Larger Than Life
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
The big bronze man was so well put together that the impression was not of size, but of power. The Bulk of his great body was forgotten in the smooth symmetry of a building incredibly powerful.
This man was Clark Savage, Jr.
Doc Savage! The man whose name was becoming a byword in the odd corners of the world!
With hardly an effort, Doc Savage can make a leap that “exceeded by more than two feet the world record for the high jump.” He can “readily stay under water twice as long as a South Sea pearl diver.”3 In his first recorded adventure, Savage punches out a man-eating shark. Yet he is also a brilliant surgeon and the world’s leading authority on engineering, chemistry, electricity, geology, archaeology and the law.
They don’t make ’em like that any more, even in fiction. Doc Savage today seems a man out of his time, and his creed (“to go here and there, from one end of the world to the other, looking for excitement and adventure, striving to help those who needed help, punishing those who deserve it”) is too naēve even for Saturday morning cartoon shows. Hardly less astonishing than Savage’s adventures themselves is that they were still being reprinted, nearly 80 years after the superhero made his first appearance in The Man of Bronze (1933). The longevity of Doc Savage would doubtless bring a grin to the face of Lester Dent (1904-59) had he but lived to witness the paperback revival of his creation.
Both in their original appearances in Doc Savage magazine (1933-49) and in the paperback reprints, the Doc Savage adventures are credited to Kenneth Robeson, a house name created by Street & Smith Publications. House names were common in an time when pulp writers were regarded as just as disposable as the pulp magazines themselves. Nearly all of the novel-length Doc Savage adventures, however, were written by Dent; in their own way, his achievements were as astounding as any of his hero’s. They don’t make writers like that any more; even the most prolific author of contemporary men’s adventure or women’s romance isn’t expected to keep up the kind of pace that was almost routine in the 1930’s. Certainly no science fiction writer today would be bound to a schedule of monthly formula adventure novels. But during the Great Depression, the monthly deadlines and the formulas went with the job in writing for the pulps – you wrote that way, or you starved, and you never thought about posterity.
Doc Savage didn’t stand alone as a superhero pulp; others ranged from The Shadow to G-8 and His Battle Aces, Secret Agent X and The Avenger (the last also published as by Robeson). Science fictional elements played a major role in some, though by no means all, of the superhero pulps. In Operator No.5 (1934-40), the sf element was dominant: Plots frequently turned on criminal or revolutionary conspiracies that threatened or actually disrupted society as a whole, and eventually on foreign invasions that were dramatized in miniseries of novel-length monthly episodes. The apocalyptic science fiction of Operator No. 5 echoed, albeit doubtless unconsciously, a school of sf that had been popular in Europe during the 1920’s and reflected the anxieties about both science and the stability of society inspired by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. But even when the Great Depression created an environment for apocalyptic sf in the United States, there was something different about Doc Savage.
To begin with, Doc Savage had more of the stuff of classic adventure. Most pulp superheroes remained grounded in the United States; Doc Savage really did travel the world – to Central America, Indochina and other exotic locales. And he didn’t travel alone; there to share his exploits were the comrades he had originally met during the War: William Harper Littlejohn, Col John Renwick, Lt. Col. Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Roberts and Brig. Gen. Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks. None of the other pulp superheroes had such colorful companions, and the camaraderie among them gave the series a flavor reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas’ adventures of the Three Musketeers. It was juvenile stuff, sure, especially the rivalry between Monk and Ham, which went back to the origin of their nicknames: Monk, who is built like a gorilla, had Ham framed for stealing hams after the Ham had tricked him into calling a French general by obscene names in his own tongue.
Strange as it may seem, there was also a sort of social consciousness to Doc Savage. Savage can be a ruthless avenger: In The Land of Terror (1933), he kills villains wholesale; his “hard code…would have curled the hair of weak sisters who want criminals mollycoddled.” Yet in the same episode, he uses reward money from a bank to have restaurants start “supplying free meals to deserving unemployed.” In The Man of Bronze, the natives of the Central American republic of Hidalgo tend to be stereotyped greasers, while the Mayans from whom Savage derives his gold either excessively noble or vile. Yet, speaking of the very concession his father had obtained from the Hidalgo government, Savage remarks at one point: “It’s a lousy thing for a government to take some poor savage’s land away from him and give it to a white man to exploit. Our own American Indians got that kind of deal, you know.” The Mayans, needless to say, are not exploited by Savage: A full third of the gold is put in trust for them, although they are supposedly disinterested in material wealth.
