A Man for the Century – is there a place for Doc in the Millennium?

The art deco plaque in the lobby of the Empire State Building

In Issue #85 of the Bronze Gazette, Chuck wrote in his Editor’s Column about the enduring strength of Doc Savage fandom. The emotions stirred in him were very much shared by me. A faith in the camaraderie we all share together, balanced against the publishing forces that have time and again made an effort to capture the lightning of unique popularity that has, more than once across the decades, vaulted Doc Savage powerfully into the public consciousness. Like Chuck, I wonder what lies ahead.

In the 1930’s the Doc Savage pulp magazine was a phenomenon. It’s no exaggeration to say that through the Depression, very few characters kindled the fire of devoted readership that Doc did. Some elements of that phenomenon were unique to the time. In those Depression years, Doc was a melded embodiment of escape literature (traveling the globe, exploring lost worlds), the burgeoning concept of science-as-miracle (the supernatural elements of the stories were all presented as advances in scientific ability), and hope. Hope that human ingenuity wedded to idealism could contribute ultimately to a world where the brutal conditions of the Great Depression could be fought, could be healed.

Doc Savage #1, Street and Smith, 1933

Then came a change. World War II altered the paradigm of national zeitgeist, and though many marvelous stories passed through the Doc Savage magazine across those years, Doc himself grew into more of an awkward fit – the transition from world-shaping and world-saving to an often grim and grueling struggle between nations and beliefs about humanity, shifted the approach of the series. Doc became more human in many ways; the bronze light he had cast through the Depression becoming harder, more flawed, more nuanced.

In the postwar years, that evolution continued. The magazine tried to adapt to a new cultural consciousness, becoming “Doc Savage: Science Detective”. Again, the sophistication of the stories increased, but the attention of the reading world was fading. By 1949, the original run of stories was done.

As Chuck observed, for many characters that might have been the end.

In the 1960’s the Bantam Books reprints began, and amazingly, Doc became more popular than ever. Part of that was a brilliant stroke of marketing, headlining the books with vibrant, ultimately iconic covers by James Bama. Sales of the paperbacks were in the millions.

Doc Savage #1, Bantam Books, 1964

Why? Nostalgia was a part of it certainly, but time and again I have read comments from older Doc followers, who grew up with Doc in the 1930’s (authors like Phil Farmer and Harlan Ellison spring to mind) stating that they disliked the departure from the “Baumhofer Doc”. Based on marketing from Bantam, which appears in many of the paperbacks, they aimed the series more squarely toward a teenager to college-age audience, and with immense success. But my interest, again, is less in the marketing, and more in the “soul” of what captured the fascination of a new generation (my own generation, as it turns out).

The prospect of visiting what felt to 60’s youth like a more innocent time may have been part of it. As antiheroes began to proliferate in entertainment of all kinds, Doc was a counterpoint – a man who did many undeniably badass things with a good heart, a strong dedication to the little guy, and a willingness to challenge the boundaries of law in the name of obvious human good. Doc’s 1960’s popularity is strange in that regard, and yet not so strange. There is a powerful connection – different from that of readers in the 1930’s, but no less compelling – to ideals of the hippie generation. Basically a sense of being empowered to change things for the better. In that light, Doc shone very bright indeed.

As the 70’s went on, the fervor of both the youth movement and that of readership for the Doc paperbacks began to lose steam. The series was, by the well-researched accounts presented across the years here in the Bronze Gazette and other places, at the brink of cancellation on several occasions. It held on, and even continued into new stories and story ideas discovered in Dent’s papers – adapted and presented by Will Murray as the latest Kenneth Robeson.

