Friday, May 17, 2013

Doc Savage Reviews: The Man of Bronze (#1)

What strikes me about the first Doc Savage novel is this: how fully formed and complete the character is even at the very beginning.

Sure, Doc shows a little more emotion than we would later learn is normal, and he even killed someone, but nearly everything we associate with and define Doc Savage is here: his tremendous, Tarzan-like physicality, the way he does some little thing that seems unimportant at the time but later on turns out to crack the case, the bickering between Monk and Ham, Doc's lack of interest in women or romance. The plot of "Man of Bronze" is the same formula, already in place, as the archetypal Doc Save story: it starts in New York and ends in a journey to some exotic locale, a murder happens by some unknown supernatural means that later turns out to be perfectly explicable and altogether ordinary and rational, the main villain is a masked leader of a criminal gang who's identity is not revealed until the last page.

In fact, the first book is so similar to the rest, it's something of a disappointment. I was expecting something very much like the early episodes of Star Trek before the series took shape, where Spock smiles and is called a "Vulcanian," people wear wrong-colored shirts, the ray gun props look laughably out of Buck Rogers, and the ship's doctor is a different person.

Despite being the first Doc Savage story and the one where Doc acquired his tremendous wealth, he's still living in digs on the 86th Floor (how's the rent getting paid?), throws money around, and even destroys a plane merely to test a suspicion. Despite the fact Doc Savage hasn't even had any adventures yet and so shouldn't have a reputation, on his very first day on the job fighting evil, he has enough pull to keep newspapermen from reporting a mysterious death/suicide and could ask the army to lend him a specialty plane (and again, it's not clear why the army would listen to a private citizen).

It would actually not surprise me if it turns out the Doc Savage novels were written out of order, because except for the absence of pets like Chemistry and Habeas Corpus this could have been slipped into any point in Doc's history prior to 1944.

In addition to my reviews, I'll include identification of some things every Doc Savage story has. What the story ripped off (used humorously, not maliciously and to point to the genealogy of ideas – after all, nothing is ever 100% original), a weird/hilarious sign this was written in the 1930s, a weird Doc Savage skill he uses which is often never mentioned again (usually something bizarrely specific like his perfect handwriting, machine perfect telegraphy, epic skill with airplane skywriting, or ability to modulate his voice so he comes out clearer over a microphone).

What It Ripped Off: 

King Solomon's Mines.

Essentially, the plot of "The Man of Bronze" is similar to King Solomon's Mines. Doc Savage, hearing about his dead relative, goes to look for his lost treasure, which leads him to a lost city of Mayans, all the while curing a horrific red splotch plague. The villain, just like Gagool from King Solomon's Mines, is a horrifying sorcerer, the Winged Serpent, who turns out to be a faker with no power at all the heroes defeat by beating them at a "wizard contest" they win with trickery.

Weird/Hilarious Sign This Was Written in the 1930s: 

The South American henchmen use machetes, which the novel stops to carefully explain is actually just a local name for a "corn knife."

I find that hilarious, since these days that kind of hacking cleaver is known as a machete (or for you CNN viewers, a panga, the weapon of choice of the Rwanda Tutsi genocide), and the term "corn knife" is totally unknown!

Also, there's this bizarre blurb inside the pages, reprinted in the copyright-violating Black Mask reprints (despite their illegality, the highest quality and reprint the original pulp mag's art).

I guess they slipped that in the first page to encourage people who leaf through these mags on the stand to actually buy it.

Weird Doc Savage Skill:

As this is the first story, this is the first time we ever hear Doc Savage's hair is waterproof, shedding water like a duck's back.

Debunk of the Day (Spoilers):

The mysterious red splotch death plague of the story? It turns out to just be virulent parrot fever introduced to an Indian population that had never seen it before. Nothing supernatural about it, but surrounded by irrational fear and folklore – something to remember in this day of wild crazy panic over AIDS and swine flu.

Moments to Mention: 

Doc shows surprising sympathy for native people, shocking for his era. You can chalk it down to flaming liberal (by the standards of his day) Lester Dent, from Missouri, who grew up around heroic Indian stories.

