Saturday, August 06, 2011

Storytelling Engines: Doc Savage

(or "The Nazis Were Bad PR")

It's a little unusual, reading the 1970s comic-book adventures of Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five; the character and his gadgets, methods and sidekicks are more firmly rooted in the pulp traditions of the 1930s than perhaps any other pulp hero of the era. (Which is why it may not surprise you to note that the Doc Savage doesn't even try to update the character, setting him instead in his own time.) The Shadow, the Spider, Zorro, Fantomas, Solomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan...they all have their pulp elements, and they've all made the transition to other media and endured the test of time (well, maybe not Sailor Steve Costigan...) But when you think of the elements that make up a "pulp hero", you ultimately wind up coming up with Doc Savage just as surely as if you're ticking off boxes on a checklist.

Pulp heroes tend to straddle the border between human and superhuman (Doc Savage has honed his physique and mind to the pinnacle of perfection with two hours of special exercises every day), they have elaborate near-futuristic gadgets (the Helldiver, the rapid-firers, the flying wing), they fight elaborate and outlandish foes (in the Doc Savage comics, he fights lizard-men, scientists who harness lightning, and fake pirate ghosts who work out of a high-tech mock pirate ship) and they work out of some sort of an elaborate secret lair (the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.) Even Doc's sidekicks are almost like "mini-pulp heroes" all their own, with one being a two-fisted chemist, another being a brilliant lawyer with a sword-cane, and so on. It almost feels like Dent took every single pulp trope and put them into the blender in an attempt to create a sort of pulp ubermensch.

Which is, in a nutshell, the problem with the character. He is portrayed, with absolutely no sense of irony, as a person who has improved mind and body to the point where he is considered by everyone in the series to be a sort of "superior being". Lesser characters question Doc's decisions briefly, if at all, before seeing that they're in the presence of a blond, bronzed superman who's smarter than they are and has superior judgment. The Fabulous Five accept his every word without question. Only Pat Savage, Doc's cousin and a superwoman in her own right, is allowed to suggest that he might be wrong about anything (usually about not letting her tag along.) He is every inch Nietzsche's ubermensch...

And that's a philosophy that hasn't aged well. The association with the Nazi regime served to highlight the uncomfortable truth at the heart of Nietzsche's ideas: It's very easy for anyone at all to decide that they are superior, have a higher moral understanding than others, and should not be subject to the rules set by "lesser beings". Every sociopath believes himself to be an ubermensch, and every murder improves the world in their eyes by removing those believed to be beneath contempt. (This is also the Republican economic philosophy, I believe...)

Doc Savage kidnaps criminals and lobotomizes them, he believes that women have no place doing dangerous jobs despite meeting women who are every bit as capable and competent as he is, and he ultimately accepts no input from anyone or anything other than his own moral compass. Generations of human experience have shown us that people like that are actually very dangerous and kind of creepy, something that limits the Doc Savage storytelling engine right from the get-go. Gadgets, sidekicks, and methods make a series, but it doesn't help if you suspect right off the bat that your main character isn't much better than the people he fights.

13 comments:

Entertained Organizer said...

I'm glad to see the return of your Storytelling Engines breakdown. Always insightful.

John Seavey said...

Thanks! They never really went away; DC and Marvel just haven't been holding up their end of the deal. :) I do them when I have the material.

(At some point, I'm going to pick up "The Witching Hour" and "Our Army At War"; that's been more financial on my part than anything else. Um, anyone who wants to buy copies for me, just let me know! :) )

Brendan said...

Well stated, and those reasons are the same ones that prevented me from embracing Doc Savage as whole-heartedly as I have other pulp heroes like The Shadow.

And yet, there are so many great things about Doc Savage it just doesn't seem fair to let them go to waste because the negatives overshadow them at times. Every now and then I think "Maybe, with a little tweaking to the personality" they could get Doc Savage to work again, but no. I don't think it's possible. The best we can do is characters who take some of the same ideas behind Doc and carry them off in a new direction.

Entertained Organizer said...

The other option is to just run with the unlikeable protagonist. Garth Ennis's Punisher Max run is a decent example of a pretty morally indefensible protagonist who isn't particularly likable, he just made sure the people the Punisher fought were worse.

