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Despite what the name would suggest, Doc Savage is far from some untamed beast who represents the animalistic side of heroism. But neither is he the comedic “F*CKING HILARIOUS WEIRDO” that Dwayne Johnson declared him to be when announcing that he would be playing the character in the upcoming Shane Black-written big-screen reboot of the character. So … just who is Doc Savage, in that case?
The character — whose given name is Clark Savage Jr. — debuted in 1933, starring in the eponymous Doc Savage Magazine. He was created by publisher Harry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, with further contributions from Lester Dent, the writer most often associated with the character. (Most stories originally appeared under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson, a house name used by Ralston’s Street & Smith company to disguise authorship of pulp tales; it allowed the company to advertise other series as coming from “the creator of Doc Savage,” even when they were in fact written by others.)
Part of Johnson’s description of the hero is entirely on point: “Doc was physically and mentally trained from birth by his father and a team of scientists to become the perfect human specimen with a genius level intellect,” he wrote. “His heightened senses are beyond comprehension. He can even identify a women’s perfume from half a mile away. He is literally the master of everything.” This is the key to the character, as traditionally portrayed — Savage is the ultimate human, trained since birth to do everything any human can do, and do it better than anyone else.
He also is the most bronze human, thanks to his matching tan and hair color; “The Man of Bronze” was a later tagline for the character, following Superman’s “The Man of Steel.”
Where Johnson’s description diverges from the traditional Doc Savage is what it means to be Doc. “Confidently, yet innocently he has zero social graces whatsoever due to his upbringing so every interaction he has with someone is direct, odd, often uncomfortable and amazingly hilarious,” Johnson explained — which, while certainly a valid take on the character’s origins, isn’t part of the regular Doc Savage setup.
Instead, he’s traditionally been portrayed a square in a world of squares, uptight but not socially awkward. If there’s something that “classic” Doc Savage doesn’t understand, it’s not social mores — he is, after all, the master of everything — but evil. The Doc of old is a crime fighter, who has assembled a team of fellow adventurers to help him deal with trouble and save the day on a regular basis. The “Fabulous Five,” as they’re occasionally referred to, just happen to be specialists in their own fields, including chemistry, engineering, archaeology and the law. That kind of thing comes in handy when dealing with villainy, it turns out.
(This isn’t to say that Doc is entirely perfect; he’s constantly confounded by his cousin, Pat Savage, who occasionally steps in to replace or support Doc when necessary; in that she is female, however, his sense of chivalry is occasionally at war with his belief in equality when it comes to do-gooding.)
This setup — Doc as the stoic hero, with assistants behind him and adventure ahead — was enough to guide the character not only through 181 issues of Doc Savage Magazine (the stories in which were then reprinted as stand-alone novels from 1964 through 1990), but a number of spinoffs and revivals. Doc has starred in two radio serials (in 1934 and 1985, respectively), multiple comic books (Marvel and DC have both licensed the character in the past; currently Dynamite Entertainment holds the rights) and the 1975 movie Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.
In a world where Marvel’s dazzling, wise-cracking superheroics are the norm, it’s possible that the traditional Doc would seem old-fashioned and a figure of fun even without the added dimension Johnson and Shane Black are teasing (This is a hero whose oath included the words, “Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage,” after all; where’s the angst in that?). But in an era where fans vocally complain about how dark the cinematic Superman is, and eagerly discuss the optimism and hope embodied in Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, it’s possible that Doc Savage is the hero everyone is waiting for.
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