True, some of Savage’s humanitarian efforts are questionable by modern standards: among the hospitals he has endowed is one in which “delicate brain operations” are performed on criminals to “wipe out all memory of the past” so that they can be “trained to hate crime and criminals, and taught trades or professions at which they could make good livings.” Still, the attitudes in Doc Savage hardly reflect the narrow-minded conservatism that a modern reader might expect of old-time pulp fiction.
Most important of all to Doc Savage was the synergy of science fiction and traditional adventure elements. Buried treasure, lost cities and sinister ethnic villains, among the recurrent motifs of the series, were frequently combined in episodes such as The Thousand-Headed Man (1934). The style was often deliberately archaic: The Villainous sailors of The Polar Treasure (1933) talk and act like old-time buccaneers, although their pirate ship is a submarine. Yet the Man of Bronze and his comrades are armed with such modern weapons as machine pistols and a variety of miniature grenades (gas, smoke and concussion), and they make use of truth drugs and listening devices reminiscent of those in scientific detective fiction. Other recurrent sf gadgets and gimmicks include underwater breathing devices, television spy eyes and radar.
Everything in Doc Savage was played straight, from the awesome physical and mental powers of Savage himself to the superweapons and apocalyptic menaces. Even such absurdities as the pet hog and chimpanzee carried along on adventures by Monk and Ham, the man-eating crabs and iguanas kept by crazed Russian villains in The Fantastic Island (1935) and a secret weapon that turns out to be a hoax in The Yellow Cloud (1939) were treated with a poker-faced realism. Doc Savage was like nothing else before or since, in pulp science fiction or in pulp adventure. What it was like was the new superhero comics genre that began in 1938 with Superman.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster got the idea from Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930), in which the protagonist’s powers come through hormone treatments, at least, that is the gospel according to sf fan-historian Sam Moskowitz. But Doc Savage too may have been an inspiration for the strip, which Siegel and Shuster are said to have developed in 1933, the year Dent’s hero made his debut. One house ad that ran in Doc Savage in 1934 was even headlined “SUPERMAN.” Be that as it may, the Man of Steel – as opposed to the Man of Bronze – was closer to Wylie’s hero as originally conceived: He could rip open safes or race locomotives, but couldn’t move mountains; he could leap tall buildings, but he couldn’t actually fly; he was invulnerable to ordinary bullets, but not to heavy artillery. Yet even the later version of Superman, whose powers were virtually unlimited, acknowledged one debt to the Man of Bronze: the Fortress of Solitude, an Arctic retreat originally used by Doc Savage.
Bob Kane's Batman (1939-) was closer to the spirit of the superhero pulps. Although the Caped Crusader's persona recalls that of the Shadow, his physical regimen and his gadgetry (the utility belt, the Batmobile) are in line with Savage's; still, Kane's fanciful supervillains (the Joker, the Penguin) are true originals. Batman has become a barometer for the status of superheroes generally – played straight in the comics, reduced to camp in the 1966-68 TV series, taken seriously once more with Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1987) and Tim Burton's blockbuster film Batman (1989), reduced to camp again in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), and restored to glory yet again in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008).
Yet the success of superheroes on screen – Nolan’s Batman epics have been blockbusters; likewise such other comic book-inspired movies as Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) – still leaves the future of superhero comics themselves in doubt. They have never regained the mass following in the United States that they enjoyed during the 1940s, and repeated makeovers of Superman, Batman and other titles seem more a sign of desperation than of creativity. Nevertheless, comic book superheroes have become an enduring part of our culture and have even exerted a reverse influence on science fiction.
Wild Cards (1987-), a shared-world series edited by George R.R. Martin, is a cheeky tour de force that mimics the mythology of Marvel’s X-Men (1963-), created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In Martin's alternate history of modern times, an alien virus was released over New York in 1946. It killed nearly all its victims and turned most of the rest into hideous monstrosities: the Jokers. But a few, the Aces, came out of it with superpowers much like those of the D.C. and Marvel heroes.
