What’s Up, Doc Savage? How Pulp Heroes Shaped Modern Superhero Comics

After years of floating around in development hell, the pulp hero adaptation, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This may come as fantastic news to supergeeks, but for the layman this is somewhat baffling. Who is Doc Savage, and why does he deserve his own movie?

Savage hails from the pulp era — before television and predating even comic books, pulp magazines brought fantastic fiction to the masses. Selling sexy and sensational stories with lavishly illustrated covers, pulp magazines had a huge impact on popular culture, and their influence is obvious in modern day comics, TV shows, and films.

A Doc Savage pulp magazine cover.

A Doc Savage pulp magazine cover.

In the early 1900s, magazines started suffering financially because the price of paper didn’t quite balance out their sales. So, publishers turned to cheaper “pulp” paper, allowing them to publish a high turnover of stories. Illustrations were the main pull for the reader, with the stories often being written after the covers were created. Naturally, the characters were larger-than-life heroes who heavily influenced the superheroes who followed in their footsteps.

Before There Was Batman, There Was The Shadow

Riffing off noir novels of the era, the heroes of pulp magazines were occasionally superpowered and always hardboiled, taking on their rogues in fantastic battles. In the case of Doc Savage and the Shadow, there’s a clear line of causality between pulp magazines and later comic books — these characters inspired Superman and Batman respectively.

The Shadow's stories proved very popular.

The Shadow’s stories proved very popular.

Known as the “Man of Bronze”, Doc Savage has many things in common with Superman, from his superpowers to his name: Clark “Doc” Savage. Batman was similarly influenced by the pulp hero The Shadow. The characters share a mandate as detectives working to stop outlandish criminals, and they even have a similar style of dress. It’s not just a case of striking parallels — Batman creator Bill Finger has credited The Shadow story Partners in Peril as the inspiration for the first ever Batman comic.

But it wasn’t just male heroes. The first superpowered heroines can be found in the pages of pulp magazines, from Olga Mesmer with her x-ray vision, to Ellen Patrick, the wealthy socialite who fought crime by night as The Domino Lady.

Olga Mesmer and The Domino Lady covers.

Olga Mesmer and The Domino Lady covers.

Both of these characters are credited as being the precursors to Superman, Wonder Woman, and other superpowered heroes. Here’s hoping that if the Doc Savage movie proves popular, Ogla and Domino Lady can also find their place on the silver screen.

Shaping Pop Culture

Thanks to the popularity of superheroes, pulp heroes have experienced something of a revival lately. Black Bat, a popular blind superpowered detective, got his own comic in 2010 and 2011. Although popular, the comics failed to sell enough issues to be continued. Other pulp stories have found more success on the big screen — the Oscar nominated Carol is an adaptation of the pulp novel The Price of Salt.

Pulp magazines really ushered in an era of fantastical storytelling, refining the idea of a crime-fighting hero and taking this concept to new heights. Of course, modern sci-fi was also heavily influenced by pulp magazines, and some tropes from pulp have echoed out into modern day — for example, the idea that in order to send a moral message became the trope.

With superheroes dominating the box office, it’s high time we should cast our eye back on the pulp heroes who inspired them. Dwayne Johnson is confident his weirdly wonderful Doc Savage will wow viewers, and we can’t wait to see this modern update of the iconic hero.

Which pulp hero would you like to see get their own movie?