Who is Doc Savage? (A Doc Savage Primer)
When SF Signal asked if I was interested in reviewing the recently released re-mastered audio version of two Doc Savage radio adventures, I quickly agreed. Since reading the Bantam books during my youth and going on a re-reading rampage lately, I’ve always been a big Doc fan.
As I was listening to the re-mastered CD versions with my college-age son, I quite enjoyed it when he mimicked Johnny (one of Doc’s five aides) shouting “I’ll be super amalgamated!” But he was always asking me who Doc Savage was, wondering what drove me to collect the 130+ Bantam paperbacks (still taking donations of any mint condition Omnibuses!).
So before we print the review of the CD Version of The Adventures of Doc Savage, here’s a bit of background on one of the longest running “pulp” heroes and largest influences on fiction and comics.
Whether you are a science fiction fan, a comic book reader/collector or a fan of the pulps you’ve come across Doc Savage in one shape or form. Doc was created in the 1930s, published by Street and Smith, written by an amazing and prolific author named Lester Dent, with contributions from several others (including Will Murray, who not only worked on the aforementioned CD adaptation but is the driving force and author behind new Doc Savage novels soon to be published) under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson.
The success of the series is unquestionable. Though I have not seen the exact figures, early editions of the Street and Smith pulp publications sold in the 300,000 copy range (in the 1930s, kids). Brand of the Werewolf is said to be the highest seller of the Bantam novels, selling in the 250,000 range. By my obsessive collection count of the Bantam novels (my list of the novels is here), there are 132 books to collect – 96 single number books (#1-96), 15 doubles (97-126), 13 Omnibus editions (each containing 4 or 5 stories) and 8 un-numbered singles (including Escape from Loki by Philip Jose Farmer). The Bantam novels (reprints of the originals) were published from 1964 through 1993. The purest among Doc Savage fandom will poo-poo the novels, pointing instead to the 182 original 1930s and ’40s pulp editions. There are also DC Comics, a truly campy movie (which unfortunately soured some fans on Doc for life), and other lesser-known editions of Doc in the media. Reprints are also now available from Sanctum Books, which include historical commentary from Will Murray.
In the 1930s, a time of the Depression, pulp equaled escapism, and Doc was the ultimate escape; he was fighting evil-doers, and had the money, brains, strength, training and team to continue fighting the battles. His father had him train two hours every day, in strength, stamina, hearing, smell and concentration by experts in every discipline from all around the world (the training program is documented in several of the stories, and actually has many website mentions about it). His father was murdered (story told in the first Street and Smith pulp and in the first book, Bantam #1), and in investigating this tragedy, Doc found the legacy his father had left him: a stake in a Mayan gold mine, one that would fund his research and his battle against evil for as long as he needed it. He, like his father, dedicates his life to righting wrongs and helping those in need; he even built a Fortress of Solitude (25 years before Superman) in the Arctic to continue research, and he has made many medical discoveries on his own (his prowess in medicine and other scientific fields earning Clark Savage Jr. the nickname “Doc”). He surrounds himself with a team of five men whom he met in WWI (chronicled in Escape from Loki by Philip Jose Farmer) who are tops in their field:
- “Renny”, Colonel John Renwick, engineering specialist (and possessor of large fists that he likes to use to break down doors);
- “Johnny”, William Harper LittleJohn, one of the foremost authorities on geology and archeology; he also always uses big words (like superamalgamated);
- “Long Tom”, Major Thomas J. Roberts, an electrical wizard who looked like a weakling but had the best stamina of the group;
- “Ham”, Brigadier General Theodore Marley Brooks, Harvard lawyer, snappy dresser, cane sword wielder;
- “Monk” Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett Mayfair, an appearance like a gorilla, an expert in chemistry.
Doc’s cousin, Patricia (who is, of course, beautiful and smart), was also in several of the novels.
Doc and his team used science to investigate occurrences that seemed magical, especially to the public of those times, and the pulp series was even renamed Doc Savage, Science Detective during one period. Just as Doc influenced many super heroes to come, this period of the stories certainly appears to have been influenced by Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the inventions that were hypothesized in the early pulps did come to be (such as answering machines), and science was always a factor in the stories.
Though based in New York City (high on the 86th floor of some unnamed skyscraper), Doc and the team visited many remote locales, which were very un-developed at the time of the stories, adding exotic settings to many of the novels.
Characteristically, Doc also always avoided women (to the chagrin of many) and the press. The former trait was not necessarily passed down to other characters, but avoidance of publicity was a normal feature of comic book characters. Doc Savage and his team always found the science behind what appeared to be magic or fantasy, which was during times when planes, electricity and chemistry were all still new and fascinating to the general populace. Something that would frighten or scare normal folks was usually explained by the end of the story by Doc and his team.
The influence of later Doc Savage fiction and comic books can be seen in Batman, Superman, James Bond, the Fantastic Four (great article on that topic here) and many others. He was the prototypical hero: smart, strong, fearless. He appeared to be superhuman, but in reality his prowess and expertise was due to a dedication to exercising his brain, senses and muscles. This is very similar to Batman, without all of the psychosis that plagued Bruce Wayne, and also without the disguise. Savage also used logic and reasoning on every problem, no matter how magical or fantastical it may seem; this trait is also seen in later fiction and comic books. Also, Doc was an excellent fighter/martial artist through training and hard work (two hours of exercise a day, no matter the location), parallel to Batman and many other comic book heroes who were “ordinary guys” without super powers.