The names and the details are different, of course, and so are the efforts at plausibility. Golden Boy, for example, is like the early Superman: He can lift forty tons without straining himself, and bullets bounce right off him. Being part of the real world, however, he is recruited by the CIA for a team of supermen called Exotics for Democracy and sent to Argentina to overthrow the Peron regime in Walter Jon Williams’ “Witness” (1987). Inexperienced at this sort of thing, he attempts to halt a speeding car by planting himself in front of it:
The problem was, I wasn't heavier than the car. When things collide, it’s the object with the least momentum that gives way, and weight is a component of momentum, It doesn’t matter how strong the lighter object is. I got smarter after that. I knocked the statue of Peron off its perch and threw it at the car. That took care of things.
In an appendix to the first volume of Wild Cards (1987), such feats are explained as telekinetic powers unlocked by alien viral rewrites of human DNA. But these are mere rationalizations; the realism of the series is in the actual stories. In “Witness,” Golden Boy betrays the Black Ace and other comrades to the House Un-American Activities Committee after their failure to prevent the Communist takeover of China arouses suspicion against them. Both Aces and Jokers are persecuted during the McCarthy years; the Jokers are confined to a ghetto and, during the 1960s they become a focus of civil rights protest in Stephen Leigh’s “Strings.” Aces are involved on both sides in the divisive Vietnam War unrest in Victor Milan’s “Transfigurations.” And so on.
The Wild Cards series had gone through nearly 20 volumes by 2010, and changed publishers twice. With Inside Straight (2008), it was on to the next generation, with a round robin novel, in which a new bunch of Aces (among them Jonathan Hive, who can change into a swarm of wasps) are cast in a TV reality show – until a real-life crisis in the Middle East demands their attention. The same conceit of superheroes in the “real” world has been used brilliantly in Alan Moore’s cult classic graphic novel Watchmen (1987), finally brought to the big screen in 2009. Tim Kring’s TV Series Heroes (2006-10) covers the same thematic ground. But that ground is closer to fantasy than sf in many respects.
Superhero comics have spread far beyond their original American homeland, however. The first of these was Darna, created in the Philippines in 1950 by Mars Ravelo and Nestor Redendo. A cross between Superman and Wonder Woman (Supergirl hadn’t yet been created in the United States) in her powers, she has starred in movie and TV spinoffs, and been retconned several times. Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey (1973-) is a Japanese manga and anime series about an ordinary girl who can transform into a superheroine – the inspiration apparently had nothing to do with America’s Captain Marvel, in which Billy Batson transforms into the superhero. There are any number of other superhero/superheroine manga/anime series in Japan.
In 2006, Dr, Naif Al Mutawa launched The 99, a series about superheroes who derive their powers from gemstones – a parallel with Darna that is almost certainly coincidental. The 99 (whose names honor the 99 attributes of Allah, although they aren’t necessarily Muslim) are all teenagers and young adults from around the world, with a mentor in the person of a scholar and social activist Dr. Ramzi Rassem. There are editions marketed in Indonesia and India., and there was even a crossover with DC Comics’ Justice League in 2010.
Samit Basu’s Turbulence (2012) is closer in concept to Wild Cards, but unlike Martin’s series it’s a one-man show. Basu (1979-), a native of Calcutta, brings a multicultural perspective to his fiction, but also a seriousness of purpose. His superheroes and superheroines – some are actually villains or become villains – derive their powers from dreams they had on a flight from London to Delhi: they are whatever each most wishes to be. But wish-dreams cover a lot of territory, and not just the traditional flight or super-strength.
Aman Sen, a geek who becomes the informal leader of one group, can tap directly into the Internet and all forms of electronic communication and commerce. Rogue Air Force Commander Jai Mathur, by contrast, is out for personal power – first in the cause of his country against Pakistan but later for its own sake. In the inevitable showdown, Sen’s allies include Uzma Abidi, an aspiring Bollywood actress who has the seeming gift of luck; Tia, a Bengali housewife who can create duplicates of herself; and Sundar Narayan, a scientist who can come up with fabulous inventions, but only in his sleep. Defecting from Jai is Var Singh, an Indian Air Force pilot who can fly and is practically invulnerable, and whom we first meet hovering over a Pakistani nuclear weapons installation, preparing to go on the attack:
A young man of great presence, of power and dignity, which is only slightly diminished by a passing migratory bird’s recent use of his shoulder as a pit-stop.
