Comics / Cult Favorite

Man of Bronze Explodes From Dynamite

By Philip Schweier
Dec 9, 2013 - 18:49

In my youth, as my years began to be counted in double digits, a staple of my Christmas gifts was as many Doc Savage novels as Santa could manage. Since a brief stay in the hospital in 5th grade, I was a fan of the Man of Bronze.

So it seems appropriate that Dynamite Publishing is launching a new Doc Savage series beginning this month. Chris Roberson is the writer, with Bilquis Evely handling the art and Alex Ross providing the covers.

Well, it was bound to happen. My only regret is it didn’t happen sooner. But DC Comics held the comic book rights until late last year. It seems reasonable to believe that once those rights were relinquished, it takes a while for other interested parties to enter into negotiations and for details to be ironed out.

Doc debuted in his own magazine in March 1933, published by Street & Smith. Some sources indicate he was created in response to the popularity of The Shadow, who spawned a host of imitators, such as the Spider and the Phantom Detective. Rather than return to the same well again and thereby divide its audience, the editors at Street & Smith instead chose to create a hero who was everything The Shadow was not. Where The Shadow was a mysterious vigilante who prowled the night, its new hero would instead be a public figure who worked in cooperation with law enforcement authorities. Written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson, Doc Savage was published more or less monthly until its final issue in the summer of 1949, 181 adventures in all.

The influence of Doc Savage on Superman is obvious, even beyond the “Man of Bronze/Man of Steel” appellations. In the 1950s, Superman editor Mort Weisinger appropriated Doc’s arctic Fortress of Solitude for Superman, and also introduced a female cousin to join him in his adventures, much as Pat Savage had become a part-time member of Doc’s supporting cast. Having been raised form childhood to combat crime, Doc may have also had an impact on Batman.

With the runaway success of James Bond in the early 1960s, the market was ripe for similar heroes.  His arsenal of gadgets in his war on crime and would-be world dominators instantly put him in league with the British secret agent. Bantam Books began re-publishing the original Doc Savage novels, which were hugely successful for many years. Eventually, the quality of the stories began to suffer as the publisher reached the lesser stories published during WW II and afterward. In 1990, Bantam republished the last of the original novels. It tried to continue the series with new novels, ghost written by Will Murray from original material by Dent, but by then the series had run out of steam.

After more than 50 years, two pulp legends meet for the first time
Doc Savage is one of the most popular pulp characters, though his history in comics is somewhat spotty. In the early 1940s, Street & Smith twice attempted to adapt its creation for the comic book market but with little success. The comic book incarnation was radically different from the original version, presenting Doc as a super-powered hero fueled by a gem he wore on his forehead.

Gold Key published a single issue of Doc Savage in 1966, borrowing the cover from the second of the Bantam paperbacks, The Thousand-Headed Man. In 1972, Marvel Comics tried its hand with the character, adapting a handful of original Doc Savage adventures for a series that ran for eight issues. In 1975, Marvel tried again with a large format black & white magazine of new stories. It also ended after eight issues.

In the mid-1980s, DC had revived The Shadow, modernizing him to some success, and attempted the same with the Man of Bronze in 1987. Unfortunately, a more up-to-date version of Doc Savage failed to find an audience, and following his first-ever crossover with The Shadow, Doc was returned to his original 1930s time period. Nevertheless, the series ended after 24 issues.

After that, the character was featured in a handful of limited series published by Millenium, and later Dark Horse, where he again co-starred with The Shadow in a two-issue adventure.

More recently, Doc Savage was featured as part of DC Comics New Wave line, which took place outside the continuity of the DC Universe. Instead, it featured pulp-style characters such as the Spirit and Rima the Jungle Girl, an original DC character form the 1970s. The concept struggled, perhaps due to its inability to establish a cohesive universe. It included an alternate Bat-Man who was perhaps intended as a substitute for The Shadow. While Bat-Man may have seemed a popular character intended to hook readers, the fact that he carried a gun made him significantly different from the established DC Universe version. Also, in the eyes of some, it created a confusing overlap, preventing the First Wave titles from establishing their own continuity.

The Doc Savage title seemed the most successful of the First Wave titles, running for 17 issues before being cancelled with the advent of DC’s New 52 initiative. Regretfully, for fans of the title, the series had one final chapter that was never published. At the end of 2012, DC Comics announced it no longer held the license for the character, clearing the way for Dynamite to pick it up.

Ron Ely as the Man of Bronze in the 1975 movie
In recent years, Dynamite has become home to pulp-era characters such as The Shadow, the Spider, Zorro and the Lone Ranger. So it left many wondering why Doc Savage had never been included in its publishing line, especially with the recent Masks series – also written by Roberson – which saw many of its characters teaming up to fight a common menace.

The new Doc Savage series from Dynamite may benefit from a new film being planned. In May it was announced that Iron Man 3 director Shane Black had been given the green light for a Doc Savage film. This will be the second big-screen adaptation of the Man of Bronze. In 1975, Warner Bros. released a Doc Savage movie starring Ron Ely. Like many super-hero films in those pre-Star Wars days, it followed the formula established by Batman in the 1960s – light and campy. In the late 1990s there was talk of a new Doc Savage movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be directed by Frank Darabont, but it failed to get off the ground.

As Christmas approaches, and I rewatch the Ron Ely film again, I am charmed by its Christmas season ending, as Doc places gifts under his tree, only to be interrupted by his next great adventure. And as the familiar strains of John Philip Sousa announce "Have no fear! The Man of Bronze is here!" I can only hope to find some new Doc Savage adventures under my own tree.

Last Updated: Jun 26, 2018 - 9:28

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