024. 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.  Perhaps 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 generally 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 any one 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 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 elixor 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) provides for some exciting comparisons.  The story starts out with an unusual weather phenomenon.  Even thought it is midsummer, the inhabitants of Metropolis are dealing with a bitter snowstorm rather than the normal summertime hot weather. 

A woman broadcasts a plea for help to Superman and asks that he meet her in an hour in Park Ferry.  She claims to be able to explain the strange weather that is now occurring. The story moves on to a scene showing a car stalled in the snow.  There are two young women in the car, one blonde, and one dark haired.  The dark haired woman leaves the car.  As she walks along, a foreign car approaches.  Inside are three Arabs replete with burnoose and flowing headdress.  One of the Arabs commands the others to “adjust helmets” and each man in the trio puts on a strange goggled helmet.  They have some odd type of weapon from which they fire a globe that gives off a dazzling light.

The dark haired woman is the target of the dazzling globe and screams in terror.  Superman arrives just in time to see the woman disintegrate before his eyes.  All that remains of her is a shadowy impression left on the snow.  The ruckus has also drawn the attention of a policeman.  The Arabs deal with him in the same manner as they had dealt with the girl.  All that is left of the policeman is a shadow etched upon the snow-covered ground.

Lois Lane arrives on the scene at this time but her appearance is inconsequential to the story.  The disintegrating death is released a third time but Superman saves Lois.  Meanwhile, the Arabs apprehend the blonde girl from the stalled car.  Superman intervenes but the gang threatens to shoot the girl if he does not leave.  Superman leaves, with Lois and carries her to a safe location.  The Man of Steel quickly returns to follow the car in order to rescue the woman he assumes is Laura Vogel.

The next comic panel shifts to the Sahara desert as a caravan on camelback approaches the lost city of Ulonda.  It is Carlton Vogel and he is being told that he is the first white man to ever see the city.  Immediately thereafter Vogel’s group is attacked by Arabs who are wearing the same peculiar types of helmet as those worn by the men who attacked Vogel’s sister.

The sky above the fleeing men fills with dazzling energy globes.  Carlton Vogel exclaims, “Zolar’s terrible weapons!  We are lost!”  And indeed they are.  The next panel explains that all have been disintegrated and simply shows the shadowy impression of men on camelback etched in the desert sands.  Nothing else remains.

We move back to Metropolis to find Superman confronting the Arabs as they are about to enter into a fantastic airship.  The gang attacks Superman with their energy weapon, rendering him unconscious and taking him prisoner aboard the strange craft.

The next significant development occurs when Superman regains awareness.  He is apparently powerless and chained to a pipe inside the ship.  The blonde girl is also held as a prisoner in the same compartment.  She explains that she is Laura Vogel, sister of the archaeologist Carlton Vogel.  We learn that Zolar is the man behind the strange weather and the disintegration death.  She reveals that Zolar’s power derives from great stores of radium he possesses.

Zolar is most interested in obtaining the vast quantity of radium stockpiled in the lost city of Ulonda.  We now learn the purpose of Carlton Vogel’s visit to Ulonda.  It was to warn the inhabitants of Zolar’s pending attack.  The pilot of the aircraft callously informs the girl that the Shadow Death has killed Carlton Vogel and the girl suitably appears upset.

There are several panels dealing with Zolar and his contempt for Superman.  By this time the Kryptonian has regained his superpowers and makes his escape with Laura Vogel.  A fight ensues and he destroys many of Zolar’s stratoships. As this is occurring, Zolar orders his air fleet to attack Ulonda with the Death Shadow weapon.  The city is severely damaged.  We are not directly told but we can assume that many of the inhabitants are also killed.

Finally Superman confronts Zolar in person.  The reader learns that Zolar has weird hypnotic powers, which he now uses under threat of force from Superman, ordering his own fleet of stratoships to deliberately crash and destroy themselves.  Zolar’s minions carry out the order unflinchingly.

We are now left with Superman, Zolar, and Laura Vogel.  But wait.  Laura Vogel is not the person she has claimed to be.  She explains that she is really one of Zolar’s agents and that the real Laura was slain when she left the car back in Metropolis.  The false Laura Vogel attacks Superman with a globe-gun.  But the fiery sphere only renders Superman unconscious as it ricochets off his chest and bounces back toward Zolar and the fake Laura.  Both Zolar and his agent are atomized with only their shadowy image imprinted onto the walls of the ship’s compartment remaining as testimony to their existence.  The ship crashes to earth and Superman is shocked back into awareness.  The menace ends and so does the story after one last obligatory panel showing Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

By now, any Doc Savage fan worth his salt should be shaking his head in amazement.  The overall gist of this story is one very familiar to the Man of Bronze’s followers.  The January 1936 issue of Doc Savage Magazine published a story entitled Murder Mirage.  The story is strikingly similar to the above-mentioned Superman adventure.