I enjoyed all of those. But I think it’s safe to say that a third wave of mass popularity never materialized. In those days movies could spark great interest in an old character, but the 1975 Doc Savage film (again, as noted sagely by Chuck) came closer to killing widespread interest in the character. The choice to adopt a camp tone for the film was (to my mind at the time), disastrous. In the decades since 1975 my feelings about the film have evolved (as have those of the general critical public). Throughout the 80’s and 90’s reviewers who gave starred ratings to films appearing on TV routinely gave “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze”, a single sad star. That has changed – look at the ratings on Amazon, for instance, and you’ll see them hovering steadily at a much higher level of appreciation. I feel much the same. After being massively disappointed as a 17 year old in 1975, I’ve come to truly enjoy the relentless optimism of the film.

But at the time, Doc seemed done. The paperback reprints were faltering – a fine black and white comics series from Marvel lasted only eight issues, and the proposed second Doc movie (I’ve read one of the script versions of it – written by Farmer – which scaled back on the camp considerably), was never made.

Doc Savage #1, Marvel Comics, 1975

As noted above, Doc refused to die. Through the 80′, 90’s and 2000’s, a number of interesting Doc properties have come and gone. Numerous (short-lived) comics adaptations of varying approach and quality make for a fascinating study of how-to (or how not-to) promote new interest in an old character. They have ranged from straight-up nostalgia to some intriguing attempts toward updating Doc…some with laudable ambition. But nothing really stuck, and those periodic bursts of Doc Comics have begun to feel somewhat strained. None of the great auters of the comics world (innovative writer/artists) have tackled a revival…they have been, to my mind, mostly labored, journeyman efforts. I’ve followed them all (check out the letters page of one of the 1980’s DC Comics Doc Savage/Shadow crossover issues, and you will see a missive from me). Some have been fun, some have been intriguing, while others have been wildly uneven and disappointing.

In the book world, Will Murray has continued his thoroughly enjoyable stewardship of the “Wild Adventures of Doc Savage”…I’ve read them all. They are mostly revisitings of Dent concepts expanded into a much longer many-hundreds-of-pages format, and clearly give great pleasure to Doc purists (of which I am one, though I improbably straddle the fence between love of “pure old Doc” and desire to see powerful modern techniques of writing applied to the character). Those books seem to be winding down now as well. There’s a similar feel in the air to what I imagine was the reader-expectation back in 1949. Are we done?

I don’t expect a new movie (if it ever happens) or TV series (recently floated after the movie stalled) to do anything like explode into public interest and consciousness. It would probably please some fans and tick off others…gain a few new converts, and alienate some older followers.

So what is left? As Chuck’s column asserted, there are the fans. Doc has inspired a unique level of love and dedication in readers, which has kept the character alive (if sometimes on life-support) for nearly a century now. The Gazette itself is a splendid testament by and for those fans. There are several possibilities…it may become, as it has with characters like Sherlock Holmes, a divided landscape of “canon” (essentially the original pulp magazine run) and “non-canon” (stories that try in various ways to capture the thrill and pleasure of those original tales through revise/reboot approaches). As the white-hairs of the Second Wave (hey, wait a minute, I’m one of those hippie-era converts to Doc, how did I end up a “white hair”?) age and pass into the sunset, who will be reading Doc Savage?

As I have throughout these musings, I’ll rest my hope for the future on the soul of the character and stories. The chief reason, to my mind, that Doc is approaching 100 years, is the hope and idealism at the core deep inside the foundations of Doc Savage storytelling. Those are universal qualities, which might wax and wane through trends in the entertainment world, but which never die. They are part and parcel of the human spirit. My hope is that as new “Doc” works eventually emerge, they will be built less from tinkering with the surface qualities of Doc Savage mythos, re-arranging parts, playing with mashups and crossovers, and more from a deep sense of connection to the inspiring elements of hope, courage, adventure and humanity so inherent to both the first and second waves of Savage fandom.

Shining outward from a foundation like that, Doc might indeed be a Man for the Century…and not just the 20th.

Note: This article appeared in The Bronze Gazette #86 — that issue can be acquired, and other excellent issues of the magazine viewed, HERE.

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