The DC-Doc Savage Connection

Part I 

A fair amount has been written concerning the general influence of Doc Savage on the Superman character.  This idea is nothing new and has been around for years.  Jim Steranko says it best in “The History of Comics Volume 1.” Initially, Superman was a variation of pulp heavyweight Doc Savage. The concept and even the name Superman, could easily have been inspired by a Street & Smith advertisement that ran in the early ’30′s pulps.  Comparisons between Shuster’s original Superman drawing and Doc’s promotional ads bears marked similarities.

Prior analysis has been macroscopic in nature.  Now let’s take a look at some very specific examples of the influence Doc Savage exerted on both Superman and Batman.  There is no doubt that the pulps did exert an influence on comic writers of the era.  In “Great American Comic Books,” Batman writer Bill Finger comments on one part of his writing approach, “I patterned my style of writing Batman after the Shadow.”  The Shadow and Doc Savage were both Street & Smith titles. 

Exactly what influences did the pulps have?  “Batman #1 explains, “The soles of both Robin and The Batman’s boots are treated with a luminous chemical that glows only in the light of the infra-red ray!”  Doc Savage has been using a similar trick for years.  The only difference is in the wavelength of the illuminating light.  Batman uses infra-red while Doc Savage accomplishes the same using ultra-violet rays. 

A variation of this trick plays a little later on in “Batman #2.”  The Batmobile’s floor mat is impregnated with a radioactive chemical that glows under Batman’s special flashlight – a trick Batman uses to track the elusive Cat.  It is a technique Doc Savage is already using as shown in “The Metal Master” (March 1936).   The mat in front of the elevators on Doc Savage’s floor was soaked with a chemical mixture which was sticky and glowed with an extraordinary brightness under the ultraviolet light. It would stick to the shoe soles of anyone who walked on it, and tracks would be left for some time. 

The second story of this issue is especially interesting as it has many of the same elements seen in “The Monsters” (Doc Savage Magazine, April 1934).  Human beings are injected with a compound that speeds up their growth glands.  The end results are “giants” who are as tall as fifteen feet. These massive creatures are limited in intellect and are used for simply robberies albeit on a large scale. 

We also see another Doc Savage trademark.  The heels of Batman’s boots are hollow and contain chemicals which when mixed together form a powerful explosive.

In the next Batman story, the Joker uses a similar technique to escape prison.  Apparently, the Joker and Doc Savage visit the same dentist, as the Joker has hollow teeth containing chemicals used to make an explosive compound.  Now here’s an example from “The Lost Oasis” (September 1933). From the rear of Doc’s jaws, an extra pair of molars were removed. These teeth were hollow shells containing two chemicals which, when mixed, produced a powerful explosive.

Things get more much more interesting in “Batman #2.”  Robin asks, “What’s your plan Batman?”  Batman replies, “My plan is to abduct the Joker from the hospital before he becomes strong and wily enough to slip through the hands of the police.  Then we’ll take him to a famous brain specialist for an operation, so that he can be cured and turned into a valuable citizen.”  Now the idea that crime is a disease cured by a brain operation is one that is central to the Doc Savage mythos.  In those stories, Doc Savage maintains a secret facility where captured criminals are rehabilitated by a brain operation and taught a useful trade. 

But this is not the only Doc Savage trick that pops up in the DC universe.  Superman was expanding rapidly into other markets thanks to Robert Maxwell who was in charge of licensing.  A Sunday Superman strip began November 5, 1939.  In episode 35 the reader encounters another trademark Doc Savage feature.  Clark Kent needs to make a quick exit: Acting swiftly, Clark touches a certain nerve at the back of Ronaldson’s neck, rendering him unconscious…  This is old hat for Doc Savage.  Readers had been acquainted with the nerve pinch since 1933 when it was first used in “Quest of the Spider.”

From a skeptics viewpoint, it can easily be argued that explosives in heels, hollow teeth, bulletproof vests and gas bombs are common mechanisms for certain story types.  These style clues are implicit by nature but are simply too broad in scope to definitively link these stories to Doc Savage.  But the idea that criminal tendencies can be treated by a brain operation is very specific to Doc Savage.  The paralyzing nerve pinch also falls into this category as a distinctive trick of the Doc Savage series.

A couple of more interesting twists exist.  Consider District Attorney Harvey Dent who becomes the villain Two-Face.  Now read this passage from the December 1940 issue of Doc Savage Magazine titled “The Men Vanished.” Here is one of the literary ancestors of Two-Face. 

“The man’s face was really two faces—that is, the left side of it was radically different from the right side. The right side was an ordinary face, rather young, almost handsome. The left side was heavy, thick-lipped, darker of cast, with an aboriginal cast to the features. The line of demarcation—the line where one half face left off, and the other began—was sharply defined, like a line drawn down through the middle of the forehead, down the nose, and on down the middle of the chin.”  