"But this land is all yours." 
"In the eyes of civilized law, probably so," Doc agreed. "But there's another way of looking at it. It's a lousy trick 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 a deal, you know."

Doc Savage, like the "hip" Marvel heroes, always seemed more on the bleedin'-heart, humanitarian end of the political spectrum. He avoided killing and his stories expressed a sincere, idealistic belief reform is possible for hardened criminals.

There is an unintentionally creepy moment, in light of the modern anthrax scare, where Doc receives a red envelope covered in plague germs. That's the kind of specific murderous detail that makes me doubt the target audience of this were the young 'uns.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Things to Keep In Mind When Doing a Doc Savage Movie


Yeah, I know, we've been hearing about a possible Doc Savage movie since 1996 (!) when Arnold Schwarzenegger was "hot" and up for the part. But this time, there are some reasons why a character like Doc Savage, who has fallen off the pop culture radar, might really get a film adaptation.

First, writer/director Shane Black (best known for the Lethal Weapon movies and for being the guy doing pussy jokes at the start of Predator – really!) just made Marvel 700 million in the first week for his baby, Iron Man 3, which he directed and wrote. He's "hot" and can do whatever he likes, and what he wants to do is Doc Savage.

Second, our film culture might just be at the point where a Doc movie is possible. If there's any time in history something as culty as a Doc Savage movie could actually happen, it'd be today in our WEIRD film climate where Disney pins its finances on a "Tron" sequel, and someone's remaking "Videodrome."

I'm not saying a Doc movie is impossible to get right. It is possible...but you have to tread very, very carefully and get what made the original stories unique.

Here's how to do it:

1. The keyword is "plausibility." 

In the age when heroes like the Shadow had "powers" that left people scratching their heads, what made Doc Savage unique is that he got his abilities from very ordinary special training. With enough fanatic intensity, you too, could be a Renaissance Man like Doc Savage. All of his fantastic feats are laboriously explained, with an entirely ordinary cause that, like a magic trick, isn't so special when you just explain how it works.

His ability to hold his breath for long periods? He learned that from South Seas pearl divers who really can hold their breath for a very long time.

Doc Savage stories had some fanciful elements, like the lost island with prehistoric monsters from "Land of Terror," the hallucinogenic seaweed world of lost ships in the "Sargasso Ogre," or the white-haired gorillas in "The Phantom City." But the thing to remember is, even those exotic things were believed to be perfectly plausible to people in the 1930s. Today, they're seen as fanciful but back in the day, they were just at the cusp of possibility.

There is not a single piece of technology Doc Savage had in the 1930s that didn't actually exist then or wasn't at least on the drawing board at the time. He used infrared and night vision goggles, had a car with automatic transmission, a television closed-circuit camera system, and featured an uzi-like machine pistol. That's one way to predict the future, I guess: just use things that currently exist. In fact, if anything, it's kind of startling how un-miraculous Doc Savage's gizmos are, since most modern police departments have all of them.

The point is, Doc didn't exactly run around with phaser guns. Nothing bugs me more than when I see fan art by people that haven't read the books who draw Doc with some kind of particle or energy gun. I see this over and over and it makes me crazy. I suspect this is due to the fact that because of Doc Savage's role in pop culture history, more people have heard of him than have actually read him.

2. "Debunk" the villain or mystery weapon at the end. 

It astounds me to this day Doc Savage was never embraced by skeptics as their mascot hero.

Nearly always at the end of every Doc Savage story, the "hereto unexplained" and absolutely bizarre murder method that's the central mystery is debunked and turns out to be something quite ordinary. For instance, in "Fear Cay," Doc Savage and the gang are horrified to discover there's something on the island that turns people into flesh-dried skeletons. And what does this creepy way to die ultimately turn out to be? A swarm of giant carnivorous ants. "Repel" featured a "ray gun" that turns out to be a just a fake spotlight, intended to terrorize with unknown power, and the real cause of the destruction were explosives the gang planted ahead of time, to make everyone think the ray worked.

Remember the monstrous giants from the Thousand Headed Man? They turned out to just be really big fat guys with suits that have hundreds of faces on them.

