and they wanted a superman (notice the lack of capitalization). As Lester Dent, the writer of many of Doc’s 181 tales, reminisced years later, Doc “had the clue-following ability of Sherlock Holmes, the muscular tree-swinging ability of Tarzan, the scientific sleuthing of Craig Kennedy, and the morals of Jesus Christ.” Whew! When they wanted a superhero, they really did want a super man.
“The Man of Bronze” is Doc’s first story. I picked up the reprinted version from Nostalgia Ventures, a line of books you can find in many comic stores. The book is nicely presented in two-column format, complete with the sketches that accompanied the pulp magazine back in 1933. The story, as it should, starts off with a lapel-grabber: “There was death afoot in the darkness.” What’s great about his opening is the killer and the reader both get introduced to Doc Savage from a distance. Indeed, when the killer looks through his binoculars, he mistakes Doc’s body for a statue. There is quite a lot of authorial intrusion in this first chapter as Doc and his five companions are introduced. For those of y’all who don’t know, Doc’s friends are:
-“Renny” or Col. John Renwick, engineer
-William Harper Littlejohn, geologist and archeologist
-Maj. Thomas J. Roberts, “Long Tom,” electrician
-Brig. Gen. Theodore Marley Brooks, “Ham,” lawyer
-Lt. Col. Andrew Blodgett, “Monk,” muscle
All these men excel in their chosen field of expertise and all their skills are put to the test in this first adventure. The problem is this: someone killed Clark Savage, Sr., Doc’s father.
No sooner than all six men were ensconced in Doc’s 86th floor headquarters than the assassin fires his rifle, aiming for Doc. What follows is a six chapter action sequence that gives you merely a taste for what lies ahead. I’m used to action scenes lasting paragraphs or pages, not chapters. And one thing immediately stands out: as good as Doc’s Five are, Savage himself is flat-out superior. He does everything right and far better than mere mortals. Doc hangs on a rope about to be cut by the assassin. What does he do? Lets go, plummets, allows the assassin to lose his balance, and then grabs the rope again, swinging effortlessly onto a ledge. It goes like that.
The bulk of the story finds the Super Six winging it down to the fictional Central American country of Hidalgo. Doc’s father left him an inheritance, a portion of Hidalgo for his very own. Now, he just has to go claim it. After getting shot at again and again, Doc and the Five discover a Mayan pyramid of pure gold ore. These Mayans welcome Doc and his friends but the red-fingered warriors are in the sway of an evil man, the very fiend who killed Doc’s father.
I give nothing away when I say that Doc lives (for 180 more books even). The action plays in the best tradition of Saturday morning serials at the movies. At the end of one chapter, one of Doc’s friend is trussed up and thrown into a pit of writhing snakes. Heavens! Cut to the next chapter and you realize the truth: Doc *already* figured that the bad guys would throw his friends into the pit so he, Doc, climbed into the pit, caught his tied-up friend, and let a rock fall to the bottom of the pit, the better to give the bad guys the illusion of victory. There is nothing wrong with this kind of action. I found it pretty darn fun, really. But, I’ll admit, it might get a bit long in the tooth by about book #45, to say nothing of 181.
Lester Dent, writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, writes fast, quick prose with lots and lots of good Pulp Words. The tale is never boring. There’s no time to be boring. He brings in some good humor among the men and not a little 1930s-era stereotypes and life outlooks. The funniest aspect of Doc Savage the Hero is how he deals with the one female in the book, the Mayan king’s daughter. Savage is powerful, masculine, without reproach, but utterly flummoxed when it comes to seeing that the daughter likes him.
Dent’s style is definitely an omniscient author. He tells you just about everything and shows only rarely. Don’t know if he changed later on or not but it did take some getting used to. For example, Doc leaves the scene a time or two to hunt for some clue. Dent doesn’t have Doc explain to his friends where he went. In prose, Dent just tells you. Not bad for a “novel-length” story in a pulp magazine but certainly not the way we do it nowadays.
I can’t say Doc Savage is really forgotten but he’s new to me. Plus, I don’t see his books in print. In the volume I have, Nostalgia Ventures grouped the first two Doc adventures together with a nice introduction and a historical essay. They do The Shadow as well. Expect a review on him in the coming weeks.
I don’t think I’ll be able to read all of Doc Savage’s adventures. They’d probably get a bit monotonous. But I’ll certainly plow through a good chunk. I hadn’t had this much reading a book in a long time.
Note on an audio version: I found a podcast of The Man of Bronze by Uvula Audio. It was a good recording and they even included sounds effects.