The man in the story casually remarks that his appearance was much worse before the plastic surgery.  Harvey Dent is well acquainted with plastic surgery but it just never seems to work out for the unfortunate man.  Two-Face made his début in “Detective Comics #66” (August 1942).

The Shadow Magazine sported a two-face villain with the March 15, 1938 issue.  An earlier version of this type villain appeared four years earlier (May 1936) in a Doc Savage story titled “The Seven Agate Devils.”

“His eyes, his forehead, were fine and delicate. The rest of his countenance was rather terrible. Something had happened to it in the past, making the skin and flesh below loose and rubbery. The folds of tissue lay in gullied lines. The lower part of this man’s face had a somewhat hair-raising way of retaining whatever expression was on it. It seemed incapable of changing expression voluntarily.”

 The putty-like quality is a precursor of sorts of another Street & Smith magazine, The Avenger.  This hero was able to mold his features as if they were clay.  This ability, coupled with a skillful makeup application allowed him to easily assume other identities.  He would push up the corners of his mouth with his fingers, giving his face a grim smile, and the smile would stay there.  A smile, one might add, reminiscent of The Joker in the Batman series. 

Part II

There is another area that should be looked at and that’s the Fleischer Superman Cartoons.  One episode released in May 1942, “Electric Earthquake,” uses the same plot device as a February 1934 issue of Doc Savage titled “The Man Who Shook the Earth.”  That plot device, however, was itself recycled in “Mystery Island” from August 1941.  In both stories, man-made earthquakes are used as terror weapons.  Electric current applied to rock formations causes the tremblors.

In “The Mummy Strikes” from February 1943, Superman solves the mysterious death of a museum director.  The man’s death occurred as he was injecting a life-reviving elixir into the museum’s mummies.  Doc Savage readers enjoyed a similar mummy-reviving experiment in “Resurrection Day” (November 1936).  Science, not magic, is the key to rejuvenation.  The popular movies of the same time depended on magic for reanimation.

These anecdotal examples are all well and good one might say.  There is the Man of Steel and the Man of Bronze; Doc Savage uses a utility vest while Batman uses a utility belt.  These are all somewhat generic in nature and attributable in a general way to fictional characters in general.  But there are some very specific examples that forge an indisputable link between DC and Doc Savage.

Part III

The DC adaptation of “The Monsters” in the Batman comic was broad in nature.  But there are two more Doc Savage stories that were converted to Superman adventures.  These stories retained most of the elements seen in the original version and clearly show their origins.

NOVEMBER 1940 – “Action Comics #30” (November 1940)
Superman and “Murder Mirage”

November-December 1940 – On its own recognizance this instance is purely circumstantial.  But given the prior example it seems fairly safe to say that Doc Savage aide Ham Brooks makes an unannounced guest appearance in “Superman #7” (Nov-Dec 1940).  In this story, Superman uses an unoccupied office to eavesdrop on some criminals.  During his stay the office’s owner appears.  He is naturally outraged and judges Superman to be a thief.  The owner is a sharply dress man complete three-piece suit, fedora and matching cane.  The cane turns out to be more than a simple prop.  It is a sword cane which the man quickly wields.  The man expresses great consternation over his weapon’s fate as Superman breaks the sword with his bare hands.  On its own it would simply be a man with a sword cane but given the previous adaption of a Doc Savage story there is little doubt that character represented is a simulacrum of Ham Brooks.

January 1941 – “Superman #8” (Jan-Feb 1941)
Superman and “He Could Stop the World”

July 1942 – Superman constructs a “secret citadel” in “Superman #17.”

August 1942 – Batman’s nemesis, Two-Face,  made his debut in “Detective Comics #66” (August 1942) but a similar figure appeared nearly two years earlier in the December 1940 issue of Doc Savage Magazine in a story titled “The Men Vanished.”

January 1946 – Superman #38 pits Superman against Lex Luthor who has invented a ray that will cause substances to liquefy.  This idea previously appeared in The Metal Master in March 1936.  Luthor has improved on the idea and can set the frequency of his ray to particular substances.

May 1949 – “Action Comics #132” has a story “The Secret of the Kents.”  Someone is trying to kill people named Kent.  Clark receives a letter from Rufe Dorgan who vows to kill all the Kents.  Old family papers reveal the existence of the Dorgan-Kent feud. The treasure of this story is a promissory note signed by George Washington for $2,000 plus compounded interest given to Ely Kent.  The basic premise of the story is similar to the plot for “The Squeaking Goblin” from August 1934.  This same issue has a third Superman story where it is explained the Fortress of Solitude is in the polar region.

April 1954 – “Adventure Comics #199” features a Superboy story with elements from “Murder Melody” (November 1935).

June 1958 – “Superman #241” sets the location of Superman’s fortress in the arctic.