It's definitely harder to pull off, but I'd be kind of interested to see a new Doc Savage story in that vein, where you're supposed to be uncomfortable with him giving forced lobotomies. Then again I got bored with the torture porn Punisher too, so maybe it is a broken storytelling engine.

Jim S said...

You might be on to something with pulp hereoes. May I suggest you do the Shadow, etc.

Also, why not do some of the more modern pulps. The papberback heroes that were introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s such as the Executioner (how Marvel never got sued for the Punisher is beyond me). The Destroyer a.k.a. Remo Williams, etc. Will Murray is a Destroyer expert and also a 30s pulp expert. He even was a ghost on the Destroyer. There's fertile ground there.

Jugular Josh said...

I've always felt that Buckaroo Banzai did a good job of updating the Doc Savage concept for the modern era.

Gareth Wilson said...

Ever thought of doing a Storytelling Engine post on "Heroes"? There was obviously something very wrong there. Either it had no Engine, or it changed Engines every episode.

Harry Hilders said...

Interesting read!

frasersherman said...

I find this just as implausible as when people stick the "fascist" label on Superman or Batman. Yes, Doc's superior, but he's just not fascist; in all the pulps he comes off a decent guy (even brainwashing criminals was pretty liberal by the day's standards). And many of your argument would apply just as well to the Shadow: Never takes advice, deals with criminals ruthlessly, plus operating completely outside the law and maintaining a secret network of spies and agents.

John Seavey said...

@frasersherman: I'm not saying he's literally fascist; I agree, for the time, he was pretty humanistic. But the tropes and concepts associated with him have been tied to the Nazi philosophies so strongly that "guilt by association" has made it hard for the character to stay relevant and sympathetic (and his attitudes towards women don't help.) He gives off a "Nazi vibe", but that's more because the Nazis took a lot of the same philosophies and perverted them.

@Brendan: Pat Savage is the key, I think; if I were to reboot Doc Savage, she'd feature prominently in the series. She's like Doc, but without the stick up her butt. :)

zero reference said...

FYI, Nietzsche has undergone a LOT of re-examination, starting I think with Deleuze's "Nietzsche and Philosophy" (maybe in the 1960's?). The misconception of Nietzsche being a Nazi is unfortunately really, really, common and totally untrue. There are a couple causes. For one thing, the first English translations of Nietzsche weren't great. For another, Nietzsche's sister was an anti-semite who influenced how the philosopher was received after his death. And, like Doc Savage and pulp comic epherma itself, the in-your-face combination of Nietzsche, ubermensch, Nazis (plus Wagner if you want to get in to it) has a certain folk appeal - like the idea of the 'alpha dog', something which was once thought fact, entered the popular consciousness, and popular consciousness never updated itself after the data were re-examined. Nietzsche was adamantly AGAINST anti-semitism. He would have abhorred the Nazis. While Nietzsche's conception of the ubermensch does, from what I understand, raise unsettling questions, it is not a cut-and-dried argument for eugenics and, essentially, slavery. Otherwise, I really enjoyed your post about Doc Savage and like the self-made superheroes!



Links for starters:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Cbermensch
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#EarWri187187

frasersherman said...

Having started rereading the books last year, I find myself even more in disagreement. The stories emphasize, for example, the humanitarian side of Doc: in one of the early tales, for instance, he stops pursuing a crook long enough to arrange an operation for a blind street person. As for his attitudes towards women, while he certainly believes they don't belong in the line of fire, he never suggests they aren't capable of holding their own and neither do the stories. There are a number of competent women in the books--Pat, Midnat D'Avis, Retta Kenn--and no suggestion there's anything wrong with that. Which puts Dent and Doc way ahead of, say, John C. Wright.

frasersherman said...

Having started rereading the books last year, I find myself even more in disagreement. The stories emphasize, for example, the humanitarian side of Doc: in one of the early tales, for instance, he stops pursuing a crook long enough to arrange an operation for a blind street person. As for his attitudes towards women, while he certainly believes they don't belong in the line of fire, he never suggests they aren't capable of holding their own and neither do the stories. There are a number of competent women in the books--Pat, Midnat D'Avis, Retta Kenn--and no suggestion there's anything wrong with that. Which puts Dent and Doc way ahead of, say, John C. Wright.