The Doc Savage story begins on July 4th in New York City.  Strangely, an inexplicable midsummer snowstorm holds the city in an icy grip.  A little yellow coupe attracts our attention as it cautiously moves down the snow-covered street.   A blown-out tire disables the car.  This development alarms the vehicle’s two occupants.  (Coincidentally, the car depicted on the cover of Action #30 is a yellow convertible.)

They become even more upset when two vehicles, which had been following them, appear on the scene.  As they decide to continue on separately, we learn that the pair seeks to deliver a message to Doc Savage but they are thwarted.  

In short order, one of the women leaves the car only to be attacked by strange men who roll a large metal globe at her.  The woman disappears as the globe stops beside her.

“With the one soul-chilling scream, the young woman who was attempting to reach the elevated, vanished from before the tall plate-glass window.”

 “Vanished” is the word used, but “disintegrated” would be more appropriate.  Like the shadowy impression left on the snow in Action Comics #30, all that remains of the young woman mention above is a photographic image left on the plate glass window. 

While the above action transpires, the woman left in the car makes her escape.  The attacking men carry long tongs, which they use to retrieve the globe and put it back into the car, leaving quickly after doing so.

By this time the altercation has attracted the attention of the local police patrolman.  He comes upon the scene and is henceforth mortally wounded by the two men from the second sedan, which has not yet left.  The driver of this car quickly pulls away leaving his companions who have been shot and killed by the police officer.

The story advances to Doc Savage’s headquarters.  The matter in question is a telegram Doc has received from a Lady Sathyra Fotheran warning of a terrible menace that threatens the entire world. 

A second telegram had followed with a warning to beware of dark skinned visitors and imploring Doc to go to the Syrian desert.  The missive also urges the reader to watch for changes in the weather.  We quickly learn that Sathyra Fotheran is the sister of Denton Cartheris who has disappeared in the Syrian wilderness and is believed dead.

A phone call interrupts the discussion.  It is from the second woman who was in the coupe.  Doc and his men trace the call back and head for the booth.  It is near the site where the yellow car had a flat.  The body of the policeman and his assailants are discovered.  More interesting is the discovery at the site where the young woman stood near the globe.  The shadow of a woman is etched into the plate glass of a store window.  The ground in front is littered with metallic items –a purse, some diamond earrings, and pistol with the initials S. F.  These items appear to be the sole remains of Lady Fotheran.

The next interesting item is a run-in Doc has with some Syrian Arabs.  Doc rescues a young woman whom we quickly learn is Sathyra Fotheran.  She reveals that the dead woman, the woman whose mortal image is etched into the storefront glass, is her secretary, Marian.

Doc converses with the woman, learning of a legend from the Syrian desert about a mystic sect having the power to control the weather and change men and horses into shadows.  The woman produces a letter from her brother Ranyon Cartheris, who is seeking Denton in the wilds of Syria.  Ranyon’s letter declares that the welfare of a hidden city is at risk and warns of sudden weather changes.  Carson Dernall, who was recently Denton’s assistant, also appears on the scene and confirms Lady Fotheran’s identity.

Doc and his crew travel by dirigible to Syria.  Following the kidnapper’s caravan as it travels across the nighttime desert, Doc watches from above in his airship as Bedouins attack the caravan.  The caravan counter-attacks and the raiders quickly become only shadows in the desert.

Skipping over events not pertinent to our story comparison, we find Doc and his men in Syria in the Valley of Tasus.  They are coming upon the hidden city of Tasunan.  There is a nice little climax with the villains meeting their usual fate and we learn the identity of the villainous mastermind, the All-Wise One.  It is Carson Dernall’s wife, Marian Le Gorde.  She is the woman who has masquerading all this time as Lady Sathyra.  The real Lady Sathyra was killed back in New York.  It was her image that was forever captured on the glass window.  Marian had simply assumed Lady Sathyra’s identity and Carson Dernall had conveniently confirmed it.  The All-Wise One had sought to control the supply of tasunite, the highly radioactive element found in the tunnels beneath the city.

Comparing the two stories, their similarities are remarkable. 

