Two weeks ago, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson took to Instagram to officially announce he would be playing the lead role in director Shane Black’s upcoming adaptation of the Doc Savage pulp series from the 1930s. Johnson described the character as “the world’s first superhero.” While there can be some debate about whether or not this is actually true. (Consider, if Doc Savage counts as a superhero, then certainly so could Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes.) However, it can hardly be debated that Doc Savage has had more influence over the development of comic book superheroes than virtually any other fictional character.
For those of us that are DC comics fans, we know that Superman is the origin point for that brand of superheroes. He was one of the first to debut and easily the most influential. Would Batman wear his underwear outside of his pants if Superman hadn’t done so first? Secret identities, capes, and super powers became standard fair for most DC comics’ superheroes for generations all because of Superman. But it is almost certainly the case that key elements of the Superman mythos were derived from the Doc Savage pulps.
Created by Lester Dent in 1933 in the pages of pulp novels, Doc Savage was a superman, although perhaps not to the same extent as Superman. None of Doc Savage’s abilities were exactly superhuman, but they might as well have been. Like Superman, Savage was the son of a scientist, but Savage was raised to have absolute mental and physical perfection in all respects: he is the leading scientific authority in all fields, knows virtually every human language, and possesses fantastic physical strength beyond any other human being. Fans of Batman v. Superman will enjoy the fact that both characters share a given name, Doc Savage was really Clark Savage while Superman is well-known to be Clark Kent. Superman has been called ‘The Man of Steel’ for decades, but before he was, Doc Savage was ‘The Man of Bronze.’
When the burdens of becoming the world’s greatest hero became too great, Savage retreated to his polar hideaway called the Fortress of Solitude, beginning in a 1938 pulp of the same name. Here Savage conducted scientific experiments and housed dangerous weapons from past adventures. Nearly a decade after the Doc Savage magazine stopped being released in 1949, Superman would retreat to his own polar hideaway, also called the Fortress of Solitude in 1958.
Fortresses of Solitude
A year after he first visited the Fortress of Solitude, Superman was joined by the only woman with comparable power, his own cousin Supergirl. Supergirl’s father had been inspired by the work of his brother, Superman’s father, and sent Supergirl to the planet Earth. This no doubt harkens back to the 1934 Doc Savage: Brand of the Werewolf which introduced the only woman with powers comparable to Doc: his cousin Pat Savage, whose father had been inspired by the work of his brother to raise his daughter in a similar manner to Doc.
Surely now there are some readers, fans of Marvel comics, who are crowing at how DC’s most iconic superhero is a rip off. Well don’t laugh too soon, Fearless Front Facers. While they aren’t the most popular characters today, the most influential series from Marvel is, without a doubt, the Fantastic Four. When the X-Men comic debuted, it was billed on the front cover as being “In the sensational Fantastic Four style!” Spider-Man’s pathos and moral quandaries were inspired by those faced by the Thing, and his status as a non-sidekick teen hero from the Human Torch. There had been earlier Marvel Comics, like Captain America, but they had all been cancelled long before the Fantastic Four debuted in 1961. Since then, however, Marvel superhero comics have been published non-stop. To say the Fantastic Four are to Marvel what Superman is to DC is not much of a stretch.
Yet the Fantastic Four can hardly be called original either. Doc Savage was aided by a team of adventurers in all of his stories, a team which was called the ‘Fabulous Five.’ Like the Fantastic Four, Doc and the Fabulous Five spent less time fighting crime than exploring under the sea, in subterranean worlds, and in lost cities across the globe in a variety of specially built vehicles. The Fabulous Five were headquartered in the top floors of the Empire State Building, just as the Fantastic Four were based out of their own Manhattan skyscraper, the Baxter Building.
…and Fabulous Five
Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, was a hybrid of two Doc Savage characters. As the leader and unparalleled master of all forms of science, Mr. Fantastic was clearly modeled on Savage himself. But he also has elements of ‘Johnny’ Littlejohn, the Fabulous Five’s archaeologist who was mocked by the others for using unnecessarily long words. Monk Mayfair, the team’s chemist, was fantastically strong and was almost simian in appearance. Despite his brutish appearance, Mayfair was actually a genius with a heart-of-gold. He clearly inspired the creation of Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, who appeared to be a rock monster but was in reality the most sensitive member of the team. Monk was constantly mocked for his looks by the team’s good looking and fiendishly clever lawyer ‘Ham’ Brooks, and the two were engaged in a persistent but good-natured rivalry. There is a lot of Ham in the Fantastic Four’s resident hotshot, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.
Ben Grimm, The Thng and ‘Monk’ Mayfair, brutish men who were more than meets the eye
The similarities do not end there. Doc Savage’s only recurring foe was Doctor Sunlight. He had developed his own enhanced mental capacity, rivalled in the entire world only by Doc Savage. He sought to solve the ills of the world by becoming its ruler. The parallels between Doctor Sunlight and the Fantastic Four’s arch foe Doctor Doom are numerous. Like Sunlight, Doom is a super-genius equaled only by Mister Fantastic. He seeks world domination to save the world from its own frustrating failures. Doom also incorporated elements of another Savage foe, King Dal Le Galbin, who was developing super-weapons in his small Eastern European Nation of Calbia. This almost certainly inspired Doctor Doom’s fictional kingdom, Latveria. When it becomes apparent how clearly similar the names, heroes, locations, and villains all are, it is hard to imagine the Fantastic Four aren’t little more than a modernization of Doc and his team.
While the Rock might have overstated his point a little, the sentiment is certainly true. If Doc Savage had not been created in 1933, characters like Superman and the Fantastic Four would have been wildly different if they existed at all. That, in turn, would have had a butterfly effect on all of the characters inspired by those two creations from the X-Men, to Spider-Man, to Batman, to the Doom Patrol. He might not have been the first superhero, but he’s certainly one of the most vital and influential.
Despite numerous attempts to revive Doc Savage as a comic book superhero since the cancellation of his pulp in 1949, yet none have been very successful. Perhaps Black and Johnson’s cinematic adaptation will revive Doc Savage’s mythic status. If not, thanks to Superman and the Fantastic Four it is almost like he never actually went away.