The story behind Doc Savage is more interesting than Doc Savage

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With the announcement of a new Doc Savage movie starring Dwayne Johnson, is the thirties pulp character heading for a resurgence?

Who is Doc Savage?

A recent broadcast of the 1975 Doc Savage movie on TCM brought back a bunch of memories. Specifically, of being 10 years old and seeing the movie on a double bill at the Hyland Theatre in Winnipeg, on a double bill with Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.

It also got me recalling the series of paperback editions of old Doc Savage adventures published by Bantam. At one time, I had several copies —purchased, I’m almost positive, at Red River Books, in Winnipeg. The musty old store is still there, just a block or two from its original location in the Exchange District. I had more books than I actually read, though. I probably bought them because of the cover art.

Seeing the movie again 40 years later, along with catching the announcement last year of a new Doc Savage movie (directed and co-written by Shane Black and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), prompted this post. I wanted to do some research on the character, his creators, and the movie. The research took me down a few rabbit-holes. For instance, I now subscribe to a blog called menspulpmags.com.

Anyway, below are some of the fun facts I uncovered. Whether you’re a Doc Savage fan or have never even heard of The Man of Bronze TM, or are somewhere in between, I hope you’ll find some entertainment value in the following.

The world according to Doc Savage

1. There were a LOT of Doc Savage novels. Street & Smith, Doc’s original publisher, published 181 of them in a pulp-fiction format in the ’30s and ’40s. There have also been umpteen comic book adaptations (rights are now owned by DC Entertainment), a radio serial, and, of course, the original 1975 movie. Bantam (now owned by Random House) started republishing the books—all of them—beginning in 1964. They recruited advertising artist/illustrator James Bama to do the covers. Much like Frank Frazetta‘s work on the paperback reissues of Conan the Barbarian’s pulp adventures, a Bama cover was like catnip to a certain breed of bookish pre-adolescent.

2. Doc Savage was one of the first “superheroes.” “Superheroes” in quotes because, much like Batman, Doc didn’t actually have any superpowers. Instead, Clark “Doc” Savage Jr. was trained to be great at everything—mechanical engineering, fighting, and probably (if he were around today) Friends trivia. (According to the Wiki entry on Doc Savage: “He is a physician, scientist, adventurer, detective, inventor, explorer, researcher, and.. a musician. A team of scientists assembled by his father deliberately trained his mind and body to near-superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory, a mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices.”) The first Doc Savage book appeared in 1933, predating Superman by five years and Batman by six. Doc was part of a wave of Depression-era pulp heroes that includes The Shadow (introduced in 1930) and, later, The Avenger (1939). It might be worth noting that Doc had his own Fortress of Solitude (and cool nickname) long before Superman—DC Comics pilfered the Fortress (and variation on “Man of Bronze”) for their hero. (Superman’s Fortress of Solitude first appeared by that name in a 1949 issue of Superman; prior to that, Supes chilled in his “Secret Citadel”.)

who is Doc Savage?

Lester Dent and the publishing moguls of Manhattan

3. Doc Savage’s writer led an extraordinary life. Like The Avenger adventures, the Doc Savage novels were published under the Smith & Street house pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. In fact, most of the Doc Savage novels—a whopping 161 of them—were written by one man, Lester Dent. Dent grew up poor (if you can believe Wiki, he caught animals and paid for tuition to his one-room schoolhouse with furs) in Missouri and then Wyoming. He started out as a telegraph operator in Oklahoma before the Dell publishing company hired him to write for the pulps. At that point, he and his wife Norma moved to New York. According to his Wiki bio, Dent was a voracious reader and insatiably curious, and “earned both his amateur radio and pilot license, passed both the electricians’ and plumbers’ trade exams, and was an avid mountain climber.” He bought a boat and, with Norma, sailed up and down the East Coast of the U.S. for years. The Dents even became members of the Explorers Club (their membership ended when Dent stopped paying his annual dues). Besides the Doc Savage novels, Dent wrote a number of other books and stories. One of these, Honey to His Mouth, finally saw publication in 2009, 50 years after his death. (The book “lay(s) claims to the true depths of his writing genius,” says pulpfictionreviews.com).