Remember when the bad guys thought they found the fountain of youth in "Fear Cay?" Turns out the slyphium that "granted eternal life" was just a vitamin-rich superfood and it didn't allow immortality, though it helps people live a long time provided they get plenty of exercise, too. It's no more a secret of immortality than spinach or yogurt.

Doc Savage sticks pretty closely to the idea there are no "real" aliens, vampires, werewolves, or ghosts. Even Batman, another hero that prides himself on not straying too far into fantasy territory, solved hauntings and encountered sincere alien abduction victims. Not Doc. In a Doc Savage story, a ghost or alien is revealed to be a ruse, trick or hoax by the end. In fact, in one story, he solves the mystery of "Foo Fighters" (the World War II era name for UFOs).

3. Keep it humanitarian.

By the standards of pulp detectives, Doc Savage is an absolute bleeding heart philanthropist. Doc's "Thou Shalt Not Kill" code, weird and unique at the time, became the standard for Comics Code-era superhero adventures, and stands out even today as strange. If you're looking for something that makes Doc Savage unique, this is it.

Even in the early novels when they were still working out his code against killing and the use of knockout drug "mercy bullets," he still rescued a guilty criminal from an alligator instead of letting him be eaten.

Doc Savage is so keen to have the hero's hands be bloodless that bad guys, who deserve a horrible fate, usually have it be accidental, a misfire of a weapon they intended to kill others, what in the bombmaking world they call an "own goal."

People make a big deal out of Doc's brain surgery that makes a criminal forget their evil nature, and compare it to brainwashing. But just think how people in the 1930s must have seen it. At the time, when lobotomies were a new procedure and our understanding of the nature of evil was more innocent, this must have seemed tremendously humanitarian as an alternative to capital punishment, a way of straight up "curing" evil, the ultimate expression of a prison system based on reform and not punishment.

4. Keep the "Doc Savage" plot. 

Doc Savage stories are the ultimate "build your own mystery thriller" kit.

Like James Bond movies, Doc Savage plots are less individual stories and more gigantic Mad Libs. They can get repetitive when you read a bunch in one sitting, but they offer a pretty strong and recognizable skeleton for a single movie.

Doc Savage stories are centered around a mystery or unexplained event, like the glowing meteors that drive everyone who see them crazy in "Meteor Menace." The stories usually start somewhere ordinary like New York, and then go somewhere exotic, like Egypt or Indonesia. The ordinary starting point to the story makes the exotic setting at the end seem more exotic. Early on Doc Savage does something minor that no one pays attention to at the time, but later on this tiny little thing is revealed to crack the case. Finally, Doc Savage's enemy has a totally unknown identity, but is revealed to be someone from the start of the story given away by a small clue everybody missed but Doc Savage.

Usually at the halfway point, the bad guy plots to get Doc Savage into a lethal trap, which Doc Savage spots immediately and pretends to go along with to learn the villain's plan or fake his own death. Bad guys often try to frame Doc for murder, but this is optional. Finally, the bad guy creates a final trap, which he falls into and not Doc Savage, who reveals how the baddie's superweapon works.

5. Don't assume you'll get a sequel. Because you might not.

Have everything you like about Doc Savage in the first movie. If you want Doc's female cousin Pat Savage, put her in the movie. By far the most aggravating thing about Green Lantern was the arrogant expectation of a sequel, to the point that movie felt like it was killing time and padded out (how'd that work out for you guys?).

Doc Savage isn't really traditional franchise material. He's based on source material I love, but the character has mostly fallen off the pop culture radar and doesn't have name recognition or a legion of fans like Superman and Batman. He reminds me of another character I like: John Carter of Mars. Like Doc, John Carter is tremendously significant to the history of adventure fiction, but all his rip-offs are more popular than he is.

Bottom line: it's far from divinely ordained this movie will be a success, so make this shot count.

Millions of asses are going to be put in seats for a Superman movie no matter what (even the much-maligned Superman Returns was the #6 highest grossing movie of its year), something not true of a Doc Savage movie. But Doc Savage, like John Carter of Mars, is a passion project with a tiny fanbase only possible because the stars are miraculously aligned by the success of Iron Man 3.