  • There is a strange midsummer snowstorm.
  • The hero receives an appeal from help with an emphasis on the unusual weather.
  • A globe that emits powerful radiation disintegrates a woman burning her photographic image onto the background.
  • There is a second woman who is not killed. She is actually an agent of the enemy and masquerades as the dead woman.
  • A policeman who arrives on the scene is killed.
  • Arabs are the principal agents in both stories.
  • The main female character’s brother, who is an archeologist, searches for a hidden desert city to warn them of impending danger.
  • The villain’s goal is control of the lost city, which is the center of a supply of a powerful radioactive element.
  • These same radioactive materials power the disintegration weapons used in the story.
  • The mastermind is killed in the story’s conclusion.

In any story there may often be similarities to prior stories.  It has been argued that there only a few basic story types and all stories derive from these basic types.  But details such those cited above are too similar and too specific to be mere happenstance. There has always been some question just how much of the Superman character was derived from Doc Savage.  The evidence appears nonrefutable that someone at DC was very much aware of Doc Savage.  The parallels in the two stories are simply too similar to be explained away as mere happenstance.

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 – But the similarities don’t stop here with one story.  Let’s go to Superman #8 (Jan-Feb 1941).  It is very similar to the Doc Savage story He Could Stop the World from July 1937.  Both stories follow the same basic plot — advanced science is going to create a new civilization.  Here are the other similarities:

  • There is a hidden laboratory within a semi-extinct volcano in a western state.
  • Both employ the magnifying glass trick to make it appear captives are growing to giant size. This idea was originally used in The Fantastic Island. Donovan picks it up again with Patricia Savage on the receiving end in both stories.
  • Giant humans guard the remote mountain laboratory.
  • The US mint is robbed. In the Superman story, giants rob the mint, while in the Doc Savage story mind control techniques provide the mechanism for larceny.
  • Buildings at the secret mountain laboratory complex are built of super-strong glass.
  • The two scientists in the story talk about creating a new civilization based on their work.

It’s another classic copy job.  Lawrence Donovan ghosted both of the Doc Savage stories in question.  The similarities make one question if Donovan was ghosting scripts for DC.  In The Secret Kenneth Robesons, Will Murray interviewed DC editor Mort Weisinger who stated that he knew Lawrence Donovan and that he thought Donovan was a good writer. Marilyn Cannady’s book, Bigger than Life, documents Lester Dent’s friendship with Mort Weisenger. Julius Schwartz who was working for DC at the time these stories were written was well acquainted with Mort Weisinger.  In 1932 the two young men had been partners on an early fanzine, Science Fiction Digest.  Modern readers can only wonder at the connections but there are some interesting possibilities.

According to Les Daniels in Batman: The Complete History, Weisinger went to work for DC in 1940 after having worked as editor at Standard Magazines. Donovan had previously written for Weisinger who liked his work.  And Weisinger was well acquainted with Julius Schwarz who was already working at DC.  

The fact that the two Superman stories are clearly based on two Doc Savage stories ghosted by Donovan obviously makes him the leading suspect in this mystery. During this period it should be pointed out that the demand for new material was far outstripping the ability of Siegel and Schuster to meet it.  Superman was rapidly expanding into new books and new markets.  Additional talent was needed to meet the demand.  DC was hiring additional staff to meet the demand.

One other point that is important about Donovan goes back to his authorship in the Doc Savage series.  Donovan had a history of recycling plots.  He incorporated elements created by other authors from The MonstersThe Fantastic Island, and The Land of Always-Night into his own stories.  His final Doc story, He Could Stop the World, recycled elements from several of his own previous eight Doc stories.

The Superman story in question appeared in 1940.  The reader cannot help but wonder what the outcome would have been had Street & Smith filed a copyright infringement suit against DC claiming that Superman was too similar to Doc Savage or simply zeroing in on the two stories discussed above.

It may have been that Street & Smith decided to beat DC at their own game.  Street & Smith was attempting to break into the lucrative comic book market with several titles.  Doc Savage was one of these.  The book originally started out with stories adapted from the pulp magazines.  But the August 1941 issue of Doc Savage comics had something a little different from prior issues.  Doc Savage and The Angry Ghost portrays a new version of Doc Savage. In this story, Doc gains the Sacred Hood from a monk in Thibar.  With it, he gains invincibility and super strength. Doc’s uniform is something of a stripped down version of Superman’s with both wearing the same blue pants.

This brings up an interesting question. Suppose Street & Smith was infringing on DC’s character with their new comic book version of Doc Savage?  If DC pushed the issue then Street & Smith was sure to question the pedigree of those two Superman stories.  Checkmate.

The echoes from the past continue for another two decades with pieces of plots of various Doc Savage stories adapted as various Superman stories.

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 puts the location of Superman’s fortress in the arctic.