Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Goes the Drama

Andrew Hickey is a fine fellow who blogs about comics…or used to. He’s observed, lately, that there’s a bit of a malaise in the world of genre storytelling as a whole; everything seems to be, in his words, “soap opera” or (more rarely, in my opinion) detached idea-based fiction with a lack of real human interest. He’s issued a call for more “drama” or “pop-drama”, in his words, which essentially means “more stories about interesting characters which are also about something”. I’m not quite doing justice to what he means, so go read the post.

I may have more to say about this later—in fact, I may actually be working with Andrew at some point—but for now I wanted to riff on the idea he suggests down at the bottom there—the idea of posting proposals for revitalizing various pop-culture franchises. It’s actually very similar to what Chris Bird is doing with his ”I should write Dr. Strange” posts, but with the more unlikely premise that I’d be handed the keys to a major series of movies, TV show, or whatever.

The character I've decided to tackle: Doc Savage.

Now, I admit that my knowledge of Doc is a little shaky--I've read the first few stories and I know the basic history of the character (and of course, Wikipedia is my friend), but I don't claim to be an expert in the various details of Doc's adventures, or have an abiding passion for the character. Still, I think I know enough to be able to attempt this.

For those of you who don't know...and can't be bothered with the Wikipedia link...Doc is a character who hails from the pulp novels, and is in many ways one of the predecessors of the superhero. Like Superman, he's a paragon, an embodiment of human perfection, devoted unfailingly to justice and goodness (and he has the first name "Clark" and a Fortress of Solitude--yes, really). Like Batman, he's scoured the globe, devoting his life to self-perfection; even more so than Bats, in fact, as he's pretty much the best of the best of the best at everything. And I do mean everything. Doc has a band of erstwhile companions who are the most respected experts in their fields--an engineer, a chemist, a geologist, a lawyer and an electrical expert--and it's stated on a number of occasions that he's better than all of them.

Yes, Doc is considered to be the pinnacle of human perfection, having been raised since birth by a rather mysterious cabal of scientists assembled by his father (who, as the first story opens, has just died). Doc also has vast wealth, attained by his (re)discovery of a vast treasure trove of gold in a lost valley, guarded by an lost tribe of ancient Mayans. Who are oddly agreeable to letting this American tromp in and make off with their vast wealth. (It has something to do with an agreement they made with Doc's father, who arrived there years before, just as Doc was being born. But really it has more to do with the book having been written in 1933.)

In addition to being the world's greatest scientist and inventor and all-round expert on everything, Doc is in physically perfect condition, knows dozens of martial arts and modes of hand-to-hand combat, and has some other odd quirks that make him seem somewhat inhuman. His physical appearance, for instance, is described as being "bronze"--not just tan, but as looking exactly like a bronze statue. He also apparently produces a weird, high-pitched noise in times of stress that has a "calming" effect on those around him, as well as providing a rallying call.

People have attempted to adapt Doc into movie form, and he occasionally makes a brief appearance in comics (just in the past few months, he's crossed over with Batman as an attempt to launch a new line of pulp stories at DC) but I think it's pretty obvious why the character hasn't really found a foothold the way that, say, Tarzan or Zorro has. He's too perfect. In fact, it gets a little creepy when you consider that he's essentially a walking experiment to produce an "ubermensch" type, an idea that...well, let's just say that however well it went over in the mid 30s, by the end of the next decade people had lost their enthusiasm for it. (There are even creepier ideas at play in some of the stories--in one, Doc apparently isolates the gland that causes "criminal behaviour" and operates on criminals, transforming them into model citizens. Gosh, that couldn't possibly go wrong!)

Even putting that aside, Doc comes off as an utterly paternalistic and smug figure, inhuman and unlikeable. We simply can't relate to a guy who's that perfect, and who smacks of authorial fiat besides. But that's the essence of the character--to graft on some human weakness would be a betrayal of the whole concept. How do you deal with that?

Alan Moore, as many know, essentially remade Doc Savage as Tom Strong, and found an interesting hook--focusing on the psychology of the man who'd been treated as an experiment for his entire life, who could do almost anything when it related to pure talent but struggled to understand his own humanity. But Moore had the luxury of an all-new character, one whose backstory he could shape in whatever direction he wanted.

My own suggestion for reworking Doc is very simple: make him African-American.

This is actually something I've been chewing over for years--the fact that there's a distinct lack of truly iconic black (or any other minority, really) adventure heroes. I mean, yes, there are action-adventure stories and movies and comics starring black protagonists, but none of them have that kind of iconic central figure who stands astride the narrative, your Indiana Joneses and James Bonds and whatnot.

Furthermore, Doc being black creates a whole new social context, even if it's never overtly referenced in the story. Suddenly the motives for having his father push him into this rather harsh lifestyle are a little more understandable (even if we still don't fully condone it). Doc becomes the Jesse Owens or Tiger Woods of adventure heroes, a guy with something to prove just by existing. And of course, the underlying politics of this previously simplistic story suddenly get rather complex and certainly very relevant in the age of Obama (I'm also assuming that these would be set in the present day, rather than the 30s). What's great, though, is that this doesn't change anything about the actual stories you can tell with Doc. He can still fight giant spiders and men from the earth's core, solve mysteries and invent incredible new surgical procedures. The subtext springs into being, fully formed, from the new element of Doc's race. And suddenly a relic of the past becomes a hero for the future.


  1. I'll be blogging about comics again soon, never fear. And sorry I've not replied to any of your emails in a while - I've not replied to *ANYONE'S*.

    But you may have missed the boat on this one - have you seen the stuff in the back of DC's comics for the last couple of weeks? They're doing a 1930s Pulp universe, with Batman, Doc Savage, The Spirit and others, and Doc Savage is mixed-race...

  2. Oh yeah? I knew they were bringing back Doc, but I didn't know about the mixed-race thing. It actually makes sense to have him be half-indio, based on his origins (he was born in or near a valley inhabited by Mayans wich his father had been exploring, and I don't believe his mother is discussed much), but that's still got a different racial connotation than being pure black, even in the 1930s. Especially if Doc can "pass" for white...or Bronze, I guess.