When a character comes to embody hope: Doc Savage and society

Characters in heroic fiction are often products of their time, and because they are commercial properties, their creators make an effort to tap into the zeitgeist of that time. As a result, the vast majority of such characters fade when the themes at their core shift in society around them.

Much of the advertising that accompanied the early years of the Doc Savage magazine emphasized adventure, fighting prowess…Doc and his “pals” were “scrappers”, traveling the world having exciting exploits. Appealing, certainly, for a readership struggling through the hardships and deprivations of the Great Depression.

But there was another side to the character that went beyond the fun and excitement of adventure. Doc was also dedicated to assisting others with those very hardships that the escapist fiction was designed to help people forget. He would give a boost to people about to slide off the jagged edge of society’s cliff…whether getting them jobs, keeping businesses afloat, or using his medical skill to help the needy. If Doc’s pulp contemporary, The Shadow, with his often ruthless and violent response to injustice, could be characterized as epitomizing the anger and frustration of a society under great duress…Doc was a symbol of our better angels. A superman in a quiet brown suit, modest about his accomplishments, dedicated to both large and small acts to make things better.

Certainly this combination of traits sent the character of Doc Savage to remarkable heights of popularity in the 1930’s. But even as the Depression ended, followed by the devastation of World War II, and on into the Postwar years, the need for hope in society remained universal.

And it was influential. Take a look at this comic strip from 1947 — the first Sunday strip of the great Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon. Caniff had departed his hugely popular strip Terry and the Pirates, and launched a new adventure strip over which he had much more control. But as the strip moves from panel to panel, in which the protagonist, in sequence, wishes a cop well whose sister he visited in Ireland, is greeted by a doorman whose son he sent a souvenir from exotic Egypt, checks in at a newsstand run by a vet who he has backed financially, gives a dollar to a flower girl…who does this remind you of? If I didn’t know it was Canyon, I would swear it was Doc.

The point being, Caniff went out of his way to emulate, through his character, a decent man going by the name of Clark Savage, Jr.

Over sixty years later, Doc would still be adventuring, but was also still an avatar of hope. In the 2013 comics series from Dynamite Entertainment, the author, Chris Roberson, presented this scene near the climax of the story. The story in brief was that terrorists have used a weapon, channeled through Doc’s own technology, that has unleashed every violent tendency in human beings. The resulting chaos is devastating…even apocalyptic.

The response by Doc is not only technological, but he engenders a return to calm, reason and caring just by speaking.

As always, simple decency is the greatest “superpower” he wields. And the message that a quality of mutual caring, when reflected and acted upon through us, brings hope to society is as needed as much in the present day as it was in the days of Doc’s genesis in the Great Depression.

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