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The Man of Bronze
Doc Savage #1
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 211pp
First Published: 1933, Bantam Edition 1964

Having attended and thoroughly enjoyed a dedicated Doc Savage convention, now that I know that Glendale has had such a creature for no less than 18 years, and given that it allowed me to cheaply fill in almost all the gaps in my Doc Savage paperback collection, it's about time I ran through the whole lot.

Doc Savage was created by Lester Dent under the pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson back in the thirties, making his debut in the March 1933 issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine'. Nowadays, most have never even seen a copy of that pulp magazine, but many know Doc through the paperback reprint run by Bantam, starting in October 1964. This origin story filled the first issue of the pulp magazine, the first Bantam paperback and, in a rather mangled way, the only movie in which Doc has currently featured, 'Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze' in 1975.

I recently re-watched that movie for the first time in decades, then saw a fascinating fan edit at Doc Con 18 that strips out all the camp nonsense and, finally, re-read the book. While books are almost always better than their adaptations to the big screen, there's really no comparison here. The movie is a mess, even with a well-cast lead in Ron Ely, and even the de-camped fan edit can't fully restore what that feature should have been. The book, however, is a triumph.

Clark Savage Jr was the prototype for Superman, who unfortunately stole his spotlight and hasn't given it back yet. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1933 (what a coincidence that was) but he didn't make his first appearance until 1938 in 'Action Comics' #1. Savage wasn't able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, but he shared many attributes with the later superhero, right down to the same first name and their Arctic hideaway, the Fortress of Solitude, which Savage used back in the thirties but didn't show up for Superman until the fifties.

However, Savage was a human being rather than an alien, whose 'superpowers' were obtained through dedicated training from a very young age, including a  rigorous two hour exercise session every day that aims for both mental and physical prowess. It might be a stretch but we, at least, could become a Doc Savage, but never a Superman. That's why I have always much preferred the former. His moral compass is more believable too, given that he was actually born an American.

We're introduced to Doc Savage in New York City after the death of his father from a strange tropical disease. Believing him to have been murdered, not least because someone seems particularly keen on following up with his son, he travels to the Central American country of Hidalgo with his five henchmen, not yet known as the Fabulous Five but still each the world's predominant expert in their field. There he tracks down a lost tribe in a lost valley, who had been helped by Clark Savage Sr. and, in thanks, given access to the fabulous wealth of the Mayans, secreted below their temple.

Of course, they run through a huge amount of action and adventure merely getting to Hidalgo and they run through a whole lot more while there, both in the capital city and in the lost valley, where the warriors (bizarrely also the criminals) of the tribe attempt a coup and the murder of each of the interlopers.

Lester Dent was amazingly prolific. He died in 1959 at the age of only 54 but he left behind 159 published Doc Savage novels, amongst a wider output. At this point in his career, he clearly wasn't the writer he would become, but he was able to spin an enjoyable yarn out of his wild imagination. The frequently staccato sentences might prove off-putting, but if you stick with it, you'll get hooked partway through by the sheer force of Dent's will and Doc's drive.

'The Man of Bronze' is an archetypal Doc Savage story, an excellent start to the man and his adventures, but it's not an archetypal 'Doc Savage' story, because this one's mostly about him at the expense of his companions. If you read this one and stop, you'd wonder why he even has companions because they don't contribute much or often, mostly standing around while their leader saves the day in flamboyant style. There are the rumblings of who these men will become and hints at why they're there, but they're only rumblings and hints at this point because this is our introduction to Doc and the rest can wait for another day, formal announcements of who they are enough for now.

We learn about Doc quickly. Dent tells us about his exercise regimen in the very first chapter, adds the Fortress of Solitude and his odd subconscious trilling in the second and throws him right into danger for good measure. From then on, the pace rarely slows down but Doc remains calm and composed throughout. It's no surprise to find that this man would soon become a hero to millions of readers.

From an action adventure standpoint, there's nothing to worry about. We're given action quickly in New York, more action in the air as they travel to Central America, still more action in Hidalgo and not much else but action once they arrive in the lost valley whose secret will soon finance Savage's mission to fight the forces of evil wherever they might arise. This tribe owed Savage Sr. and they soon owe Savage Jr. too, so sending him fantastic quantities of gold whenever he needs funds is the least they can do. The chief's daughter, an obvious love interest, doesn't fill that role here as Doc's mission puts him above that sort of distraction. It's still good to see such a character given such qualities, though, even if she doesn't get to roll onwards in the series.

I've read this one a few times and, as I mentioned earlier, it's the story that got adapted into film, so I know it rather well. Even so familiar with what goes down, I still find it enjoyable and it still makes my pulse race as I get wrapped up in the majesty of it all. I've read other Doc Savages, of course, but not for a long while and I don't remember their stories with anywhere near the detail I remember this one. It's going to be interesting to immerse myself back into this pulp world of the thirties and explore it alongside Doc with the original stories in order of publication, something not echoed by the Bantam reprints.

Next up: 'The Land of Terror', originally published in April 1933 but kept back by Bantam until #8 in their paperback reprint series. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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