Lester Dent’s 1933 The Man of Bronze is the first volume in the Doc Savage series. It was published under the house name Kenneth Robeson and was followed by 180 further adventures (penned mostly by Dent) until the title was cancelled in 1949. There have been further sequels and adaptations, as detailed here.
Trained from birth to be a paragon of human achievement, Clark “Doc” Savage is the Man of Bronze: a gigantic, extraordinarily talented genius who is monumentally wealthy as well. He uses his abilities to better the world.
Clark “Doc” Savage returns from a sojourn in his arctic Fortress of Solitude to face a tragedy. In his absence, his father, Clark Savage senior, has died of a mysterious illness. No sooner does Doc convene with his five chums on the 86th floor of a skyscraper to discuss the matter than a mysterious red-fingered sniper tries to murder Doc. Something is up!
The sniper is but a pawn, a deluded religious fanatic speaking a language long thought dead: Itzan Mayan! The mastermind behind the killer eludes Doc and his chums, but his attempts to eradicate Doc or at least obtain certain obscure documents only succeed in drawing Doc’s attention to that which the mastermind least wanted Doc to notice: an obscure plot of land left to Doc by his father.
Located in the middle of the Central American country of Hidalgo, the land seems never to have been developed. Indeed, as Doc eventually discovers, it has never been mapped: the forbidding geography and hostile natives have allowed Hidalgo’s interior to remain as untouched by the modern world as was New Guinea’s interior. How Clark Savage, senior got title to the land is unclear. Nor is it clear why he wanted title in the first place.
Doc assembles his usual team
lawyer Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks
archaeologist/geologist William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn
chemist Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair
construction engineer Colonel John “Renny” Renwick
electrical engineer Major Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts
and heads to Central America to investigate. Their unnamed opponent launches assassination attempt after assassination attempt in an effort to keep Doc and his five swell guys from Hidalgo. All he manages to do is strengthen Doc’s resolve.
Hidalgo’s records pertaining to that plot of land have been expunged. No worries: not only is the President of Hidalgo, Carlos Avispa, a corker who thinks highly of Doc, but Hidalgo will not risk its relationship with the US by denying an American his rights (or at least the rights that he claims).
The murder attempts continue; all are abject failures. Even better, by eavesdropping on a meeting of revolutionary conspirators, Doc learns why the land matters: vast quantities of gold can be acquired there, enough to finance the overthrow of Avispa. All one needs to is convince the natives there that one is a god. Whoever Doc’s foe is, he has managed that.
Next step: journey into unmapped Hidalgo to the Valley of the Vanished, where the last remnant of a nearly extinct civilization and wealth beyond compare await Doc and his friends. Or possibly, a horrible death.
Spoilers: the heroic team who headlined a 181+ instalment series did not die in its very first episode. They certainly come close over and over, always managing to escape by skill, luck, and because their pal Doc is an implausibly capable superman whose author is on his side.
I encountered the Doc Savage series a few years before the Avenger series. To my eye, the Avenger books were more interesting, in large part because of the difference in how the two series used their supporting characters. Avenger Richard Benson’s associates each bring to the game useful talents Benson does not have. In contrast, Doc’s pals are impressive, but never as impressive as Doc. His chums are nice to have around but Doc doesn’t really need any of them. As I’ve said before, Doc comes off as the Gamemaster’s favourite NPC.
Rereading The Man of Bronze thirty-eight years later, I belatedly notice another way that The Avenger improves on Doc Savage. The Doc Savage series is set in a world where white American men are at the top, and everyone below should know their place. The less white a character is , the less likely they are to be portrayed sympathetically. When they are given a bit of respect, the degree to which they are presented in a positive light is directly related to how avidly they support Doc.
The writing is repetitive and clunky, and the formulaic plot is as episodic as any Radio City serial. For all that, this series had a great deal of influence. For example, Superman seems to have copied Doc’s given name (Clark) and his Fortress of Solitude, not to mention the Man of (metal) description. It’s a pity this ur-pulp isn’t any better.
1: Vanished cultures are treated with a bit more respect:
“They were a wonderful people,” Doc said thoughtfully. “They had a civilization that probably surpassed ancient Egypt.”
But of course modern-day non-whites, paragons living in hidden valleys aside, are not as lucky:
“You mean!” Johnny muttered, blinking through his glasses, “You mean this fellow really speaks the tongue of ancient Maya?”
Doc nodded. “He sure does.”
“It’s fantastic!” Johnny grumbled. “Those people vanished hundreds of years ago. At least, all those that comprised the highest civilization did. A few ignorant peons were probably left. Even those survive to this day. But as for the higher-class Mayan” — he made a gesture of something disappearing — “Poof! Nobody knows for sure what became of them.”