Only he’s interrupted by a cell phone call from somebody warning him that it’s a suicide mission even for him; that it isn’t actually sanctioned by the Air Force; and that far from assuring India’s triumph it would trigger World War III. Vir’s distracted enough to be spotted by the enemy, barely escaping Pakistani jets and missiles and…
With his fate still uncertain, cut to Bollywood, where Uzma encounters (besides movie people) Buddhist monks moonlighting as DJs. There are plenty of comic touches like that, but when she is drawn into Aman’s orbit things start to get serious. Besides trying to recruit Vir and others, and put together a league of superheroes, he believes he can bring peace and justice to the world by electronically robbing from the rich (whether corporate plutocrats or drug lords) and giving to the poor. Only the results aren’t what he expects:
Aman’s victims have not taken their financial losses as a sign to begin leading simpler, purer lives; they have simply resolved to make more money, quickly and brutally. Crime rates have shot up all across the world. Untold thousands of people have been robbed and killed, some over negligible sums.
Meanwhile, there’s another supervillain out there who can whip up deadly flash mobs, and he still has to deal with Jai, who sends Indian gangsters (some themselves superpowered) against his new base. His forces barely fend off their siege, and the end game unfolds in London, where Aman dons a powered suit of armor left him by Sundar – only it isn’t enough, and runs down after a while. Even Vir can’t take Jai on single-handed; but in a novel twist, it is Uzma who saves the day with a power she hadn’t known she had.
Yet the world is still a mess as they all ponder what to do next, and a new crop of superheroes is springing up – nobody knows who or what has been behind the transformative dreams. There’s plenty for a sequel, Resistance (coming soon in 2014), which takes some of the action to New York – home of a Superhero Tower. But the rationalizations are inevitably metaphorical fig leaves in sf terms.
In Only Superhuman (2012), however, Christopher L. Bennett brings an authentic science fiction touch to superhero fiction – it’s all genetic engineering and cybernetic enhancement; you won’t find anybody who can turn into a swarm of wasps like Martin’s Hive or duplicate herself endlessly like Basu’s Tia. As Mike W. Barr puts it in a back cover blurb, ”Usually science is the first casualty of superhero stories, tossed aside with the breezy rationalization: ‘Hey, it’s comics.’ Only Superhuman is, to my knowledge, the first hard science superhero story.”
Bennett’s superheroes and superheroines, moreover, aren’t the only ones of theur kind, whether operating as lone wolves or part of a group like the X-Men. They aren’t fighting conventional supervillains, either; they’re part the complex social and political conflict in and among human colonies on asteroids and Mars and its moons. Mods, as gentech humans are known, come in a number of varieties – Neogaians, for example, are environmentalist fanatics who have adopted animal forms. Rivalries among the mods, between mods and ordinary humans, and among the space colonies, are Byzantine; and some of the players could outscheme the Borgias.
Emerald Blair, the heroine, may look like a fantasy come to life, but she is also a real woman trying to find herself. Born a super-strength Vanguardian, she is estranged from her father at an early age and ends up running with a mod gang called Freakshow, which battles anti-mod gangs. But she isn’t quite ruthless enough for that sort of thing, and takes her leave. In a cheeky origin story, she comes across a trove of old comics: “Real heroes, putting [their] lives on the line for others, using [their] powers to help and never to harm.”
With bionic enhancements and a uniform, she is reborn as the Green Blaze, part of a group super-powered crimefighters called Troubleshooters, dedicated to truth, justice and… But power has gone to the heads of the leaders of the Troubleshooters and the Vanguard alike, both of whom conspire to impose their will on the colonies in what they imagine to be the cause of peace and progress – and Blair has to learn the hard way just who and what to trust, including her own judgment. .
The influence of Doc Savage itself on genre science fiction, as opposed to the comic book genre that has fed back into sf, has been slight. But there are obvious echoes of Robeson’s superhero in Captain Justice, a British adventure series that appeared in Modern Boy and the Boy’s Friend Library in the 1930s and 1940s. Captain Justice’s HQ is a tower a mile and a half high in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (Doc Savage had to make do with the Empire State Building), with its own docks and airfield. He and his comrades fly around in a 300-mile-an-hour airship to seek adventure and fight evildoers – all financed (as are the tower and its super-scientific devices like FAX machines and closed-circuit TV) with gold that is extracted from seawater by an invention of Dr. Flaznagel, one of the series regulars. Captain Justice is virtually forgotten today, but it is said to have impressed British sf star Brian W. Aldiss when he was a boy.13
Romantic sf heroes go back a lot farther in French science fiction, as witness Paul D’Ivoi’s Dr. Mystery (1900), in which the hero is an exiled Indian prince who returns home to work for the liberation of his country with a huge armored mobile fortress equipped with all sorts of secret weapons and gadgets. But more comparable to Doc Savage, only preceding him, is Jean de La Hire’s The Nyctalope, whose fictional career began in 1911, 22 years before that of Lester Dent’s hero, and ended in 1947, two years before that of Doc Savage.