How did he die? According to historicmissourians.com, Dent died of a heart attack—while treasure-hunting in the Caribbean. (The story also reports that “Dent designed the couple’s home which had many unusual features for the time. The Dents’ electronic garage door opened only when Dent sounded his car horn which played a unique series of musical keys. He designed a soundproof movie room and darkroom and installed an intercom system. This led local residents to call it the ‘House of Gadgets.'”).

Dent was so prolific that he came up what he called a “Master Fiction Plot“, which is basically a guide to writing a salable 6000-word pulp story.

Lester and Norma Dent at home in La Plata, Missouri, sometime after moving there from New York in the early 1940s

Living the life of a Mad Man in ’60s New York

4. James Bama, the artist behind the famous Bantam covers, is now a respected fine artist in the Western realist mode. Born and raised in New York, Bama worked in a Mad Men-style environment as an advertising illustrator in Manhattan in the 1960s. In his spare time he painted covers and did illustrations for men’s adventure magazines. Around 1962, a friend introduced him to the president of Bantam and Bama began concentrating on paperback covers. He was still painting Doc Savage covers when he quit the New York rat-race to move to Wyoming cattle country (coincidentally, Dent’s family had ranched in Wyoming during much of the author’s childhood). Shortly after moving, Bama gave up the safe publishing work to paint cowboys, Indians, horses and other images of the Old West. The work is incredibly detailed and rendered. Besides a whopping 62 paintings (most using actor Steve Holland, who had once played Flash Gordon on TV, for the model) for the Doc Savage line, Bama also painted the cover to at least one Star Trek novel adaptation for Bantam. Many fiftysomethings may also remember his art from the Aurora monster model kit series. This three-part interview with Bama on menspulpmags.com is worth a read. Bama is still alive, but unable to paint because of deteriorating eyesight.

Steve Holland character studies for Doc Savage.

Gadgets, “Pat” Savage and other tropes of the Doc Savage series

5. Doc Savage liked gadgets. Like Dent’s Missouri home, Doc Savage books were filled with gadgets, some of which (the answering machine, for instance)were eventually caught up with by technology. Other Savagian tropes include a group of (male) sidekicks, who became known as the Fantastic Five, composed of five distinct personalities and talents, though mostly they had a knack for bickering and getting in hot water. Also, Doc Savage has a sister, Patricia “Pat” Savage, who occasionally appeared and kicked ass. Besides the Fortress of Solitude, Doc kept house on the 86th floor of a New York skyscraper (presumably modeled after the Empire State Building). Most of the Doc Savage novels suffer from Scooby Doo syndrome; threats that appear supernatural or fantastical in nature turn out to be a bankrupt circus owner in a ghost costume. In addition, Doc’s not above a little Cuckoo’s Nest/Clockwork Orange-style reprogramming. Among the more dated ideas in the Doc Savage mythos is the hero’s tendency to drop off the bad guys at what is known as the Crime College (in the 1975 movie, the Doc Savage Rehabilitation Center) for a “delicate brain operation” to eradicate their criminal tendencies and transform them into Doc-approved citizens (in the movie, this means a bandleader for the Salvation Army).

Working off an outline by Doc Savage author Lester Dent, Will Murray wrote a stand-alone Pat Savage adventure. Altus Press published Six Scarlet Scorpions, set in 1938, in 2016. Joe DeVito art.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

6. The first (and so far only) Doc Savage movie was a bust. In the ’60s, Chuck Connors (star of The Rifleman TV series) was considered for a movie version. Funding fell through and producer George Pal (Destination Moon, War of the Worlds) took up the reins. It would be his last film. He brought on English director Michael Anderson (who would go on to direct Logan’s Run, another pulp-y creation but one that had more of an impact on my adolescent self). Ron Ely, the actor chosen to play Doc, had previously starred in a Tarzan TV series. After the production ran out of money, instead of using an original soundtrack the filmmakers decided to go with wall-to-wall John Philip Sousa marching band music. The music added to the camp factor, which was already considerable, and included touches like an animated glint to Doc’s eye in a couple of scenes and a bad guy who is shown in a giant baby crib. At the end of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, a title card announced a “thrilling” sequel. For years, rumours circulated that this sequel had been filmed concurrently, but all involved have denied it. It should also be noted that Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze opened in June of 1975. So did Jaws.

Doc Savage the Man of Bronze jigsaw puzzle

Not exactly a merchandising juggernaut.

Was this article helpful in clearing up mysteries behind Doc Savage? Had you never heard of the character, and now wish you hadn’t? Leave a comment below! 

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