Intimacy, in the lives of most thoughtful adults, is not just sex. It is a vast and complex landscape that includes affection, bonding, friendship, admiration…a whole host of ways that as human beings, we experience the joys (and sometimes sadness) of touching and being touched.
In heroic literature, there are few figures who have a more baffling place within that landscape than Doc Savage. An accomplished, consummately intelligent, handsome man who cares deeply about people, who over the course of the almost staggering amount of novels that comprise the original pulp canon, has almost no intimate moments.
Regarding the sexual side of intimacy, certainly its absence in Doc’s life across the run of pulp novels was influenced (more like rigidly controlled) by the strongly puritanical strictures of Street & Smith management. But even within that framework, allusion is made to the intimate lives of other recurring characters. Monk and Ham are outright “skirt chasers”…and even Doc’s cousin Pat is depicted as attending a party now and then (“The Black Spot”), or having dinner with a member of the opposite sex (“Poison Island”).
Doc, as portrayed in the pulps, is constantly under the admiring gaze of women. But he avoids even the gentlest forms of intimacy. Why?
Certainly a framework of reasons is provided. He apparently never knew his mother, had very little direct life-guidance from his father, and was placed very early into the hands of what appear to have been exclusively male tutors. Shyness is understandably the result…but there are also ample aspects within his history to have mitigated that shyness. Military service at a young age (and Philip José Farmer explored this a little with a sexual encounter for Doc in his World War I novel Escape From Loki)…a doctorate certainly acquired in a collegiate atmosphere…and of course the countless adventures (he is, after all, over thirty years old at the time of The Man of Bronze) in which he encounters women of all types and personalities, many of them stunningly beautiful and clearly attracted to him.
The stock response to this absence in his life in the novels is that his life is too dangerous to have a romantic relationship. Okay…but as noted, Monk and Ham had no such compunctions, and they were in on virtually every dangerous escapade. Was Doc gay, and in the closet? A not unreasonable conjecture, given his male-centric upbringing and male companionship in adult life. But not even the slightest hint is given of this. Was he, like another character with a long canon of stories — Sherlock Holmes — apparently uninterested in sex and intimacy altogether? He doesn’t give that impression…no indication of simply having low libido or philosophical tendencies toward celibacy.
More likely, he was simply very private. This sequence from the DC comics Doc Savage miniseries The Silver Pyramid perhaps captures this as well as anyone has…keep in mind this comic appeared in the late 1980’s, around the same time Doc’s pulp contemporary The Shadow was being unflinchingly portrayed in another DC miniseries (Blood and Judgment, by Howard Chaykin) as openly and graphically sexual.
In the above scene, Doc is married (to Monja, though in the story she is inexplicably given another name), and Ham Brooks accidentally interrupts them holding hands. Ham’s reaction is rather like what one might expect from someone walking in and unexpectedly seeing Mom and Dad having sex. Everybody blushes, except Monja, who seems to find it charming, but also a little amusing.
More blatant comedic approaches to Doc’s hesitant intimate life are also present in both canonical pulps and later works…in the novel The Freckled Shark, a good portion of the book takes place with Doc in disguise as a loud, openly and bombastically romantic rogue named Henry Peace, who enthusiastically woos the story’s heroine, Rhoda Haven. Later, as himself, he distances himself from her in frantic haste (the fact that the cover of the pulp chose a scene of Doc breaking chains I leave to armchair psychologists).
Much more recently, Will Murray’s Wild Adventures of Doc Savage story The Valley of Eternity explores the idea of Doc getting married, but the tone is adolescent and comedic, which to me, seemed a shame. A period piece showing a more mature and nuanced approach to romance in Doc’s life is something I would have greatly enjoyed. Murray did also write a unique take on a romantic connection in Doc’s life — the “madonna-like” Russian woman Seryi Mitroff, who also appeared in The Red Spider — in the novel The Frightened Fish, which I found much more interesting and poignant, as it was played straight.
In some ways, Doc’s shyness around women was very relatable to what was undoubtedly the largest percentage of Doc Savage magazine readers…adolescent young men. As a painfully shy youngster myself, I actually found a little comfort in my literary hero, Doc Savage, having the same issue. But I did outgrow that, and somehow I don’t doubt that Doc would have as well.
To be balanced in the assessment of Doc’s intimate life in the original pulps, in later adventures in the 1940’s he no longer seemed to regard women as if they were a mysterious and troubling alien species. One could imagine the Doc of say, 1948 or ’49, actually going out to dinner with a lady and enjoying himself.
I’m glad. Because under it all, Doc really is a good guy, and as deserving of warmth, companionship and passion as each and every one of us is.