As Philip José Farmer did in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), French comics and pulp fiction fan and historian Jean Marc Lofficier toys with the conceit that the Nyctalope was a real person, and tries to straighten out the conflicting details of his biography in afterwords to translations of his adventures for Black Coat Press (which he co-owns with his brother Randy). This is despite the fact that in some adventures, La Hire (1878-1956) took his hero to Mars and to an unknown planet called Rhea (not the Saturnian moon of the same name).
In Enter the Nyctalope (1933, as Le Assassinat du Nyctalope), La Hire gives his hero a belated origin story: both his ability to see in the dark and his artificial heart are the result of medical intervention after injuries suffered in the course of Leo Saint Clair’s pursuit of a super-villain who has nearly killed his father Pierre, blown up his lab, and made off with a secret invention of world-shaking importance. In this adventure – actually a retcon, inasmuch as it contradicts essential details of the hero’s already confused biography – he is accompanied, like Doc Savage, by a band of eccentric sidekicks, who never appear in any other episodes.
Enter the Nyctalope is more topical than anything of Lester Dent’s: the villains are Russian nihilists hiding out in Switzerland before World War I, and there are references to Lenin and Trotsky, although they don’t appear on stage. At one point, Leo is even a fool for love, succumbing to the charms of a Russian femme fatale. Unlike Doc Savage, the Nyctalope did have a love life, but the loves in his life – even those he married – don’t seem to have lasted longer than Ian Fleming’s Bond girls. Later sidekicks include Gno Mitang, a Japanese, and two Corsican bodyguards, Vito and Socca. As for the supervillains, they range from mad scientists calling themselves Lucifer and Belzebuth to Leonid Zattan, the very Antichrist, who rules a criminal empire.
Hastily written for serialization in daily newspapers, the Nyctalope adventures are full of plot holes. But they are consistently chauvinistic, and even racist. That world view proved to be the Achilles heel of La Hire and his creation: after the fall of France in 1940, the Nyctalope carries on as if nothing much had happened, and has papers from German occupation forces and the Vichy regime alike allowing him to travel freely in pursuit of villains of far lesser consequence than Hitler. Lofficier remarks at the end of his overview of the series that the tarnished hero had “deservedly” vanished after that. And yet…
To fill out the 2009 Black Coat Press edition of Enter the Nyctalope, Lofficier includes three pastiches, two of them set during and after World War II. In his own “Marguerite,” Leo has an attack of conscience and manages to save a Resistance family from the Vichy Milice. But Roman Leary’s “The Heart of a Man” is an intensely emotional story in which the compromised hero has fled to Argentina after the war to avoid prosecution as a collaborator. In an elaboration of Farmer’s Wold Newton universe, which treats heroes as varied as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond as part of the same extended mutant family, he encounters disgraced Sureté agent Henri Giraud (once a minor character in an Agatha Christie novel) and Fleming’s supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (before Bond ever met him).
One of Blofeld’s henchmen has been brutally murdered, and he calls on Giraud – who channels Hercule Poirot! – to solve the case. At first it seems a random killing, but a key piece of evidence leads to the revelation that it was a revenge killing: Nina Boucher, one of Leo’s lovers, had died defending her husband, himself a collaborator, against the French after the liberation – enabling him to flee the country and hook up with Blofeld. When Leo spots him in Buenos Aires… As Giraud anticipates, Leo returns to the scene of the crime to retrieve a locket with Nina’s picture. Blofeld wants to recruit him for an organization we know will become SPECTRE, but a fight breaks out and Blofeld’s gunmen are killed. Leo escapes, although shot in the heart – that metal and plastic artificial heart – and the last we see of the Nyctalope, after he tends to his wounds:
Helped along by a generous amount of inexpensive liquor, he topples into a restless, fitful sleep.
The pain follows him into his slumber, and yet, in spite of this, there are times in the night when he smiles.
For in his sleep, he dreams.
And in dreams, they love him still.