The other interesting parallel with Batman is Doc’s funding. A superhero can’t just have all of this wonderful technical equipment, great hideouts, etc. without having money to spend, and Doc’s Mayan gold find provided that; for later heroes, other sources were provided.
From my own re-read one of the more fascinating features of the novels is the historical perspective. The Doc stories were originally released in 1933 – 1949, and not only reflect those times but change with them. Dent had Doc and his team journey to then unknown parts of the world, describing them with great accuracy through research. The tone of the novels really followed the editors, and what they thought was appropriate for the time. The Afterword in The Red Spider by Will Murray (who wrote many of the latest (and hopefully not final) Savage novels, based on notes of Lester Dent’s) lays out the editors:
- John L. Nanovic, the editor for the first decade, favoring the invincible, superhuman Man of Bronze;
- Charles Moran, favoring mystery and suspense;
- William de Grouchy, who may have been responsible for a move towards WWII influenced story lines;
- Babette Rosmond, who retitled the magazine Doc Savage, Science Detective;
- William de Grouchy returning, back to the larger than life Savage;
- Daisy Bacon, who killed the Red Spider story.
The earlier novels are full of current era slang, depicting all porters as black, latins as “swarthy characters”, etc. During WWII, Doc was often fighting Nazi’s (and in one novel captured Hitler). In the later novels (written post WWII), Doc fought on the side of the US Government against the Soviets.
Sometimes, Doc Savage is viewed as a “kid fiction” (Monk eventually gets a pig, and Ham and ape, to further tease each other) or “old man’s fiction” (as the novels describe events and places that are well known now, but weren’t when they were published). And with any series that last so long, there are certainly some lemons among them. But there are some excellent stories as well.
Many pulps have had books written about them; Philip Jose Farmer (in his book Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life) hypothesized that Doc Savage was a real person, and chronicled which of his stories were non-fiction and which had to be fiction. He even built a family tree called Wold-Newton where Doc and many famous people were related. Farmer also authored a Doc Savage novel, Escape from Loki, which portrayed how Doc and his team of five met during World War I.
The legions of Doc fans will take odds with the selections, but there are so many good ones to choose from. There are also “polite discussions” about which order to read the books in; I am currently re-reading them in the order they were originally printed by Street and Smith…but I may diverge and read them on the order they were submitted (with the later novels authored by Will Murray mixed in as appropriate). Since they were serials, reading them in this order links them together, as locations and events sometimes overlap between adjacent stories. The titles below are linked to my notes on each novel.
- The Man of Bronze (originally published March 1933, Bantam #1 October 1964); the first story, gives background on Doc’s father, why the group speaks Mayan, and the source of Savage’s wealth and why he does what he does;
- Fortress of Solitude (originally published October 1938, Bantam #23 April 1968): this one features John Sunlight, the only Doc Savage enemy to appear in two novels, plus it features the titular fortress in the Arctic;
- The Lost Oasis (originally published September 1933, Bantam #6 April 1965) and The Sargasso Ogre (originally published October 1933, Bantam #18 July 1967): great locations, good adventures, worth opponents and an excellent example of the overlapping locations and stories. Plus, The Sargasso Ogre was one of the first Docs I purchased at a bookstore on Long Pointe in Houston;
- The Red Spider (Bantam #95, July of 1979): a story originally purchased in the last 40’s but never published by Street and Smith, it has Doc in Russia working as an agent of the US Government during the Cold War;
- Escape from Loki (Bantam published in August 1991, written by Philip Jose Farmer); a prequel, which tells the story of how Doc met his five companions during World War I.
- Python Isle (October, 1991); Will Murray assumes the Kenneth Robeson moniker, using Lester Dent’s notes, Joe DeVito’s covers and an enjoyable writing style all his own.
Doc Savage was written under the pen name (Street and Smith house name) of Kenneth Robeson, but in reality was written mostly by Lester Dent; other writers included, Harold Davis, William G. Bogart, Ryerson Johnson, Laurence Donovan, Alan Hathway and Will Murray. Mr. Murray not only provides historical commentary on several of the reprints, but is now pursuing additional novels in the Doc Savage series. All are based on notes of Lester Dent’s.
The new novels will include:
- The Desert Demons
- Horror in Gold
- The Infernal Buddha
- The Ice Genius
- The War Makers
- Phantom Lagoon
- Death’s Domain
Covers for the first two have been painted by Joe DeVito (who did all of the covers of Murray’s Doc Savage books which you can view on his website). And thanks very much to Joe for giving us permission to use some of his excellent paintings in this article.
It will be 20 years this October since Will Murray’s first Doc, Python Isle, was published. It would be an excellent anniversary if Doc Savage would reappear in The Desert Demons on or about the 20th anniversary.
These sites have excellent information:
- My own list of Doc Savage stories and books;
- The Doc Savage Publishing Record by Will Murray
- The 86th Floor, Chris Kalb’s fantastic summary
- Win Scott Eckert’s Doc Savage Chronology
- Hidalgo Trading Company Website and the Flearun Yahoo discussion group
Filed under: Books
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