…And guys: put Pat in. She's a foxy girl men AND women would like, and she'd "work" on screen.

6. Don't emphasize the backstory of Doc Savage.

An origin story is a waste of everyone's time, because this character doesn't have an origin story. Even the first Doc Savage story wasn't the first Doc Savage story!

Superman and Batman have dramatic origins you can build a film around. "Doc Savage Begins" is wasting everyone's time; it's a lose-lose situation, as the character has so little background you either have to make it up for the movie, or you have to do a story unlike the traditional Doc story and without the traditional Doc elements. In either case, you get a result so different it defeats the point of adapting Doc Savage in the first place.

Likewise, emphasizing on some aspect of Doc's psychology or delving into his backstory to explain why he is the way he is would be a mistake.

The one drag on the otherwise interesting John Carter was the emphasis on giving alpha dog John Carter some wounded sad hero backstory for an inappropriate arc where he learns to trust again.

Film makers have a tendency to overthink very straightforward characters.

Every movie needs an internal arc where the main character changes from the start to the end and realizes something important (yes, EVERY movie). But that has to be done very, very carefully and can't be invented from thin air.

Themes in Doc Stories a necessary internal arc could be made out of: brotherhood/friendship between men, learning the value of teamwork and group power.

7. Doc Savage doesn't have a girlfriend. 

Doc Savage, when you think about him, is kind of a weird character who doesn't exactly lend himself to Hollywood, which needs warm, human leading men. Doc doesn't express strong emotion; he keeps even his own men in the dark about what he's thinking, and he's not interested in women or sex, which he finds a distraction. He's impassive, stoic, tight-lipped and monosyllabic. He never tells jokes or wisecracks, his only humor is a very dry kind so subtle you need a microscope to find it. He never threatens, never loses his temper, never yells. Doc has five allies, but because of his emotional distance, he doesn't really confide in any of them. He's more like a Vulcan than your average hot blooded earthman.

Hollywood has a tendency to squeeze a romance subplot into anything. Heck, even Kwai Chang Caine from TV's Kung Fu, a priest, got it on with a horny widow in the Old West he did odd jobs for, in a scenario that could only come from the weirdest ranch romance ever written.

This isn't to say there aren't any beautiful girls in Doc Savage stories. Beautiful girls are in Doc Savage stories all the time, but they're there so Doc can tell them "no." If you have to have a romance subplot, give it to one of the assistants.

8. Don't go crazy with the visuals. Doc Savage is not visual.  

Here are some images from the interior of the Doc Savage magazine.

Notice there's no art deco, no Sky Captain style period stylization, no outrageous costumes or bright colors.

Doc Savage is not Dick Tracy or Batman, based on a stylized comic strip. Like James Bond, he doesn't wear flashy clothing. His vehicles are advanced, but only on the inside; outwardly, they are in non-flashy, non-attention getting vehicles designed to not attract attention (and sure as heck don't have his name decaled on them, by far the campiest detail of the George Pal movie, which drove George Pal to die of shame). His gadgets fit into his vest and clothes.

Don't get me wrong, Doc Savage is "period." Setting him in the 30s-40s is non-negotiable. But this is not the place to go wild with art direction.

9. Doc Savage is not a "kiddie-friendly" property. Keep the horror and death.

A characteristic of Doc Savage that marks his stories as very different from say, the more clean cut superheroes are the elements of horror, fear, suspense, and death.

"Fortress of Solitude" featured a gas that eats your eyes out from the inside, known as the popeyed death. In "Meteor Menace," those seeing the meteor were driven to permanent, feral insanity. "The Monsters" of the title were a creation of tension and suspense: you didn't even SEE the monsters themselves until two-thirds of the way through the story, building the suspense in an almost Jaws-like way. They weren't there for an exciting fight scene. The monsters were there to build fear and tension.

One of the most intriguing observations Watchmen made was the idea that the comic book heroes had purer lives, without the undercurrent of human Id found in the pulps: the darkness, sexuality, and horror.