His name is Clark. He’s been called the Man of Tomorrow and he has strength and skills far superior to the ordinary man. He generally operates out of a large city, but also has a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. And he fights on the side of justice.
Who is he?
Yes, exactly right. Dr. Clark Savage, Jr.
What’s that? Kent? Clark Kent? No, he came along later.
Doc Savage— one of the major stars of the pulp magazine era— debuted in Doc Savage Magazine (cover-dated March 1933) on Feb. 17, 1933, while Clark Kent debuted in Action Comics #1 (cover-dated June 1938) around April 1938. Interesting to note that not only did they both have a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic (maybe it was a timeshare), but a 1934 house ad for Doc Savage described Doc as a “Superman.”
Doc, whose adventures were primarily written by Lester Dent (as “Kenneth Robeson”), was also known as the Man of Bronze; while Superman, of course, was the Man of Steel.
The “Man of Tomorrow” designation (a description later given to Superman) came from Dent himself, according to Will Murray, the literary agent for the estate of Lester Dent, in the introduction to the Nostalgia Ventures reprint of the story “The Fortress of Solitude.”
Doc Savage Magazine ran until the summer of 1949, but Doc returned through reprints by Bantam Books from the 1960s to the 1990s. More recently, reprints have been published by Nostalgia Ventures; and as of 2009, under series editor Anthony Tollin’s Sanctum Books imprint. These reprint volumes (more than 80 to date) include two novellas (some restored to their original length from abridged versions that ran back in the pulp era), essays and other material.
(Pulp adventures of the Shadow, the Avenger and the Whisperer are also being reprinted.)
Then there’s the comics and radio adaptations.
In his introduction to the “The Fortress of Solitude” (Oct. 1938 and reprinted in Vol. 1 of the Nostalgia Ventures series), Murray also writes that while the American public wasn’t quite ready for unearthly superpowers, “Doc Savage was everything an aspiring hero could dream of becoming.”
Murray also writes that Doc Savage “took Depression-era America by storm. Within a year he was on radio and later had his own comic books.”
Doc Savage Comics was first published in 1940 by Street & Smith Publications. Over the decades, various other companies, including DC, Dark Horse and Marvel, published tales of Doc’s adventures.
As to his radio adventures, they first aired in 1934, though no recordings are known to survive. According to Martin Grams, in his book, The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954 (page 87), Doc was played by Carl Kroenke, who later played the Shadow (Street & Smith owned both characters). A later series ran for six months in 1943, according to Grams (page 226).
In 1985, The Los Angeles-based Variety Arts Radio Theatre serialized the 1934 adventures “Fear Cay” and “The Thousand-Headed Man” in seven parts and six parts, respectively and broadcast the stories over NPR. Radio Archives.com provides those adventures in both CD and download formats, along with various extras.
So who is Doc Savage? What’s his story? According to the narration of “The Man of Bronze” (March 1933 and reprinted on page 7 of vol. 14 of the Nostalgia Ventures series), “Clark Savage, Jr. had been reared from the cradle to become the supreme adventurer.” The narration goes on to tell us that Doc’s father started him on an exercise routine when he was hardly able to walk.
His mental routine had “started with medicine and surgery. It had branched out to include all arts and sciences.”
That’s Doc’s fictional or “in-universe” background. But in an essay in Vol. 8 of the reprints (pages 123-127), Murray writes that Doc (and likewise the Shadow and the Avenger) was inspired, in part, by Richard Henry Savage (June 12, 1846- Oct. 11, 1903), a soldier, diplomat, engineer and writer. He was also admitted to the New York bar in 1890. Murray describes the real-life Savage as “one of the most colorful figures of the late 19th century.”
Murray also argues that to whatever degree the real-life Richard Henry Savage influenced the fictional Dr. Clark Savage, Jr., it was foisted on Lester Dent.
Doc’s first name, like that of Mr. Kent, comes from actor Clark Gable.
In a 1953 essay, reprinted in the foreword of Vol. 14 of the Nostalgia Ventures Doc Savage reprints, Dent described Doc as both a physical and moral superman. “He 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. He was an ideal, surrounded by five assistants who were human enough to temper his severity.”
These five assistants— each an expert in his own field— were Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks (AKA “Ham”), “the most astute lawyer Harvard ever turned out”; Lt. Col. Andrew Blodgett Mayfair (AKA “Monk”), “one of the foremost chemists in the world”; Col. John Renwick (AKA “Renny”), “a leading engineer”; Major Thomas J. Roberts (AKA “Long Tom”), the “electrical wizard”; and William Harper Littlejohn (AKA “Johnny”), geologist and archaeologist.
Doc, of course, is superior to each of them in their respective fields.
His cousin, Patricia Savage, also occasionally takes part in his adventures.
The above descriptions of Doc’s “Iron Crew” (reprinted on page 30 of Vol. 1) come from the story “The Fortress of Solitude.”
We also learn that Ham and Monk (who “looks like a gorilla”) are “sparring partners” because of a series of practical jokes they played on each other back in Word War I.
In that same 1953 essay, Dent also wrote that the intent was to keep Doc, whom he described as a “gadget man”, as “scientific as possible, without becoming pseudo-scientific.”
According to Dent, Doc Savage also contained a number of technological marvels, long before they came into general use. These included wire recorders, telephone-answering machines, sonic detectors and proximity fuses.
To quote the Joker in Batman (1989), “where does he get those wonderful toys?” Well, Doc, like Bruce Wayne, isn’t hurting, financially. He has access to a hidden, Mayan gold mine in Central America.
From page 62 of “The Man of Bronze” reprint story: “This was the legacy his father had left him. He was to use it in the cause to which his life was dedicated… striving to help those who need help; punishing those who deserve it.”
Artist James Bama depicted Doc wearing a tattered shirt. It’s a dramatic image, but you’d think with all his money, Doc could afford a new one.
Doc Savage generally operates out of the 86th floor of a New York City skyscraper— implied to be the Empire State Building— and via a pneumatic tube system can travel to a “waterfront hanger boathouse” on the Hudson River.
As to the Superman parallels, Murray writes in his introduction to “The Fortress of Solitude” reprint that it wasn’t so much Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as it was later editor Mort Weisinger (though Siegel and Shuster were obviously aware of Doc). “It was under Mort Weisinger’s editorial guidance that Superman was given his Fortress of Solitude,” Murray writes. “The year was 1949.”
Doc is in many ways a law unto himself. A box on page 25 of volume four of the Nostalgia Ventures reprints tells us that “rather than turn [a criminal] over to the law, Doc Savage sends the individual to an institution he maintains in upstate New York. There, the lawbreakers are subjected to a delicate brain operation, which eliminates all knowledge of their past lives. On recovery, the criminals are given a course of training which converts them into upright citizens, with a useful trade for gaining a livelihood.”
Bit Draconian, huh, Doc?
Of course, in his early days, Superman was also far from the “Big Blue Boy Scout” he’d later become.
Pulp novels were very much of their time and have more than a few shortcomings. Some novels (and characters) have long since been forgotten, but not Doc Savage.
Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating