What do you get when you cross Superman with The Hardy Boys and have them chase after King Solomon’s Mines? You get Doc Savage.
Doc Savage holds a special place in history. Coming out five years before Superman debuted in 1938, Stan Lee has credited the character as the forerunner for the superhero genre. Though he started life in serialized adventure stories, he would later appear in comics, radio plays, and movies. To this day he’s referenced in pop culture and there’s even talk of a new Doc Savage movie being made.
However, this doesn’t mean the books are terribly well written. It’s bad. At times it’s hilariously bad—at least, by adult standards. The writing feels like it’s trying to sound educated, but often comes across as patronizing. But for its intended age group, I’m sure it’s just fine. Just like Hardy Boys (or, let’s face it, early comic books).
I had recently been looking into what we now call Young Adult stories, and quickly realized that Doc Savage was most definitely not part of that category. To me, Young Adult stories are something that both younger and older readers can relate to and enjoy. Doc Savage, however, is written for young boys. Full stop.
When people use the term “Mary Sue” (or Marty Stew) I think Doc Savage makes for a far better example of what they are trying to say. Here’s the list of his abilities according to Wikipedia: Genius-level intellect, Peak physical and mental conditioning, Skilled scientist, surgeon, inventor, detective, athlete, and martial artist, Photographic memory, Master of disguise.
He is so perfect, you wonder why he even needs his crew of five faithful friends. Heck, it’s even pointed out that Doc will often notice things well before they do, but says nothing so they don’t feel bad. What a swell guy.
The difference between Doc Savage and a Marty Stew, however, is that Doc is supposed to be the star. Throw Doc into a Harry Potter fanfic, overcoming every problem without even using magic, and knowing more about magic than the wizards and witches even though he can’t cast spells, and you’d have a prime example.
Now, in case you think I am insulting to the author, Lester Dent (writing as Kenneth Robeson) held no illusions about his writing. To him, the Doc Savage series was just a way to earn a living by “churning out reams and reams of sellable crap.” But that crap had a huge impact on how we view adventure and superheroes today.
A better analogy for Doc would be Superman. Doc is meant to fill a similar niche. Yes, it’s a power fantasy, but both characters stand for something other than might makes right. They are meant to represent a force of justice, and their perfection is merely a tool to achieve this end.
As you might expect from the era, there is a certain amount of casual racism and prejudice going on, noble savages and ugly amounting to evil being two such examples. The villains are so cartoony they give cartoon villains a bad name. But to its credit, it strives to be fair towards foreign governments and so-called savages, even citing what the white man did to the Native Americans as a “lousy trick” to take their land away. Ultimately, Doc is all about helping people and doing the right thing, even if the language isn’t always appropriate to that end by modern standards.
The story itself is fairly simple. It starts shortly after the death of Doc’s father, and the discovery of a plot of land bequeathed to him in the Yucatan Peninsula. But deadly red-fingered assassins are trying to stop him from learning the truth of what lies there….
This is a story that speaks in shorthand to its young readers. This shorthand extends to everything and everyone. Doc’s five friends are often referred to by their specialties rather than their personalities, and largely only speak when the situation relates to something they are knowledgeable about. The exception perhaps being Monk (the chemical specialist) who is the “pleasantly ugly” member of the group (but gets away with it because he doubles as comic relief).
When I say that this story is for young boys, I mean that it might as well have a “No Girlz Allowd” sign hanging on the cover. There is literally no mention that women even exist for over half the book (Doc’s dead father is often mentioned, but never once his mother). The one woman they interact with is, naturally, a princess who, naturally, swoons over Doc. But Doc ain’t got no time for romance, there’s daring-do to be done!
One bizarre quirk I encountered early on was the nature of Doc Savage’s signature “sound.” Described as a “low, mellow, trilling sound, like the song of some strange bird of the jungle” and had me asking myself: Is Doc Savage singing his own theme tune? I’m still a bit confused by what that sound is supposed to be.
What runs a close second in terms of bizarre quirks is how Doc is constantly (and I mean seventy times in a 50,000 word book) referred to as looking bronze. Water beads off him—even his hair—as if he’s made of bronze. I wonder if that’s simply another form of shorthand meant to make him easy to imagine. Any kid that sees a bronze statue towering over him might, to their mind, become their image of what Doc Savage is.
What this story ultimately reminds me of is my early days of roleplaying. Clumsy and awkwardly told by an novice Game Master, with cliché PCs and NPCs, but fun and laying down the foundation for better things to come.
Yeah… it’s pretty much this bad 😉
Originally Published in KODT #258