Predominantly, my Paperback Warrior musings are catered to 70s and 80s fiction, but I’m leaping through time to cover this iconic pulp warrior. Shamefully it has taken me 41 years on Earth to read my very first Doc Savage title. Over the years I’ve discovered the character while browsing a multitude of media including novels, comics, magazines and audio. For some reason, I just never had any interest in delving beneath the surface until now.
‘Doc Savage Magazine’ was first published in March, 1933 via Street & Smith publishers. Street & Smith was a New York company formed in 1855. It released its first pulp, ‘The Popular Magazine’, in 1903. By the mid-20s the pulp market had exploded, led by what many claims as the “Big Four” – ‘Argosy’, ‘Adventure’, ‘Blue Book’ and ‘Short Stories’. Street & Smith publishing agent Henry Ralston and editior John Nanovic had a hit on their hands with ‘The Shadow’ and were pursuing a second title. They pitched their Doc Savage hero concept to author Lester Dent with a dangling carrot of $500-$750 paychecks per book. It was a triumphant transaction that led to Doc Savage appearing a whopping 181 times for the magazine and related media. In 1964, the title regained popularity with Bantam reprinted each magazine as an individual novel. The books were handsomely presented with new artwork by James Bama and listed under house name Kenneth Robeson. These books are mostly out of chronological publishing order except the first – ‘The Man of Bronze’.
As the forerunner to the modern superhero, ‘The Man of Bronze’ starts the series as the obligatory origin story. It begins by introducing us to Doc Savage and his “Fabulous Five” team members. Each are introduced by name and what their overall skill is. Monk is a strong type that doubles as an industrial chemist. Ham is an accomplished attorney with a sword cane. Renny is the team’s brawn and construction engineer. Long Tom is an electrical wizard and Johnny rounds it off as the team’s archaeologist, complete with magnifying lens over his damaged left eye. Savage himself is sort of the conglomerate of all his team’s skills, only he has perfected each due to a strenuous two hours daily spent exercising his body and mind. Author Lester Dent describes Savage as a physical specimen with a chiseled “bronze” body.
Savage and his teammates served together in WWI, yet it wouldn’t be until Philip Farmer’s 1991 novel, ‘Escape from Loki’, that the full details are explained. The group is assembled on the 86th Floor of what is presumably New York’s Empire State Building after learning of the murder of Savage’s father. Doc, in distress, learns that his father was poisoned while exploring a remote location called Hidalgo in Central America. During the assembly, a red-handed assassin attempts to assassinate Doc. Through the book’s opening chapters, the group run from building to building chasing the assassin before learning that Savage’s father left a hidden message behind. This message pushes the book’s focus to the team traveling to Hidalgo to investigate not only the murder, but the land that has been willed to Doc.
From one fast-paced frenzy to another, Dent presents a riveting adventure for the team. From deep underground caves and primitive villages to sea and air battles, ‘The Man of Bronze’ covers a lot of ground and, for the 1930s, took the imagination into foreign and exotic lands. Collectively, the team uses all of their resources to foil the enemy and solve the inevitable mystery. Who’s the assassin? Why did he murder Doc’s father? All of this comes to fruition in a climatic, mountainside finale that finishes one chapter while introducing elements that will be key in future editions. The author’s clear boundaries of good and evil are questionable in 2017, but one has to remember this was written in a much simpler time with black and white social and cultural outlines. It’s easy to dismiss the fantasy and incredible writing style, often putting Doc Savage at Godlike strength and mind, but that’s the whole idea, right? It isn’t really supposed to make sense.
It’s written as an escape from the factory work and mundane daily rituals. For my own interpretation, Savage is one-part Indiana Jones, one-part Bruce Wayne and one-part Captain America. His skillset or power? I think it could easily just be perfection. He’s seemingly human perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be this bronze, intelligent hero? I say bring on book two – ‘The Land of Terror’. I can’t get enough of this stuff.