Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Pulp heroes were all the rage during The Bronze Age. Once Marvel took a chance on Conan, suddenly all those old characters from the '30's, characters most of us had never heard of before, suddenly became very hot property, with the race for rights very much on. DC, late in the game as usual, managed to get The Shadow and the lesser known Justice Inc. But Marvel got Doc Savage. Doc, of course, is one of the original superheroes, as well as one of the strangest. The Shadow was a mysterious, vengeance dealing figure of the night, while Doc was a billionaire scientist / adventurer, trained since childhood to fight crime, with a whole warehouse full of vehicles, weapons & gadgets to help him in his mission. Batman, obviously, was inspired by both these guys. Even if creator Lester Dent once described Doc as a cross between Sherlock Holmes & Tarzan.
Marvel published 8 rip-roaring issues of Doc Savage, mostly written by Doug Moench and illustrated by Tony DeZuniga, and they're great, great fun, if a little repetitive.
Kinda like James Bond ( yet another hero Doc inspired ) each story runs along the same basic lines. We start with the breathtaking splash, that, if the cover didn't hook you, this certainly will.
Then after a brief prologue introducing us to that issue's threat, we head straight for the 86th floor of New York's highest skyscraper, where Doc's aides, The Amazing Five, are hanging out.
I never could quite figure out why Doc needed FIVE helper's on his missions, that just seemed greedy. Holmes only needs Watson after all. Nor why the guys clearly had nothing better to do than sit around waiting for their bronze skinned buddy to deign to come out of his lab and speak to them. The team, of course, are as happily two-dimensional ( in a good way) as Doc himself is, at least in the comic version. We always get a bit of comedy between Ham & the Ben-Grimm like Monk here too, arch enemies but lifelong friends. And I always liked miserable old Renny, who could punch through doors (tried it meself once!) And Johnny's fun, if little more than a running gag, but Long Tom never really made that much of an impression, at least here. As I say, they're a two-dimensional bunch, but it's that very simplicity that makes Doc Savage for me. It all kind of feeds into the childhood fantasy of being with your best friends, in your secret hideout, with all the toys & gadgets you could ever want, having nothing to do but go on adventures.
Anyway, generally a beautiful babe turns up at the 86th floor and explains that issue's adventure to us & the gang. Doc, natch, is off in the lab or his private gymnasium, listening in and waiting for the perfect time to make his dramatic entrance.
As soon as he does, a final piece of the plot is explained ( usually to Monk ), then Doc does a bit of trilling ( something I never understood, even to this day. How exactly does he make that noise? Is it a whistle? A hum? What? ) Then the chase is on! Off to The Hildago Trading Co. for The Autogryo, or The Helldiver, or whatever other vehicle will actually carry them all, Doc so ready for action, he doesn't even have time to sit in the car.
Pretty soon, it's monsters, escapes, captures, fights, and 100 mph, breathless excitement all the way, as the gang travel the world, eventually exposing the bad guy in kind of a Scooby-Doo stylee, before everything explodes and they make it out in the nick of time.
As I say, Doc is, on reflection, a deeply weird hero. Humourless, perfect in every way, followed unquestioningly by The Five, he shouldn't work at all. But he does. Again, it's that boyhood fantasy where you're just naturally brilliant at everything and everybody thinks you're great. The scenes where he's doing ridiculously complicated gymnastics while conjugating square roots, or beating up ten henchmen at once, make you feel absolutely like a kid again, wishing you could do that. And like Bond, you never once feel like he's in any danger or there's anything he can't handle.
Moench, I think wisely, stayed away from that whole 'operating on criminals to make them decent members of society' thing that's in the books, though everything else is in there, including the fact that Doc never kills, which is nice of him.
He also brought in Doc's ballsy, straight talkin' cousin Pat, who bounces off the stoic superman perfectly, and she should've been in more stories. ( But then I guess, they'd need another couple of planes to carry everyone around in. )
Every once in a while, talk of a new Doc Savage movie surfaces. And even though the Ron Ely version is, of course, truly appalling, it does raise an interesting point. Could you make a pure Doc movie these days? Moench got away with it here, but this kind of innocence and simplicity is extremely hard to do, especially nowadays. That's why the original movie was camp, just like Flash Gordon was camp. This intro from the book sums up Doc's appeal, and any filmmakers problem, better than I can. It's certainly everything I love about Doc Savage.