Monday, April 16, 2007


While wandering through a book store the other day, I was pleased to find that a small publishing company was reprinting old Doc Savage novels in the same format as they appeared in the original Doc Savage Magazine some 70 years ago. Doc Savage is one of those characters that has faded from the pop culture collective unconscious, which is a shame because he really was the prototype for so many super heroes that came later. His exploits were chronicled in a series of breezy, action-packed novels published in Doc Savage Magazine between 1933 and 1949. Once comic books got rolling in the late 30s, the young comic writers borrowed heavily from pulp adventure heroes like Doc, The Spider, and The Shadow. In my opinion, Doc Savage was the best of the lot.

Clark Savage, Jr., or “Doc” to his friends, was a supreme representation of human kind. In an effort to create the most perfect man, Doc’s father raised his son in isolation, trained by the best minds in every field of study. He was also taught to maintain a rigid exercise regimen which kept his body in peak physical condition. After his father’s death, the adult Doc chose to use his inherited wealth to help mankind and fight crime. Along with his old Army buddies, each an expert in his own chosen profession (law, chemistry, archeology, etc.), Doc and his gang became globe-trotting adventurers, often helping decent individuals who were preyed upon by evil-doers.

Doc probably would’ve been forgotten after his magazine run ended had it not been for Bantam reprinting the novels in paperback form, starting in 1964. This was the era of James Bond and Batman and campy adventure, so Doc Savage fit right in on the book shelves. The books became enormously popular and Bantam continued to release new paperbacks on a regular schedule right into the mid-80s. I discovered Doc Savage through my Uncle Melvin, a voracious reader who remembered the stories from his adolescence. I soon started buying the books from a neighborhood second-hand book store, and I was hooked. In the 70s, Doc was at the height of his comeback with a Marvel comic book and a feature film in addition to the books. Okay, the movie was a piece of crap, but it never hurt his popularity. Although the broad characterizations and far-fetched plots are cringe-worthy to an adult, this stuff was right up my alley as a teenager. Also, in an era when a pocket calculator was high-tech, the clunky pre-WW II technology did not seem as out of date as it would today. With over 100 paperbacks published by the late 70s, I stockpiled Doc Savage books and picked one up whenever I was in the mood for a fast-paced thriller.

I was still reading my back log of paperbacks in college when Bantam decided to cease publication of the old pulp stories. A huge outcry from fans caused Bantam to rethink their decision, however, and the company reprinted the remaining stories in large, omnibus format books containing several novels in one volume. The last of the omnibus volumes came out in the early 90s, but Bantam tried to continue the series with new Doc Savage novels written by various authors. While I was excited to finally see all the original stories reprinted, I wasn’t too keen on the new books. I guess others felt the same way because Bantam discontinued publishing new novels after a couple of years. Not that they were poorly written, but by the early 90s, it seemed rather pointless to continue writing about a character who was stuck in a by-gone era.

Which is why I think Doc Savage has faded while his off-spring like Superman and Batman have flourished. When the novels were originally written, Doc Savage represented something new and exciting. His crime fighting techniques and the technology he used were state-of-the-art or even futuristic. He and his friends were dynamic and talked in the lingo of the day. However, once his stories ended in 1949, Doc remained stuck in the past. The super heroes he spawned, however, continued to grow and evolve, remaining eternally fresh. Ol’ Doc never got a regular update and became an anachronism. I’d love to see a Hollywood hotshot like J.J. Abrams or Sam Raimi take a crack at creating an updated version of Doc Savage, but I guess there wouldn’t be much point since there’s no market gain in the name other than among the over-40 crowd.

Anyway, to preserve the memory of the world’s first and greatest super hero, I created a custom action figure using one of the basic G.I. Joe figures that they were selling a few years back. I know that the Bantam paperbacks always showed Doc in a ripped-up shirt, but I don’t think he actually walked around all day in ripped-up shirts like the Hulk, so I chose to portray him as I assumed he looked most of the time, in a properly intact shirt. I repainted the head to reflect Doc’s bronze complexion, close-cropped haircut with widow’s peak, and his gold-flecked eyes. Although Doc usually avoided using guns, I pretend that it’s loaded with knock-out bullets. Long live Doc Savage!

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